Labour’s century-old problem: leadership performance

Author: John Gaffney
This blog post was originally published in the British politics and Policy LSE blog on the 12/07/2016. For the original version, please see:
A shorter version of this article also appeared in the Sunday Express on the 03/07/2017.

There is turmoil in the Labour Party: once again related to the question of leadership. From Hardie to Corbyn, the question of leadership has driven the party on and off the rails; and at the heart of its dilemma is the still – one hundred years later – unresolved question of the leader’s triple relationship to the party, the parliamentary party, and the electorate.

The great irony is that the Labour Party hates the topic. Worse than that, it doesn’t understand it. ‘Leftism’, like republicanism, posits an impersonalism: we are equal, we progress as a collective, no one is indispensable. To think otherwise, will lead us to infantile hero worship or worse, tyranny. (The right makes the opposite mistake of fetishizing leadership.)

This blind spot in Labour’s vision of politics means that whenever leadership issues arise, and they do all the time, they immediately become crises because it doesn’t know what leadership is, doesn’t want to know, and doesn’t like it – so doesn’t know what it entails. The whole issue is compounded for Labour with the emergence of ‘celebrity politics’ – which it also hates – not realising that there is a wide range of ways to play this.

Tony Blair is the best recent example of knowing how to ‘perform a character’: regular guy, modernizer, decisive, in-touch with national sentiment (e.g. the Diana speech), and so on. In fact, Blair’s low point in terms of rhetorical performance was not over Iraq or Bernie Ecclestone, but the slow handclapping of the Women’s Institute when in 2000 he addressed their conference and made, to their fury, a ‘political’ speech.

What the Labour Party has always done to cope with the very real issue of leadership, rather than seeing leadership as a performance within a cluster of relationships (with members, media, etc.), has been to apply a series of simplistic character traits – usually negative – to its leaders: the treacherous (MacDonald, Blair); the idealistic (Hardie, Henderson, Foot); the not up to it, though ‘good and decent’ (Foot again, Miliband, Corbyn); the modest (Attlee); the wily (Wilson); the reliable (Callaghan), and so on.

Jeremy Corbyn won the leadership election in 2015 not because he was left-wing but because his performance was stunning. And his three opponents’ performances were awful: Did we overspend? – “Yes we did.” – “No we didn’t.” – “I wanted to vote against Osborne’s welfare cuts but I couldn’t but I will next time.” – “You should stand down.” – “I still go for a drink with my old friends up North.” Into these dire exchanges Corbyn erupted wanting to talk about everything, and he fired people’s imagination and created a stampede of excited support.

Then he stopped, and that is why we are where we are today. And, ironically again, he stopped performing at the moment of his victory. His victory speech was in direct contrast to his style throughout the campaign, of the ‘I don’t mind if the media attack me but not my family’ type, singularly underwhelming for the occasion. And since winning, he has just talked to the Corbynistas instead of ‘enchanting’ all parts of the party by choreographing his leadership style and ‘seducing’, as it were, his opponents.

And Corbyn’s poor performances during the Brexit campaign ‘betrayed’ his ambivalent attitude to Europe. And ambivalence is a major political resource and a rhetorical device that has to be deployed with enormous care. We are now in an age of the politics of leadership performance. Those now trying to unseat Jeremy Corbyn would themselves do well to heed this. In the Conservative leadership race it was clear that in her leadership launch Theresa May, of all people, has already understood this.

Britain’s next PM: Theresa May sank rival by painting a more convincing portrait of leadership

Author: John Gaffney
This article was originally published in The Conversation, on the 11/07/2016. For the original link, please visit:

Though ultimately brief, the Conservative Party leadership contest offered fascinating insights into the nature of British politics today. Rhetoric, performance and gender replaced talk of policies and political priorities.

In the end, Theresa May showed that she had a much more powerful grip on the realities of wielding modern political power and will be the UK’s next prime minister. Andrea Leadsom’s inexperience, meanwhile, was exposed in the most public, and almost humiliating manner.

This election was not about the nature of the ship (the British state) nor its direction – because the ship is unstable and the course is uncharted waters – so it has had to be about who was better equipped to be captain.

The contest was therefore about character. And the captain must be a character who is steady, determined and reassuring. In the glare of the public spotlight Leadsom failed on all those fronts. May looked like she was already at the ship’s wheel.

Inevitably the popular press obsessed over perceived parallels with another Tory leader. But when Margaret Thatcher stood, it was in order for the party’s right to oust Ted Heath, and many quietly believed she too would be dispensed with soon after. The debate over whether a woman could be prime minister was a live one then. Now, thankfully, it is not.

There was in fact a sense during this campaign that a woman prime minister might be better suited to these changed times. The boisterous Brexit boys all crashed into each other and fell down after having knocked all the Notting Hill boys over. The last Brexiter standing was a woman, who has now dropped out to leave May on a clear course for Number 10.

Theresa May is viewed to have served well in the tough post of Home Secretary. She has an image as being competent and hardworking – but not dour or unsmiling – and she clearly saw that she needed to perform to that character and build upon it.

At the launch of her campaign, May smiled, joked and laughed. She painted her own portrait according to both the received view (tough, no-nonsense, uninterested in flashy personality politics) and the new appeal to “compassion” and One Nation Conservatism that will be needed in the new Conservative leader. She expanded her character and presented herself as a leader who would also heal and reconcile.

It is clear – both within the party and the country – that the sense of a nation divided is acute. May is evidently aware that unity of some kind needs to be established. She was also transforming her quiet backing for remaining in the EU into Cassandra-like foresight of the impending division – the irony being that the best person now to lead Britain towards leaving is a “remainer”.

May also presents as the serious-minded and dutiful daughter of a modest English Clergyman. This is a strong myth in British society, with its Brontë undertones. And in terms of image it is worth pointing out that this is a much more powerful and intricate myth than being a Clergyman’s son.
Rookie error

Andrea Leadsom, meanwhile, stumbled soon after her campaign took off. It had started well. She seemed more personable than other Brexiteers and May. Her supporters immediately underlined her “steel” and her “compassion” along the same lines as May. They tried to cover for her relative inexperience by referring to Tony Blair as having had no experience before 1997 (perhaps, with the Chilcot report just out though, that was not the best of defences).

But the alleged “bigging up” of Leadsom’s CV (ironically, it is a generally held view that women don’t do this enough compared to men) was a first broadside into her image of representing a new way of doing politics – a widely-held assumption being that women bring honesty and integrity to the dark arts of politics.

The fatal shot, however, was self-inflicted. Leadsom revealed herself to be such a novice as to think that her greatest appeal was as a mother. Her bid was evidently to appeal to the party faithful but ultimately, she had to throw in the towel even before the Conservative party membership could have its say.

It was a catastrophic error to think being a mother would be enough to counter the perception of May as a politician of experience and skill. So, the way to Downing Street is now clear for May – and the days ahead will surely prove a greater test of her qualities than this very short-lived leadership campaign.

Eddie Izzard promotes his campaign #StandUpforEurope at Aston University

Eddie Izzard on campus
Eddie Izzard on campus

Eddie Izzard is on a quest to visit 31 UK University campuses in as many days. Following soon after his astonishing feat of running 27 marathons in 27 days for which he raised £1.35m, he is highly dedicated to his beliefs.

The Stand Up for Europe campaign aims to get at many young people as possible to register to vote Remain in the EU Referendum on June 23rd. This campaign is corroborated by a recent poll by the National Union of Students (NUS), which found 76% of students want to Vote Remain, and only 14% back Brexit. However, only half of the young electorate (18-24 years) is likely to vote, compared to over-65s.

Students were very excited to see Izzard on campus, triggering a flurry of enthusiasm both on campus and on social media. He injects some passion into the debate, urging students to register ‘if you care about humanity’. He delivers with his usual fast-paced, rich style, including witty references to his previous shows.

Wearing a Union Jack and European Union flag pin badges on his fuchsia beret, he says ‘I’m a British European. I’m proud of being British. I’m proud of being European’. The comedian highlights all the material benefits of remaining within the EU (including cheaper hen night and stag night travelling), but also includes a very emotional backdrop to it, as he evokes the beginning of EU following the devastating World Wars. He instils above all a message of positivity – ‘I talk to young people, and I talk to people from the heart’.

He acknowledges that there are complex issues to be tackled, and it is a particularly difficult task. He urges the students to vote to remain, as ‘this is the most important vote of your lives’. He replies with poise to unswayed students, reinforcing his message of hope and positivity.

‘This could be the biggest decision of your lives and I want to help make sure you get your chance to have your say’.

Izzard continues his Stand Up for Europe campaign in the Midlands, making his way to Scotland and Northern Ireland too in the lead up to the Referendum. An activist since 2008, Eddie Izzard has announced that he will be running for electoral politics as a Labour candidate in 2020, but prefers to concentrate on the Referendum for the moment: ‘We’ve got to fight like crazy for it, I just want our team to win. But this is about the EU referendum – this is bigger than politics’.

Aston University’s Centre for Europe has hosted a wide array of Referendum events, with the next one taking place on June 8th and hosted by Prof. Simon Green.

The Case for Europe 2016, blog post by Jon Bloomfield

This blog has been re-posted, with authorization from the author, from  Lawrence & Wishart- Independent Radical Publishing. It was originally published on the 12th April 2016 (

Five years of stringent austerity politics culminating in the Greek debacle last summer have spread growing despair across the left about the present direction of the European Union. The inability to respond collectively and in a humanitarian fashion to the mounting refugee crisis during 2015 has exacerbated this frustration. Rather than argue for a progressive alliance to force policy change within the EU, some on the left are now wondering whether it would be better to give up on Europe and campaign for British withdrawal (see the New Statesman’s series during 2015 promoting ‘the honourable tradition of Eurosceptic leftism’). Such a move would be a big strategic mistake. The days of socialism or social democracy in one country are long gone. In an interdependent world, nationalism offers no bolt hole for the left. The task for all progressives is to find effective ways to engage with continental partners. In an age when economics, ecology and culture have leapt the boundaries of the medium-sized nation state, the only progressive option is to find ways to cooperate with neighbouring countries so as to offer a new blend of national and European politics.

This article considers the UK’s place in today’s interdependent world, firstly looking at the economic realities; and secondly at the wider environmental and cultural connections. It then answers some of the main arguments of the nationalist right and the policies that have held sway among many parts of the social-democratic left. The final section suggests a new pro-European agenda which can unite a broad alliance of progressives and rebut the narrow nationalism that is driving the anti-European movement.

The UK and the modern world

There is a common thread that runs through left-wing, anti-European arguments and binds them together with the Eurosceptic right, namely a refusal to recognise that over the last half century the world – and Britain’s role within it – has changed dramatically. They remain oblivious to the economic shortcomings of twenty-first century Britain, a few of which are listed below.

In 2014, the UK’s current account deficit was £97.9 billion, 5.5 per cent of GDP. This was the largest annual deficit as a percentage of GDP since annual records began and amounted to the biggest deficit of any major industrialised economy.1

The UK’s share of global exports since 1980 has fallen from 6 per cent to under 3 per cent and we still export more to Ireland (population 4 million) than we do to China (population 1.3 billion).

This is a country whose productivity per head is 20 per cent below that of France and which unlike our main European neighbours – Germany, France and Spain – is unable to construct high speed rail or extensive tram networks.

The fact that the city of London is a world leader in financial, banking and the related ’shadow’ financial services is often trumpeted as a counter argument. Yet, these sectors were largely responsible for the 2008 global crisis and remain basically unreformed. Their predominance serves to underline the continuing vulnerability of the UK economy.

The economic realities of the modern world remain largely absent from the EU debate. Since the Second World War, economic developments have moved beyond the boundaries of the individual European nation state. Along with the need to contain Europe’s propensity for deadly wars, this was the original impetus behind the European Economic Community. This has been the period, firstly of the developing multi-national corporation and then an era of unprecedented globalisation, with financial deregulation, the emergence of ICT technology and the opening up of the former socialist blocs. These developments have weakened the basic post-war settlement between capital and labour negotiated across most countries in Western Europe, a process accelerated over the last three decades by the ideological ascendancy of neoliberalism. Taken together, they mean that in the twenty-first century, politics can no longer be confined to the nation state. To control and regulate both markets and the environment one has to develop a model of multi-level governance which combines action at the European scale with that undertaken by individual national governments and their devolved regions and cities. These trends are not confined to Europe. Latin American countries are bonding together in Mercosur; Asian countries in ASEAN; and even the current global super-power, the USA, has been keen to develop NAFTA. This requires progressives in each of those regions to reach beyond national boundaries and work together with like-minded parties in neighbouring countries.

These trends are ignored by sceptics. Labour MP Kate Hoey declares that she wants ‘to get back to our parliament the right to make its own laws, the right to have complete control of our economy, to decide everything that relates to our own country …’ (New Statesman 19.6.15). Conservative anti-European MPs such as John Redwood and Bernard Jenkin use the same basic argument. Another prominent left-wing sceptic, Colin Hines proposes ‘returning to the nation state the power to control goods, money, services …’ (Guardian 23.11.14). These statements suggest that we can just turn back the clock. However, modern production has leapt nation state boundaries. Britain is part of a fully integrated European-wide economy. Look what happens when there is a closure of Eurotunnel. Suddenly the M20 is a car park with queues of thousands of lorries stretching back thirty miles. Consider our agriculture and food industry. Whenever a scandal or scare breaks out – BSE; turkeys; foot and mouth; horsemeat in frozen food – the intertwined, cross-European nature of food production is revealed.

In the twenty-first century, there is no way that economies and industries are going to be forced back into their national boxes. Look at the former British car industry. Scattered across the Midlands are the huge old factory sites of Rootes, Humber, Austin, Triumph, and Morris, now transformed into shopping malls, warehouses and mixed-use developments. These British companies will never return. The car companies that flourish are integrated with supply chains that link across the whole of Europe’s Single Market. Similarly, the choice as regards aircraft manufacture is either Airbus or Boeing. It did not look that way in 1967, when Boeing made four-fifths of the world’s commercial aircraft. However, long-term cooperation between French, German, British and Spanish companies means that the European consortium is now a serious rival to Boeing, with a full order book. Filton near Bristol and Broughton in North Wales, along with their 400 supply-chain companies and 100,000 jobs, prosper as a core component of an interwoven network of Europe-wide production processes. What is certain is that they would have no future as a separate British company. Hoey’s ‘complete control of our economy’ would guarantee them the fate of Humber, Morris and Triumph.

Being a full member of the EU allows the UK to contribute to the shaping of this Single Market; to formulate common environmental and employment standards, for example a guaranteed four weeks annual holiday for employees. It gives companies a market of 500 million people – not one a tenth of that size. Europe is the scale at which key parts of twenty-first century business operates. These companies invest in the UK as we are part of that wider market. It is the level at which progressives need to work.

Wider interdependencies

These connections and interdependencies are not just economic. They extend into the nooks and crannies of everyday life and require new forms of transnational cooperation to enable the countries and citizens of Europe to work together for their mutual benefit. Below I briefly consider three issues that highlight the fact that Britain can no longer stand isolated and aloof from Europe – tourism and travel, crime and climate change.

The EU has made travel immeasurably easier. In 2013 Britons made 42 million visits to Europe, including almost 12 million to Spain, 9 million to France and 2 million to Portugal and Greece.2 They used the airports, roads, public transport and tourist infrastructure that EU funds have helped to build across the Continent. These are all elements of the joint European story. But they never appear in any cost benefit analysis produced by UKIP or Business for Britain. British travellers benefit not just from the physical modernisation that these funds have promoted but also from the common passport procedures; the reciprocal health arrangements; and from agreements that control mobile phone charges. None of these would be covered by a free trade area. A few on the ‘workerist’ left try to maintain that these measures only benefit the well-off, ignoring the reality that millions of working-class Britons holiday abroad each year, as do many young people.

As the world has globalised, criminal activity, from fraud and credit card theft through to drug smuggling and human trafficking, has been internationalised, and the EU offers a political framework in which to tackle some of these problems. The UK’s ‘island mentality’ does not make it immune from the necessity to co-operate on criminal issues with fellow EU member states. There clearly need to be safeguards in place with regard to civil liberties, and the European Parliament needs to have strong oversight of agreed European-wide provisions. But UK withdrawal would involve the UK government trying to sign up individual agreements with police forces, judicial and prison authorities across 27 other EU states.

Climate change rarely figures as an issue among the Eurosceptic left. For UKIP, and people like Daniel Hannan MEP and John Redwood silence on this issue is no surprise, given the overlap between the nationalist right and climate change deniers. However, for progressives it is inexcusable, given the importance of the EU for this issue. By working together, the EU has been able to adopt common positions on climate change and influence the wider world in a way that would have been impossible for the UK to achieve on its own. And by setting out a common framework in its 2020 and 2030 strategies, Europe has cajoled and stimulated all its member states to take action on energy efficiency and renewables, in ways that would not have occurred otherwise (though there are of course back-sliders and foot-draggers among a number of EU member states – the present UK government included). The EU’s current main funding programme for Structural Funds sets very clear requirements that low-carbon activity should receive a guaranteed proportion of its funds, and its Research programme Horizon 2020 has a stream of funding instruments dedicated to low-carbon innovation and transition. There is a political contest about the significance of the environmental agenda within EU member states and plenty of shortcomings can be found, but there is no doubt that as an institution the EU has been in the forefront of those taking the climate change challenge seriously and has used legislative, regulatory and funding instruments to respond to the challenge. UK withdrawal from the EU will weaken Europe’s capacity to act.

Answering the nationalist right

The arguments of the ‘withdrawal left’ often echo the much more powerful and numerous voices on the nationalist right that are dominating the referendum debate. These tend to mix economic fantasy with nostalgia in equal measure.

On economics, the nationalist right maintains that a Britain liberated from the shackles of the sclerotic EU would be free to export to newly emerging markets. This simply ignores the fact that there is nothing to stop the UK exporting to these markets at the moment, other than the weakness and inadequacy of our manufacturing sector. After all, Germany currently exports ten times as much to China as we do, while the UK also has a lower share of the Chinese goods market than both France and Italy – countries the nationalist right frequently cite as having basket-case economies.3

On culture and history there are frequent references to our independent history and the fact that ‘we are a maritime people’.4 Yet the Portuguese, Greeks and Dutch, who all also claim a proud maritime heritage, remain comfortable within the EU. Today, the British still like to mess around in boats – some 800,000 own yachts and dinghies. It is just that we no longer build ships or have any commercial shipyards. So references to a ‘maritime people’ are just cultural hot air.

Politically, with the demise of the Commonwealth, the right are trying to create a new entity, the Anglo-sphere. This is a zone where the English can feel comfortable and do business with other people who speak English, in an Internet-connected world. ‘The revolution in technology means distance has never mattered less’, asserts Hannan. Again, this does not survive contact with reality. No US leader has ever called for such an Alliance, let alone tried to create one. Nor has Tony Abbott, the recent neo-conservative leader of Australia and an ideological soul-mate of the hard Right. His speeches and diplomacy leave no doubt that for his country the key reference points are Japan, China and Indonesia.5 Whatever the cultural ties of the past, the priorities for Australia today are its near Asian mainland. The reasons are simple: geography and economics. The same is true for Britain. No amount of empty rhetoric about the Internet can alter the facts that geography and economics tie us to Europe.

Cul de sacs of the left

In the twentieth century the left achieved social advances through the nation state. It is more difficult to see how to shape and influence this emerging new world order. As Pascal Lamy expressed it, ‘Historically, the success of social democracy was to promote a compromise between labour and capital, between the state and the market and between commercial competition and social solidarity. Globalisation has unhinged the balance by taking away all the domestic levers by which we maintained the compromise’.6 That is why talk about ‘building a new Britain’ is so unrealistic. Social democracy in one country is a non-starter in an interdependent world. With such an open economy, the UK trying to challenge international capital on its own would get nowhere. The fate that befell the Mitterrand government in France in the early 1980s should serve as a reminder to all on the left who talk in such casual terms. The task is to find new avenues for the social compromises that the left previously created. Yet the articulation of a strategy that combines the national with the European has so far proved a step too far for all parts of the left. Over the past two decades the social-democratic left has been led up two cul de sacs.

Firstly, for a brief moment in the 1990s, with the world economy booming and the optimism of the ‘end of history’ moment, a benevolent globalisation scenario seemed plausible to some in New Labour, all the more so when overseen by two such able rhetoricians as Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. As the Panglossian Peter Mandelson described it, ‘Globalisation offers all the best the world can offer. We must not sound as if we believe there is a tension between labour and capital, or competition and solidarity.’7 Such utopian optimism and naivety was soon to be exposed by global crisis. But perhaps the most damaging effect of Third Way social democracy was that, in its belief that issues of class were now old-fashioned, it left the field open to others. With Communism a busted flush after 1989, it was left to the nationalist, populist and racist right to exploit the grievances of older working-class communities and those left behind by globalisation. As the free movement of labour across Europe meant increased competition for manual labouring jobs and renewed pressure on housing, social and health services, the operation of the Single Market became a growing issue that the nationalist right was able to exploit.

The second dead end was German ‘ordo-liberalism’ – the mind-set that has hegemonised most of the European economic policy debate. In contrast to neoliberalism, ordo-liberalism emphasises the role of government in creating the framework of rules that provide the order for free markets to function. Their focus is on price stability, and in a recession the priority is to reduce deficits, not to revive growth. When commitment to ordo-liberal economics was enshrined in the Maastricht Treaty, too few people understood its significance, while others thought it could be ignored (as indeed happened in 2003, when Germany and then France broke the budget criteria with little consequence). However, the ideological and budgetary straitjacket of ordo-liberalism has been disastrous since the financial crisis. Social-democratic parties across Europe have sleepwalked into disaster; scared to embrace Keynesian economics, they have colluded with austerity. As a consequence, social democracy has disappeared as a force in Poland and Hungary, been butchered in Spain, massacred in Greece, and is stagnating elsewhere across Europe. This is the philosophy that currently pervades all the key EU institutions and policy-makers, and it still retains its grip on key parts of European social democracy.8 It calls the austerity policy a success despite Latvia losing 15 per cent of its population after pursuing it; Spain having a youth unemployment rate of over 50 per cent; and Greece losing 25 per cent of its GDP in five years. The policy has been absolutely lethal to the EU’s reputation for displaying competence and delivering economic prosperity. The events at the EU Finance Ministers and EU Council on 11-13 July, when the Greek saga came to a head, revealed the dangers of this rigid, deflationary policy and of a return to a German-led Europe.9

Charting a new course: promoting a social Europe

The Greek saga has been an unmitigated disaster for Europe: firstly for the Greek people but also for any prospect of a social Europe. The only silver lining is that it has clearly revealed the reactionary and regressive line of travel of the ordo-liberal leadership of the Eurozone. There are plenty of Europeans aghast and amazed at this old spectre returning to haunt Europe, especially when sane, practical alternatives are available. The historic question is whether European social democrats have the wit and energy to embrace them and then work together with others to construct an alternative scenario for Europe. Progressives in the UK should be clear that this crisis is not a private affair of those within the Eurozone: it directly affects all parties and movements that want to shape Europe in a progressive direction. To achieve this there needs to be a clean break with the twin orthodoxies that social democracy has followed for the last two decades and a concerted attempt to combine the national and the European in a new way to create a social Europe rather than an austerity Europe. To achieve this goal there are three immediate dimensions that need to be tackled: economics, migration and democracy.


On economics, the immediate task is to break with ordo-liberalism and its neoliberal counterparts. The rules of the Eurozone are not tablets of stone handed down by Moses. They are political instruments that wrongly prioritise deficit reduction over growth. That is why mainstream economists such as Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman berate them so fiercely. These need to be directly and explicitly challenged, along with the policy sentiments of George Osborne and the UK Treasury, which follow the same basic path but with more flexibility and tactical acumen. However, those who argue that the priority is to change the architecture of the Euro are profoundly mistaken. The last thing the left should do is obsess about EU treaty change. The focus should be on changing policies now, so that there is much greater flexibility in the Eurozone, which would enable European economies to grow consistently.10

More broadly, the task across the whole of Europe is not to reject closer economic co-operation but rather to shape it along progressive lines. Economics has leapt the boundaries of the nation state. Our politics needs to do the same. Crucially, this requires European-wide action to reshape the operation of the Single Market and to prioritise green growth, focused on long-term investment in employment-creating jobs such as in housing and green technologies. Joint European action is also the only way to reassert control over the financialisation of the economy. The introduction of a Financial Transaction Tax would both exert some control over the excesses of the financial sector and bring in significant sources of revenue to be used for public investment.


The second key issue is migration. Social-democratic and Liberal parties across Europe have found themselves on the back foot on immigration. Here the right in its many guises has fused a variety of authoritarian, conservative and sometimes racist ideas of the threatening ethnic ‘other’ to more widely felt insecurities of a socio-economic character: ‘they’re taking our jobs; they’re taking our houses’. As working-class living standards have stagnated and the financial crisis has come to the fore, the consequence has been twofold: an explosion in electoral support for openly racist and populist parties of the far right and a tacking to this agenda by the mainstream right, dragging parts of the left in its slipstream.

Race and migration are the most volatile issues Europe faces in the early twenty-first century. Yet the reality of the past sixty years is that migration has fundamentally changed the face of Europe – and there is no going back. Third-generation Turks in Berlin, North Africans in Paris and Lyon, Latin Americans in Madrid and Barcelona, and African Caribbeans, Africans and Asians in London and Birmingham, are here to stay. And their contribution to the daily working life of our continent is immense. Just spend some time in an NHS hospital to see the reality of an integrated, multicultural workforce or consider who harvests Europe’s fruit and vegetables. The future of Europe is multi-ethnic. The political issue is how to manage these processes of change and where necessary deal with them on a cross-European basis.

Here there are three distinct dimensions: migrants from within the EU; refugees and asylum seekers; and migrants from outside the EU. The common thread of a progressive position on all three dimensions is that these should be managed processes not just left to chance or the market.

With regard to internal EU migration, at the moment, across the Single Market the free movement of labour brings with it substantial economic advantages for employers in terms of skilled, cheap workers. For the individual migrant, the large wage differentials between East and Western Europe mean that s/he gets new work opportunities and higher wages than are available in their own countries. But the social and cultural costs of large-scale people movements are not picked up by any public authority. This lack of provision means that the extra costs are experienced only by citizens living in the areas with large migrant populations – additional kids in local schools, where they often don’t speak the local language; extra pressure on housing; more people in doctors’ surgeries. When combined with the added competition in the labour market, with East Europeans often prepared to work for longer hours and for much lower wages, this adds up to a volatile cocktail and is fertile ground for racist groups.

Addressing this requires European-wide action and a reshaping of the operation of the Single Market. The economic benefits of migration need complementary social measures to ensure that economic efficiency is combined with social justice. Politicians created and shaped the Single Market, and they can reshape it too. Firstly, there needs to be a much stronger social floor, with common working conditions across the whole of Europe, and a Europe-wide minimum wage set at 50 per cent of the average wage within each country. Secondly, this should be complemented by the creation of a new, visible, policy instrument, a European integration fund, designed to give localities the resources to respond to the social costs of migration. Under its provisions, every EU citizen who works abroad in a manual job would have to register with the local authority, and for every person registered the authority would be able to claim €1000 per year. So, for example, if Madrid, Manchester or Munich had a thousand EU migrant workers coming to their city they would receive annually €1 million from the EU Integration Fund. The public authority would use this money to address the additional social pressures on schools, health and housing brought about by the free movement of labour. Combined with stronger trade unions, these measures would benefit all workers, and offer a progressive model of social-democratic politics that goes with the grain of economic development. These proposals will not remove the dangers of racism from European politics, but they will give a clear basis on which to challenge its socio-economic roots.

The issue of refugees has now exploded again across Europe, with the huge numbers of refugees fleeing Syria and or seeking to enter Europe across the Mediterranean via the failed state of Libya. States are obliged to accept as refugees those whose fear of oppression in their country of origin is ‘well-founded’, as the 1951 Geneva Convention puts it. The front-line states of Greece and Italy believe that this large influx of refugees – who are often fleeing war zones and mayhem to which European military action has massively contributed, as in Libya and Iraq – should be dealt with as a European issue with an agreed distribution mechanism across EU member states. The response so far has been miserable and the consequences of beggar-my-neighbour policies are already only too evident.

Those who believe in a Europe built on the values of the Enlightenment cannot respond by simply pulling up the drawbridge and refusing their responsibilities to refugees. There are no simple solutions here but facing down tabloid press hysteria and exaggerated claims is a starting point. Progressives should support the principle of a sharing of refugees between all EU countries, as was fiercely argued by Germany’s leading tabloid, Bild Zeitung.11

On the third but often intertwining issue of economic migrants from non EU countries, the EU should encourage specific labour agreements between countries so that there are regulated routes for work. More broadly, they should look to refocus the EU aid budget, which is the largest in the world. Rather than spreading it globally, it should concentrate activities in the Middle East and Africa so that educational and economic opportunities are promoted for young people, in order to reduce the pressures they face to emigrate. With Africa’s population predicted to double by 2050 while Europe’s remains stable, these migratory pressures will only increase even if African countries find routes to sustainable economic prosperity. Left, liberal and Christian democratic forces have to combine together and work with churches, aid organisations and charities to develop this three-pronged approach and confront the bigotry and hatred that is being generated on this issue.


The Greek crisis has highlighted the serious deficiencies of European democracy, especially in the operation of the Eurozone. Both the Eurogroup and European Central Bank have been insulated from any democratic accountability mechanisms. This highlights a deep problem for the left, as it needs to find ways to operate effectively beyond the sphere of the nation state. This task has eluded most trade unions for decades, as they have attempted to bring together employees working for the same multinational corporation in different countries. Momentarily, popular movements such as European Nuclear Disarmament in the 1980s and the Occupy movement in 2011-12 achieved cross-European momentum. But it is hard to sustain. Yet the creation of popular movements, initiatives and representative structures at the EU level will be crucial to any progressive development, and here the world of the internet and social media offers new potential. A progressive strategy has to encourage cross-European civil society movements; a Continental-wide press; and new ways to bring citizens together. Here the proposal from Sigmar Gabriel and Emanuel Macron to extend the Erasmus student mobility programme so that all 18 year olds in Europe can study, work or have an apprenticeship experience in another European country is particularly important.12

The lynchpin of this process should be the development of a more dynamic and effective European Parliament. The parliamentary session in early July 2015 with Alexis Tsipras clashing with the Liberal Guy Verhofstadt showed some of its potential and took the arguments out from the closed doors of the Eurogroup and ECB. Strengthening the role of the Parliament has to be central to the democratisation process. Crucially this requires the parties of the left to be able to work together on a pan-European basis and develop a common platform. Syriza lost above all because it was isolated. The mainstream right through the EPP has successfully imposed an austerity politics on Europe over the last five years. Can the forces of the left come together over the next five years and articulate a programme for a social Europe?


We are living in dangerous times. Around the world today we are seeing the spread of aggressive nationalisms, from the ruins of the USSR to India and Turkey. Across Europe we see the re-emergence of old nationalist enmities and the creation of new ones. Occasionally, as in Catalonia and Scotland, this is primarily a civic nationalism which sees the potential of its political goals within a broader Europe. However, generally these are ethnic nationalisms defining themselves against an enemy ‘other’ – be it refugees, East Europeans, Muslims or, most commonly in the UK, just ‘Brussels’.

The left must not kid itself that there is a progressive bolt hole for English nationalism. There is not. The days of ‘honourable Eurosceptic nationalism’ are long gone. In the twenty-first century, to control the major forces shaping the world’s economy and ecology we have to move beyond the nation state. As the nation state alone cannot bear the strain it is precisely the task of politics to create new frameworks that can. That requires a Europe that acts as a new hinge to complement the nation state and enable politics to shape the economy in a wider regional setting.

The task for all parts of the progressive spectrum is not to mimic UKIP or the Front National and Marine Le Pen, but to show that it can offer an alternative model of globalisation that reshapes the Single Market and offers a future to all of Europe’s peoples. The common task for battered social democrats, progressive nationalists, social Liberals, Greens and new forces like Syriza and Podemos should be to develop an attractive vision of states working together on a range of issues that will provide a better life for EU citizens and opportunities for its young people. For progressives, developing a strategy for a social Europe is the challenge of the decade.


[1] Office for National Statistics.…

[2] Office for National Statistics Travel Trends, 2013

[3] UK Exports to China. FCO Economics Unit Jan 2013.

[4] Daniel Hannan. Daily Mail 30 May 2015 For this and other quotes.


[6] See Robin Cook Point of Departure (2003)

[7] Ibid.

[8] The head of the Eurogroup Jeroen Dijesselbloem is a Dutch Labour Party minister, while German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel is the leader of his country’s Social Democrats and expressed fiercer hostility to the Tsipras government than Angela Merkel in June and July 2015.

[9] For a clear analysis of the dangers see Joschka Fischer:

[10] An approach advocated by policy makers such as Philippe Legrain, economic adviser to President Barroso 2011-2014:

[11] See its dramatic 4 page special supplement Saturday 29th August and its #refugeeswelcome campaign.

[12] Proposal of French and German ministers Emmanuel Macron and Sigmar Gabriel


Working in Politics and International Relations at Aston University

Our department at Aston University is thrilled to be recruiting up to four posts (one at Chair level, up to three at Lecturer / Senior Lecturer level), and this blog is intended to provide a bit of informal advice to prospective applicants, especially for the lecturership positions (though it may be useful background for those in a senior lecturership or professorial role), about what we do, who we are, and the sort of things we will be looking for.

First – a bit about our team. We are a medium-sized department, with 13.2 current staff (12 are full-time, two are part-time), excluding one colleague who heads our School, and another who is currently on sabbatical at the Foreign Office. Of those 14 staff, six are men, eight are women, and we are a diverse group in terms of our national backgrounds (with nationals of eight different countries!) though we would welcome greater ethnic diversity in our department. Several colleagues have young families, and all live either in Birmingham or within a sensible commuting distance. We encourage a diverse workforce including representation of staff with disabilities and will provide support and reasonable adjustments as needed. Aston is a ‘two ticks’ employer, which means that it has committed to offering an interview to all disabled applicants who meet the essential criteria for a vacancy.

Second – a bit about our students. Our student body is very diverse (as is the West Midlands region, in which we are based): at the undergraduate level, we attract a good range of students, both on our Single Honours course (Politics and International Relations) and in our joint honours courses (such as Politics and Economics, International Relations and Business, and International Relations and Modern Languages). These students are overwhelmingly from the state sector, and have scored highly in their A-levels. We strongly encourage them to undertake a work or study placement, either in the UK or abroad, in their penultimate year, and find this makes a real difference to their employability, which is very important to us at Aston. Our students seem to respond well to this, with satisfaction at 94% in last year’s National Student Survey. At postgraduate level, we have a good mix of students, and many come from continental Europe, often as part of our joint and double degrees with Rennes, Lille, and Bamberg (with a new programme with the Jagiellonian University in Krakow coming on stream soon).

Third – a bit about working here. We are all active researchers, but our areas of specialism vary widely, as you will see from our staff profiles. Our standards are high – at the last REF, we entered under the “umbrella” of the Aston Centre for Europe in the Area Studies section, and were ranked the highest in this field outside London. But it is important to remember that ACE, and our department, are “ecumenical”, and that we are not exclusively interested in European Studies. For instance, our students often tell us they would like to learn more about the Politics of the Middle East, or the Politics of any of the “BRIC” nations; the truth is we are open to applications from any interesting sub-field of Politics and International Relations. We have recently re-established a departmental seminar where a colleague presents “work in progress” and discusses it in a supportive environment. We are encouraged to bid for external funding from a variety of sources (and have had success from sources like the European Commission, Leverhulme, the German Academic Exchange Service and the ESRC in recent years), and comment on each other’s bids to give them the best chance of success.

We are also passionate teachers – staff regularly observe each other’s teaching, several colleagues have won prizes in this area, and we often compare notes on ways of teaching and keeping students engaged (for instance, students may do “simulations”, policy reports, role plays, group assignments and produce films as part of their courses). We take our MA students on an annual study visit to Brussels, and have also had regular study visits to London. There is no “typical” teaching load, but a colleague might expect to teach courses for around six hours per week during team time, to a mixture of larger and smaller groups, and in addition offer four hours a week of office hours, as well as time for dissertation supervision and meeting with personal tutees. Every member of staff is entitled to a “research day” each week, including during term time, when they would not be expected to teach or be at meetings.

We are all strong believers in keeping our discipline relevant to everyday life. So we hold regular lunchtime seminars for students and staff on current affairs, we recently held an event with the Parliamentary Outreach Service on Parliament and BAME communities, and our team often write blogs aimed at an audience beyond academia. We also regularly engage with policy-makers, holding events in London and Brussels where we can discuss our ongoing research with practitioners, and feed into and shape policy discussions. For us, “impact” is about a lot more than ticking a box for external evaluation of universities!

If you are interested in applying (especially for the lecturership positions), here are some things to consider:

– The key document in shortlisting will be your answers to the questions online application form (which will be scored according to whether you have met our criteria), as well as your CV. Make sure you look carefully at our person specification before applying.
– We are likely to read well over 100 applications, and for that reason we need candidates to have a completed Ph.D., and evidence of “successful research publication”. This will probably involve having published, or at least advanced plans for, a book, and also some articles in peer reviewed journals, and far more weight will be given to publications which are published or accepted for publication than which have not yet been accepted. Expectations clearly depend on how long you have been in the profession, and career breaks would be taken into account.
– Remember that we all regard our teaching as really important, as well as our research, and think about how you would ensure Aston students are really engaged in and excited about what they are learning.
– When thinking about income generation, by all means include good ideas for research grants (including those with collaborators outside Aston), but also think about whether there might be any new incomes streams you could develop for the department or ACE.
– We will involve the whole department in recruitment, as shortlisted applicants will give a presentation to us on the first day, and then there will be an interview on the second day with a group of colleagues (most probably myself, Prof. Green, Prof. Gaffney, Dr. Obradovic-Wochnik, and Prof. Urszula Clark from the English Language group). In both these settings, you would want to show how you can get your message across clearly and succinctly, how you would engage students and colleagues, and how you would see yourself fitting in with our department (and possibly the Aston Centre for Europe). Normally the first question will be about why you want to work at Aston, so you’d want to give this some serious thought in advance. Since we pride ourselves on our practical, relevant research you can expect to be asked about this.

If you have any questions, please drop me a line at e.turner(at), and we can catch up on the telephone or Skype if necessary afterwards.

Europe’s industries will lead in in sustainability and decarbonisation, or not at all

By Professor David Bailey, Co-Director, ACE and Professor Karl Aiginger, Director of Economics and Vienna University

Industrial policy is back on the political agenda. It was bubbles in non-manufacturing sectors which fuelled the financial crisis, and the economic recovery proves more difficult in countries with a weaker manufacturing sector. The manufacturing sector itself is subject to rapid change, thanks to technological developments and the growing importance of services that become an integral part of the production process.

Global business leaders gathered in Davos last month to discuss the advent of the “fourth industrial revolution”. When factories dismantled their steam engines in the late 19th century to make way for electricity and conveyor belts, these innovations opened the way for mass production. Today, a similar leap seems possible, as companies move from the use of computers and robots into the era of advanced manufacturing, where intelligent machines self-optimise in networks.

Hopes are that an industrial renaissance can bring jobs and growth back to Europe. Others warn that Europe will not be able to compete under the pressures of globalisation without undermining our welfare institutions.

The truth is that Europe has a choice to make in the face of global competition. It can opt for a “low road” strategy which emphasises cost reductions, lower taxes, and reduced social and ecological standards. This would lead into a downward spiral. Alternatively, it can put forward a bold strategy to compete based on research, skills, ecological ambition, excellent institutions and an employment policy which empowers people. This is the high road.

High-road competitiveness is not about disregarding realities of the world economy. It stands in contradiction to old policy recipes of protecting national champions and prolonging the life of non-viable industries. Europe’s future industrial policy should facilitate the long-run transition, not decelerate structural change. It must promote competition and be driven by a wider vision, which goes beyond mere GDP growth and includes the social and ecological goals of society.

To carve out a competitive advantage for the future, Europe must anticipate the potential of advanced manufacturing for clean, efficient and high-quality production. Sustainability and ambitious socio-ecological standards must be at the centre of our industrial policy. At the same time, we need to significantly boost investments in research, innovation and up-skilling. If carried out decisively, this double strategy can bolster Europe’s technological leadership and lay the basis of future economic success.

The European Union has taken promising steps and shown political courage in its climate change policies and the fight against environmental degradation and has embraced the concept of the “green economy” as a potential engine for job creation and economic dynamism. It now needs to take the next step and invest in assuming technological leadership at the intersection of advanced manufacturing with decarbonisation and resource efficiency.

High road competitiveness challenges vested interests in the manufacturing sector. It goes against the grain of some industries which argue in favour of cost reductions and against ambitious policies. Thirty-four leading European economic institutes have examined this question over the past four years. Our research shows that the socio-economic benefits of a high-road strategy would offset any increased production costs in the manufacturing sector and offer a valuable dividend for society: global competitiveness that supports welfare, wealth and work in Europe.

Professor Karl Aiginger: Director of Economics at Vienna University, Coordinator of the pan-European Research Project “Welfare, Wealth and Work – a new growth path for Europe.”  

Professor David Bailey, Professor of Industrial Strategy at the Aston Business School and Aston Centre for Europe, Aston University

Too little, but it’s not too late

David Cameron’s new deal on Britain’s relationship with the EU falls wide of the mark; but there is still time to showcase a meatier deal ahead of a June referendum

*This piece was originally published on the “political insight” blog of the Political Studies Association (PSA)

Was anyone convinced by it? A shirt-sleeved Dave, on the shop floor at (German) engineering giant Siemens in Chippenham, arguing passionately that this, his hard-won deal, had fundamentally improved the terms of Britain’s relationship with the European Union? Would he now choose to lead Britain into this kind of an EU if we weren’t already members? Hell, yes! Dave believed it, though clearly the passion of his convictions massively outweighs the detail of what he has delivered.
There has been little (if any) unequivocal support for Dave’s viewpoint that these are “good terms” for the UK. They’re a step towards what the Tory eurosceptics will want, and they have allowed some of the key figures that will lead public opinion in the pre-referendum debate to mark his card in public with a “good, but could do better” grade (Theresa May, Boris Johnson). This leaves open the possibility that maybe, just maybe, Dave can build on these modest, initial successes in meeting his own self-imposed targets, and bring back a bigger, juicier “killer” amendment, say on immigration levels, crime or terrorism prevention – the stuff that average voters do really care about.
Few observers expected even half the proposals which Tusk put forward this week. So in spite of all of the grand posturing in Europe’s capitals over the “discrimination” that these amends will usher in, Dave’s Deal could ultimately suggest that a more radical turning point in Europe’s history has been reached. If approved at the summit later this month, Cameron’s “success” could just mark the beginning of a new era in European integration. What is striking perhaps in the terms of the proposed new deal for Britain is that it does, for the first time, deviate from some of the fundamental principles on which the European Union has been established. No more “ever closer union”. Different rules for different “types” of workers in the EU’s single market, long seen as the EU’s core success story and one where the UK is and has been keenest to play a leading role. A “red card” system whereby national parliaments can exert greater authority over Brussels edicts.
A generation ago, when the UK, under John Major’s leadership, negotiated significant “opt outs” from the Maastricht Treaties, European fundamentalists were enraged at the notion of a “multi-speed Europe” or a “Europe a la Carte” which this would usher in. But these variable solutions are the reality of what we live with in today’s European Union. A Eurozone that leads, but does not dominate, in the Single Market. A Schengen area that covers some, but not all, of the EU’s territory. National opt outs on citizenship and justice issues.
Tusk’s letter is in many ways simply an acknowledgement that the durability of the European integration project is reliant on political leaders finding flexible solutions that will allow the main features of a European Union to progress, whilst accommodating the need for national politics to respond to national priorities. Europe’s challenges today are very different to those of the Europe of 1957; the “all or nothing” integrationist vision of a Jean Monnet or a Robert Schuman simply does not sell to an increasingly sceptical electorate. Most European leaders, facing their own electoral challenges from the sceptics, will recognise the need for Tusk to cut Dave a deal. Who knows if, or more likely when, they’ll need to deliver their own compromises on EU membership to quell national uncertainties. Rather than the abstract, though historically-grounded “grand projet” of an ever closer union, what Europe’s publics want today is an ever more pragmatic arrangement between EU nations, which can deliver long-term sustainable growth. It really is that simple.
So this all suggests that the time is right for David Cameron to push harder on a more robust arrangement with the EU that builds on these initial proposals, but offers more to a national public clamouring for a “big” deal. It may have been too little for team BoJo, but it’s not too late to get more.

Cologne and the ‘sexism of the other’: Why tougher migration policies won’t solve sexual abuse

By Anne Jenichen

This blogpost was originally published on EUROPP Blog, on the 15th of January 2016. For the original, please visit:

On new year’s eve, large groups of men – alleged to be of Northern African provenience – harassed women and stole cell phones and other valuables around the Central Station in Cologne. The incidents were not confined to one place, as similar episodes were reported across other German cities and in a few other European countries.

Cologne’s police forces received more than 500 complaints of sexual assault and theft for that night. The police department of North Rhine-Westphalia appointed a taskforce to clarify the circumstances. Most of the suspects arrested so far, with a few exceptions, do not hold German passports, and some entered Germany as refugees. The last aspect produced the largest public outcry.

Meanwhile, the unfolding debate has taken on a life of its own. It is still not really clear how many perpetrators were involved, how many of them were refugees and from which regions, whether the acts of sexual harassment were a diversionary tactic to facilitate theft or whether it was an aim in itself, and how exactly the mobs organised themselves.

But for many, the judgement already seems to be clear: admitting refugees to the country entails increased crime, particularly against women. Saving ‘white women’ from ‘brown men’ is an age-old racist theme which surfaces again and again in this debate, clearly illustrating the intersection of sexism and racism. An especially crude expression of this was the title of the German weekly ‘Focus’ (“Frauen klagen an”, i.e. “Women complain” which could also mean “Women file lawsuits”), showing a naked white woman with black hands painted all over her body.

Most of the debate, therefore, has not been over the incident itself, but on Germany’s refugee policy. German politicians from the governing parties have discussed tightening German asylum law, even though legal measures to deal with criminal asylum seekers are already in place. Fortunately, there have also been moderate voices expressing unease about the racialisation of the debate, albeit these are much less audible than those calling for stricter action against criminal asylum seekers and the restriction of immigration.

Suggestions include the lowering of hurdles against the deportation of criminal refugees (from a now one-year sentence to suspended sentences, for example, for theft), residential obligations for asylum seekers and recognised refugees to prevent their concentration in big cities, as well as caps on the number of refugees that can be permitted per year (regardless of the circumstances of individuals arriving once such a ‘cap’ has been reached).

The incident in Cologne thus inflamed a debate that has been rumbling on for some time. The incident and the sexualised violence it entailed have been used to justify tougher German asylum laws. Foreign politicians, such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Polish head of government Beata Szydlo and US presidential candidate Donald Trump, have picked on the debate as well, using the case as confirmation of their warnings against ‘open borders’ and the intake of large numbers of refugees.

Right-wing extremists have not failed to make use of the xenophobic undertones of the debate to provide legitimation of their world views. A mob of right-wing extremists arranged to meet via social media for manhunts to protect ‘their’ women against non-Germans in the aftermath of the Cologne incident. That this did not spark a similarly heated public discussion on the perils of xenophobic violence is simply deplorable.

The victims and the acts of sexualised violence have by now faded into the background. The debate almost exclusively focuses on the potential perpetrators and their ethnic background; with some exceptions, such as the Twitter campaign #ausnahmslos (“noexcuses”), which, under the header “Against sexualised violence and racism. Always. Anywhere”, calls for closing the protection gaps in German criminal law on sexual assault and rape, and for support for the victims of the Cologne incident.

But tougher immigration and asylum legislation won’t solve the problem of sexual assault. Sexual harassment and sexualised violence are worldwide problems. Prevalence estimates of non-partner sexual violence by the World Health Organization, for instance, suggest higher numbers in western Europe than in North Africa and the Middle East. So much for ‘Arab culture’; a popular reference in the German debate for explaining the alleged connection between refugees from Arab countries and sexualised violence in public places. The prevalence of intimate partner violence, which usually takes place in private, is estimated as being higher for North Africa and the Middle East than in western Europe, but domestic violence is seldom a topic that lends itself to public outrage.

Sexual harassment takes place particularly where perpetrators expect impunity due to strong dependencies and power inequalities, such as in the workplace, or due to the anonymity of empty streets or large crowds. Each year, for example, there are several cases of attempted and actual rape, and numerous cases of sexual harassment, at the ‘Oktoberfest’ in Munich (the biggest beer festival in the world) and during the carnival in Cologne, even though the real numbers, particularly of those cases which go unreported, are contested. Public outcries in those cases, though, never materialise.

The incidents in Cologne and other German cities were utterly unacceptable. These cases need to be thoroughly investigated and the perpetrators punished, irrespective of their background. A serious and honest debate on both integration and violence against women is also absolutely necessary. But racialising the issue of sexual violence will not solve anything: neither in the case of integrating refugees nor with regard to the protection of women.

100 days of Jeremy Corbyn: Let Corbyn be Corbyn

By John Gaffney

This blog post was originally published on the Staggers Blog on the 21st of December 2016.

The Labour leader must recover the tricks he used to win the job in the first place if he is to take Downing Street.

The debates surrounding Jeremy Corbyn’s first hundred days have been predictable, unending, repetitive, and unhelpful: no experience of leadership or governance, too leftwing, unrealistic (but right about Iraq and Northern Ireland, his defenders say), old-fashioned (while revolutionising social media, his defenders say; his detractors, that his election has unleashed a very unsocial media); the mainstream media has been often outrageously biased. True. Many Labour MPs have tried to undermine his authority. True. He has an overwhelming legitimacy as leader. True. And the Labour Party is in one hell of a mess. True. It is the general view that there are three potential scenarios (all awful): ongoing and escalating internal party strife; a leadership challenge of some kind; or a break-away by sufficient numbers of the members, councillors, MPs and so on, to set up an alternative movement. The sad context of all three of these is public indifference. If the party and its leadership could ‘imagine’ itself as a performed narrative whose symbolic and rhetorical aspects have consequential effects, there may – just – be a fourth possible scenario. Deselecting recalcitrant MPs may have a justification in logic. Talking about it now is rhetorically catastrophic. Responding to the “grassroots” may be laudable. Using it as a threat rather than a need is equally so. Corbyn’s democratic legitimacy is unquestionable. Rousseau’s ‘General Will’, however, confers legitimacy but not authority. Only a leadership and party narrative do that. Listening to “the membership” is right but is largely an illusion. Mass politics is never really mass politics; what is is the notion and performance of such politics at the leadership level (e.g. Corbyn and PMQs). But there is really no such thing as direct democracy, even in the Agora. What there is is rhetoric and performance. This is in fact how Corbyn won in the first place; sincere, modest, thoughtful, quietly eloquent, and actually saying something as opposed to the narrative desert of his opponents. It all started going downhill on election day when he went and sang the Red Flag with Billy Bragg; and the problem now is that his main and now very vocal supporters (during the leadership campaign his was often a lone voice) all sound – and make him sound – as if he is going to bring back the GLC at best, transform the party into the SWP at worst. This is not his intention – nor indeed the intention of the vast majority of those who voted for him, but that – exacerbated by his public loyalty to old allegiances – is what it sounds like. The exemplary demonstration that this is all about rhetoric, performance, and leadership image was Jeremy Corbyn’s being upstaged not by David Cameron but by Hilary Benn. Not only, moreover, was Benn’s “We must now confront this evil” speech (as well as the demonstrable irony of his resemblance to Corbyn’s hero, Hilary’s father) of 3 December passionate (as Corbyn had been during the leadership campaign), it blended a range of narratives in the left’s rhetoric. Benn’s speech was structured and argued in such a way as to make it impossible to depict him as a Tory stooge. Corbyn, against intervention in Syria, could have done the same, but simply sounded like the spokesperson for the Stop the War Campaign. Visually too Benn’s speech was a car crash for Corbyn who several times peered around from behind Benn, clearly not listening to the speech, as if trying to identify someone on the benches opposite. A Rowan Atkinson sketch, comically and symbolically rounded off by not having made sure that Benn had somewhere to sit back down so that Benn nearly sat on Corbyn who hurriedly had to budge up. And by the time Benn had sat down he looked like not just the leader of the Labour Party but like a future Prime Minister.

Today’s narrative dearth started long before today, and in fact is one of the reasons for Corbyn’s thumping victory in September. It was clear that by 2015 the Blairite narrative was gone. Before that, Ed Miliband began a blending of a range of narrative sources: G.D.H. Cole, Attlee, One Nation, and some German SPD approaches, and so on, but ended up with just the ‘retail offer’. Rhetoric, like nature, abhors a vacuum; Corbynism filled it. But, as we saw with Hilary Benn, Labour rhetoric must blend its narrative or ideational strains to be successful. All the heroes of the democratic left have done this: Jean Jaurès, Léon Blum, Harold Wilson, Willy Brandt, François Mitterrand, early Tony Blair – and each in highly eloquent and personalised performances – the “it isn’t about personality but about policy” line is a rhetorical device, as its author, Tony Benn, knew all too well. And as regards blending narratives, the ones who do not (e.g. Gaitskell – apart from his two major speeches where he did) drive the party into uproar and disarray.

Leadership politics is not a power struggle but an art. And it involves artifice. As regards the UK Labour Party, as we all know, it’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there; but there is arguably a fourth scenario beyond the received three mentioned above, and one that involves choreography, that is to say a choreography of ideas, rhetoric, and leadership comportment that might enable the Labour Party to “dance” its way away from the edge of the cliff to the broad sunny uplands of success. So, a few ideas for Jeremy Corbyn:

What in the GLC was good? Link it up with what the successful councils of today are doing – Newham, Hackney, for example, and make it into a “story”; give discursive space to ‘The Grassroots’ but give ownership of it to someone who is not a close supporter – a grassroots advocate (Stella Creasy?) – and ask them to be its champion, so no one can use it as rhetorical device against you; get all rhetorically/morally difficult issues off the agenda, for example, let the SNP do all the heavy lifting on Trident and, as with everything, wait until rhetorical advantage emerges on any contentious issue. The party has no true influence unless it is in power – idem Syria. The Conservatives will set rhetorical traps endlessly. There is no need to fall into every one of them. Develop this blended, personally performed rhetoric now and stick to it until 2020.

Appear to be both the Corbyn who was elected, but also a new person – the Prince Hal myth of the demands of kingship is a very profound one, and will allow a leader to create a new reconciled narrative, a new persona, and leadership as a transcendence, so that the inevitable cries of “betrayal” can’t hit their mark.

Enfold the dilemma that the MPs are trying to resolve, even though some of them are abusing it to undermine your leadership. MPs represent their constituents as well as their parties. This tension has been here since forever, particularly in left parties. Address it instead of allowing it to be used as a form of intimidation, so that your MPs are seduced by your magnanimity.

And smile – like you used to in the leadership campaign. Otherwise, it’s curtains.

French politics after the Paris attacks: polarised and deeply personal

By John Gaffney

This post was originally published on the EUROPP Blog (

France will hold regional elections on 6 and 13 December, which are expected to be dominated by the response to the terrorist attacks in Paris on 13 November. John Gaffney writes that the split between left-wing and right-wing parties in the aftermath of the attacks has been much more profound than following the previous attacks in Paris in January. He also argues that any upturn in President Hollande’s approval ratings are likely to reflect broader attitudes toward the role of the President during a crisis, rather than support for the specific actions Hollande has undertaken.

The French security services are highly regarded throughout the world; and evidence of their excellence is how quickly the identities of the Paris attackers and their whereabouts were established. All the more shocking therefore, that not only were so many lives lost and such havoc wrought, and this by well-trained coordinated units (who knew they were all destined to die rather than surrender), armed with sophisticated weapons in a highly complex operation, the planning and execution of the momentous events went completely under the radar. It seems to be the case too that these commando units were able to travel to and from Syria and around Europe with impunity.

Several of the elements of the Paris attacks on 13 November are new developments: the scale of the killing – 130 dead, 350 injured, 80 critically – the training of the attackers, and the use of suicide belts. Earlier recent attackers such as Mohamed Mérah, and the Kouachi brothers were not trying to die, they were trying to escape. Also the targets of the 13 November attacks were not Jews, satirists, off-duty soldiers, or unarmed policewomen, but everyone.

If there was an identifiable category it was the young. The overwhelming majority of the victims were – like the attackers – young people. Another arguably new development was that the attackers were not just trying to kill people but to terrorise a nation. The casualties were real, but the targets were symbolic: places illustrative of the West’s ‘decadence’ such as cafés, sports stadiums (with two targets, France and Germany, as well as the French President at the Stade de France), music and dancing at the Bataclan, the joie de vivre targets of western decadence.

One sad irony is that, far from the joie de vivre, Paris has been a pretty miserable place for some time and certainly since the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015. All year there has been a sense of almost permanent anxiety throughout the country, and particularly in Paris. The 13 November attacks have taken this anxiety to new heights, or depths, of collective anguish. There has been a series of political, military, diplomatic and other responses to the massacres, but the most consequential is a national anxiety, fear, and suppressed panic of clinical and durable proportions.

There has also been a series of practical responses. A three-month state of emergency is the first (house arrests, increased search powers, electronic tagging, banning certain groups). At the European level, it is clear that security agencies will work together much more in the future. This has public approval but involves an element of disbelief that this was not already happening. At the European level, too, the ease with which the attackers moved around has re-ignited the border issue of whether Schengen works (it does not); all this adding value to the right and extreme right discourse about national security, particularly the Front National who want national borders reasserted.

This is no longer seen as unthinkable. And if this were to happen across the EU, the EU itself would be in question. President Hollande also announced the creation of 5,000 more jobs in the police and gendarmerie, 2,500 more in the legal system, and a halt in reductions of personnel in the armed forces (3,000 per year had been planned over the next three years).

France is in serious economic difficulty as it is. Where even a fraction of the costs of these measures will come from is unknown. At the military level, attacks on Islamic State in Syria by the French Air Force have escalated considerably since 13 November. At the diplomatic level, the sudden cooperation with Russia and now Iran has meant France making Assad’s stepping down a condition of cooperation highly problematic.

All of these issues are important and consequential. But the emotional and psychological consequences remain the most problematic and difficult to analyse. And the anxiety of the population felt most acutely is that of the ‘Muslim’ population itself. An irony and an issue of tactical significance here: this community is the largest in Europe, almost twice the UK figure. The irony is that France’s Muslims are arguably the most integrated in Europe. They number about 5 or 6 million (the numbers are not clear; in this secular republic there are only ‘citizens’). The overwhelming majority are of North African origin (Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia), and about one third of them are practising (many of these only observing Ramadan, for example).

The ‘tactic’ was and is to ‘cleave’ this relatively integrated population; and attacks upon this part of the population rise dramatically in periods such as this, as does the divisive volume of Front National rhetoric. The few from this population that are ‘radicalised’ are usually disaffected youths from France’s often god-awful, soul-destroying outer suburbs where unemployment is in places total and opportunities non-existent. The education system in these places – like everything else – is seriously deficient (despite some heroic efforts); and, in places, even the police won’t go.

Another irony and a mystery. The irony is that these (usually) young men are not religious, are more often than not from socially difficult backgrounds, and are often involved in petty criminality and ‘bad company’. The mystery is the speed and intensity of their radicalisation with its devastating consequences. In France, as elsewhere, this is now the focus of intense research. The rhetoric and persuasion of the radicalisers clearly plays a major role, but so too does alienation and undiagnosed psychosis.

French politics after the attacks

One of the political consequences of the government’s recent measures is that they are not seen as a kind of ‘triangulation’ (stealing the right’s policies) but a sense that these measures were something Hollande and the government should have done before. In spite of their complexity, the ‘ease’ with which these attacks were successfully carried out raises real anxieties about the government’s grip on the situation.

It is difficult for criticisms in this area given the public’s general uncertainty of the real processes going on and because of the desire, at least, for national unity (despite the French always banging on about fraternity or solidarity, they are not very good at it). But the Left-Right split after the 13 November attacks is much more profound and vocal than after the Charlie Hebdo massacres in January.

There are two inter-related phenomena which characterise the reaction to the attacks and, although not exclusively French, have real resonance in French politics and society. The first involves the personalisation of politics. As is always the case with, for example, the tabloid press in the UK, inordinate emphasis was placed upon the character, origins (and until he was killed, whereabouts) of the assumed ‘mastermind’ of the attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, rather than upon the underlying issues and upon understanding why the attacks happened.

This is reflected in the personalisation of politics overall which is acute in France, and is a complicating factor in the overall situation. François Hollande has used conflict situations (Mali, Centre-Afrique, Charlie Hebdo among others) to raise his own (very low) standing with the French. For a whole series of reasons, in particular a stagnating economy and high unemployment, he is France’s most unpopular President ever. Declaring on 14 November that France was ‘at war’ reflected accurately in part a new reality, but also a political, rhetorical assumption of the mantle of a war leader.

In all of his declarations since the attacks, the presentation of himself as the protagonist in this ‘story’ has been inordinate: overuse of the first person pronoun, constant reference to himself as the originator of all decisions – emergency, policy-related, military, diplomatic decisions, the immediate assertion that France – reflecting his state of mind – would be merciless (‘impitoyable’), the representation of himself as not only the central domestic but also international actor – the mediator between Putin and Obama (when the real actors here are Sergei Lavrov and John Kerry), and so on.

Hollande is aware that in the aftermath of all the conflicts/attacks since his election in 2012 his popularity ratings have risen. Recent polls also indicate a near 100 per cent public agreement with the security and diplomatic measures and initiatives being taken. All of this personal performance – and the misinterpretation of its significance by the actors involved – becomes part of the overall political process and leads to mistakes and misperceptions. This was very apparent in Hollande’s depiction of the Syrian chemical weapons crisis of 2013 as being a direct conflict between himself and Assad. Its purpose was to enhance the standing of the French President. It actually had the opposite effect, but also interfered significantly with France’s room for diplomatic manoeuvre in the two years that followed.

To assume, moreover, that a rise in popularity is related to action rather than function is also a mistake. The French presidency is a modern expression of the medieval idea of the King’s Two Bodies, one sacred, anointed, one profane, real. The French President is the personalised expression of France itself and therefore, in times of crisis, national unity. It is not him but his ‘embodiment’ of the office that is being rallied to.

The second observation relates to the media and its relation to politics – gestured towards by the constant pictures of and reports on Abdelhamid Abaaoud – and the visual and narrative nature of politics today. It is almost like a new form of politics. Now with the iPhone, things don’t exist unless they are videoed, professionally or otherwise. Islamic State is, of course, a macabre past master in this dark art; but all ‘events’ are now portrayed in this way (and minute by minute). In the case of the Paris attacks, paradoxically, it probably saved lives.

The attack on the Bataclan Theatre was staged as part of an enduring drama which would heighten the sense of anticipation and anguish. The immediate massacre of everyone would have ‘resolved’ the drama. For the perpetrators, the drama of atrocity is more important than the atrocity itself. More than this, these are dramas, ‘stories’ in both a real and constructed sense. The media worldwide now does this with all incidents of this kind; but again, in France, because of the way the protagonists are characterised, events such as these are narrated by the media like chivalric tales with a deep structure of villainy, heroism, trials and deliverance.

What Paris endured on 13 November 2015 was a drama, a tragedy in fact, in both senses: on the one hand something heartbreaking and on the other an ‘act’ performed by all the actors involved; the attackers, the victims, the politicians, and the media; and with the world as an audience.