Tuesday, 13 September 2016

I voted for Owen Smith. Here’s why.

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I grew up in a Labour-voting family; I’ve voted Labour in every election I could and I’ve been a member for several years. I’m not a Tory.  As a Sixth Former and young adult I loved Neil Kinnock – his opposition to Thatcher and the Falklands war were heroic; a real inspiration to me. I also loved Tony Benn.  His idealism was intoxicating. I’m a sucker for a bit of heart-felt social justice oratory.

But 18 years of Tory rule was no joke.  It was bloody awful.  As far as I’m concerned, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown came to the rescue. They won.  ‘New Labour’ may have been unnecessary branding, but so what: Labour ideals were shaping actual policies. I admired Blair enormously for winning over the electorate. New Labour did more for ‘ordinary decent people’ than Jeremy Corbyn ever has or probably  ever will.
Of course, it wasn’t all good. Mistakes were made. Iraq was a disaster. I was furious; disillusioned.  We marched and protested to no avail. Chilcot confirmed what millions knew at the time: WMD was a flimsy excuse for global power projection; we over-estimated our capacity to enforce regime change.  Blair’s subsequent descent into self-righteous madness, that dangerously delusional Messiah-complex, a man  who could not hear dissent – it was a tragedy. But he made a real difference nonetheless. His legacy is significant.
During the Blair years, teachers’ pay and conditions improved significantly and education policy started to move forward. National Strategies, whilst imperfect, were putting important ideas about assessment and curriculum onto the mainstream school agenda like never before.  Even though there were mistakes – excessive GNVQ equivalences and grade inflation were mistakes; failing to deliver on Tomlinson was a mistake, excessive OfSTED power was a mistake – the emphasis on building an education system for all, investing in early intervention, Every Child Matters and investing in school leadership were strong guiding principles.
During the Gove era, Labour seemed to fall apart.  My experience supporting the Labour policy machine was frustrating; the politics of opposition is horrible.  In truth, Labour allowed Gove to dominate the standards agenda; he was allowed to claim the territory as the defender of educational standards.  Labour was paralysed; the push back on EBacc and free schools  was timid and ineffective. For far too long now there has been no coherent Labour narrative or vision for education; there still isn’t. Ed Miliband didn’t have a clue what to say about education; he deserved to lose, depressing as it is to say.
So – now there is the JC phenomenon. Who would have thought! (I voted for Yvette Cooper, mainly after reading this ‘What’s more radical?’ speech.  She doesn’t have the presentational tools needed to make her likeable or sound inspirational but the substance is there.) We need to acknowledge appeal JC has for those who love him. It’s impressive.  I’ve seen him in operation first hand. As the local MP for my school he has popped in and wowed the students (and staff), he’s written letters in support of some of my students (querying various behaviour policy enforcement matters); he has the ability to strike up a rapport with young idealistic people; he speaks with passion, authority and sincerity….
BUT it’s simply not enough.
The Corbyn policy collection seems more backward looking than forward-looking. What is a National Education Service? Why is he so conflicted on Brexit and so luke warm on the single market? Why does he have so much faith in the economics of John McDonnell?  How would a nationalised rail improve the service? There’s no evidence to suggest we’d have better trains – I remember the British Rail of the 70s. I remember British Leyland. His handling of his anti-Israel pro-Palestine position is hugely frustrating; he’s not a racist man but to invite so much hate, so many accusations is something he brings on himself in this area.  This wouldn’t happen if he was the skilful world leader we need him to be.  He plays with fire; that’s his style. But that’s no use; it doesn’t win the argument or allow progress to be made.
Above all of this, my killer concern is his capacity for people management. We’re not voting for someone to run the social justice film night at the student union. Or to stage manage a mass Fight the Power demo or to be President of a small island.  But that’s how he comes across . Being PM requires some skilful political know-how that includes alternating between building consensus with people you disagree with and commanding authority, enforcing party discipline as circumstances demand – much like any leadership role. JC doesn’t seem to be able to manage either within the PLP.  I’ve been quite shocked by all the tales of poor communication with MPs and shadow ministers and flaky decision-making.  Beyond a very small inner circle (is that the best front bench Labour has to offer?) JC doesn’t seem to be able or willing to communicate; even with those who want to support him.
The attempted coup and this election wouldn’t have happened if JC had the skills needed to lead a party within our parliamentary system. Even though I might like him on a personal level and admire his achievement in mobilising impressive levels of support amongst a subsection of the electorate; even if I agreed with every word he said on policy it wouldn’t matter because JC’s shortcomings mean he can never be an effective PM.  It’s all for nothing. In truth, we’re not even putting up a decent fight in Opposition. It feels like a shambles; incoherent, desperate and actually distinctly lacking the ‘kinder politics’ we were promised.
I find the online discourse around this election utterly depressing. If you don’t support JC you are a Tory. Or ‘Tory scum’. But I’m not a Tory; nor was Tony Blair, Gordon Brown or Yvette Cooper. There’s a lack of respect for Labour’s past success and legacy that is hard to understand. It’s as if making some compromises and winning is somehow seen as selling out; too many on the left are more comfortable protesting rather than shouldering the responsibility of power. (This has been said by many many people…)
It’s a depressing state of affairs; I’m pretty much resigned to a 20 year stretch of Tory rule; boundary changes will bang in the final nails in the coffin of Labour’s electoral chances for  the next generation.
So – Why Owen Smith? In all honestly, the only reason is that he is not JC. I hadn’t even heard of Owen Smith before he put him self forward for the Labour leadership – and I read the Guardian! I would rather be voting for Angela Eagle (who capitulated way too easily in my view.)   But, given the choice on the ballot paper, in voting for OS, my hope is that JC – who is extremely unlikely to lose at this stage – has a smaller winning majority and wakes up to the need to talk to a broader range of people – including those  who have previously succeeded in putting Labour ideas into action as policy.
One major question for me is ‘where are all the big hitters?’  I can’t help but think we’ve got a raft of serious potential leaders all sitting on their hands hoping to swing into action as the Great Saviour once we’ve wallowed in the post-Corbyn wreckage for long enough and the centre left has woken itself up. Perhaps they’re not risking being taken down too early in this wasteland election. Maybe they’re right to do this (hanging back for a decade or so??) but it feels rather cowardly.  Step up people!
At least we have Sadiq Khan. He is flying the flag for pragmatic principled disciplined centre-left politics; he won; he’s doing things. He’s putting Labour ideals into practice. That’s radical and inspiring enough for anyone.  JC could learn a thing or two from him.


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