Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Capability Corbyn

One of my reservations about Corbyn's leadership of the Labour Party is not over policy, but competence. His reaction to the Paris atrocity has not put my mind at rest. The latest sense of alarm came from his answer to a question about a shoot-to-kill policing policy. He has good reason to oppose it as an automatic policy after Northern Ireland and the death of de Menezes in the aftermath of 7/7. But that wasn't what he was asked.

I have listened to the interviews and it couldn't have been clearer. In one, he had manoeuvred, not very convincingly, through some awkward questions on his attitude to ISIS. Then the interviewer gave him what Americans call a softball question, one that is easy to answer. He was asked if he would order the police or army to shoot dead a gunman who was killing innocent people. He waffled about being opposed to a shoot-to-kill policy in general. That wasn't the question. So the interviewer clarified it to make it clear she was referring to a single specific incident and not a general policy. He repeated the mantra, with his usual tone of irritation when questioned, and added something about not bringing war to the streets. The answer he should have given is simple. He should have said yes.

First of all, it would be perfectly legal as an act of self-defence. Secondly, he wouldn't have to order it anyway as it would fall under the normal rules of engagement. And if he was worried about the principle, here's Gandhi - yes, Gandhi - writing in 1926:
Even manslaughter may be necessary in certain cases. Suppose a man runs amuck and goes furiously about sword in hand, and killing any one that comes his way, and no one dares to capture him alive. Anyone who dispatches this lunatic will earn the gratitude of the community and be regarded a benevolent man.
(Young India, 4-11-'26, pp. 384-85)
It was a straightforward opportunity to reassure the public and sound responsible in the wake of a shocking attack in France that showed that there is also a clear threat to the people of this country. Instead he equivocated. In effect, he was saying to the voters that if they were attacked he would rather they were killed than kill the gunman. I don't think that's a vote-winner.

Politicians say stupid things, but leadership is a team. So what were his media advisers doing? Rather than instantly clarifying his position and coaching him in what to say instead, they let him repeat it and then repeat it again to a hostile Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. What is more, it was a meeting that included one of his biggest critics whose niece had been caught up in the Paris massacre, thankfully without being harmed. He had a personal stake in this. The meeting did not go well. If this is anything like an accurate account, it sounds a disaster. This is the price of appointing a posh ex-Stalinist from the Guardian as your media adviser, rather than a tabloid-savvy fixer.

Everything has been pulled back today. Hilary Benn has restated a more credible policy and Corbyn's position has been duly refined, but the damage has already been done. 

It's ironic. I have talked to people about Corbyn who have been concerned by his foreign policy but thought that domestically a move to the left was necessary and welcome. They felt that domestic politics was far more important. Yet, the first major test of his leadership turns out to be a profoundly serious crisis in foreign affairs. I totally disagree with his views, but I would hope that at least he would be able to state his position at a time of crisis with a modicum of competence.  

I hate to say it, but this is horribly reminiscent of my years in education on the occasions we have made an unsuitable appointment as a principal. I have been to those meetings. I have helped in the Hilary Benn style rescue operations. Politics and political ideas are an area of dispute, but the ability to do the job should be a given. I hope he and his team learn, but I don't think this one is going away.


Anonymous said...

Sadly you are right again. Furthermore he has compounded this with the Livingstone appointment and his immediate balls up, FFS.

That said I am more angry with the smug, constantly sniping Blairites unable to display a modicum of party loyalty, or even self-interest for that matter.


The Plump said...

Yes, but the big thing is that the Blairites are not the enemy, the Conservatives are. As for party loyalty, Corbyn was hardly a fine example either. I actually think that the Corbyn left and the Blairites have a lot in common. Both see themselves as the sole repository of virtue and neither care much for any of the party outside their immediate circles. (I may take that up in another post)

What concerns me is that caught between these two factions is the bulk of the party, both the paid membership and the parliamentary party (Corbyn did not win an overall majority from either, though he did well amongst full members). Here you have the repository of Labour's traditions; a coalition between left and right social democrats, uneasy at times but successful in many ways. Marginalised under Blair as the forces of conservatism, they are now called red Tories - even the language of abuse is the same in this "new politics". This is where the work has to be done, to build and reinvent a political economy in particular that will appeal to swing voters in marginals and a working class that has been left behind. Difficult, but not impossible.

I think that coalition will come together, but this can't go on. Livingstone yesterday, McDonnell today - tomorrow? It is now the daily cock up. And the Tories may yet implode over Europe with Labour unable to capitalise. I think 2020 has gone, the damage is too deep already. I hope I am wrong about that though.