Thursday, 19 September 2019

Being neither fish nor fowl

There is a key difference between a politician who wants to drive and create change and one who merely wants to govern, and that difference isn’t about whether they actually change anything or not, it’s about whether they lead or simply follow.  Politicians chasing votes and power can pursue change, even significant change, if it’s what the focus groups tell them will win them votes, but that isn’t at all the same thing as holding a clear view about what a better future looks like and seeking to persuade people to that view.
Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party started out with great promise: here was a man who had consistently stood against the prevailing consensus, a man not afraid to take a stand for what he believes and willing to champion unpopular causes.  He spoke to and for the membership of his party, often against previous leaders, and was elected as leader on the back of that.  He also argued for a greater role for the members of his party in deciding policy and direction after decades when power within the party had moved away from the grass roots into the hands of MPs.  How things change!  Yesterday, he said, in relation to Brexit, that his job as Prime Minister would be to give people a choice, to remain neutral and “to deliver that option that is chosen by the British people”, a position which makes him a follower of public opinion rather than a leader of it.  I think back to some of the Labour greats of the past and try to imagine them saying something similar.  Can anyone envisage Keir Hardie, for instance, a fervent opponent of war, saying that his job was not to support or oppose war, but to implement whatever option the people wanted at a time when jingoistic British nationalism was the norm?  Of course not – he saw his role as leading public opinion, not following it.  For anyone who seriously wants to challenge and change society for the better, remaining neutral is never an option.
Corbyn has a problem, in that he is a natural and instinctive Brexiteer leading a party which is increasingly remain-focussed.  But his determination to avoid coming down on either side indicates that he sees keeping his job as party leader and getting into Downing Street as being more important than either following his own principles or honouring the wishes of his party’s grass roots.  It also goes against all the reasons which led to the party so enthusiastically electing him as leader in the first place.  I can see how a decision to back what the membership is saying could turn his position around; I can even see how coming out and openly saying that he thinks Brexit is fundamentally the right thing to do, even knowing all that we now know, might restore something of his reputation, even if it isn’t the outcome that I’d want.  But a Labour Party led by a man who thinks that being ‘neutral’ on the biggest issue of the day is a reasonable or sensible approach looks to me to be utterly doomed.

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