Sunday, 24 July 2016

Labour at the crossroads

After the earthquake, it is surely time to stand back a little and take stock. After one of the most extraordinary months ever in British politics, the pieces have been thoroughly shaken and are now returned to earth.

The landscape is entirely different from the seeming certainties of just a month ago, the old guard largely cleaned out and most of the players new.

For Labour, it has shown one thing in particular: the spectacular house of cards on which the whole current leadership had been built.

It has now become a laughing stock, a leadership of zero credibility outside, and even for the vast majority of its own parliamentary party. The only place where the leadership is still respected, paradoxically, is within the party membership itself, where a level of denial exists which in years to come group psychologists will surely write books about.

From Jeremy Corbyn’s election last September, there has been an emperor’s-new-clothes pretence that it is business as usual. That said, the rot arguably set in with the creeping groupthink of the Miliband years, during which time the necessity of reaching out to swing voters was arrogantly negated and the slow recovery of the far left was treated with the utmost complacence.

This groupthink had certainly developed an iron grip by the aftermath of the general election wipeout of May last year.

Indeed, by the time the now-celebrated, thirty-five “moron” MPs lent their nominations to Corbyn – mostly convinced, remember, that his was a token candidacy! – it was clear that the entire PLP had been caught off-guard, by both the extent of hard-left infiltration already and the ease with which the new associate member system accelerated the process.

All the Corbynites, mind, are not traditional hard-lefties. Many are young and idealistic; others older and tin-eared, happier to hear some slogans and platitudes than recognise the electoral mountain to climb. But they are manipulated (and often outright lied to) by those hard-lefties. They do not want to hear the mountain of hard data on the often doubtful and occasionally abhorrent things Jeremy Corbyn did in the years up to 2015.

And all are united in one thing; that winning control of a party is more important than being in government and actually, you know, doing stuff.

And so to the present day: Angela Eagle’s brave challenge and graceful pullout, leaving Owen Smith, a talented but relatively unknown MP, as sole challenger to a Corbyn still commanding strong support within the rank and file, despite the continuing car-crash of his leadership.

However, these honest, end-of-tether and incredibly damaging pieces by Lilian Greenwood MP and Thangham Debonaire MP show how Corbyn has alienated almost everyone within the PLP, including soft-left supporters. Self-evidently, there never were 172 “Blairites” voting against Corbyn and there surely never will be. They were from all sections of the party and to claim anything else is clearly nonsense.

Sometimes the future is hard to predict: for example, many of us did not believe Miliband’s rule changes would have helped bring us here. But right now, at the crossroads, the two visions for the future lying ahead are crystal clear.

The first is pulling back from the brink: somehow Owen Smith manages to pull together enough support, and Corbyn manages to lose enough (even enough to compensate for the £25 additional members hurriedly being signed up by Momentum activists as we speak) for a slender victory at this year’s conference.

There would still be a strong rearguard action to fight – the Corbynites, as with the Militant Tendency before them, would not give up without a fight – but the fight would be won by a Smith, likely pulling in expert advice from his fellow Welshman, Neil Kinnock on how to cleanse an infected party.

While it would be a moment of utter euphoria to be proven wrong, the brutal truth is that Smith almost certainly cannot win in 2020. He is too inexperienced, probably not centrist enough to convince an increasingly right-leaning electorate and the next four years would be spent in in-fighting and cleanup anyway. But he is decent, and pulling off the party’s reconstruction might still allow him a crack in 2025. He might even win.

The second vision is clear as day. Corbyn rises again, vindicated and the party collapses. It is clearly unsustainable for a PLP to be in open revolt against its leader, which means more than just four years of damaging chaos in Parliament and one long Christmas for the Tories.

It means, self-evidently, a split in which the leadership would likely retain all the party infrastructure and most of the cash. A breakaway party which would struggle to raise funds from unions, although there are interesting possibilities to explore about retaining government subsidies, if indeed it boasted 172 or more MPs. Staying put would likely not be an option for most MPs, because the threatened deselection programme will come, you can count on it.

In short, the party as we know it is at a crossroads with two signs on it. One path going up a very steep mountain, on the other side of which is a second mountain before it reaches the lowlands again. It is hard, but just about navigable.

The other path appears, to the people on it, to be full of beautiful flowers and comforting animal sounds. Just before it goes off a cliff.

Oh yes, in this case there will surely be a political realignment, and the centre-left will one day rise again. But it will not be within the Labour party, that hundred-year old monolith towards which we all still feel perhaps far too much affection. Our sentimentality will not improve the lives of poor Britons.

No, in that case the party, to coin a phrase, is over. It really is that simple. You choose.


This post first published at Labour Uncut

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