Angela Eagle’s campaign and Labour’s crisis
Angela Eagle is someone I like on a personal level and respect, even if I don’t agree with her on various political issues. For her own good, as well as for the Labour party’s sake, she should reconsider her nascent Labour leadership bid.
Eagle is not a Blairite, but the key people behind her campaign are. It is a matter of public record that the likes of Peter Mandelson and ex-Shadow Chancellor Chris Leslie are key backers. They have enough political nous to understand that someone on Labour’s hard right would be decimated in a leadership contest — the admirable New Labourite Liz Kendall got 4.5% last year. So instead they are promoting someone they believe has ‘soft left’ credentials, but Eagle’s campaign will undoubtedly be a vehicle for Labour’s hard right. It is also clear that this faction have long prepared for a coup. A website for Eagle’s campaign was registered days before the coup began. The sacking of Hilary Benn — and the wrong-headed blaming of Jeremy Corbyn for the EU referendum result (as the pollster John Curtice points out, this accusation is completely unjust) — was the trigger for a long-standing plan. Much of Labour’s shadow benches were not in on this plan, but the crisis put other shadow ministers on the spot, leading to the shutting down of the Opposition at a time of national crisis and when the story should be about Tory disarray. If the plotters had any sense — or desire to confront the Tories — they would not have chosen a moment of national crisis to move, and they would have stood a stalking horse rather than shutting down the very functioning of the Opposition. The faction behind Eagle have thinly-veiled contempt for Labour’s membership.
I personally voted for Angela Eagle in Labour’s deputy leadership election, but it is worth pointing out she only came a poor fourth. Unlike 139 Labour MPs at the time, Eagle voted for the Iraq war, which is a totemic issue for many Labour party members. It was, after all, Britain’s biggest foreign policy disaster of our time, and how politicians voted on the invasion is seen as a real test of judgement. Last year she voted for intervention in Syria. It strikes me as far-fetched, to be diplomatic, to believe that the current Labour membership — who partly voted for Jeremy Corbyn last year because of a pledge to draw a line under New Labour’s foreign policy — would vote for a candidate with such a record. What would be the point of the exercise?
There are those now on Labour’s left and Labour’s right (and by that I mean Labour right-wingers in the Parliamentary Labour Party) who desire a split. It cannot be emphasised enough how disastrous such a split would be under our current electoral system, not least if there is no electoral pact between the two warring factions, which seems extremely unlikely. In many constituencies, particularly in the North and, say, Stoke-on-Trent, it would not just be Tories who would come through the middle (as happened in the 1983 general election after the SDP split from Labour), but UKIP too, particularly if the party chooses a replacement for Nigel Farage who is better placed to win over disillusioned working-class Labour voters. Look at Spain: they have a proportional electoral system, and still the radical Podemos and the social-democratic PSOE parties (sadly) failed to win enough support for a coalition government in recent elections. In Britain, the two different factions of Labour would be principally appealing to two different elements of the party’s crumbling electoral coalition with an outdated electoral system that would punish both. Britain would be consigned to decades of right-wing rule — with the Conservatives becoming the moderate centre party in comparison to a UKIP Parliamentary bloc. The left — in the broadest sense — could disappear as a mass political force.
Whatever misguided enthusiasm some on Labour’s left and the right have for a party split, it would be nothing short of a calamity. That’s what we’re currently sleepwalking towards. It would also be pointless. Labour’s parliamentary soft left have few substantial key policy differences with the Corbyn leadership. From the Iraq war to the economy, they’re in agreement. A notable exception is nuclear weapons: the soft left are divided over this question, though frankly doesn’t strike me as a totemic issue for many Corbyn supporters. Privately, their complaints focus on what they perceive as incompetence and a failure to effectively communicate. These are undeniably — whatever wing you hail from — the biggest challenges the Labour leadership faces. To split the party over those issues would be as tragic as it would be absurd.
There are some — on all wings — with little belief in Labourism: that is, a parliamentary wing of the labour movement that seeks to achieve political power to transform society in the interests of working people. On the one hand, the plan of some on Labour’s right to set up a socially liberal, economically liberal party — the political wing of The Economist magazine, basically — is doomed. And on the other, the idea that an entirely radical socialist party of my politics (rather than a broad left-of-centre coalition) could win an election on its own lacks any meaningful precedent. That has only happened once in post-war Europe — Syriza in Greece, and Greece is not only in a far graver social and economic crisis than Britain, it also has a proportional electoral system. I am not going to pretend I have an immediate answer to Labour’s crisis, and however much I’m hit by traffic in both directions, I can see the party is self-evidently edging towards a cliff edge, and I wish more shared my sleep-deprived terror-driven desperation to stop the party hurtling over it. Imagine this. It’s one or two years from now, and Britain’s Parliament has a massive Tory majority and a UKIP bloc of 40 to 50 MPs, while two Labour’s two warring factions have 150 seats between them. All wings of Labour have the power to stop this calamity from happening. However much their own supporters cheer them on in the here and now, they will be harshly judged by history if they fail to act accordingly.