The lost tribe of the centre ground

Jeremy Corbyn will be re-elected Labour leader today and a light will go out. A year ago, when this odd character was first shoved blinking and stumbling into the job, the shock was mitigated by the sense that an outcome so plainly ludicrous could only be a blip, and could not possibly last. And indeed, within 12 months — those months defined by a predictable and indeed predicted mix of comical incompetence, total political ineffectiveness, punishing civil war and vertiginously slumping poll numbers — his fellow MPs sought to remove him.

But when the result of that challenge is announced at a special conference in Liverpool this morning, Corbyn will have won handsomely for a second time. This time there will be no blinking or stumbling. The victory will have a darker hue and resound to the mad cackle of ego. It will feel like a door being slammed shut.

For many, this confirmation that Labour is now wholly owned and operated by the hard Left means an end to things. There are likely to be heavy resignations among the sensible bits of the party membership — certainly, those like me who joined earlier this year in a doomed attempt to give the country a credible opposition when it so badly needs one and to stop a loved institution falling into the hands of pirates, will go. I have cancelled my standing order: I would rather burn my money than see it fund this calamity.

But it won’t just be us lightweights. It is not hard to find examples of long-standing members — the rain-soaked door knockers, phone botherers and letterbox stuffers — who will, simply, give up; who refuse to be contaminated by association with the grotesquerie their party has become, or to in any way give it moral, statistical, financial or physical support.

Yesterday, in a series of tweets accompanied by the hashtag #GoodbyeLabour, and in words that will resonate widely, a member called Amanda Steadman succinctly explained why she would be walking away: ‘I’m expecting to leave Labour tomorrow. To all those who say “stay, fight”, I say: when do you say enough’s enough? Here are my reasons:

‘Leadership inward-looking, authoritarian, bullying and uninterested in winning a general election. Sixth-form sloganeering and a backward-looking socialism. Anti-EU and anti-internationalist. Foreign policy approach: opposed to Nato; unable to countenance using military force; in favour of unilateral disarmament.

‘Handed Brexit to Ukip & Tories on a plate; now failure to provide opposition to Hard Brexit. “Friend” of Hamas & Hezbollah: two groups combining anti-Semitism with theocracy, totalitarianism, homophobia & misogyny. Appearing on Iranian state TV; a theocracy which has executed thousands of homosexual men & hosts Holocaust denial conferences. Apologist for Sinn Fein/IRA, a reactionary, anti-democratic, terrorist, sectarian movement. Ignorance and tolerance of anti-Semitism.’

I’m not sure this is a great idea

It’s some list, isn’t it? It’s not even comprehensive — but enough is certainly enough. Labour has scanned down that long charge sheet, had a good think to itself and then willingly recommitted to being run by an unholy mix of intolerant bigots and unreconstructed revolutionary socialists. It has turned its back on the wider electorate and especially on those who rely most on the moral weight of the empathetic centre-Left. This is both shameful and profoundly saddening.

It has also given us the pathetic spectacle of non-Corbynite MPs sweatily attempting to outdo one another in their breast-thumping pledges to stay with the party and ‘never quit’, as if their football team had just been relegated and they were bidding for the most loyal fan award. Do not underestimate the role self-preservation is playing here. When I asked a senior Labour figure what lay behind suggestions the rebels might rejoin the shadow Cabinet in the event of another Corbyn win, he put it like this: ‘There’s fear of deselection. It’s bad enough being suspected of not being a Corbynite, but if “blatant disrespect for a twice democratically elected leader” is added to the charge sheet, few local members would back you. It’s also part loyalty to Labour — remember, the Tories are a club, Labour is a family. Then some of them think they should get involved to fight alongside Corbyn. And it’s also partly thinking that there is now no alternative to cooperation other than leaving, and we’ll be buggered if he gets the prize of “our” party.’

There is therefore a pronounced posture of ‘let’s wait it out’ in the PLP, and Corbyn’s talk of building unity in the aftermath of the leadership election may have given them some hope. But hints of looming mandatory reselection of MPs refuse to go away, and an increasingly Trot-heavy membership is anyway likely to force changes in elected personnel.

The idea that the hard-Left goons around the leader have any interest in compromising with the party’s MPs (far less the electorate) is for the birds. They are playing a long game to reshape Labour for good, and will use every internal tool and lever available to them to dig in. Even the inevitable general election trouncing will not shake them — it is permanent cultural change they seek, in the belief this will open up eventual political opportunity. If you doubt me, look at the announcement this week of the creation of ‘Momentum Kids’, a new venture by the Corbynite group that will provide childcare and also ‘increase children’s involvement in Momentum and the Labour movement by promoting political activity that is fun, engaging and child-friendly’. This — I kid you not — is straight from the Hamas playbook.

If the MPs have decided to wait it out, let them. But not everyone will. There is now a wandering tribe of political refugees in the United Kingdom, chased into lonely exile by events beyond their control. Some are those mentioned above — activists who can no longer reconcile their consciences to the direction and behaviour of their former party. Yet more are centrists of all origins, whose ideas have largely dominated the country’s politics for two decades and who find themselves gaping aghast at the binary ideological divisions that are suddenly opening up.

Into the desert we go

If Labour is barren ground for these people, then the current Conservative Party seems no less an inhospitable environment. It is a place of hard Brexit and grammar schools, of refighting silly old battles over fox-hunting, of the bumptious roar of a routed ruling class reclaiming its throne. For all the past impact of Theresa May’s ‘nasty party’ rhetoric, for all her fine words on the steps of Number 10 about social injustice and opportunity, the contours of the government that is emerging are worryingly and familiarly sharp-edged.

In a thoughtful speech in Chicago on Thursday night, the former Chancellor George Osborne — a true liberal Tory, if one who while in office too often put calculation before principle — fired a shot across the bows of the flinty-eyed, out-at-all-costs Brexiters who are his successors. Mr Osborne warned against the ‘take-or-leave it bravado we hear from those who assume Europe has no option but to give us everything we want’. He also reminded us that ‘Britain cannot choose the continent we exist in. We are — and have always been — a European power. Our economy is completely intertwined with the European economy — and always has been. And our security is also completely interdependent with the continent of Europe. Two thousand years of British history, from the Roman invasion to the Battle of Britain, have taught us that. Each and every time we have tried to disengage from Europe, and wipe our hands of its problems, it has been a disaster for Britain and a tragedy for our continent.’

The noisy flight to the high ground of ideology that we are witnessing on both Left and Right should not, I would argue, make our hearts sing. It promises a return to the politics of ‘a price worth paying’ — that is, where it is seen as acceptable to inflict suffering on people if it ultimately serves your visionary ends. It begets division, rancour and unfairness. There is a new belligerence to our debate, an unbecoming certainty of mind, that surely bodes ill.

I nodded in recognition yesterday at the news that Lord O’Neill, who under David Cameron drove the Northern Powerhouse project, has not only become the first minister to resign from Mrs May’s government, but has left the Tory side of the Lords to sit on the unaligned crossbenches. Most of us may lack fancy titles and ermine robes, and no one may be paying us much attention in the excitement of the moment, but I suspect the public equivalent of those crossbenches is about to get rather crowded.

This article appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on September 24, 2016

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