Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Why I Wanted Paul Mason To Stand in Stoke Central

The upcoming by-election in Stoke central is very important for Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party. That is why I wanted Paul Mason to stand for the seat, but Paul has declined, arguing that its important for a local candidate to stand. Of course, we should respect Paul's wishes, but the reason I wanted him, or someone similar, to stand I think remains more than valid.

If this were a question of selecting a candidate for a General Election, I would agree with the sentiments that have been expressed about the need to select a local candidate, but this is not a General Election by any stretch. In a General Election with more than 600 seats being contested, the media's attention to any one seat is limited, and they, therefore, focus on the seats where the newsworthy candidates and contests are taking place. Stoke Central in a General Election would garner little special attention. That is not the case with this by-election. At the very least all of the national media's attention will be on the contest, and given the links between the fortunes of Corbyn, and the Labour Party, and of the Labour Party and the progress of Brexit, it is likely that the contest will be in the spotlight of the international media too, at least that of Europe.

Phil has listed some of the local candidates who so far have been put in the frame for the seat. I have no doubt that some or all of these candidates may have admirable qualities, but the fact is I don't know, because I really don't know any of them, and if I don't, its a pretty good guess that 99% of the people in Stoke Central don't know them either. I could pass them by on the street in Hanley without being any the wiser. But, if Paul Nuttall were to pass me by, I would know and recognise him, and given thee extensive media coverage he has had, I guess a fair proportion of the Stoke Central voters would too.

Of course, when you ask people they say, “Oh yes, we would prefer a local candidate”, but the truth is its a bit like the saying about “War and Peace” lots of people list it as a book they would like to have read, and yet its a book they are least likely to ever read! The fact is, as the US Presidential election, and Brexit has again showed, in systems where political culture has been degraded, and where politics itself has become commoditised, name and image recognition is an important factor. We may not like it, but its a fact. 

In the end, especially in high profile by-elections, it can become even more important. But, the recent experience shows that a lot of people who voted for Trump did so without much regard for what he actually said, which was so hyperbolic as to defy any rational understanding, few people actually took in what Boris Johnson was saying, except perhaps for the £350 million a week for the NHS, but many said they would vote for and trusted Bojo, largely because he has a large public profile. Farage himself has had a following way in excess of what other UKIPPERS have attracted, simply on the basis of his media persona, and the most gut wrenching example, is that of Neil Hamilton in the Welsh Assembly.

Nor is it just a matter that UKIP could well put up Nuttall as a well known character, behind which UKIP would muster all their resources,whilst the Tories save face by putting up a nonentity of their own, so as to not detract votes from Nuttall. The fact, is that no matter how much I detest Nuttall, and everything he stands for, not only does he have an established media profile, but he is also an accomplished media performer. Given all the media attention that Stoke Central will receive, that could be decisive. I have been on TV and radio several times myself, and the first time you do it, it is always a bit nerve wracking. Doing that with all of the national and European media spotlight on you, and with most of it hostile to Corbyn's Labour Party would be even more so.

To be honest, if someone like Nuttall stands, or if he doesn't and the Tories put up a well recognised national figure instead, it will be like a boxing promoter sending a good amateur into the ring to face a seasoned pro. The amateur may have better boxing skill, but the ringcraft, and knowledge of the seasoned professional would overwhelm them. Already, the media are focussing on the lack of clarity in Labour's message, the last thing we need is a candidate that gets tongue tied, or eaten alive by their more seasoned opponent, under the glare of media attention.

But, there is another reason I think its important that Labour should have someone like Paul Mason as its candidate. Corbyn is still isolated with his small group of followers in Parliament. The Labour right have backed off their attacks for now, waiting for Corbyn to fail. Not only is that good reason to have a high profile candidate fight the Stoke seat, but what Corbyn needs now, is a growing cadre of seasoned left-wing politicians around him in Parliament. Paul Mason is admirably suited for that. Labour really needs to get its economic message across loud and clear, and Paul's knowledge of political-economy, including his understanding of the nitty-gritty, from his time as Economics Editor of Newsnight, and Channel 4 News, made him ideally suited to do that. He is a natural communicator, and already has media presence, and the ability to get across complex economic ideas and facts to the public. Corbyn and his supporters, really do not have the luxury of simply taking in raw politicians that lack that ability, simply to act as voting fodder.

This is going to be a crucial year for Corbyn and his supporters. Either he will consolidate his position, and begin to push out a strong clear message that begins to turn the tide, or the Right will push him back, and throw him out. That would be a disaster for the Labour left,a nd for the working-class, as May's government seeks to turn Britain into a copy of Batista's Cuba of the 1950's.

If we are to prevent that, we have to act in a disciplined and professional manner, which is why some months ago I argued that it was necessary for Momentum and Corbyn's supporters in general to begin to draw up their own shortlists of suitable high-profile experienced and committed candidates to stand in by-elections and elections whenever they arose. The opposition to bringing in external candidates is understandable given the way that was done by Blair and Brown. But there is a world of difference between the party machine, controlled by the right doing that, and the majority of party activists doing it, to achieve their aims.

As I wrote some time ago, the left's objection to Blair's efforts to turn the party into a more professional organisation were misplaced. They jumped on it, as an adjunct of their hostility to Blair, especially in the period prior to the Iraq War, when they opposed Labour despite the fact that it was trebling the NHS Budget, introducing a National Minimum Wage and so on. Opposing the professionalisation of the Labour Party was a proxy for that wider hostility to Labour. But, if the working-class is to have any chance of moving forward that kind of proffesionalism is absolutely required. As I said in that blog post, back then, 

“Imagine, during the Miners Strike, if Labour HQ had acted as such an organising centre, sending out information, provided by its staff of researchers, that LP Councillors and activists could have used in their propaganda. Imagine if it had co-ordinated Labour Councillors, in their actions, to oppose the Tories, not just in supporting the Miners, but in co-ordinating those Councils to oppose the Tories’ cuts, and so on. What an amazingly powerful tool that would have been! No, the problem was not that the LP had stopped acting as some ramshackle, amateur outfit, and had begun to operate as a professional political party. After all, that was precisely what Lenin argued the Workers Party had to be – a professional party – in “What Is To Be Done?”” 

And, Lenin in making this statement did not mean the interpretation of a professional party that the sects have imposed on it, as a means of justifying their own irrelevant existence. What Lenin meant was the kind of professional party that the many million strong German SPD represented, professional not just in its organisation and administration, its allocation of candidates, and support for them when elected, but capable of talking knowledgeably in any forum, whether speaking to ordinary workers, or to businessmen etc. 

“Kautsky strongly protests against Rittinghausen’s primitive conception of democracy; he ridicules those who in the name of democracy demand that “popular newspapers shall be edited directly by the people”; he shows the’ need for professional journalists, parliamentarians, etc., for the Social-Democratic leadership of the proletarian class struggle; he attacks the socialism of anarchists and litterateurs who in their “striving for effect” extol direct legislation by the whole people, completely failing to understand that this idea can be applied only relatively in modern society.” 

(What Is To Be Done?”

The working-class has a hard enough job promoting its interests without voluntarily tying its hands behind its back by not pushing forward our most able representatives for the sake of abstract and primitivist principles. Of course, as Lenin says, we have to develop the working-class, and enable those with natural talent to grow and specialise with whatever support is required. In a General Election that means that we can select such new working-class talent, so that it is immersed in an environment where it can develop further and learn. But, this is not a General Election, it is a by-election, and for the new working-class talent to develop, it requires our best teachers to be standing alongside it.

“Political thinking is sufficiently developed among the Germans, and they have accumulated sufficient political experience to understand that without the “dozen” tried and talented leaders (and talented men are not born by the hundreds), professionally trained, schooled by long experience, and working in perfect harmony, no class in modern society can wage a determined struggle. The Germans too have had demagogues in their ranks who have flattered the “hundred fools”, exalted them above the “dozen wise men”, extolled the “horny hand” of the masses, and (like Most and Hasselmann) have spurred them on to reckless “revolutionary” action and sown distrust towards the firm and steadfast leaders. It was only by stubbornly and relentlessly combating all demagogic elements within the socialist movement that German socialism has managed to grow and become as strong as it is. Our wiseacres, however, at a time when Russian Social-Democracy is passing through a crisis entirely due to the lack of sufficiently trained, developed, and experienced leaders to guide the spontaneously awakening masses, cry out ,with the profundity of fools: “It is a bad business when the movement does not proceed from the rank and file.” (ibid)


davidjc said...

Agree with the general point about playing the famous face game and I like a lot of Paul Mason's stuff, but very disappointed with his anti immigration turn, which is what it is however he wants to dress it up.

Of course no candidate is perfect and it looks like the whole PLP bar Diane Abbott has gone the same way.

All that will happen with the Corbyn/Mason type confusing a bit anti but sort of pro immigrant line is that it will tie spokespeople up in knots.

It also gives the Labour right hope Corbyn will move even further, as seen in Starmer's disgraceful speech today - he's the only man in Europe who thinks May has come out against hard Brexit! Anything to undermine Corbyn and the anything they've chosen is immigration.

Should have stuck to Corbyn's strong pro immigrant approach at conference, should have stuck with softest Brexit.

Maybe you should stand!? It's only for a few years.

Boffy said...


If it was thirty years ago, my name would already have been in the ring! But, its 12 years now since I stepped down from the County Council, due to ill health, and my physical involvement in anything political has dropped to a few sporadic appearances at rallies and events, and my residential position has left me in limbo for far longer than I ever thought likely, which has restricted my getting settled in a whole range of things.

I agree about Paul Mason's retreat in relation to immigration et al, but as you say no one is going to be a perfect candidate. I'm not looking for a revolutionary here, my focus is on the short term objective of consolidating Corbyn's position, as a necessary requirement for stopping the return of the right. Given another two years, a range of other younger, prominent poliicians may develop out of the struggle, to take up the baton.

George Carty said...

Do you think that Corbyn's current supine position re Brexit is because he fears a Tory-UKIP electoral pact in any General Election that may result from Labour blocking an Article 50 invocation?

Labour currently holds 44 out of the 45 constituencies where UKIP beat the Tories in 2015, and if the Tories stand aside and back UKIP there (with UKIP leaving the rest of the country to the Tories) then Labour could be seriously jeopardized.

Boffy said...

No, I think it simply reflects the problem that all social-democracy has with dealing with questions of inherited reactionary ideas within the working-class. I think that most of the Left, including Marxists have misunderstood the nature of this inherited bigotry. It is seen as functional to capitalism, whereas nowadays it is largely dysfunctional for large-scale, socialised, multinational capital, because it creates frictions (therefore, costs) in relation to the free movement of labour, capital and commodities.

I will be dealing with this in a blog post I have been writing for several days off and on, and which will be posted tomorrow or shortly after, so I'll say nothing more on that for now.

The problem for social-democrats (and this applies to other reformists (like the Militant) and syndicalists (like the IS/SWP) is that these inherited reactionary ideas (racism, sexism, homophobia), have their largest reservoir within sections of the working-class, and particularly the "dangerous classes", for the simple reason that the working-class, in a developed economy, is by far the largest class. But, also for other reasons, which I will address in the forthcoming blog post.

If you are a party that puts your immediate level of support amongst the working-class above all else, which a reformist electoral party like the Labour Party by definition does, you face a contradiction between holding to a principled opposition to those reactionary ideas, and fearing losing support from your base. That is why reformists be it the Labour Party, Communist Party, or Militant/Socialist Party, have offered up contradictory unprincipled ideas to try to reconcile the two, by proposing the idea of "non-racist immigration controls", hedged around by all kinds of meaningless rhetoric about planning, or control of migration for the benefit of workers to stop undercutting and so on.

But it was seen in other variants, in the willingness of both the Militant and SWP to switch their positions on Ireland, when the PIRA were killing British occupying soldiers after 1969, and a nationalistic backlash set in on the mainland. The Militant also dropped their support for Women's and Gay Rights whenever it was seen to stand in the way of "Building The Party". More latterly the SWP have been famous for saying different and contradictory things to different audiences to retain support.


Boffy said...

Corbyn and the LP see sticking by a principled position on immigration as detrimental to their short-term electoral demands, and so particularly when a by-election like Stoke comes along, they buckle, and bend, and try to use weasel words to cover over the retreat and the inherent contradiction of saying that immigrants are not the cause of workers problems, and yet supporting some kind of restriction on free movement, or imposition of some form of controls.

In the end its self-defeating, and the reason we have the rise of a populist right across Europe - and in the US - is that social democracy has never tackled these inherited reactionary ideas head on, and destroyed them during all of that period after WWII when it had perfect conditions to have done so. So, we have those sections of the bourgeoisie, and educated middle class (what the populist right and the media now call the metropolitan elite) that largely have no need for such ideas, have abandoned them, and show disdain for them, whilst large numbers of workers, particularly those with less education, those further removed from the organised labour movement and so on, alongside the backward sections of the small private capitalists (a larger number of whom than you would think are also ill-educated, but who also have material reasons for supporting protectionist, nationalistic policies and ideas) continue to be held in the thrall of these reactionary ideas whose functional basis arose to meet the needs of mercantilism and colonialism in the 17th -19th centuries, but which now represent an impediment and cost to modern, multinational capital - hence the four freedoms at the heart of the EU, the main achievement of international social-democracy of the post-war period.