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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

steepholm steepholm
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Well, now there's a Labour leadership election, and I'm going to try to take it seriously - in the sense of listening to the arguments, if any. There are three questions that need answering, to my mind.

a) what do they propose to do?
b) are they competent to do it?
c) should I trust them?

a) I know a lot of Corbyn's general policy positions, and generally approve them. It would be good to have more detail though. Smith (unless I missed it) has not set out many policies, except that he will out-Jeremy Jeremy when it comes to being anti-austerity. Well, they both have plenty of time to fill in the gaps during the campaign - I look forward to that. I have a lot more time for Corbyn's anti-nuclear stance than Smith's support for the current "weapons of mass destruction (for us but not other people)" policy.

b) this is really a two-parter. The first question is, are they competent in an ideal world, and the second, are they competent in the present circumstances?

I think Corbyn's instincts are excellent (on many of the occasions he's run against the political consensus he's been proven right over time), and he's as much of a details man as Cameron ever was, but I don't think he'll ever be a wonk. I'm not sure that's a bad thing if he recognises it and can delegate to trusted colleagues. The question is, are there enough colleagues he can trust, and can he bring himself to do it? More generally, however competent he may be personally, can he make the Parliamentary machine work in an atmosphere where there is talk of splitting the party should he win, or making the leadership challenge an annual event until he loses or gives up?

That question goes wider than the leadership debate - it's a matter of the subversion of the party's constitution by certain members of the PLP, and if that really is the attitude then I would be in favour of deselection, messy though that would be. The PLP can't be allowed to be a dog in a manger to thwart the democratic choice of the party at large (any more, in my opinion, than Parliament should attempt to thwart the democratic choice of the electorate over Brexit, though many people are calling for that, too).

Smith has done a decent job as Shadow Work and Pensions minister, I understand, and obviously he'd have the PLP behind him, at least to begin with. (If they get a taste for the blood of leaders, he shouldn't count on having it long term.) However, he's pretty untested in most policy areas, and has already shown himself gaffe-prone on the few appearances he's made on television, notably by accidentally (I assume) saying he was pro-austerity, and then declaring that he is "normal" because he has a wife and three children - which, however innocently meant, tells you quite a lot about the narrow parameters of his thought, and was particularly stupid when his rival at the time was a lesbian - especially with the recent fall of Andrea Leadsom for similar remarks being in everyone's mind. I honestly can't imagine Corbyn ever saying something like that, and not because he's too canny - he simply doesn't think that way.

c) Here Corbyn scores highly. He has been consistent in his principles for many years, even to the detriment of his career. Smith is again an unknown quantity, but his conniving in the relentlessly ad hominem campaign against Corbyn, and particularly joining in the suggestion (without evidence) that Corbyn was somehow encouraging intimidation, does not incline me to trust him at all. Or rather, he strikes me as neither more nor less trustworthy than most ambitious politicians - that is to say, not very.

So far, in other words, Corbyn is well ahead in the court of my personal opinion. But we have a month to go, so have at it, gentleman! Queensberry rules only, if you please. (Some hope.)

Smith has no policies, he is merely a Blairite. The M.P's can't get over St Tone going, the vast majority of Labour members want Corbyn. I presume.

The vast majority of Labour members want Corbyn. I presume.

That remains to be seen, but some kind of majority seems likely, yes.

It depends what you mean by "competence." You seem to be judging on policy positions. That would seem to put it down to whether you believe what Smith says about his, i.e. your point C. But the currently fashionable charge against Corbyn is not his positions, but a technical incompetence at being leader: uninspiring and with a complete lack of the knack of greasing the intramural wheels that beget and maintain loyalty. This is a charge I can well believe: Corbyn had no experience in the leadership ladder, saintly conviction politicians are notoriously bad at negotiating with others, Michael Foot was incompetent at the technical side of leadership also. (Bill Rodgers testified that Foot tried to offer him a shadow job to keep him on board, but was utterly inept at coming up with anything Rodgers could or would want to do.)

But the shift in attitude is curious. On the one hand, it's something that would only become apparent after Corbyn had been leader for a while, and that is how it's coming up. On the other hand, it leaves begging the questions of 1) is he uninspiring because he actually doesn't inspire many people, or just because the media say he isn't?; 2) would his opponents accept someone of his positions who was better at the job?

You'll have to keep listening to what Smith says and, if it sounds Corbynesque, whether you trust it. You might not. In the 2008 Presidential primaries, John Edwards was the ardently progressive candidate, the one who sounded like Bernie Sanders did this year. Many of my friends fell for it. But I didn't trust him, not because his positions had shifted all that much, but because he'd been around in politics for a while and had never sounded like that before. That made it smell like pure triangulation to me and I stayed away. Corbyn, like Sanders, as you note has been consistent for 35 years.

So what of Smith? He says he's a leftist, he even says he's a Bevanite, but has he always been saying this? How did he vote during the Blair administration? Oops, he wasn't an MP then. (What is it with these neophytes taking over? You didn't use to become a British party leader without a fair bit of experience.) But insofar as he was active, he seems to have taken some positions he now regrets. OK, people do change. But I see he more recently voted for the air strikes, and that was a defining issue on which a yes vote doesn't sound very Corbynite to me. But those are just a few factual nuggets I dug up: I don't have any real sense of his public character.

You're right that I've conflated a number of different kinds of competence, in the hope of not being tedious. I think Corbyn's political instincts are sound, but agree that he lacks managerial experience, and that's certainly been exposed to an extent. Of course, the only way to gain managerial experience is to manage, but the present atmosphere isn't ideal for that. Whether he has the talent to be a good leader (by which I means some combination of managerial, delegation and "vision thing" attributes, not so much shining-eyed charisma) is unproven as to the first two, but not yet disproven in my view.

It's strange about inspiration: Corbyn clearly does inspire many people, including hundreds of thousands hitherto uninspired by any kind of politics, yet he is often portrayed as uninspiring because he doesn't sing from the rhetorical songbook of (say) repeated phrases, punched fists, crowd-working, chiasmus, etc. (His refraining from such is of course a well-worn rhetorical device in its own right, though whether it's conscious I don't know.)

There's nothing "fatal" in Smith's background as far as I can see, but he's going to have to do a lot more than trash Jeremy Corbyn to convince me that he's worth voting for. My instinct is that he is, as you suggest, a triangulator, and that had the membership been to the right of him rather than the left, we would now be seeing him paddle rightwards with might and main.

"the only way to gain managerial experience is to manage"

Not exactly, and if it means that every new party leader comes to the job equally clueless and has to learn by doing, then no. Most new leaders of the opposition have been shadow spokespeople or even past cabinet ministers, they've long been associates of the previous leaders, they've seen how it's done from closeup and they've led subordinately themselves. Corbyn hadn't done any of that. That's an explanation for his difficulties, not an excuse. Maybe he should have learned faster.

It's certainly not ideal to come in at such a high level. The fact that Corbyn has been a backbencher for decades not only works against him in terms of lack of experience, it provides plenty of precedent for those who wish to rebel against him, given that he's been a habitual rebel. But there's nothing to be done about that: it's inevitable, in fact, given the leadership the party had for most of Corbyn's time in office.

On another subject: I sent an e-mail to your Cardiff address, because that's the only one I have for you, but got a message saying you're out till September. I was hoping to reach you, more privately than an LJ comment, earlier than that. Do you have another e-mail you could write me from?