Labour is worth saving now, but by 2020…

Catherine McKinnell has resigned from the shadow cabinet.

Yes, that Catherine McKinnell.

The shadow attorney general.

I honestly hadn’t heard of her until her resignation statement dropped on the news wires on Monday morning. I understand the pinnacle of her career thus far has been a spat with Gary Barlow, the Take That star, about tax avoidance. The Labour party can’t even find decent people to resign from it any more.

McKinnell cites “concerns about the direction and internal conflict” of the party as her reason for going. There’s been quite a bit of that lately. Pat McFadden was dumped in the Raqqa reshuffle, punishment for saying that Islamic State and not its targets was responsible for terrorism. That view is now a sacking offence in the Labour party. Fellow centrists followed him out of the door with some disgust and much relief.

Ken Livingstone, heading up a defence review, wants to reverse policy on Trident and Nato membership. Paul Kenny, the general secretary of the GMB union, warns that he won’t “go quietly into the night” and will stand up for the thousands of jobs connected to Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent. Shadow chancellor John McDonnell — whose job title mercifully will always begin “shadow” — denounced the pressure group Progress as “rightwing conservative” and even “hard right”, lending the élan of counterrevolution to a group that spends most of its time debating how to reform public services and extend free childcare. Alison McGovern, the chairwoman of Progress, resigned from a party review into child poverty in response.

Moderates ponder their future in a party rapidly coming to resemble a hard-left sect. This has inspired many an injudicious comparison with the 1980s, the decade etched in the Blairite mind as the primal scene of ideological mania. A key difference is that back then the hard-left failed to capture the leadership, though Tony Benn came perilously close to supplanting Denis Healey as deputy in 1981.

Peter Mandelson records the frantic atmosphere of that party conference in his memoirs: “Many of my Labour friends, and many Labour MPs, were collectively holding their breath. I got the sense that they had not unpacked their bags, and that if Benn won they would . . . probably leave the party.”

Even some centrists do not fully grasp the grim horror of what has become of the Labour party because they misunderstand the 1980s. The Bennites did not try to take over Labour, they tried to take it away, destroy it and remake it as something else. That is why moderates greet the present circumstances with dejection but not despair. They believe Corbyn to be another Michael Foot, an avuncular leftie who will lead them to electoral disaster in 2020. Then he’ll be gone and the rebuild can begin.

But he is not Foot in intellect, temperament or, in truth, philosophy — and the analogy could be flawed in historical terms, too. If we must seek parallels, a more troubling example shuffles forward and meekly raises its hand. That Corbyn is in fact the new Neil Kinnock, the internal reformer who changes not just the party’s direction but its institutions. It took Kinnock nine years with a divided membership to drum out Militant and fellow travellers. With members on board, five years should be more than enough to hack off the Blairite rump and anchor Labour in the unelectable left. Once this fundamental transformation is accomplished, Corbyn may leave but Corbynism will remain.

Middle-grounders insist they are staying put to fight but it is not clear for what. Jim Murphy, the former Scottish Labour leader, appeals to “a sense of what we can still achieve and all that we have shared; the pride in what we have built together, the hurt of our frequent defeats and the satisfaction in the lives changed by our occasional victories”.

This is not fighting so much as pining for the Labour past, that spirit of decency that has civilised our economic and social life on and off since 1945. Order is the drug of choice for the Conservative party but for Labour it is sentiment. The Labour party is a cross between a Methodist church and a mafia; members are bound by ties of common purpose and social belonging. Labour might make mistakes but its heart is in the right place, no matter how much damage it does. In the end, the country doesn’t come first, the party does.

Labour at the start of 2016 is a party worth recovering; Labour in the autumn of 2020 could be a very different beast. Day by day the Labour party, the real Labour party — social democratic, internationalist, patriotic — is being smothered by an assassin claiming to be its saviour.

There is a point where patience slips into complicity, where Corbyn’s critics stop being “moderates” and become feckless wimps. They need not storm off, but they owe it to their party and their country to resist. The removal of Jeremy Corbyn from the leadership and the Labour party is the most urgent cause in progressive politics today. If that cannot be achieved, if Labour is too far gone to rescue, the time will have come for packing bags.

Originally published in The TimesFeature image © Lonpicman at English Wikipedia by Creative Commons 3.0.

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