There was a glimmer of hope for the Labour Party this week.
Hilary Benn captivated the House of Commons with an impassioned proclamation that democratic socialism still lives.
Closing the debate on Syria, the Leeds Central MP called on his comrades to stand against Islamist terrorism, a monstrous and fascistic conspiracy against liberal democracy.
It was rousing stuff, like a few verses of the Bandiera Rossa down the pub after a good demo. But the speech was given in defiance of the Labour leader, who does not support extending military action against the Islamic State. Denouncing totalitarianism and asserting Britain’s right to self-defence are now rebellious positions in the Labour Party.
Would Benn’s peroration inspire Labour moderates to fight, fight and fight again to save the party they love?
Hope faded quickly as the polls closed in Oldham West and Royton. The Labour by-election victory is being spun by Corbynites as a vindication of the rabbit hole their leader is leading the party down. In fact, Jim McMahon was the moderate candidate who saw off a Corbynite challenger but facts scarcely matter anymore. Like Fox Mulder and Scottish Nationalists, Corbynites want to believe.
Far from a victory, the outcome in Oldham is a disaster for Labour. Defeat to Ukip could have spurred a mainstream revolt against Corbyn. There may be further opportunities but the longer he stays in the job, the longer he’ll stay in the job. If that sees him lead Labour into 2020, it could be the last election the party contests as a credible alternative government.
That Corbyn’s removal is essential should now be beyond doubt. The Tories, incumbents for five and a half years, are 11 points ahead of Labour in the latest YouGov poll. On handling of the economy, the Conservatives enjoy a 17-point lead over the opposition. Jeremy Corbyn’s net approval rating has plummeted to minus-41. If a general election was held tomorrow, Labour would face not just defeat but devastation.
The public’s hostility to a Marxist ideologue who yearns for a command economy, nationalisation, and unilateral nuclear disarmament has come as a shock to Corbyn’s groupies. Britain, they are beginning to realise, is not a land of mad old Trots and sullen sociology undergrads.
Economics is largely incidental. In a dangerous world, voters want a prime minister who can keep them safe but Corbyn offers them nothing. His foreign policy analysis is scribbled in pencil in the margins of Chomsky, a predictable melange of apology, isolationism and anti-Western sentiment. He is uncomfortable with a shoot-to-kill policy. (If I spent as much time hanging around terrorists as he does, I would be too.) But his position on the Islamic State is something of a different order.
The Labour leader and 152 of his comrades walked through the division lobby with nationalists to vote against solidarity with the Socialist government of France. There are legitimate reasons to oppose the strikes against ISIS — not least because they are recklessly inadequate — but for Labour to abandon its sisters and brothers in the Socialist International is extraordinary. Scottish Nationalists need not concern themselves with the troubles of foreigners; the Greens are hardly the go-to people for sound defence policy. But Labour is an internationalist party, “committed to the defence and security of the British people and to co-operating in European institutions, the United Nations, the Commonwealth and other international bodies”.
Labour ends this week a little less Labour than it started it.
Those MPs who backed air strikes could find themselves out of a job. Corbynites are preparing to deselect moderate MP Stella Creasy, the New Statesman reports. On Tuesday night, a far-left mob assembled outside her constituency office in Walthamstow ostensibly to protest ahead of the Syria vote. Creasy, in case you have forgotten, was three months ago a contender for the deputy leadership of her party, coming second behind Tom Watson. Now, she is an apostate in need of purging.
Purging isn’t an altogether bad idea but it is not the likes of Stella Creasy who have to be cleared out. Of course Corbyn has to be shunted sooner than later but the timing matters less than the scope of the operation. He must go, his allies must go, his NEC must go, and many of those who elected him leader must go. Labour cannot prosper in a post-Corbyn era if the party remains dominated by the reactionary left.
The reactionary left are easy to spot. They still think the miners were right and privatisation was wrong; that Tony Benn should have been prime minister and Tony Blair should be in the Hague; that the BBC is a Tory echo chamber and the British public gullible fools. Their worldview is gleaned from Michael Moore movies and their economic theory that of a child composing his list to Father Christmas.
No reform will appease them, no redistribution will ever be enough. They are the simple and the aggrieved, the embittered and the angry. A democratic underclass that shuns the complexities of the world and the nuances of policy.
When I talk to sensible Labour people, they despair but assure me things will be better when Corbyn is replaced by Dan Jarvis or Yvette Cooper or Chuka Umunna. I don’t have the heart to tell them they’re wrong. If Jeremy Corbyn were deposed tomorrow and a mainstream leader elected in his place, politics would not return to Year Zero. Labour would spend years trying to win back voters repelled by their extremism as the new leader embarked on the long, painful process of dropping every single Corbynite policy.
If they are to defeat Corbyn and Corbynism, Labour centrists have to devise an “ism” of their own. Most are coruscating critics of the current leadership but fail to articulate a compelling vision for a moderate social democratic future in a dynamic economy. It’s not enough to have a plan to remove Corbyn, they have to replace him too.
In saving Corbyn, the Oldham result imperils Labour. Corbynism cannot be allowed to stand. If it does, Labour will fall.