Eagle is downed, but not by sexism

20 Jul

Is there a prize for the most featherheaded Guardian analysis of Labour’s crisis? In the face of fierce competition over the months since Corbyn’s election, I shortlist Anne Perkins for this piece yesterday. Eagle shot down? Well that’d be on account of its being female. What else?

Er … that this Eagle hadn’t a single policy idea? That her career as MP began with a swoop on Wallasey in 1992 after Labour’s Frank Field, in neighbouring Birkenhead, had in 1987 urged Wallasey to vote Tory against left Labour candidate Lol Duffy? (Tory Lynda Chalker scraped back in by 279 votes. Before the 1992 general election Duffy lost the candidature to backroom skullduggery, gifting to Eagle the fruits of Team Duffy’s work.) That even in her own terms – leadership quality and media savvy – she was embarrassing? That she’s shown scant regard for truth and has a voting record that takes in: Iraq war – for … Chilcot – against … Trident and death on Syria – for … tighter controls on fracking – against … 90 day lock up without charge – for … greater parliamentary transparency – against …???

For sure, allegations of sexism in the Labour Party are more credible than those of antisemitism. In this it reflects society at large and as I opined in another post, only a fool denies that ours is still, for all the advances made these past four decades, a sexist and even misogynyst world.

But the context for Perkins’ piece is narrow, the bar low. She needn’t show Eagle to be better than every other Labour MP; just better than Owen Smith. Few had heard of Smith a fortnight ago but – bear with me a moment – some will recall Craig Murray, or at least his 2003 dismissal by Tony Blair from the post of Ambassador to Uzbekistan. Murray was sacked for saying Uzbeki boss Islam Karimov – a friend in the war on terror  who allowed coalition strikes on Iraq from his country’s ex Soviet airbases – had the delightful habit, when taking time out from making his family obscenely rich, of boiling political opponents in oil.

That last is by way of context. Murray hosts a blogsite featuring this piece on an Owen Smith now pitching himself as “of the left” and “just as radical as Jeremy”. Murray’s factual assertions re Smith make interesting reading, none more so than the latter’s in and out running on NHS privatisation,* but I don’t want to get sidetracked by the man’s eyebrow raising left claims. For now I’m interested only in assessing Anne Perkins’ argument that it was sexism wot brought down Eagle. I’ll use criteria set out above to compare the two would be ousters of a leader with a mandate bigger than any in the party’s hundred year history.

  1. Policy ideas.** So far Smith offers no more than Eagle but after Blair took over in 1994, Labour embraced more fully a vision of itself as competing with the Tories not on ideology but as technocrats claiming better stewardship of “the economy”. With both New Labour and liberal media seemingly unable to grasp how that tory-lite vision plays in the Labour heartlands, determining which of the two candidates had the better policy ideas may not carry the weight it should.
  2. Dirty tricks. I’m aware of no rerun of Wallasey ’92 to ease Smith into Westminster but who in any case can say how much this criterion, like the preceding one, would weigh in the minds of the PLP?
  3. ‘Looking like a leader’. On standards set by the Blair-Campbell machine, Smith – smarmy where Eagle looks lacklustre going on shifty – wins hands down. (On those same standards New Labour would love  a credible woman leader. If I were looking for evidence of sexism driving Labour’s choices here – I’m not because it isn’t – I’d focus on Yvette Cooper: another technocrat blown out of the water by the first ideological leader in living memory. Not even her worst enemy could deny that Yvette played well – and may do so again – in the age of spin.)
  4. Dissemblance. Tough call. In the pink corner, Angie with her croc-tears and brick-through-window tweakings of reality … her half truths re cancelled meetings … her shrill claims that “I’m a working class woman, damn it” (see Graun comments below). In the allegedly red corner, Owen: untroubled by his PR contracts with a Pfizer drooling over the NHS privatisation pie. I declare a tie, though Smith would worry me the more on grounds of greater venal competence.
  5. Voting record. As Perkins notes, Smith’s later (2010) entry to parliament makes him a ‘clean skin’. Hard to compare the two on this criterion.

Bottom line? With a result on criterion three only, I think we have the answer. Smith had more backing than Eagle not because of sexism but because Labour’s vision of itself –  embraced by the rebels in defiance of grass roots members – favours a silver tongued and photogenic leader with the media skills to advance MP interests. Next to slick Smith, Eagle couldn’t soar – far less land – and Anne Perkins’ take on the why of that is kite-flying at its most bird-brained.

* Seeing Smith backer Stephen Kinnock on BBC Newsnight, July 19, was instructive. Asked point blank if his man was compromised by involvement with Big Pharma, Kinnock dodged the question by repeatedly asserting, in textbook ‘broken record’ style, that Smith supported the principle of “an NHS free at point of delivery”. That growing army of folks no longer fooled by this tying – on the face of it unequivocal – of colours to mast may recall the same claim made by Jeremy Hunt. Hunt, of course, has a financial stake in the creeping privatisation of the NHS.
** Corbyn may not be able to win a general election but that’s down to a divided UK in which Blair’s wins, premised on capturing the centre without alienating the heartlands, were on successively reduced majorities and cannot be repeated. Corbyn’s foes can’t win either. Not because Eagle is weak (though she is) or Cooper, Hunt, Smith, Umunna & Co ideology-lite (though they are) but because the UK’s class fault-lines have deepened and widened, as the big plebiscites of the past two years – Scotland 2014, GE 2015 and EU 2016 – have made clear. It’s scary. Not just for Labour, which seems sure to split. Not just for Britain either. Western democracy, premised on levels of prosperity sufficient to give most citizens a stake, is in neoliberal induced crisis. It makes things simple though. With “principled but unelectable” versus “iffy but electable” now a false opposition, Corbyn gets my backing on moral grounds.

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