Follow the reluctant adventures in the life of a Welsh astrophysicist sent around the world for some reason, wherein I photograph potatoes and destroy galaxies in the name of science. And don't forget about my website, www.rhysy.net



Sunday, 25 September 2016

The Fall

There's a funny thing about voting. You'd think it would be nice and simple : here are some choices, pick which one you like best and whichever gets the most votes wins. Except that every single step of this procedure is hideously complicated.


Take this silly example, inspired by John Oliver's quite correctly pointing out that science isn't done by voting at all. It's a yes or no question... but wait ! There's a third option, which is funny ! So everyone votes for that option instead. There could have been legitimate third options ("unsure", "abstain") but in this case it's just silly. And the "no" option is clearly wrong, but people voted for it anyway.

This ridiculous poll has all the same legal standing as the non-binding, advisory Brexit referendum, by the way.

So the options to begin with may be flawed. The result may not mean or change anything. The voters may not understand the issue presented (if you didn't watch the John Oliver show you're probably baffled by the question). Their votes may be weighted differently or they might be allowed to give multiple votes for multiple options. Or they may vote not directly on the issue at hand, but in order to enact other consequences - e.g. if option 1 favours party A, maybe option 2 starts to look better.

None of this means democracy is a hopelessly stupid idea, just that like anything with great power, it needs to be handled very carefully.

When I was a teenager I discovered* the heroic tales of classical Greece, wherein the plucky Athenians discovered direct democracy. Herodotus was in no doubt that it was this that transformed Athens into a state capable of defeating the mighty Persian empire at Marathon and later in a spectacular naval victory at Salamais (though many other Greeks thought the uber-militaristic Spartans were responsible). Plato, on the other hand, thought that democracy just encouraged mob rule, but then he was biased by the state's execution of his mentor Socrates. Socrates himself didn't seem to have too much truck with democracy either; though he respected the rule of law to a fault, there didn't seem to be much that could persuade him to do anything he didn't really want to do.

* Quite by myself, British history education in schools being about as useful as a pile of rat vomit.



Later on I read of the Peloponnesian War, which isn't talked about as much as the heroic feats of the Persian Wars (which really do deserve an epic film trilogy - yes, a trilogy, nothing less will do). In that far more sordid episode, the potential for mob rule became much more evident. There was no real reason for the war at all, the Athenians just got big-headed. Direct democracy may have saved them at Marathon, but it also led a to hugely destructive and completely pointless conflict. For all its many virtues, democracy doesn't lead to perfect decision making - and sometimes it results in absurdly stupid decisions.

Sadly, this is the case with Jeremy Corbyn. While there's much I respect about his policies and yes, much I like about his personal style (or lack thereof), unfortunately there are also aspects which are seriously worrying. I won't be voting for him. I might be voting for Labour, but that remains to be seen...

This is where I stand politically. For reference this is where the major
British political parties stand, here are some American politicians
 and here are some other well-known figures.
I should be clear that I was rather pleased when Corbyn was elected. I thought Tony Blair's* opinion that Labour risked "annihilation" under Corbyn was worth listening to, but it seemed to me that the best option was to see how he was getting on after about a year. If badly, then he could be ditched with still enough time to find someone else before the next election. That's not such an uncommon practise in politics. Any sensible politician knows when they're losing that they should step down for at least a little while. Oh my youthful naivety...

* Yes, I know many of you think he's the devil incarnate, but he won three elections. Leave the morality issues : in pure political terms the man is a genius. His opinion on politics itself is well worth listening to, regardless of what you think of his actual policies.

When Corbyn was first elected the situation was, quite understandably, somewhat confused. He'd been thrown into the contest almost as a joke, with essentially no chance of winning. Sometimes it's nice to show diversity in the party, after all : "look, we have people who stand for your opinions too". And being on the far left of the party it seemed only natural that there would be friction, but I dismissed reports of "chaos and infighting" as being media exaggeration. I heartily approved of the idea of "politics by consensus", of forming policy based on agreement rather than diktat.

I even went so far as to say that the disgruntled elements in the party should just learn to accept it - the party members had voted for a left-wing leader, which is a clear sign they wanted a more left-wing approach. So, grin and bear it, wait and see what happens - the time for unity was now.
There is something very worrying when a leader elected with overwhelming support doesn't command much in the way of enthusiasm from the other MPs. Maybe they're right and know Corbyn can't win mass appeal. Maybe they've been in politics too long. In any case, methinks they haven't quite grasped the idea of a democracy.
Trying to oust Corbyn at this stage would do nothing except alienate everyone who voted for him. Now, if a year down the line it does prove that he hasn't got what it takes, then it would be understandable. But at this stage, even suggesting they can't work with the leader most people wanted makes them looks foolish.
At that stage I was more worried about the behaviour of the other MPs than Corbyn. Labour is of the left, having a leader of the left should have been a good thing. Although there were a few warning signs that the opposite was in fact true - that Corbyn was the one to worry about instead of the rest - it's hard to see these as anything more than the usual level of suspicion over politicians. Especially those who seem to good to be true. But anti-austerity, nationalising the railways, greater efforts for resolving conflicts peacefully, and the prospect of a universal basic income all seemed to be exactly the sort of things I wanted a Labour leader to say. My one major disagreement was over Trident, but that wasn't important enough for me to hold much of a grudge.

And anyway, there was that prospect of political consensus. Which I presumed meant give and take, not trying to ride roughshod over any disagreements.

As time went on, the media attacks against Corbyn became more vicious and less and less true. When they were fact-checked, they failed miserably. Corbyn called Hamas "friends" ? Yes, but he would say that to (almost) anyone to bring them to the negotiating table. Corbyn wants to negotiate with ISIS ? No, he's said that they are a case so unusually extreme that that's impossible. Corbyn wants to abolish the monarchy ? Yes, but he's explicitly said that's not the fight he wants to lead. Then there was Cameron's disgusting personal attack in the wake of pig-gate, which Corbyn, to his personal credit, pointedly ignored.

All this painted a very clear picture : a moral, principled, authentic politician being abused by the establishment. Much of the above may even still be true. And yet I've completely changed my mind about Corbyn as leader, for three quite simple reasons.


1) Corbyn claimed that all his rebellions as a backbench MP were done on principle



Yes. Good. I'm sure they were. But this was in response to accusations that Corbyn was trying to force other MPs to fall in line, so it's pretty hard to escape the conclusion that he thinks other MPs won't rebel because of their own moral principles. It's silly to assume that everyone else was following the party leader or official message just because they were told to - yes, fine, lots of politicians are awful, but just because someone disagrees with you doesn't mean they're unprincipled. They just have different moral principles. Maybe you don't like those principles, but you've got to be able to work with people you disagree with.

That's politics in a nutshell. It was not the slightest bit convincing to say that his rebellions were principled, as though everyone else's "obedience" was not. In fact people in one political party tend to vote the same way for the simple and buggeringly obvious reason that they joined that party because they have similar views ! He must think of himself as special snowflake, uniquely qualified to pronounce moral judgements on the rest of the party. It was a statement and attitude that said, "I don't actually respect my valued colleagues opponents at all".

This was a warning sign, an indication that he didn't really know how to reach out or build bridges or do any of the nice things he promised. It was worrying, but not fatal because it was ambiguous (and still early days, at the time). He didn't directly say that all his opponents were just doing what they were told - but it's a clear implication. While Corbyn did initially seem to be willing to compromise (i.e. not working to overthrow the monarchy, some hints of room for negotiation on Trident), this statement hinted at a darker prospect : that "political consensus" really meant just doing whatever Jeremy said. Which is crazy, because Corbyn has rebelled so often one wonders why he's in Labour at all.


2) His poor showing during the Brexit campaign


With Labour being a party of the left, it's no surprise that they're pro-EU. Unfortunately Corbyn is one of those rare individuals on the left with an arse-backwards opinion of the EU who think's it's more or less the opposite of what it actually is. He seems to have some twisted notion that it exists to give business a free hand, or some such other bloody nonsense. Everyone has some stupid opinions about some things, but it was hugely unfortunate timing that Labour had a Euroskeptic (using the term "skeptic" in a literal fashion) leader during the Brexit campaign. His should have been the loudest voice for Remain of all, supporting freedom of movement, anti-discrimination, curbs on excesses of government power and support for human rights.

Instead we got... well not much of anything, really. At least no more than the absolute bare minimum at which he could claim to have shown up, famously rating the EU as "7.5/10". Yes, that's an assessment I would share. No, it's not a sane way to lead a campaign when your opponents are xenophobic idiots. Yes, I realise some of you reading this are anti-EU and not xenophobic or idiots, but xenophobic idiocy played a major part in the campaign. And leaving the EU is still a monumentally stupid thing to do whether you like it or not.

Still, in other times this would have been much less important. But after the vote, what did Jeremy do ? Still nothing, essentially. Now is the time Labour should be organising a massive resistance to the advisory referendum opinion poll, and that's exactly what it would be doing if Owen Smith was in charge. Instead Corbyn is capitulating, presumably because of his arse-backwards idea of what the EU is. Oh, yay, let's give a free hand to the far right, courtesy of the far left.


3) When you lose a vote of no confidence, you need to go home and rethink your life



The mere act of holding the vote isn't a death sentence - its the result that matters. He could have won it and the rebels revealed as a small group of malcontents. Or he could have lost it by a small margin, in which case it might be better to keep him and have him make more efforts to work with those in the party who are more toward the centre.

But he didn't win it, or only just lose it. He lost it massively, with 80% of his MPs against him. These are the people he's supposed to lead in government, and they don't want to work with him. Having nice policies is only part of his job. If he can't persuade people to work with him in opposition, what hope is there he could form a credible government ? None, that's what.

The only sensible response to this is to leave. Doesn't even matter why his MPs hate him, the fact is that they do. No individual is supposed to be bigger than the party, so the only sane response is to accept that you can't lead this group of people and bugger off. But, astonishingly, he didn't. This is madness. There are some who claim that this is all due to "Blairite" opposition. Well, sorry, but that's bollocks.

A vote of no confidence is supposed to be a near-nuclear option of last resort. Ignoring the result sends a very clear signal that he doesn't, for all his nice platitudes and promotion of a kinder politics, actually give a damn about what people think. "I have a responsibility to those who elected me" ? Like hell. You have a responsibility to lead your MPs. They're elected too, and by the general populace, not just party members. They represent the voice of the people every bit as much as the leader - more so, because there's more of them, and they were voted across the country by people of different political inclinations, not just the party faithful and activists. He's treating the mandate given by his success in the leadership election as an absurd absolute, every bit as much as Brexit supporters think their minor victory in the referendum means they can do whatever they like.

If you won't even leave when 80% of your MPs tell you to step down, what does that say about building bridges, a kinder politics, or forming a consensus ? To ignore this most extreme and extremely clear method of ostracisation is tantamount to declaring a dictatorship. A vote this far against you is a no-win situation : you can either leave with honour and everyone accepts that it's unfortunate (but you've still gone), or you can stay and reveal your true colours : every bit as unprincipled as any other politician.

Sorry Mr Corbyn, I used to like you, but not any more.


Conclusion


In the movie The Postman, Will Patton plays the evil general Bethlehem in a post-apocalyptic, recovering society. Before the war, Bethlehem was a completely unremarkable photocopier salesman, whose hitherto unknown talents are only revealed by the extreme circumstance he finds himself in.

At this point Corbyn is beginning to remind me quite a lot of General Bethlehem. No, he's not evil... but he is very, very worrying. He never sought office - he's held no ministerial position before, but he finds himself in this position even so. If he won't even quit as leader as the opposition when his MPs tell him to, can you imagine how dangerous that would be if he ever became Prime Minister ?

Corbyn may or may not be a genuinely nice man, I don't know. But even pacifism can be extremely dangerous if you don't fight when fighting really is the only answer. I suspect - and I hesitate to go further than "suspect" - that something similar is at work here. He claims to be nice. He claims to want to work with everyone. But there have been too many whiffs of suspicion that all he really wants is to get things his own way, to deselect MPs who disagree with him, turning a blind eye to "see no evil" where it suits him, to give more power to activists - which is a politically disastrous move. We already know activists support him, but it doesn't appear that the rest of the country does. As with the leadership election, there's a massive selection effect at work here that doesn't come into play during a general election. Power base, anyone ?


I rather suspect that underneath his brown-coated veneer of a nice man who spends all his time in an allotment, Jeremy Corbyn may actually be a thoroughly nasty piece of work. Villains who twirl their moustaches...  racists and xenophobes are easy to spot and (sadly) well-known in British politics. Marxists and dictators are far less common. Maybe I'm wrong, but there's no way I'd vote for someone with that suspicion lurking in the back of my mind.

So what next for Labour ? They should have elected someone like Owen Smith - someone who could seriously challenge Brexit and build support. They'd gain ground at the next election, but Labour are so far behind right now that a win is very unlikely (if they do win, nothing has been lost there). So don't waste one of the heavy-hitters on a battle you probably can't win. Use a credible candidate to win back ground, then next time bring up someone like Alan Johnson or Hilary Benn - someone the wider electorate actually would vote for.

So, a year on, I was wrong about Corbyn - but I was right to give him the test period. Unfortunately it's a test he's failed abysmally. A year is a long time in politics, and sometimes it's also very unpleasant.

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