While it is clear that it cannot and it is also true that many sensible activists would rather die in a ditch than attempt to fight the hopeless battle of a general election under the current leadership, the reality is that there is really a much wider concern about the party’s current trajectory, and not just among Labour MPs. Even Tories and Lib Dems worry about the absence of a viable opposition.
To recap: we now have a party led by a man who never expected to leave the back benches; a shadow chancellor best described as “maverick”, with a treasure trove of past quotes already carefully dug up and filed at Tory HQ, providing a handy media drip-feed for the next five years.
But even though Corbyn’s win and McDonnell’s appointment were shocks, the shocks show no signs of abating. And for those few who have studied the hard left over recent years, inside and outside the party, it is difficult to find a more disturbing appointment than that of Seumas Milne as Director of Communications and Strategy. Disturbing first, if not surprising, because he appears to share pretty much the same views as his leader but a little more extreme.
Tom Harris MP is, of course, right to point out the dangerously narrow appeal of Corbyn/Milne viewpoint: that traditional Labour voters, who might have sons and daughters fighting in Britain’s armed forces, could be massively turned off by the idea that their sacrifices are for nothing; and all in the name of a monarch whom the leadership might dislike but whom those same voters are actually rather fond of.
But it is much more than that: the naked anti-West sentiment propagated by Corbyn, Milne and their pals in the Stop the War Coalition is anathema to the majority of the British public, even those who might have had mixed feelings about the results of the country’s intervention in Iraq. And even on much of the left and centre-left.
Take for example Oliver Bullough, a Russia specialist who actually supported Corbyn for leader; until, that is, he realised he had just appointed as his resident spin-doctor someone who seemed to believe that NATO was to blame for Putin’s invasion of the Ukraine.
Milne is not just a regular speaker at Stop the War Coalition rallies along with the leader himself and a rag-bag of other far-left luminaries – not least renowned dictator-lover George Galloway – but has written well-known apologiafor Slobodan Milosevic and, as James Bloodworth notes here, the Soviet Union under Stalin.
Ah, they say, you just find Milne unpalatable because you are on the right of the party and he is on the left. But it’s not that, is it?
You see, it’s not because we centrists simply disagree with the party’s political direction. If someone believes that utilities should be renationalised, or that the current level of welfare spending should be increased rather than contained, you can argue with them. You can debate, and hopefully win that debate. But it’s a debate, with the usual rules. As it should be, in fact.
What do you say to people who believe the United States and their allies are the root of all evil? Or that the Soviet Union really had some pretty good compensating points for the purges and pogroms under Stalin? You cannot, of course. Logic has already left the building.
This is why Milne’s appointment has met with such harsh criticism: not because his views are just disagreed with, but because they are known to range from the merely mad to the deeply unpleasant. In the age of the internet, a journalist’s entire back catalogue can be reviewed in a matter of minutes.
So let’s examine that record. After Milne took its helm in 2001, the Guardian’s comment section started to become well-known for publishing “edgy” pieces by leading public figures. And where it ended up a few years later running pieces by terrorists, Islamist hate preachers and Holocaust cartoonists. What larks.
And then there are the Comment is Free articles by Milne himself, often with a foreign policy bent: excusing, sorry, explaining everything from Putin’s intervention in Ukraine to horrific terrorist acts.
The articles follow a standard pattern: first there is usually a cursory condemnation of some terrible event. And then there is a “but”. Funny, but there always seems to be a “but”.
And finally, the third act: there always follows a justification, normally along the lines of “this would never have happened if wasn’t for the meddling West”. Whatever calamity has occurred, it is always the West’s meddling that caused it. Terrorism? Western meddling. Putin invading three Crimean provinces? Western meddling. Beheading a British soldier on a Woolwich street in broad daylight? Western meddling. The universal template of “if it weren’t for them meddling Westerners”: it is foreign policy a la Scooby Doo.
But the final point is Milne’s involvement with the Labour party. Although a long-time member, Milne is hardly a diehard Labourite: he has long embraced the “coalition” politics of the broader far left.
As for a feeling for the party whose strategy he will now direct, an example: when the integrity of the Labour party was threatened in 2013, having reacted to an overbearing Unite union trying to meddle in the Falkirk parliamentary selection, as the party’s own report noted, who was it popped up on the BBC’s colossally-misinformed radio documentary, to defend Unite and trash the Labour Party?
Why one S Milne, Esq. – also, conveniently, friendly to the same causes as Unite’s Len McCluskey. While party staff were trying hard to salvage the reputation of their selection process, he was on hand with a “move along, nothing to see here”. The good guys were the entryists. The bad guys were the party staff, who had obviously made it all up.
No, when Ed Miliband invited former Livingstone aide Simon Fletcher – later, of course, Corbyn’s campaign manager – into the party’s bosom to run his trade union relations, some felt that Fletcher might have outgrown his far left past with the Socialist Action crowd and should be given the benefit of the doubt, rather than be treated as a potential “sleeper” from an organisation known for its “deep entryism”. Well, at least that time there was a debate to be had.
But this time, there is no doubt who will be directing traffic at the heart of the Labour machine. It will certainly not be an Alastair Campbell or a David Hill. It will be someone, rather, who seems to think that Stalin wasn’t really such a bad chap, after all.
This post first published at Labour Uncut