Dear Polly Toynbee…
An unexpected call from Polly Toynbee last Sunday resulted in me featuring in her Guardian column. But I always prefer to speak for myself rather than have my views summarised by others
It was a surprise and a pleasure to speak to you last Sunday when you called me on behalf of Keir Starmer’s Labour leadership campaign. I enjoyed our conversation, although I knew from the outset that we wouldn’t agree as I had already decided to vote for Rebeccca Long-Bailey for Leader and Richard Burgon for Deputy Leader. Still, it was a chance to explain why and to hear your counter-arguments.
One thing that did surprise me, however, was that parts of our conversation were then used in an article that appeared in the Guardian the following day. As it seems very unlikely that you will have spoken to two Labour Party members in Birmingham with the same opinions and same turn of phrase I can only assume that the views you attribute to Jim from Birmingham are in fact mine. I know it is difficult to separate out the roles of journalist and political campaigner but I think if you’re in effect wearing both hats it’s best to mention it at the time.
Also I know and accept the space constraints imposed when summarising an interview for a newspaper article. Nonetheless, I hope you won’t mind if I provide a little context. I can’t help but feel compressing my comments into 66 words doesn’t do justice to them or more importantly the candidates I support.
You are right my local party nominated Keir Starmer for Leader and Angela Rayner for Deputy Leader ‘on a tiny turnout’. It’s hard to fully convey what being a member of a CLP like Birmingham Perry Barr is like but suffice it to say that outside of AGMs or selection meetings it’s rare for any meeting to reach the required quorum of five per cent. On this occasion we just made it with 44 of our 750+ members present. I mentioned this in our discussion because it seems to me that Keir’s campaign makes a great deal of the fact that he has been nominated by over half of CLPs whereas I wanted to emphasise that only a small proportion of our 580,000 members attend these meetings, often for good reasons.
You’re right that I described Keir as a Trojan horse, a suited-and-booted knight of the realm and a triangulator. I didn’t say, however, that he was ‘on the side of MPs who tried to vote out Jeremy Corbyn’ — despite the fact that he did quit the Shadow Cabinet after the EU referendum — nor that he is ‘in with the MPs who say they’ll quit if Rebecca Long-Bailey wins.’ My point wasn’t that Keir is spearheading the attempt of the right-wing to purge the party of Corbynism but that he is the vehicle, knowingly or unknowingly, of those in the PLP who are, and that regrettably I can’t see him standing up to them. I gave the example of the recent story that appeared in the Huffington Post and elsewhere saying a group of MPs were planning to quit the Labour Party if Rebecca Long-Bailey wins to demonstrate that even now, at the very outset of what is supposed to be a democratic vote of our members, some in the PLP are doing what they have always done, which is to warn us that if we vote the wrong way they will torch the house before leaving it.
As for the suited-and-booted knight of the realm comment, I made this because I’m tired of hearing about Keir’s ‘electability’ not because. as some would claim, winning elections doesn’t concern me but because I seriously doubt that what the Labour Party needs now is another London-based, white, professional, male Leader with, to be frank, few if any of the life experiences of the traditional Labour supporters who chose to vote for the Conservative or Brexit parties in 2019.
Finally, you didn’t ask me which of Keir’s policies I opposed but why I was voting for Rebecca Long-Bailey. I said because she is committed to introducing Open Selections, amongst other things, and Keir isn’t. I support Open Selections as an important and necessary step to ensure members run the Labour Party and not those we’ve chosen to represent us. You clearly disagree, saying that even the current provision for trigger ballots ‘poisoned local parties, wastefully burning energy and emotion before being suspended in the run-up to the general election’. I beg to differ. What poisoned the Labour Party, wastefully burning energy and emotion, was the unrelenting attacks on its twice democratically elected Leader by MPs like Ian Austin, John Woodcock, John Mann and Ivan Lewis, all of whom represented seats lost by Labour and all of whom called for a vote for the Tories. And yes, these attacks were amplified by the mainstream media.
I knew we wouldn’t agree on this as I had already read your thoughts on why Labour lost the General Election and especially recall your article— ‘Devoid of agility, charisma and credibility, Corbyn has led Labour into the abyss’ — published the morning after our defeat. I reread it after our chat to remind myself of its central argument:
‘Labour was disastrously, catastrophically bad, an agony to behold. A coterie of Corbynites cared more about gripping power within the party than saving the country by winning the election. The national executive committee, a slate of nodding Corbynite place-persons, disgraced the party with its sectarian decisions. Once it was plain in every poll and focus group that Corbynism was electoral arsenic, they should have propelled him out, but electoral victory was secondary.’
Anyone unsure of what kind of Labour Leader you crave would do well to reread it. I have to say it seems a very long way from Keir’s pitch that we shouldn’t rubbish Jeremy Corbyn’s record, but politics has always made strange bedfellows. For me it was conclusive evidence that my concerns about Keir as Leader aren’t without merit. That’s why I’ll still be voting for Rebecca Long-Bailey.