Labour’s leftwing revolt: What Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership bid means for the party

Jeremy Corbyn, Feb 2007, David Hunt

Standing opposite Downing Street on the evening after the Queen’s Speech, Jeremy Corbyn, the leftist Labour MP for Islington North, thanked the small crowd of anti-austerity campaigners for showing up. “We prove there is a different voice,” he said to the ramshackle bunch.

In a parliament where even the leftwing Labour party has accepted the need for austerity, that voice on the hard left has been loud and angry since the Tories triumphed unexpectedly at the polls. On the very day Corbyn spoke, the crowd of anti-austerians had cornered the Ukip MP Douglas Carswell, shouting “racist” and “fascist” at him until the police were forced to whisk him away in a van.

Such aggression is one side of Labour’s existential dilemma since it was embarrassed at the general election, an event which prompted two explanations. On one side the Blairites believe that the (now former) leader Ed Miliband failed to tap into the “aspiration” of the British people. Even Andy Burnham, widely seen as the candidate closest to the unions, spoke to this in his campaign video.

Meanwhile the likes of Corbyn have been trumpeting another view: Labour lost the election because it was insufficiently leftwing, or at least could not articulate its leftwing views in a way that was compelling. Speaking on this theme outside Downing Street, Corbyn said: “I’m in favour of aspiration, but not for the individual. I aspire for the whole community to be decently housed, for a young person to get somewhere to live.”

This focus on community is something that Labour has mostly abandoned since former prime minister Tony Blair bolted the word “New” to the party’s name and sought to steer it to the centre-ground. The Blairite method is more or less the strategy being plotted by the rest of the contenders for the Labour leadership: which includes Burnham, Liz Kendall, Yvette Cooper (wife of defenestrated shadow chancellor Ed Balls) and Mary Creagh.

As such Corbyn’s entry into the contest marks him out from the pack. To make it onto the ballot paper he now needs 35 Labour colleagues in the Commons (15 percent) to back him. He will then face the popular vote in which every Labour member and affiliated supporter (mostly unionists) gets a single vote.

Most do not expect him to win, but now at least Burnham has an adversary on his left flank. As well as being anti-austerity Corbyn has many other leftist views to his name: staunchly defending the welfare state and NHS from perceived privatisation by the Tories; opposing war and the use of nuclear weapons; and campaigning against racism and imperialism with Liberation, an advocacy group.

The extent to which such positions are relevant in today’s world and the worldview of Parliament will define how much of an impact Corbyn has. Populist politics of both the Left and the Right have been a growing trend throughout Europe as the rigours of austerity provoke protest – most notably in Greece where Syriza has moved the country to the brink of financial turmoil in negotiations with creditors.

Commenting on this after the Queen’s Speech, Corbyn said: “A generation [of Greeks] don’t work, don’t hope and don’t have opportunity. And they have said ‘No’.” Unfortunately for the Islington North MP, the British people just said “Yes” to a Tory government headed in the opposite direction.

Header Image – Jeremy Corbyn, February 2007 by David Hunt

The next five years will give the Left much to rally around – but will they stop bickering?

Human Rights Act Protest, May 30 2015

For no party has the General Election been sadder than for the Liberal Democrats. Their crumbling from 56 to 8 seats (which may be reduced to 7 if Scottish MP Alistair Carmichael calls a byelection) was perhaps the defining factor in lifting the Tories over the majority threshold in the Commons.

For their pains as the junior half of the coalition the Liberals have been traduced by both sides. Likely knowing their protest vote would vanish and others would abandon them to the fringe Left, the Tories flooded Liberal marginals with cash. The result was the worst drubbing since the Social Democratic Party teamed up with Gladstone’s descendent in the 80s.

In the wake of the collapse the Tories are lining up illiberal bills they could never have got through with the Liberals in tow. One bans legal highs (the Psychoactive Substances Bill). Another launches a censorship scheme (the Extremism Bill). Yet another will authorise more government snooping (the Investigatory Powers Bill).

But perhaps most troubling, and most baffling, is the furore over the Human Rights Act, a 1998 bill that the Tories promised to scrap in what prime minister David Cameron’s press officer claims is a move to make Britain’s Supreme Court “the ultimate arbiter of human rights”. As The Right Dishonourable has argued before, the plan is a mess.

It was this piece of legislation that motivated fragments of the Left to gather near Parliament Square last Saturday. Whilst mostly these were Liberals there was a smattering of the Socialist Worker’s Party (which appears to have set up a permanent gazebo across from Downing Street) and a few odds and sods.

Such rallies these days show in microcosm why the Left was so roundly beaten. Many of its supporters remain bitter that the Liberals ever went into coalition with the hated Conservatives. One bystander even heckled the “Yellow Tories” as a pack of placard-carrying Liberals walked away from the protest, which congregated opposite Downing Street.

That another protest levelled against austerity was taking place at around the same time on Westminster Bridge, not three minutes walk from Downing Street, says much of the split ambitions of the Left these days too. Liberalism and socialism may not be incompatible, but they need not be allies either.

As the views of journalist Owen Jones readily attest, whoever wins the contest for leadership of the Labour party is unlikely to satisfy those who turn out to anti-austerity marches. Much as there is a portion of the Tories who will not accept globalisation, there are those within the Left that rebel against its uglier effects: pollution, deprivation and exploitation. Such people will not savour a return to Blairism.

At least on this front the Liberals do not seem so divided. Tim Farron, the MP and grassroots’ favourite, has been much in view at the post-election meetings, shaking hands and making speeches as he prepares for a leadership bid. Whether he or his fellow MP Norman Lamb wins the ensuing contest, there are not enough Liberals for a major rupture to be anything other than suicide.

That difference aside, both Liberal and Labour will have a challenge to reëstablish what it means to be in opposition, and more broadly what it means to be on the Left. Both have what the corporate world terms a “branding issue”. For Labour this means harnessing some of the breadth that Tony Blair mustered in his hat-trick of victories – a task that may prove impossible for now.

For the Liberals, however, it means adapting to the fractured multi-party state they helped build. It means fewer protest votes. And as Saturday showed, it means greater competition from other leftwing political voices, most obviously in Scotland from the Scottish National Party.

The Left has five years until the next general election. Whether this is enough time remains to be seen.

Header Image – Human Rights Act Protest, May 30th 2015 by The Right Dishonourable

Ukip’s Douglas Carswell rescued by police amid anti-austerity ‘fascist’ heckles

Queen's Speech Protest, Victoria Street, May 27 2015

What might well have been forgotten as an uneventful protest after the triumphant Conservative Queen’s Speech will now be noted for an unpleasant confrontation outside the steps of New Scotland Yard, a short walk from Parliament.

Supporters of various socialist groups, including the Socialist Workers’ Party and the People’s Assembly Against Austerity, were looping back on themselves after assembling outside Downing Street and marching down Victoria Street. As the march approached the St James’s Park tube station it came across the arch-enemy in the form of Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell, who was waiting for the bus.

Socialist distaste for the Tories on these marches is hardly subtle. Many of the protestors had been happily chanting “Tory scum” as they plodded past Parliament Square.

But this is nothing compared to the fanatical response that can be elicited when Ukip is mentioned. In the eyes of a few whilst the Tories are merely callous, the Kippers are pure evil.

As such whilst Carswell was initially heckled with cries of “racist” and “fascist”, he eventually had to be escorted into a police van, which managed to drive its way through the protestors who scuttled around the front of the car.

Douglas Carswell escape by police van outside New Scotland Yard, May 27 2015

Such a move will provide ample ammunition to those wishing to discredit the anti-austerity movement, which was later addressed by the Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn opposite Downing Street, after much of the march had presumably left for the pub.

Condemning Tory plans to sell off housing associations, Corbyn lamented that his party had been rejected at the ballot box after being “insufficiently clear” about what it was trying to do. Even if this interpretation is generous it has a ring of truth to it as the Left struggles to respond to its battering at the polls.

Header Image – Queen’s Speech Protest on Victoria Street, The Right Dishonourable

Why the Tories are repealing the Human Rights Act, and why it’s a shoddy idea

European Court of Human Rights, June 2013, Nicoleon

Of all the Conservatives’ designs for the first hundred days of this parliament, none has caused more furore than the planned repealing of the Human Rights Act.

Passed into law in 1998, the act sought to bring the rights enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights more closely into the British court system, allowing its provisions to be considered (note the bold) within the UK without the need to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, with all the costs that entails.

In effect what this means is that it made legal redress quicker, simpler and cheaper. So why would the Conservatives want it to be repealed? The answer comes in two parts, laid out perhaps most colourfully by the Daniel Hannan, a Tory MEP, in last week’s Spectator. In brief they can be termed thus: the problem of judicial activism and the problem of sovereignty.

To take the former problem, Hannan and his ilk argue that the Human Rights Act allows judges to “cheapens democracy by allowing jurists to advance an agenda that would be rejected at the ballot box”. By this he means that judges can interpret broad laws in a manner that is pleasing to them, making them masters rather than servants of the law.

As he acknowledges, this is not a problem that is confined to the Human Rights Act. Even the most circumscribed court will occasionally have to interpret a law in a novel fashion rather than rely on previous cases, or what is known as “precedent” in legal jargon.

On this count at least, Hannan seems to have garnered sympathy from lawyers. Matthew Scott, a criminal barrister who is mostly critical of Hannan’s piece, called this “a perfectly defensible point of view”. However he went on to make this observation:

[Hannan’s] solution to meddling judges playing at politics is not to abolish the rights but to keep them; and, what’s more, to augment them. To do this he suggests a huge amendment to the 1688 Bill of Rights. As well as the existing Convention rights (perhaps rebranded as “British” rights), Mr Hannan’s amended Bill of Rights will include guarantees of “freedom of contract and employment, freedom from oppressive, arbitrary or punitive taxation” [among others].

 

How a judge – even a red cheeked John Bull living entirely on roast beef – would be supposed to apply a new right of freedom from “punitive taxation” without trespassing on political ground is not explained. One would have thought that of all issues, setting the level of taxation was quintessentially one for Parliament rather than for judges.

Then follows the sovereignty problem, which argues that the Human Rights Act “gives direct effect to the rulings of the Strasbourg court in Britain”. What Hannan believes is that Britain is beholden to a foreign court, and has in effect lost control of its lawmaking ability.

This, however, is untrue. The Human Rights Act does not oblige British courts to bow to the decisions of Strasbourg. As the bill itself says: “A court or tribunal determining a question which has arisen in connection with a Convention right must take into account any … judgment, decision, declaration or advisory opinion of the European Court of Human Rights.”

Whilst the Old Bailey must listen to the European court it is then free to ignore it, and in doing so can preserve the principle of parliamentary sovereignty that is the central point of the British constitution (or, more accurately, the lack of constitution in written form).

What is true is that the British must (in theory) abide by the European Convention on Human Rights as a matter of international law. But as Scott also points out, repealing the Human Rights Act would not alter this fact:

What of the judgment, also mentioned by Mr Hannan, that the blanket ban on prisoners voting is an interference with their human rights? Again, it had everything to do with the European Convention but nothing whatever to do with the Human Rights Act. The prisoners could, and no doubt would, have taken their case to Strasbourg even if the Human Rights Act had never been passed.

What exactly the Tories hope to achieve by the repealing of the Human Rights Act and mooted introduction (or updating) of a British Bill of Rights is thus mysterious. Right now the details of a new Bill of Rights are obscured from us, which makes it hard to see whether it would be of any benefit.

There are also a mountain of political hurdles, not the least of which is the reliance of the Good Friday Agreement in Ireland being predicated in part on the Convention. As David Allen Green, lawyer and legal commentator, writes, surpassing all these in a hundred days seem “unlikely”.

Update: Following the above objections the Tories appear to have temporarily shelved plans to repeal the Human Rights Act, with no mention of it in the Queen’s Speech, which lays out legislation for the year ahead.

Header Image – European Court of Human Rights, Strasbourg by Nicoleon

Montage of Heck is the definitive Cobain documentary, even if it says nothing new

Kurt Cobain Sketch, Thomas Mikael

If this documentary proves one thing, it is that everything worth saying about the musician Kurt Cobain has already been said.

This is a sad fate for the film that Cobain’s daughter Frances Bean intended as a means of emphasising the man rather than the myth that has grown since his suicide, especially when it is still the best film on the Nirvana songwriter ever created.

For the unacquainted, Montage of Heck‘s chief draw is that its creator Brett Morgen was given unprecedented access to the Cobain archive, including music demos and audio recordings of the musician talking about his life, as well as copious amounts of home video footage.

The first half of the film draws heavily on Cobain’s own view on his beginnings, and if little new is revealed about his difficult relationship with his family and alienated youth, hearing it in his own voice is pleasing and the accompanying animation is well done.

This quality is bolstered by interviews with the supporting cast, including his parents, step-mother, sister, wife Courtney Love and bandmate Krist Novoselic. (Drummer Dave Grohl’s contribution came too late in the editing process and Morgen decided not to include it, according to Rolling Stone.)

Sadly the last hour of the film is a more chequered experience. As the Facebook generation will be only too aware, home movies tend to be dreary affairs even for the subjects. The snippets of Cobain and Love’s marriage conform to this trend, though the sheer volume of the material makes one wonder if darker clips are not kicking around the archive.

The decision to end the film abruptly after Nirvana’s funereal Unplugged performance – the screen goes black with a caption announcing his death – is on the other hand tasteful and apt, relieving the audience of another half hour of comment around his demise.

Newcomers to Cobain should consider Montage of Heck an obligatory stop, with the film outranking earlier rivals by some margin. But old fans will not find anything new here. After two hours Cobain still comes across as damaged and compelling as ever, and his suicide seems no less inevitable.

Header Image – Kurt Cobain by Thomas Mikael