Friday 30 September 2016

Corbyn: a chance after all?

It is just possible – I put it no higher -- that Jeremy Corbyn turned an important corner at this week’s Labour party conference. He actually made a speech that sounded as if it had been written for the leader of a political party.

Not the leader of a protest group. Not the leader of a social movement. But the leader of a political party which aims, one day, to form a government. He couldn’t have been clearer: ‘Yes, our party is about campaigning and it’s about protest too. But most of all it’s about winning power.’

Note those words: ‘Most of all.’ Does he really believe it, deep in his heart, after a lifetime of protest? I hope he does, because none of his ideas – and there were plenty of good ones in his speech – will do anything to make Britain a better place unless Labour win power.

‘The central task of the whole Labour party,’ Corbyn said, ‘must be to rebuild trust and support to win the next general election.’ I agree. I just wish he had put a bit more flesh on the bones – and I wish he had told his party activists that they need to start talking much more to former Labour voters in key constituencies and much less to each other.

A year ago, just after he was elected party leader, I quoted from a Fabian Society analysis of what Labour must do to regain power: it concluded that the party would need to gain more than 100 extra parliamentary seats to win a Commons majority, and four-fifths of the extra votes they would need to win in English and Welsh marginals would have to come direct from Conservative voters.

Polly Toynbee quoted the same analysis in The Guardian this week: ‘Even if the young are energised and turnout soars to Scottish referendum heights, it gets nowhere close. Even if every single Liberal Democrat and Green vote went Labour, that only gives 29 seats. Even if Ukip were crushed, its vote divides equally Labour and Tory. As Labour wins radical votes, it risks losing moderate votes to the Tories: 2% went that way last time. Read the research yourself and groan. It hurts.’

Does Mr Corbyn understand that? There were, perhaps, a few flickers of recognition in his speech: a welcome reference, for example, to the ‘explosion of temporary, insecure jobs [and] nearly one million people on zero hour contracts ...six million working people earning less than the living wage and poverty among those in work … at record levels.’ These are the people Labour needs to re-engage with, because there just aren’t enough university-educated metropolitian millennials to bring electoral victory on their own.

But there was nothing in his speech that suggested he has truly grasped the scale of the challenge that his party faces. The electoral challenge alone is tough enough, but the task goes much deeper. Right across the Western world (Canada being a notable exception), the liberal left is in crisis, unable as yet to craft a new set of policies appropriate to the post-crash, post-globalisation, post-industrial world in which we live.

The traditional Labour alliance that united the blue-collar, heavily unionised industrial working class with the metropolitan and instinctively liberal progressive elite has vanished – so the task facing Corbyn or whoever follows him is to fashion a new election-winning consensus to enable the delivery of what he calls ‘a fairer Britain in a peaceful world.’

On Brexit, the over-riding issue facing Britain, he had little of substance to offer in Liverpool. No blank cheque to Theresa May and her ‘three-legged team of fractious Brexiteers’, a defence of workers’ rights and social justice, and of the UK’s right not to further privatise public services. But what a Corbyn-led government’s negotiating strategy would be, not a lot.

We do know, however, that he intends to stand firm against demands from some of his senior colleagues for Labour to bow to anti-immigration sentiment – all credit to him for that, although again, it would have been useful to have heard a more rousing clarion call than a reinstatement of the Migrant Impact Fund (even if he did offer in passing a rare word of praise to Gordon Brown for having set it up) and the introduction of a ‘citizenship application fee levy’ to help pay for it.

On the vexed question of the British nuclear weapons arsenal (he’s a unilateralist; many of his colleagues are not), there was simply an anodyne commitment ‘to honour our international treaty obligations on nuclear disarmament.’ The word Trident didn’t even pass his lips.

Most reprehensibly, however, especially for a man who was one of the co-founders of the Stop The War Coalition, and who again at the party conference voiced his total opposition to military interventions in the Middle East, there was barely even a glancing reference to the catastrophe that has engulfed Syria. He referred to the violation of international humanitarian law in both Syria and Yemen, yet somehow failed to mention the role played by Russia in the ruthless bombardment of rebel-held eastern Aleppo while suggesting that he would halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia over its killing of civilians in Yemen.

Mr Corbyn has an opportunity now to make a real mark on British politics. He has a renewed personal mandate from the members of Europe’s biggest political party, a party that introduced the welfare state and the National Health Service, the 1965 Race Relations Act, the Equal Pay Act; the Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalized homosexual acts between men over the age of 21, and the national minimum wage.

It is a party with a history to be proud of, and a future full of uncertainty. Mr Corbyn’s first year as party leader was abysmal; if his speech this week marked a new start, the whole country will have good reason to be grateful. A couple of weeks ago, when he roasted Theresa May over grammar schools, he showed that he can be effective in the House of Commons if he puts his mind to it. Perhaps he really is beginning to get the hang of this leadership business.

Someone wrote him a good speech this week, and then persuaded him to deliver it. He has a long, long way to go, but at least, at last, he seems to be heading in approximately the right direction. Meanwhile, the next generation of Labour leaders – Dan Jarvis, Keir Starmer, Yvette Cooper, Chuka Umunna – need to be setting out their visions for the future of the left in Britain.

If Jeremy Corbyn is right about Mrs May planning a general election for next year (I think he may very well be), and if, as everyone expects, Labour lose that election badly, the next party leader needs to be ready with a fresh set of ideas to continue the long march back to power. More thinking, less plotting – how’s that for an idea?

Friday 23 September 2016

Time for moral outrage

Sometimes even a greybeard old hack like me is sickened by the obscenity of the world in which we live.

Sickened by the obscenity of Western governments selling arms to warring parties and then building walls to keep out the desperate families fleeing from their bombs.

Sickened by the weasel words of governments that pledge to help those same desperate families when they have no intention of fulfilling their pledges.

And sickened by the obscenity of political leaders playing petty power games instead of trying to end the wars that condemn hundreds of thousands of our fellow human beings to an early death.

Yes, I know moral outrage is easy. But we still need more of it, if for no other reason than to demonstrate that we have not entirely lost our capacity for outrage.

Have you heard Theresa May say one word about the indescribable catastrophe that has engulfed Yemen?

Have you heard Jeremy Corbyn utter a single word of condemnation of the unconscionable air strikes, allegedly by Russian warplanes, that destroyed an aid convoy – an aid convoy! -- headed for the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo? Perhaps he is still stuck in a 1970s time warp in which all that is bad in the world is the fault of the US. Would that it were that simple (not that it ever was, of course).

Perhaps Mrs May has been struck dumb by the knowledge that the bombs being dropped on Yemen by Saudi warplanes, destroying hospitals, schools and refugee camps, and killing hundreds of civilians, may well have been made in the UK, sold by the UK, and for all we know, given that British military advisers are working closely with the Saudi armed forces, targeted with the help of British officers.

To his credit, Mr Corbyn said as much in the Commons a couple of weeks ago, when he challenged Mrs May: ‘The British Government continue to sell arms to Saudi Arabia that are being used to commit crimes against humanity in Yemen.’ Her response was breath-taking: ‘Actually, what matters is the strength of our relationship with Saudi Arabia. When it comes to counter-terrorism and dealing with terrorism, it is that relationship that has helped to keep people on the streets of Britain safe.’

And on Channel 4 News on Thursday night, a woefully unconvincing Boris Johnson could manage nothing better than platitudes: he was ‘concerned’ about what had happened in Yemen but ‘as things stand at the moment, we don’t think there are breaches of international humanitarian law.’

The Saudis have been bombing Yemen for more than a year, ever since they intervened in that country’s civil war to prop up the government against Shia rebels who they insist are being backed by Riyadh’s regional rivals, Iran. The UK government has continued to supply arms and to licence the sale of more arms to the Saudis throughout this period. According to the international relief organization Oxfam, by doing so it has been guilty of breaking international law.

Still not outraged? Then, if you have not already done so, I urge you to watch this heart-rending report from Nawal al-Maghafi of the BBC. But I should warn you: it is deeply distressing.

Yemen and Syria are very different countries. But what they have in common is this: they have both become battlegrounds on which Saudi Arabia and Iran have chosen to fight for regional supremacy. Arab versus Persian, Sunni versus Shia, US-supported desert kingdom versus Russian-supported (at least in Syria) Islamic republic. Both countries have become seething cauldrons of bloodshed and misery.

Our response? Mrs May says the priority is to ensure that none of the victims make it to our shores. Mr Corbyn presides over a party so dysfunctional that its own staff have been sent guidance on how to deal with ‘aggressive or potentially violent behaviour’ at its own conference, by its own members.

(The Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron, to his credit, was appropriately outraged by the government’s policy on refugees at his party’s annual conference this week, but with only eight MPs to their name, the Lib Dems’ influence is bound to be somewhat limited.)   

At the UN this week, Mrs May’s priorities were to encourage other nations to do more to keep out refugees, and to reassure them that – Brexit notwithstanding – UK plc is still ‘open for business’.

And by the way, if you think moral outrage has no place in politics, take a look at the US Democratic party senator Elizabeth Warren on the attack against an American bank chief executive, John Stumpf of Wells Fargo. Here’s just a taste for you (the bank has been accused of creating millions of bogus accounts to drive up its share price):

‘Here's what really gets me about this, Mr. Stumpf. If one of your tellers took a handful of $20 bills out of the cash drawer, they'd probably be looking at criminal charges for theft. They could end up in prison. But you squeezed your employees to the breaking point so they would cheat customers and you could drive up the value of your stock and put hundreds of millions of dollars in your own pocket. And when it all blew up, you kept your job, you kept your multi-multimillion-dollar bonuses, and you went on television to blame thousands of $12-an-hour employees who were just trying to meet cross-sell quotas that made you rich. This is about accountability. You should resign. You should give back the money that you took while this scam was going on, and you should be criminally investigated … This just isn't right.’

That’s what I call moral outrage. We need more of it. We are entitled to expect much better from our own political leaders. More importantly, so are the people of Syria and Yemen.

Friday 16 September 2016

Paying the BBC's stars: too much information

Perhaps you never listen to The Archers. Perhaps you never watch Bake Off. It’s even possible, I suppose, that you don’t care a fig how much Fiona Bruce, Jeremy Vine and Graham Norton get paid.

But somehow, I doubt it. The BBC touches the lives of more than 95% of UK citizens every week – it is as much a part of the fabric of our national life as the royal family and the National Health Service. And, as I never tire of pointing out, it costs each of us who buys a TV licence the princely sum of 40p per day.

Even if you hated every moment of its Olympics coverage, and you can’t stand Dr Who, EastEnders, or Strictly Come Dancing, how about Wolf Hall, The Night Manager, The Proms, Test Match Special, Poldark or Last Tango in Halifax?

It is no surprise that the BBC is rarely out of the headlines. Just over the past week, we’ve had the trial and acquittal of Helen Titchener in The Archers, the loss of Bake Off to Channel 4, the behind-the-scenes assassination of Rona Fairhead, chair of the BBC Trust, and publication of a new draft BBC Charter under which the corporation will operate until 2027.

What a feast! And how lip-smackingly scrumptious that soon everyone will be entitled to know how much each of the BBC’s highest paid stars earns. Cue howls of outrage: ‘John Humphrys earns how much?’ ‘Laura Kuenssberg gets what?’ (Full disclosure: even if I were still employed by the BBC, my name would not be included on the list of those earning more than £150,000.)

The effect of the salary disclosures will be exactly the opposite of what the BBC’s critics want. So let me spell it out: the top presenters and journalists will now be even more poachable than they have been until now. Just look at some of the journalists who were enticed away from the corporation even before their salaries were publicly known (some of them were later enticed back, and I’m pretty confident they didn’t take a pay cut): John Sergeant, Nick Robinson, Laura Kuenssberg, Robert Peston, Paul Mason, Allegra Stratton … the list is a long one.

Journalism is a highly competitive business: editors and channel controllers want to hire the best people they can, and from now on it’s going to be easier than ever for them to poach the BBC’s brightest stars. It will also now be easier for senior BBC staff to demand parity with their peers: this will almost certainly be good for their bank balances, but it will do nothing for their bosses’ attempts to cut costs.

After all, if I had known exactly how much J Humphrys and J Naughtie were earning, I might well have been tempted to demand a hefty pay rise. But I didn’t know, so could only guess. Good for the BBC – and the licence fee payers – less good for poor old me.

The BBC’s director-general, Tony Hall, said on Thursday: ‘The BBC operates in a competitive market and this will not make it easier for the BBC to retain the talent the public love.’ I accept – grudgingly – that the BBC’s journalists may not all be as universally revered as Mary Berry, but even so, we saw the wailing that accompanied the BBC’s loss of Bake Off, so we must now expect more sad farewells as the corporation’s stars are lured to greener pastures. 

I focus on the BBC’s journalists, by the way, because highly-paid entertainers like Graham Norton and Gary Lineker will almost certainly not be covered by the new Charter requirement, which applies only to ‘staff of the BBC paid more than £150,000 from licence fee revenue’ (paragraph 37, sub-section 2 (j) (iii)). Note the word ‘staff’, because most of the highest paid entertainers are self-employed with contracts negotiated by their agents.

I am very much in favour of transparency. If all broadcasters had to declare how much they are paying their biggest stars, I would have no complaints. So by all means, let’s compare how much Jon Snow of Channel 4 News gets paid per hour on air with how much George Alagiah earns. Let’s contrast Tom Bradby of ITV’s News at Ten with his opposite number at the BBC, Huw Edwards.

(By way of a parallel, Channel 4’s chief executive, David Abraham, was paid £855,000 in 2014, compared to Tony Hall’s £450,000.)

But I should be clear about why I am in favour of transparency: it enables those who are paid less than their peers to demand an increase. It means wage bills go up, not down. As an ex-employee, I am a strong believer in equal pay for equal work – but I suspect that is not quite what the culture secretary Karen Bradley, who in her former life was a tax consultant, had in mind.