It is not over. There is still hope. A single scarlet petal blooms defiantly on the withered stalk.
The Labour Party lives yet.
Jeremy Corbyn will be on the ballot paper for the forthcoming leadership election. Per the bizarre decision of the national executive committee, he will not require as much as a single nomination. It seems if you open the Labour rule book at any page, you will find a provision to the advantage of Corbyn.
Unite, which has done more damage to Labour than Margaret Thatcher ever did, now wants mandatory re-selection of sitting MPs, a 1980s tactic to purge moderates. If enacted, it would transform Labour into a democratic centralist party, with MPs bound like delegates to do the bidding of the Corbynite politburo as expressed through their enforcers in constituency parties.
No matter. There is a chance, one last chance, to save the Labour Party. There is much talk about “the battle for Labour’s soul”, as though it were a new development, a dramatic plot twist in the final chapter of the party’s story. In fact, Labour has been fighting over what it means to be Labour for as long as there has been a Labour Party. That struggle has played out between left and right, unilateralists and multilateralists, pragmatists and ideologues.
The contest on which Labour is embarking is different because, after 116 years, these disputes will finally be settled. Labour will decide to stay true to its mission of parliamentary socialism or to enshrine Corbynism and become a mass-membership protest movement.
Neither option is ignoble; politics needs its lawmakers and its banner-makers alike. But a political party cannot be both. There must be a choice and it is time to choose. One vision of Labour will win, and keep the party; the other will be defeated and will have to organise its aims and principles around a new organisation. Those are the stakes in this election.
That is why the centrist pressure group Progress is urging those of like mind to register as Labour supporters before 5pm on Wednesday, at a cost of £25. This will guarantee a vote in the leadership ballot and the opportunity to replace Jeremy Corbyn. Only vulgar commerce can save the Labour Party now.
And saving it desperately needs. The Corbynistas have degraded the world’s foremost social democratic party. They have trashed its bold and progressive record in government between 1997 and 2010. They have stood by as its ranks swell with anti-Semites, misogynists, paranoids, terrorist-sympathisers, and thugs. They have installed and propped up a leader who shares platforms with extremists committed to violence and a terror war against Israel and the West. They have set back centre-left politics in Britain by decades, perhaps generations.
When the US Democrats lurched to the left at the height of the counter-culture, they became in the assessment of one Democrat senator the party of “acid, amnesty and abortion”. Labour has become the party of Jeremy, John, and jihad.
Mainstream Labour — soft-left and centre alike — does not escape censure. Since the departure of Tony Blair, Labour has failed to renew itself and redefine progressive politics for a changing world. Every now and then a guru will come bearing buzzwords: Blue Labour, Purple Labour, predistribution. Wine and cheese down the IPPR, an op-ed in The Guardian, and never heard from again. Labour has lacked a policy spine for a decade now and on the off-chance it happened upon one would struggle to sell it to anyone living more than a mile from a Pret a Manger.
Labour needs a revolution, just not the one Corbyn offers.
Neither Angela Eagle nor Owen Smith is the right person for this task. Their profiles are too low, their experience too limited, and neither looks like a potential prime minister. Their bravery in standing against Corbyn — and, yes, it is brave — is beyond question. It is a grim reality that anyone who opposes the far-left risks abuse, intimidation, and even the threat of violence.
These are tough times and Labour needs a tough cookie. A “warm-hearted tough cookie”, in my view, but if not her then Dan Jarvis or Chuka Umunna or Gloria De Piero. Otherwise, moderates will always wonder what could have been if only they’d given it their all.
None of this is easy. The Labour Party wasn’t built for easy times. The odds piled against moderates may be daunting but they are as nothing to the odds faced by the unskilled and out of work, the single dad struggling with childcare, or the hard-pressed mum sorting the bills into what she can afford to pay this month and what she will have to let them cut off.
Activists may be downcast. Try having a degree and working in a call centre and hating every minute of it and not having a union to turn to when things get rough. They might feel helpless but truly helpless is when you can’t afford a roof over your head or have to rely on food banks or bear the daily indignities of the welfare system.
Political parties fall out all the time; MPs and campaigners learn to deal with good times and bad. The crime of Corbynism is not that it has snatched away the Labour Party from those who love it but that it has snatched it away from those who need it. The Labour Party exists to stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves and lend a hand to those trying to get to their feet. Every day spent in opposition is a political inconvenience for Labour but a human disaster for the struggling and the aspirational.
In the 1980s, Jeremy Corbyn helped ensure a generation was abandoned to Thatcherism; today, he is seeing to it that another generation is abandoned to austerity. Corbyn’s philosophy of people power is that the people bring him the power and suffer the consequences of what he does with it.
The slow, self-inflicted death of any other political party would be a subject of fascination to journalists, commentators, and political scientists. It would be a traumatic experience for the party’s loyal activists and elected officials. No doubt the public would look on bemused by the futile factionalism.
Labour is not just any political party; it is unique in British politics. There are nationalists and populists aplenty; property and commerce do not want for advocates; several parties cater to monarchists and republicans, Orange and Green; there are more communist parties than communists to vote for them.
Only the Labour Party represents those with no one else to represent them. It entered parliament in the interest of the working man, upon whose back this country was built, and as labour and society evolved became the champion of new kinds of worker and women as well as men.
Some flinched and others sneered as Labour adapted, seeing betrayal and retreat in the expansion of Labour politics to fresh causes and voters. But one aspect that has not changed is Labour’s mission, rooted in an older calling, to serve the poor, the meek, the hungry, and the persecuted.
Morgan Phillips was onto something when he observed that socialism in Britain owed more to the teachings of Methodism than Marxism. The Labour impulse is to an ascension — an aliyah if such talk is still permitted in Corbyn’s party — that lifts men and women out of unequal circumstances and points towards a fairer future. Labour’s is a secular path to Zion, progress tinged with a sense of return to a position of moral justice that should always have been.
That almost religious sense of purpose was captured by Australia’s postwar Labor Prime Minister Ben Chifley:
“We have a great objective — the light on the hill — which we aim to reach by working the betterment of mankind not only here but anywhere we may give a helping hand. If it were not for that, the Labor movement would not be worth fighting for.”
The beacon is dimming, the shadows gather, but the light of justice still flickers. The Labour Party has brought progressive politics this far. It is worth fighting for.