How to use a train

On one level, this week’s headlines have been all about a man who doesn’t use trains very much and therefore doesn’t understand how they work. Here’s some simple advice:
  • If you want to sit together as a group, make sure you book seats in advance. Otherwise you may not be able to sit together. It doesn’t cost any more, and if you are sure when you are going to travel, you might even save money.
  • If a seat is reserved, you can sit in it – but if someone arrives and it is their seat, be prepared to move. If the train has left Kings Cross and the next stop is York, you can be pretty confident that you will be able to sit in the seat at least until York.
  • People like to sit with their bag next to them. If the train isn’t busy, that’s not a problem. If the train is busy, then ask them politely to move their bag so that you can sit down.
  • Sometimes people don’t realise that there are seats free further up the train and gather in a vestibule thinking that if there were seats free other people would have gone to sit in them. The train staff sometimes point this out (and also ask people to move their bags off the seats).

These are not new phenomena – here’s Ben Elton in 1993 reprising his material poking fun at British Rail.

On another level of course it is a story of someone who was prepared to tell lies in order to make a political point. Not a good idea on principle and in practice bad strategy because when the lies are exposed, the political point is likely to get drowned out.

I’m not sure whether to be surprised at the people who have rushed to Saint Jeremy’s defence, but he has now given a fuller account of what happened – which confirms that the original video did not paint an accurate picture and that the problems he suffered were about the bullet points above, not about the train being “ram packed”.

Is the media against him? Yes – but whether that amounts to bias is arguable. When the Leader of a major political party is caught telling porkies that’s a news story. I don’t think we can criticise them for pursuing the story – but it is true that Cameron and Osborne regularly got away with much worse. Pretending they had helped lift people out of poverty when in fact the reverse was true for example didn’t get nearly as much news coverage as it deserved and there was little analysis of the likely impact of their further welfare cuts before the General Election.

But Labour politicians know this. the question is how you deal with it. And one aspect of that is anticipating that you are likely to get crucified if you play fast and loose with the facts.

Successful experienced politicians who are thinking about how to approach major interviews, debates or just deciding on a political position on an issue practice scenarios and ask themselves “what happens next” – sometimes by getting their team to take on different roles. It is not enough to say what you will do – you need to think through what the other stakeholders will do in response – and then think about what you will do in response to their next move etc. Academics call this approach game theory.

The most important role of the people around the Leader is to have the gumption to say “Sorry boss but that’s a really bad idea because…”. Choose your own favourite option – “what if someone found out you have been recording all your conversations revealing your involvement in clandestine criminal operations” would have been a good one to use with Nixon; “what if there are pictures proving the opposite” in this particular case. How a major company with a penchant for self publicity might react if you made up a negative story about them would probably seem pretty obvious now even to Corbyn’s hapless team – the CCTV footage was just the icing on the cake for Richard Branson ensuring that even Corbyn would not be able to brazen this one out.

Owen Smith: a Leader we can believe in

I first got to know Owen Smith personally when he came to campaign in Clwyd West in 2012. He wanted to take the fight to the Tories in a seat that we used to hold but which we knew would be more challenging to win. I arranged a schedule for him – visiting a local business in Ruthin and the developments at Parc Eirias as well as campaigning on policing issues. Later he came home to be quizzed on all sorts of issues by my kids over fish and chips. They are a hard audience to please but all three will be campaigning for him this summer.

Owen was genuinely interested in what people had to say. He didn’t lecture them but he did respond positively to their concerns and explained what he thought Labour should do to address them. Together with his campaign visits to Aberconwy we set up a great line for his speech to a Labour social at Colwyn Bay Football Club where he complained we had managed to invite him to a rugby stadium where there wasn’t a game, a brewery without drinking beer, a restaurant where he got no food and a football stadium where there was no football!

When Labour members on Ynys Môn asked me to be their candidate for an Assembly by-election in 2013, Owen was one of the stalwarts of the campaign, joining me and Albert Owen regularly on the campaign trail. When I was asked about the Bedroom Tax I gave a straightforward answer: it is wrong and I will campaign to get rid of it. Worried that I might be in trouble because this wasn’t official Labour Party policy I thought he might tell me off, but he agreed with my approach – you have to tell people the truth.

owen ynys mon

I have been out campaigning with Jeremy Corbyn as well – the key difference is that while Owen made the effort to come to marginal seats such as Ynys Môn and Aberconwy and more challenging seats such as Clwyd West, I don’t think Jeremy ever campaigned in seats that weren’t already safe Labour before he was elected Leader. Of course we cannot afford to ignore voters in supposedly safe seats, but it gives a very different perspective if you only ever talk to people whose support you hope to retain not those you want to win over.

Owen is someone who is prepared to do that which needs to be done – whether that was serving in Jeremy Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet when he was elected Leader or challenging him for the leadership of the Labour Party now that it is clear that the vast majority of Labour MPs do not have confidence in Corbyn and we need someone who can make a positive case for Labour.

For those who believe that to make progress we need to get progressive politicians elected, Owen Smith offers the hope we need.


The difference between a coup and a vote of no confidence

The events in Turkey should have given pause for thought to those claiming Labour MPs mounted a coup against Corbyn. This is what a real coup looks like: people trying to take control of a country by military force.

But seemingly not: there are Corbyn supports who appear to genuinely believe that Labour MPs voting “No confidence” in their Leader is “anti-democratic”, a “coup” and means they should be punished.

Yet this is exactly how Jeremy Corbyn behaved towards every Leader of the Labour Party that went before him. He played a key role in Tony Benn’s challenge in 1988. At no point did he argue then that the Leader did not need nominations to appear on the ballot paper. It was understood by all that this was an essential requirement of the process.

The rules aren’t ambiguous at all. Clause II 2 B says:


  1. In the case of a vacancy for leader or deputy leader, each nomination must be supported by 15 per cent of the Commons members of the PLP. Nominations not attaining this threshold shall be null and void.

  2. Where there is no vacancy, nominations may be sought by potential challengers each year prior to the annual session of Party conference. In this case any nomination must be supported by 20 per cent of the Commons members of the PLP. Nominations not attaining this threshold shall be null and void.

The fact that the timetable now allows for candidates to receive supporting nominations from CLPs and affiliated organisations as well as the PLP makes it all the more obvious that nominations are required.

Likewise the lack of clear rules on what happens if a Leader loses a no confidence vote. They resign. For someone to carry on when they have lost the confidence of over 80% of their colleagues is unthinkable outside of a personality cult.The job is to lead the MPs: there is no presidential election. If you cannot lead your own MPs in opposition it is a safe bet that you won’t be able to lead them in Government and that you will never get the opportunity to find out.

Ann Black has published a report of the NEC meeting which sheds some light on the decisions they took. I can’t claim to understand them all – but I am shocked to learn that not only did they ignore the legal advice that all candidates needed nominations to appear on the ballot paper, but they allowed Corbyn to vote on this question despite him having a clear vested interest. It is not only a clear internal Labour Party rule that you don’t vote when you have a pecuniary interest in a subject under consideration, it is a requirement for elected officials. Ok so this was an internal meeting, but having been notified of the invitation to cast his vote, Corbyn should have gracefully declined.

It as been suggested that if Corbyn is re-elected, MPs will have “no choice” but to take frontbench positions. Given that Corbyn himself was never willing to do the heavy lifting in Parliament what possible justification could there be for this? Although Corbyn’s supporters focus on his left-wing credentials, his leadership is not a left-right issue. There are plenty of people who have had opinions across the left-right spectrum who have been competent shadow ministers or ministers. That really isn’t the issue: it is competence. Corbyn has shown very little competence and that is why he cannot continue. Having declared that they have no confidence in him, it would be hypocritical for MPs to join his frontbench – which means that even if he is re-elected, he will be unable to put together a leadership team.

Democracy means so much more than majority rule – it means respect for those who disagree with you. I personally want MPs who do what they believe to be the right thing – especially when that goes against the view of their Leader. Of course they should make their views clear internally first, which gives the leadership the opportunity to reconsider and often come back with a better idea. But in the end, if they feel strongly enough on an issue I want them to stand up and be counted. And that is what our MPs did – whether they voted for the no confidence motion or against.

So now we need to move on – and we need a Leader who can inspire confidence. Someone  who can point to the distant peaks that we want to get to one day, but is also able to navigate the foothills that get us closer to our goals. Someone who is able to apply their beliefs to the situation they face and think through the consequences of the different options before deciding what makes sense – and to talk this through with senior colleagues in private so that they can agree on the best way forwards. And above all, communicate their preferred course of action to the wider party and the electorate effectively.

Much as I admire Angela Eagle, I am becoming convinced that the right person for the job is Owen Smith. I look forward to hearing from the candidates in coming weeks.

In the meantime if you have read this far and you are not a long-standing member of the Labour Party but want to see the Labour Party start to win elections again so that we can make a real difference to people’s lives, sign up here to have your say in the forthcoming election. You only have until 5pm on Wednesday 20th July!

Responding to Brexit

This is the text of the motion agreed unanimously by my branch (Colwyn Bay). We don’t know whether it will be eligible as a contemporary motion for Conference – that depends on whether the National Policy Forum puts something forward in the next couple of weeks.

But I hope that in between planning for a leadership election someone is thinking along similar lines:

Conference notes the UK referendum result on membership of the European Union.  Conference believes that unless this result is overturned by the courts it must be respected and the UK will need to withdraw from formal involvement in the European Parliament, Council of Ministers and European Commission

Conference further believes that before Article 50 is invoked Parliament should agree a vision for how the UK will function outside the European Union which should reflect:

  • an open, tolerant society with the UK continuing to cooperate with European institutions, the United Nations, the Commonwealth and other international bodies to secure peace, freedom, democracy, economic security and environmental protection.
  • The freedom to live and work anywhere in Europe and to have protection for terms and conditions of employment is all the more essential when the economy is in the doldrums – but concerted action to help weaker regions is also essential to avoid excessive migration
  • People from elsewhere in the EU currently living in the UK should beable to stay here, and UK citizens currently living elsewhere in the EU should be able to stay there.
  • Areas of the country and members of our communities that have suffered as a result of globalisation need the support of Government to ensure they have a chance to thrive – including action to ensure local people are able to access local jobs
  • With long term interest rates continuing to be close to zero, there has never been a better time for public infrastructure investment to boost our economy

Not needing MPs nominations doesn’t mean Corbyn doesn’t needs their support to lead

So the NEC has decided to reinterpret the rules and as the incumbent Jeremy Corbyn will no longer need to secure the support of even 20% of Labour MPs to be on the ballot for Leadership of the Labour Party.

But this doesn’t alter the fact that if he is to achieve anything as Leader he does actually need their support. Before now, nobody had even bothered to ask the question – it was just assumed that a Leader required the confidence of their MPs even if they didn’t have their first preferences.  Margaret Thatcher resigned when she received the support of 204 of 362 MPs. Tony Blair named the date of his departure when six junior ministers resigned. Charles Kennedy resigned when 23 of his 62 MPs called on him to go.

Iain Duncan Smith received the support of over 60% of party members but the support of just 54 MPs in the final leadership ballot, but when he lost a confidence vote among MPs by 75-90 votes, he knew his position was untenable and he resigned.

For Jeremy Corbyn, losing a majority of his hand-picked team was not enough and neither was the decision of the PLP to hold a confidence vote by secret ballot. When the result came in, it was a clear display of unity: by 172 votes to 40, the PLP stated that they do not have confidence in his leadership. Instead of resigning, he hung on in the desperate hope that the NEC would reinterpret the rules and give him an automatic right to contest the leadership.

Why do people persist in the view that the Leader does not need the support of their fellow MPs? Until 1981, the Leader was elected by the Parliamentary Labour Party. Under the electoral college system which operated for 34 years, the Leader led both the party in the country and in Parliament. But crucially the candidates have usually closed ranks after the election and worked together. When Neil Kinnock beat Roy Hattersley in 1983, they worked together to lead the Labour Party. So did Tony Blair, John Prescott and Margaret Beckett. Bryan Gould and David Miliband left politics after their defeats, but other defeated candidates have worked with the victor – perhaps they did not agree with every twist and turn but they agreed with the broad direction and they were willing to be part of the team. It has therefore always been clear that the Leader enjoyed the broad support of the vast majority of the PLP.

Many members of the PLP did the same after Corbyn was elected Leader: they accepted front bench roles with a sense of foreboding perhaps but nevertheless they put their reputations on the line. They were rewarded by being ignored: Corbyn doesn’t have the stamina to make decisions on the detail but he has also demonstrated that he is not even willing to hear the views round the room and then draw it together as a consensus. This is fairly basic low level leadership skills – but then again he has never actually been a manager, let alone a senior manager. He has staffed his team with revolutionaries who do not respect parliamentary processes let alone the parliamentarians: he and they think he is leading a movement to a revolutionary moment rather than seeking electoral success. Seamus Milne was allowed to brief the media over Christmas that Corbyn was going to sack half the shadow cabinet; when Corbyn got back to the office he didn’t – but he did sack a few sacrificial lambs who had the temerity to say publicly that sacking people for doing what they thought was right on a free vote would be a bad idea (i.e. straight talking, honest politics and, as it happens, agreeing with Corbyn but not Corbyn’s cronies).

Corbyn believes that he can continue as Leader despite having negligible support in the Parliamentary Labour Party. He seems to think we have a presidential leadership system, without the prospect of a presidential election to go with it. American Presidents do not lead their party in the sense we know it; they choose the platform and congressmen and senators owe them a debt for the coat-tails effect that helped them get elected. But the accountability of those congressmen and senators is to their own electorate. There isn’t going to be a presidential election – but if there was, it is very likely that Corbyn would secure far fewer votes than the 9 million votes for Labour at the last General Election. The enthusiasm for Corbyn comes from a small segment of the population. Many of these people don’t even vote Labour: the argument for an alliance of Labour, the SNP, Lib Dems, Greens, Plaid Cymru and Sinn Fein is fascinating but would repel quite a few voters; an opinion poll suggest that May would win a straight contest with Corbyn by 62% to 18%.

And believe it or not, the media hasn’t really got started on Corbyn. Remember what the Daily Mail said about Ralph Miliband, a man who fought for Britain? Imagine what they will say about a man who has consistently condemned our troops while supporting our enemies and abusing our allies. Corbyn may continue to be supported by many of Labour’s members but the wider public are unlikely to join them. In any event, if he led us into a General Election, what would he offer the country if he is not willing to work outside his small coterie of supporters to agree a coherent platform?

Under a succession of leaders, Corbyn has been free to express his opposition to those leaders, regardless of the fact that he was in a small minority. He continued his opposition to the leadership even when that leadership was supported by the PLP, by Labour Party Conference, by the grassroots membership of the party and specifically the members of his own Constituency Labour Party in Islington North, a majority of whom voted for Tony Blair and for the New Clause IV drawn up by Tony Blair and John Prescott. The suggestion that Labour MPs should be put under pressure “by the grassroots” to support Corbyn’s revolution is worrying and wrong. Labour MPs are right to think that their loyalty belongs to the voters who put them in Parliament, not the much smaller number of people who have supported Corbyn. They need to ensure that they speak for the people, not the self-appointed vanguard of the people. They need to remember the parliamentary tradition that they work for those who didn’t vote for them as well as those who did and need to reach out to broaden Labour’s appeal, not follow Corbyn down an ideological cul-de-sac. Frankly it says it all that after advancing these arguments, Diane Abbott has chosen to ignore the fact that her own CLP has voted no confidence in Corbyn. Even she doesn’t really believe in resolutionary democracy, she just wants to use it to hammer the other side.

There are different approaches to leadership. As Chair of the Labour Group on Islington Council, I thought it was important that we discussed the key issues and agreed a collective position. On one difficult issue, there were no less than three discussions and votes taken and each time there was a large majority in favour of the decision. Yet a small number of members voted against their colleagues in full council. It was a bit of a shock to realise that in other Labour groups, members were expected to support the Leadership without any internal democracy. Likewise, in Parliament the Leader’s policies are sometimes debated by the PLP but the expectation is that they will be supported and enforced by the whips. But there has never been any doubt that the Leadership had the support of a majority of Labour MPs and where significant dissent was expressed, the policy changed. The whips are a significant conduit for this dissent – it is the quiet voices explaining the nuances and rationale for their disagreement that persuade leaders to change direction not people like Corbyn who were always against.

There was a real opportunity for Corbyn to set out a radical agenda and then have a discussion with colleagues and reach a consensus that might have been quite different from what came before but had broad-based support.

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of Corbyn’s leadership is the fact that despite arguing not only for internal democracy but also for his right to defy the leadership whenever he chose, he and his acolytes have demanded the support of Labour MPs even when they know that a majority of Labour MPs disagreed with them – and even when the Labour Party conference has a clear policy to the contrary. He clearly doesn’t believe in straight talking honest politics, nor in internal democracy. He thinks he is right and that there is no need for further discussion.

This is sometimes called strong leadership. That is what Tony Blair was accused of – but although he may have told Bush “I will be with you whatever” he still understood that he needed to secure the support of his Cabinet – and for the first time in history he sought the consent of Parliament as well before going to war. That is an important precedent and a positive legacy. There can be no doubt that if a majority had not backed him, Blair would have resigned – which of course was a factor in many Labour MPs backing him. But contrast this with Corbyn. He knows that most Labour MPs won’t follow him and his response is that he doesn’t even turn up to meetings of the PLP anymore.

Leadership relies on the consent of those you wish to lead – and in a Parliamentary Democracy, that means your colleagues in Parliament. This is a clear political choice – the path of democratic socialism or revolutionary socialism. For a century we have pursued the democratic path and there can be no turning back now. Members of the Labour Party are faced with a choice: if you think the way to change this country is through persuasion and voting for MPs, we cannot continue to be led by Corbyn.

Making pluralism work

I am instinctively a pluralist. I don’t like the system of Police & Crime Commissioners because it places all the decisions in the hands of one person – and policing in particular should be on the basis of consensus and consent, not a single political position that happens to hold sway for the time being.

What would have happened in Wales if each region had elected five people on a proportional system? The following is based on the d’Hondt quota system rather than exploring preference voting:

Party Dyfed-Powys North Gwent South TOTAL
Labour 34,799 54,892 76,893 161,529 328,113
1 2 3 3
Conservative 47,093 42,005 50,985 70,799 210,882
2 1 1 1
Lib-Dems 20,725 24,438 45,163
Plaid Cymru 52,469 67,179 37,916 70,770 228,334
2 2 1 1
UKIP 20,870 25,943 46,813
Independent 11,561 23,487 67,454 102,502

In South Wales and Gwent, Labour would have a majority. Same result you might say – but it isn’t. Labour would be able to “impose their will” – but formal decisions would need to be made as a group and would need to be tested in a way that decisions by the Police & Crime Commissioner are not under the current system. Crucially, the opportunity for the lead person to “go rogue” and sack a Chief Constable on a personal whim is removed.

In North Wales and Dyfed-Powys, there would be no majority – no dominant voice that decides to the exclusion of others. But that reflects the political make-up of those two regions and would therefore be a good thing not a bad thing. As with the previous Police Authority, a consensus would be found on the way forward. I think what came out of both rounds of PCC elections is that people don’t actually want policing led by a politician – so confining the politicians’ role to hiring and firing, setting a strategic direction and holding the force to account – and doing these things on the basis of consensus – would be entirely sensible. One would expect the Chief Constable to be the one with the high profile, not the politicians.

I am not particularly advocating this system – actually the previous system of an organic link between police governance and local government was effective and had stood the test of time. And while I support proportional representation, I would prefer to see a system which maintains a much clearer link between geographic areas and elected members for all elected instead of allowing a few seats which can be won with very dispersed support, little accountability and can be captured by extremists. I have previously written about how this could be achieved.

There is a basis for parties to work together to pursue shared goals but this does not need to be on the basis of either party ditching its commitments. That is the contrast between the “One Wales” agreement between Labour and Plaid Cymru 2007-2011 and between the Tories and the Lib-Dems 2010-2015. Had Plaid Cymru stood by what they had done during their period of government instead of reverting during the election to criticising a government which they had been part of, they might have fared rather better in the ensuing election.

But what if there isn’t broad agreement between two parties on what needs to be done? Then a minority government is a more sensible option, with opposition parties deciding whether to support individual measures. In 2015 David Cameron won a parliamentary majority by persuading people who were undecided that a Parliament without a majority would lead to chaos. I thought Labour’s response to this was misjudged. Instead of refusing to countenance the possibility that Labour would be the largest party but without an overall majority, Labour could have reasonably made the argument that in this situation it would be able to expect a parliamentary majority for almost all of its programme – support from the Tories on defence and national security, support from the nationalists on a more positive economic programme. It is only if the other parties failed to follow through on their principles that there would be a crisis.

According to Wales Online, Carwyn Jones told Leanne Wood “that he wanted to run a minority government with the two initial priorities of dealing with the steel crisis and working towards a Remain vote in next month’s European referendum.” What happened next would be a matter for further discussion in terms of the budget and legislative programme. Leanne Wood asked for a delay in the vote – but not for further talks with Labour. Instead she decided to put herself forward for First Minister, seeking the support of the Tories and UKIP before she had even had the conversation with Carwyn.

What would have happened next if she had won? The only reason to put yourself forward for First Minister is that you think you can form a Government. If Leanne Wood genuinely put herself forward for the job with Tory and UKIP support without intending to follow through and form a Government with them, the implications are actually more serious than the breach of a clearly-articulated promise that she would not work with them.

Democracy is a delicate flower – and pluralism even more so. Leighton’s unfortunate remarks at the end of the previous assembly were ill-judged and I can understand Plaid being offended. They may have cost him his seat. But if the public are to maintain confidence in our political institutions then it is incumbent on those who have been elected to work in the broader public interest rather than playing games. Talk of “cheap dates” is wrong on a number of levels. Politicians should be looking for agreement – building consensus on proposals which can emerge stronger from the dialogue because they have had the rough edges knocked off them and are able to command broader support. If there is broad agreement to start with, this process should be fairly straightforward, not costly.

Leanne has had a lucky escape. Kirsty Williams could have simply sat on her hands instead of supporting Carwyn and Leanne would now be First Minister. If the howling voices from Plaid Cymru supporters are to be believed she would not have known what to do next – or would have attempted to run a government with the support of just 12 of the 60 members.

Time to take a deep breath and step back from the brink. Democracy is too important to play games.

Jewish Manifesto for the Welsh Assembly

A few weeks ago the South Wales Jewish Representative Council and The Board of Deputies of British Jews published the first-ever Jewish Manifesto for the National Assembly for Wales. It is an excellent document which covers an extensive range of Jewish issues including religious freedom, antisemitism, community safety, social care and social action. To read the full manifesto in English, please click here. Mae’r dogfen hefyd ar gael yn Gymraeg yma. You can see a graphic of the summary below.

I was particularly pleased to see the focus on opposing all forms of hate crime and promoting positive relations between all of our communities – and for a permanent, comprehensive solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Those who want to develop a better understanding of the issues would do well to read this document.