Letter to Jeremy: Listening to the People, by Jean Calder

Dear Jeremy,

I enjoyed listening to your speech at this year’s Labour Party Conference. It was good to hear a Labour leader so obviously rooted in his community, address moral issues once again. 

Throughout the conference – and during the leadership campaign – much of your focus was on being prepared to listen to ordinary people. You said formulating policy would be a ‘bottom up’ process, dominated not by focus groups and MPs, but by ordinary members and supporters.

I’m no longer a member, but I like the idea of ordinary people being able to influence Labour policy. However, I’m sceptical. There is such a strong tradition of limiting free speech in the party, I find it hard to believe you and your team really will listen. 

I did smile when I heard your Blairite opponents in Parliament predict that your leadership will bring ‘punishment beatings’ and deselections of right wing MPs. In the past, I recall that it appeared always to be the left, not the right, that was disciplined for behaviour ‘likely to bring the party into disrepute’. The same rules never seemed to apply to rightwing MPs – who seemed free to break party policy at will and viciously criticise fellow members and their leaders.

Those of us who were on the left of the party in the mid 1980s and early 1990s, recall all too well the ways in which the leadership of the party limited our freedom. Many members were expelled or disciplined. As a Labour councillor in Brighton, I was one who had the Whip removed and therefore couldn’t stand for Council again. Our local party was closed down for two years, while investigations by the national Labour Party were carried out. Twenty six party members were investigated by the national party which, after many months, organised ‘trials’ at the Royal Albion Hotel. Many people believe this period of dislocation led directly to the rapid growth of the Green Party in Brighton.

You may say that that if the left gains ascendency they will behave better. However, I wonder. I’m very familiar with the Labour left ‘script’ – a set of views you’re ‘supposed’ to have and many others that you’re not. I wonder what will happen when people – ordinary people – ask questions that don’t fit the script or use ‘unacceptable’ language in doing it. Will they be subject to insult and hostility, the indrawn breath, the shocked silence, the turned shoulder – if they ask the awkward questions that liberal progressives don’t like?.

It’s not as if there are just a few areas of sensitivity. Rigid convention binds and stultifies left debate on most areas of policy from immigration, the NHS, education and patriotism, to nationalism and Europe, defence, foreign affairs, religious tolerance and equalities. 

It seems to me that if Labour is to win elections, it must be prepared to engage with issues it finds difficult – and abandon its script. There’s no point in saying you’ll listen, if you then silence ideas you don’t like or avoid speaking to opponents. In this regard, it’s disappointing to hear you recently chose not to speak to local TV stations, but did carry out an interview with Al Jazeera.

I’m glad you’ve spoken out against political abuse and sexist trolling and that you’ve condemned the demonstrator who spat at a journalist at the Conservative Party Conference. However, there’s much more you could do. There is a culture of macho insult and abuse in sections of the left, which makes it very difficult for anyone to disagree. Without dissent, there is no possibility of real democracy.

In 1956, when Mao Zedong said “Let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend” he refused to accept the ideas the Chinese people subsequently expressed and arrested many dissidents. Some suggest the whole exercise was just a ploy to flush out his critics. 

You are judged to be a man of principle. It’s really important that, having raised people’s hopes, you don’t stifle ideas or crush dissent – or permit your supporters to do it for you.

Yours sincerely

Jean Calder

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Jeremy Corbyn wouldn’t get my vote, by Jean Calder

(This is the complete text of my column published on 5th September 2015 in the Brighton Argus which was edited to remove the paragraph relating to Sinn Fein and the IRA)

I didn’t have a vote in the labour leadership election and I’m was glad of that. People assumed I’d want to vote for Jeremy Corbyn, but they were wrong.
I like Corbyn’s anti austerity agenda, his respect for unions and the public sector, his rejection of privatisation and Trident and his scepticism about the European Union. However, I have some serious doubts about him. 

Despite apparent support for women’s rights, other policy positions he’s taken put their rights at risk. He appears to have been a broken reed in the Islington child abuse scandal, when desperate whistle-blowers first sought his help. I believe the stance he takes now on aspects of foreign policy put human rights at risk.

Much of what Corbyn has said about the plight of Palestinians and the brutality of Israeli state forces and illegal settlers is absolutely true. However, in rightly expressing solidarity with the Palestinians, he has also made common cause with Islamists who have no interest in establishing a just and democratic state (certainly not one offering equality to women, homosexuals or Jews). They want a caliphate, a theocratic fascist dictatorship. 

Corbyn has said it’s important to “talk” to people like Hamas and has offered the Peace process in Northern Ireland as an example. However, facilitating negotiation between participants in conflict is different from sharing a platform and giving the appearance of uncritical support for individuals such as Raed Salah of Hamas who has repeated the ‘blood libel’ against Jews (that Jews use Christian children’s blood in rituals) and says it is un-islamic to support women’s equality. 

It’s also absurd to equate violent islamists with the IRA. The IRA and Sinn Fein were not fascist organisations. Both were committed to Irish re-unification and British withdrawal, but crucially also to the maintenance of a democratic, non-sectarian secular Irish state. They was not imperialistic or expansionist. Hamas, in contrast, fights for a world-wide caliphate.

I question Corbyn’s attitude to Isis. In 2014, Corbyn said of Isis. “Yes, they are brutal,”..… “Yes, some of what they have done is quite appalling, likewise what the Americans did in Fallujah and other places is appalling.” Furious commentators have focussed on his comments on Fallujah and whether he should have equated Isis’ brutality with that of the Americans, but my concern is rather different. 

I make no defence of US conduct of the Iraq war. I question why Corbyn uses this to deflect attention from Isis atrocities. Above all, I want to know why he said only “some” of what Isis had done was “quite appalling”. I’d like to know which of Isis’ activities Corbyn thinks are acceptable. I see none – just brutal occupation by a so-called state in which men buy and sell naked children into sex slavery in public markets, pray before they rape them, stone women, throw gay men from high buildings and execute subject peoples and those they consider apostates with mediaeval cruelty – while abroad, waging war on civilians. 

Corbyn says the rise of Isis has been assisted by American and UK foreign policy. He’s right, but it didn’t create ISIS and it doesn’t excuse it – any more than the Treaty of Versailles caused or excused the rise of nazi Germany.  

There are some political forces with which no just government can safely negotiate because they are just too violent and dangerous to humanity. Hitler’s Germany was one, Pol Pot’s Cambodia another. Isis’ caliphate is yet another. At some point Isis, and crucially the fascist theocratic ideology that drives it, will need to be fought and beaten – not contained as Corbyn suggests.