At this point David Cameron could nuke Yorkshire and get away with it.
The Labour Party, founded to seek power in the interests of working people, has decided that power is something dirty and it would much rather feel good about itself.
To atone for the sin of winning three general elections, they have chosen Jeremy Corbyn as their new leader. It’s as if the Tories had deposed Cameron in favour of Philip Hollobone or if the SNP were to replace Nicola Sturgeon with a giant foam middle finger pointed in England’s general direction.
Right-wing commentators are cock-a-hoop at the result, analogising it to the 1980 leadership contest that saw Labour lurch left and out of the running for almost two decades. The comparison is hokey. Michael Foot was a celebrated journalist and critic, a romantic radical prone to quoting his heroes Shelley and Byron in even the most prosaic policy debates. As a soft-left idealist, he should never have been allowed anywhere near the leadership of his party but he was a decent, gentle man with a burning sense of morality and a love of country.
Corbyn is hard-left, a Bennite every bit as deluded and destructive as the man who gave that tendency its name. Far from an intellectual, his philosophy is dullard Marxism and his analysis that of a megaphone. He has no shadow cabinet experience and no policy achievement to his name. His three-decade career has been one fringe association after another; there is scarcely an idiocy to which he has not been useful.
Labour has elected as its leader a man who consorts with anti-Semites, Holocaust-deniers and terrorists. Two-thirds of British Jews expressed concern about such a man becoming leader of the opposition. The Labour Party ignored them, didn’t require a single apology or recantation from Corbyn, and voted for him anyway. One day Labour will have to come to terms with that.
Corbynmania departs from recent Labour history in another important way: After losing to Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and being buried by her in 1983, the party began the slow, agonising business of reform as it sought to reengage mainstream Britain. In the wake of 2010 and 2015, Labour has lurched left and lefter in pursuit of the margins rather than the middle.
Don’t blame the £3 Derek Hattons; Corbyn was not propelled to victory by dreary old Trots and their expensively undereducated grandchildren alone. He won amongst card-carriers too. This was a choice across the board made in the full knowledge of what Corbyn is and what he believes. It was a conscious decision to reject economic reality and to enshrine surrender and anti-Americanism in defence and foreign policy. Less a return to fabled roots than a renunciation of Keir Hardie’s practical socialism and the social democratic reformism of Attlee, Wilson and Blair.
That turning away from Labour’s purpose is confirmed by the appointment of John McDonnell as shadow chancellor. McDonnell’s old-fashioned collectivism means Labour will struggle to put forward a palatable alternative to Tory austerity. It’s hardly the only unpalatable thing he brings to the shadow cabinet. McDonnell praised the IRA’s terrorist campaign in Northern Ireland, arguing in 2003: “It’s about time we started honouring those people involved in the armed struggle. It was the bombs and bullets and sacrifice made by the likes of Bobby Sands that brought Britain to the negotiating table.”
The Labour Party is now in the hands of the extremists. Its leader is an extremist. A majority of its members and registered supporters are extremists. It is an extremist party.
I have spent the past two days talking to party moderates.
“I can’t think of a worse situation for the party than this,” one figure identified with New Labour told me. “I’m struggling to see how we’d even begin to turn things around. The Left has taken power and is unlikely to give it up any time soon.”
While there was talk amongst some centrists of bolting the party, the source insisted she would “stay and fight”. However, she cited “infiltration of the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party]” as her biggest worry now, adding: “It wouldn’t surprise me if they deselected a few MPs as a shot across the bow.”
Another leading Blairite said deselections of councillors and MPs could be “where the fightback for mainstream Labour begins”. He also hinted at tensions between Unite’s megabucks machine politics and the doe-eyed utopianism of the Corbynites.
Centrists were adamant they would not go along with Corbyn’s far-left prescriptions on economics, welfare, and defence and foreign policy. Their steel is admirable and their courage commends them but they are a minority of a minority. Liz Kendall, the only candidate who looked capable of giving David Cameron a fight for the centre ground, commanded a paltry 4.5% of the vote.
Andy Burnham was right about something. (The odds had to give him a break eventually.) For most Labour people the party does come first. It is their cause, their life, the source of their relationships and closest friendships. Asking them to put the country ahead is asking them to put their family second. This is tribalism but it’s also a sort of love, one inscrutable to most outsiders but captured by Shirley Williams who compared leaving Labour to “breaking out of a long-lasting marriage where you’d gone through all kinds of ups and downs, joys and agonies, and you couldn’t imagine life without it”.
That is why a split and a successor to the SDP is unlikely, at least before the next election. Labour pragmatists love the party just as much as the ideologues, perhaps more so because they don’t set it purity tests. They are also too small in number, too disorganised, have no obvious leader, and lack the financial resources to start a new party.
But in the longer term, the centre-left will have to confront the fatal flaw in Labour’s psyche: The party keeps having to be convinced of the virtue of winning power. John Campbell argues that Labour has had its day and the time has come to revive Britain’s Liberal tradition. He’s wrong. I know he’s wrong. I just can’t tell you why right now. Just as it is no longer obvious to Labour that it must seek power, it is no longer obvious that Labour must be the vehicle for progressive politics in Britain.
The Labour Party has abdicated its responsibility to the poor, the vulnerable and the workers doing their pan in to give their children a better life than they had. Those championing Corbyn will not suffer; it is the people who need a Labour government who will bear the brunt of its self-indulgence. They forgave Labour for doing this to them once before. Will they forgive it a second time?