There’s an old saying in Texas: You gotta dance with the one that brung ya.
It’s a blend of southern chivalry and clear-eyed pragmatism. It came to mind more than once in the past seven days.
Two things happened in that time that tell you all you need to know about politics.
Labour’s unexpectedly enlarged parliamentary party lined the steps of Westminster Hall for their new group photo. The Class of 2017 was all smiles and greeted their leader with the wearingly ubiquitous chant, ‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn’. That few of them had previously supported his leadership — indeed many called publicly for his ouster — was all forgotten, the bad blood sweetened by surprise success at the polls.
Then Chuka Umunna went and spoiled it all. The moderate MP tabled an amendment to the Queen’s Speech urging Britain to remain in the single market after it leaves the European Union. This runs contrary to Labour Party policy which is to support a hard Brexit — a fact now slowly, and deliciously, dawning on Mr Corbyn’s excitable teenage fan club. Fifty Labour MPs voted to back Mr Umunna’s amendment and the UK’s continued membership of the trading area.
Retribution was swift and merciless. Frontbench rebels were sacked and Mr Umunna’s move dismissed as ‘virtue signalling’ by Emily Thornberry, shadow foreign secretary and Corbyn ally. Somehow Labour has got itself into a position where Emily Thornberry is to the right of Chuka Umunna and the party’s stance on Brexit is being praised by Nigel Farage. Roy Jenkins must be spinning in his grave and, for all we know, now in favour of hanging and full communism.
Labour Remainers must face up to the uncomfortable truth: Their party is no longer committed to the European project. Labour and the Tories want to leave Europe to different ends but the terms are much the same. Jeremy Corbyn’s vision — ‘Jexit’ anyone? — is of a Britain freed from the pro-market strictures of Brussels to pursue a reheated 1970s socialism. That is incompatible with membership of the single market and the customs union, not to mention the flow of cheap labour permitted by freedom of movement.
Remainers within Labour feel distraught and powerless to stop this two-pronged transformation of their party into a semi-Marxist post-European outfit. The lightning speed at which these changes have occurred is dizzying but MPs will have to steady themselves and make a choice. Do they want a Labour government or do they want Britain to be in the single market?
It will be an agonising dilemma for many but one they cannot continue to dodge. Labour moderates cannot cheer the Jeremy Corbyn who brought them 30 extra seats while demanding he be a Jeremy Corbyn that might have lost 30 seats. Mr Corbyn’s support for Brexit may have gone unnoticed by the young but in struggling Middle Britain it was the icebreaker between Labour and those who would otherwise not have considered a vote for them.
Labour Remainers either have to reconcile themselves to these new political realities or make their own exit and set up a pro-European centrist party. It’s not their Labour Party anymore. It belongs to him.
The one part of the ‘Labour family’ — a phrase that always makes me think of the Corleones — where harmony reigns is north of the Border. Ironically, a regional branch that was once the source of endless division, Scottish Labour offers a model for uniting the party in fractious times. This is largely because Kezia Dugdale enjoys a good deal of autonomy as Scottish leader and has carved out a strong position, opposing Tory austerity at Westminster and SNP cuts at Holyrood. An insider tells me: ‘Scottish Labour now has its own distinct message, while still being part of something larger.’
It is no secret that Miss Dugdale does not share her national leader’s hard-Left outlook but the two have formed an unlikely, unspoken alliance. While Mr Corbyn did most of the heavy-lifting in the election campaign down south, Labour’s success in Scotland was a two-person job. Miss Dugdale firmed up Labour’s opposition to independence and got stuck into Nicola Sturgeon while Comrade Corbyn told the prodigal proletariat that Labour had come back and so could they. Without one, the other could not have pulled it off. Jezza and Kezza, the oddest double act since Syd Little and Eddie Large got in front of a TV camera.
This gives Miss Dugdale scope to lead her party as she sees fit but she is doing so in a way that respects Mr Corbyn’s mandate and his popularity with a huge chunk of the electorate. As my insider explains:
The political arguments are different in Scotland because of the constitutional division. Kez has spent a long time ensuring that voters know the Labour Party is firmly opposed to independence, and exposing the SNP’s woeful record in areas such as education and health. When you can then marry that with the UK Labour manifesto, which proved incredibly popular, it’s a powerful combination. You can’t just have a pro-Union message, and you can’t just have an anti-austerity message in Scotland – you need both. Kez has managed to bring that dual message together.
This points a way forward for the Labour Party nationally. Independent-mindedness and mutual respect are the only way to keep the ‘Labour family’ together. This doesn’t change the facts about Mr Corbyn. He is no less an apologist for the IRA, no less a silent onlooker as repugnant prejudices against Jewish people and Israel have become mainstream in Labour politics. His arrival in Number 10 would be unconscionable but it is no longer unthinkable.
Were I a Labour MP, I would be heading out the door. But I’m not and those who are and wish to remain so will have to learn a little bit from Scotland and a little bit from Texas. Jeremy Corbyn has brung them this far but now his critics will have to pull their dancing shoes on.
Commons Speaker John Bercow has loosened the rules on MPs’ attire to fit in with our casual times. Male parliamentarians will no longer have to wear a tie if they wish to be called in debates. Why anyone would want to make it easier for MPs to speak is beyond me but millennials think Parliament is too stuffy and everyone must genuflect to our over-educated, under-taught new masters.
Could the grown-ups take charge again, please? When MPs are at Glastonbury, where they seem to spend most of their time these days, they can deck out in a kaftan and a glowstick necklace for all I care but when they rise in Parliament they ought to show some respect and decorum.
Then again, if MPs truly want an informal workplace, we can get rid of the rather grand Palace of Westminster and its subsidised bars and restaurants. Deal?
That sound you just heard was a few hundred ties being hastily knotted up.
Feigned outrage in Natland after Ruth Davidson posted a sexy picture of Gillian Anderson on Twitter. Apparently the Tory leader was ‘objectifying’ the X-Files actress. No, me neither. Miss Davidson’s ever-rising star has driven the SNP into a kind of mania: Ruth Derangement Syndrome. It’s even more delightful to behold than Miss Anderson.
Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at email@example.com.
Feature image © Chatham House by Creative Commons 2.0.