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Sunday, January 26, 2020

Labour's meaningless election

As the only Labour leadership candidate with a spark of personality and emotional verve has pulled out, I’m inclined to switch off until another tiresome Labour leadership contest is over. Jess Phillips last week exited a race that ever since Blair was chosen as party leader in 1994 has been marketed by the Party as about putting power in the hands of the members. Yet Phillips departed not because she had failed to convince Labour Party members, or the wider public, but because she knew she couldn’t be confident of the support of enough Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) (or the support of two big trade unions) to ensure that she’d get through to the next round. It is only when these hurdles are jumped by candidates that the much vaunted ‘one member, one vote’ process will actually kick in and the real leadership election will start as ordinary members get to decide for themselves who to vote for.

Well, them and registered party ‘supporters’, a cheapo membership scheme introduced, in his perverse wisdom, by Ed Miliband for those people who (understandably) can’t endure going to members’ meetings. And among these ‘Labour supporters’ who in April will be determining who the next Labour Prime Minister might be, will be those who bought themselves a vote by registering as supporters as recently as mid-January. All’s fair then.

The absurdities of Labour’s leadership electoral system are a reflection of its spatchcock compromise between Labour’s historical roots as a parliamentary-orientated party paid for by organised labour, and the bizarre contemporary influence of US primaries. This has produced a corrupt charade where all party members are potential voters but some voters aren’t party members (and some of these have simply paid £25 to vote). Success in the election depends on garnering the backing of enough MPs and then the approval of enough CLP meetings or, proving that in the Labour Party the past is always present, a couple of trade union barons.

The actual leadership election this April was always going to include the candidate who wrote Labour’s least successful manifesto since George Lansbury’s poor performance paved the way for the takeover of the party in 1935 by that masterfully bland public school boy, Mr Clement Attlee. Rebecca Long Bailey’s skilled authorship of Labour’s most recent ‘longest suicide note in its history’ was facilitated by the man who had already blessed her prospective leadership. In December Mr Corbyn’s reverse Midas touch meant that party volunteers like me had to knock on doors with an unsellable message from an unconscionable leader. Long Bailey is likely to be among the final two thanks to the imprimatur of the man who led Labour to a defeat markedly worse in seat terms than Michael Foot’s in 1983.

Like the other, current, front runner, Sir Keir Starmer, Rebecca has been in parliament for all of five years. If I am not mistaken, this is the same depth of parliamentary experience enjoyed by Lisa Nandy too. Emily Thornberry though has been traipsing round the Westminster corridors for an incredible decade. Gosh. Better perhaps than Corbyn who’s been there since 1983 but who not only lacks ministerial experience – like every single Labour leadership candidate this time round – but hasn’t even previously shadowed the government minister for office stationery.

Sir Keir Starmer was anointed at birth with the name of Labour’s second most popular leader, and is eager to emphasise that he too has a (relatively) proletarian background in order to offset the knighthood he secured for an indifferent performance as the head of Public Prosecutions.

Thornberry’s disadvantaged Oxford graduate and high-paid lawyer routine probably won’t impress. Lisa Nandy genuinely understands that Labour’s disconnect with its onetime (white) working-class base is almost terminal, but this message is too difficult for the party’s liberal middle class chauvinists to process. Therefore it’ll be down to either Starmer or Long Bailey to bore the electorate over the next five years.

Long Bailey’s seismically dull campaign launch - head down, droning on from a tiresome text - suggests that she will only inspire those for whom having a politically ‘correct’ (i.e. leftist) message is what matters. Not the fact that it’s delivered, like the current leadership incumbent, with all the charisma, style and authority of a deputy borough council leader. 

She told the Party that being a working-class woman means that she’s doubly-disadvantaged. This cynical little routine comes from yet another former lawyer, but one who thinks that the way to reach the working-class is affecting to sound like them. 

So we’ll presumably end up with Keir Starmer. A onetime student Trotskyist with little hope of reaching those parts of the country that began being lost by Labour more than 40 years ago and which now vote Johnson. Still, the brave knight will be good at the dispatch box cut and thrust. And that’s what will convince on the door step, isn't it? 

Labour will never get out of this mess until it restores the election of the leadership of the Parliamentary Labour Party solely to Labour politicians elected to Parliament. Historically this method didn't always produce the most plausible leaders to contest a national election. However it usually had the virtue of producing someone who not only understood what contesting a national election entailed, but who could authoritatively articulate an inclusive message to the whole of the nation. 

Friday, January 10, 2020

Bobby Womack: God, mental health and Walthamstow

Bobby Womack’s final album, ‘The Bravest Man in the Universe’, contains one of the most emotionally honest and powerful vocal performances I have ever heard. Right off the bat ‘Please Forgive my Heart’ overwhelmed me, and it still does every time I hear it. “Please forgive my heart,” sings Womack, “It's not that the problem lies anywhere in there.” When he follows that by confessing “I’m a liar, I’m in a dream, Goin’ on my way, Nothing to rely on”, you know you’re witnessing a very private moment. I guess that not all will relate “the problem” he refers to as about mental health, but I think it’s an admittance that there are things that prevent us from loving because we cannot trust, or rely on, ourselves, let alone others. As Bobby sings in the song's second verse: "Oh, it feels like the sky is falling, And the clouds, clouds are closing in, Where did I lose control? Where did it all begin?"

I hope to God that I am not cheapening his divinely honest confessional by attempting such commonplace analysis. I somehow though need to express how it feels, thank God, to still be overwhelmed, to be brought literally to my knees, by playing such songs. I used to think that there were only a handful of singers, all white contemporaries of Mr Womack, who could, on occasion, work this kind of earthly divinity, this sacred and profane magic. It’s there in Dylan’s testament, ‘Every Grain of Sand’; Van Morrison had it on ‘Listen to the Lion’; and you can feel it when John Martyn preached ‘One World’. 

But Bobby Womack lived the religious emotion of the everyday right from childhood. He was no latter-day convert. Nearly four decades before Bobby Womack died he sang that “Love is the emblem of eternity.” You’ve got to believe that if you’re hurting big time. And the fact that he included that line on a funky number entitled ‘Jealous Love’ (from ‘What is the World Coming To?’) showed that he was a person, and an artist, who didn’t believe in siloing his emotions or his motivations.

Bobby Womack is a man very aware of his mortality on ‘The Bravest Man in the Universe’ (released 2012), but he sounded as alive and as exciting as ever. Credit is also due to former Blur front-man Damon Albarn, who wrote most of its songs including ‘Please Forgive My Heart’. However it’s plain on listening to the album’s carefully crafted retrospective but ultra-modern feel (Albarn also co-produced the album with XL Records founder Richard Russell) that the words were written with Womack in mind. The songs catalogue the singer’s belief in forgiveness ('The bravest man in the universe is the one who has forgiven first'), love, and, yes when necessary, serving yourself. 

Bobby Womack died in June 2014, two weeks or so before he’d been scheduled, implausibly, to headline that year's Walthamstow Garden Party. I still went, marvelling at the incredibly empty experience of hearing last minute replacements, the Brand New Heavies, trying to enliven the audience. Bobby Womack had had more than five decades in the business, as both a songwriter whose songs were popularised by many black (and some white) stars, and as a soul singer who had been (musically) born again several times over. If he’d had the strength to perform ‘Please Forgive My Heart’ with the feeling he conveys on the original, and to a field of Walthamstow revellers, would they have understood? Or would they have run screaming for the exits, as was once said of Laurence Olivier if he’d really turned up the acting volume. We shall never know. However I am grateful for Bobby Womack’s wonderful songs and for his wondrous voice. But I am most grateful for ‘Please Forgive My Heart’ because today it made me cry as I was reminded of the God-given gift of those artists who can use our tenderest feelings to lift us up from the floor and take us to the heavens. If only for a while.