He has already changed the Labour Party. That is what Laura Kuenssberg – the BBC’s new political editor – shouted to viewers of the Corporation’s Ten’o’clock news last night. She had to shout because she was reporting from the middle of the very loud, final rally of Jeremy Corbyn’s likely-to-be-successful campaign to succeed Ed Miliband. It was more of a revivalist rally than a political meeting.
That Mr Corbyn has changed Labour is certainly what the Tory leadership wants Britain to think, too. One senior Cabinet minister told me this week that “any idiot” could convince the British people that Jeremy Corbyn was unfit to be prime minister and, in fact, the MP for Islington North would succeed in doing that himself. The challenge was to taint the whole Labour movement with his extreme views.
So get ready for Operation Red Contagion. Mr Corbyn’s leadership may not last long but the Tory leadership wants to use the time he is in charge to ensure that the Labour brand gets painted in the deepest of red colours.
At PMQs Mr Cameron will challenge Labour MPs to say whether Mr Corbyn is fit to be prime minister. They stay silent (“cowards flinch and traitors sneer” after all) and therefore undermine him or they cheer their leader and become guiltier by association and guiltier every week that they do not move against him.
And Labour moderates may want to hide away because they’re about to face non-stop questioning of where their true allegiances lie – to Mr Corbyn’s militancy or to the kind of Labour values that underpinned Tony Blair’s successes?
- Mr Umunna, do you also regard Hamas and Hezbollah as your “friends”, think Britain should give up Trident and that we’re wrong to bomb ISIL?
- Ms Cooper, can the country really afford to abolish tuition fees, nationalise the railways and give large pay increases to public sector workers all at the same time?
- Mr Burnham, do you also believe that the Bank of England should print money and spend it on infrastructure and on reopening dirty, polluting coalmines?
- And, Ms Kendall, wasn’t it a bit odd of Mr Corbyn to divorce his wife because she wanted to send their child to private school?
Tories see this as an historic opportunity to knock Labour off the moral high ground. Even when Labour mess up (and every Labour government increases debt, unemployment and taxes) a lot of voters still think the party’s heart is in the right place. So long, however, as the party is led by a leader who excuses the IRA, Islamist terror groups, Putin’s expansionism and trade union militancy Labour risks putting its moral authority in grave danger.
There’s always been a nastiness on the Left. The Guardian is currently selling T-shirts (inspired by Bevan) that describe the Tories as lower than vermin. Harry Leslie Smith – who is now a regular turn at Labour Party events – compares Rebekah Brooks of News UK to Joseph Goebbels. An effigy of Margaret Thatcher in a coffin is paraded at the Durham Miners’ Gala – with a “rest in hell” message daubed upon it. At that Gala Len McCluskey attacks Tory ministers as “thieving bastards”. Throughout the Labour leadership campaign the Twitter accounts of too many Corbyn supporters have routinely been vile, anti-Semitic and misogynistic. There’s nastiness on the Right too, of course but the Right has rarely enjoyed the moral high ground. Because many on the Left feel they are doing the work of God (or Marx) they feel even the worst of behaviour is ultimately in service of a good cause.
It’s possible, of course, that Jeremy Corbyn won’t win tomorrow. If he falls short it will be narrowly, however. The Left will feel empowered and will drag any sensible leader away from the mainstream. We might even be seeing the beginning of the kind of split on the Left that has already occurred in many advanced democracies. But if Corbyn does inherit the party of Brown and Blair the moderates within Labour have a big choice. If they are silent they’ll risk guilt by association and they’ll be attacked by the Tories as sell-outs. If they fight against Corbynisation they’ll risk splitting the Labour party. The attacks in such circumstances won’t come from the Tories but from their own side. They’ll be the allies of “Joseph Goebbels” and “thieving bastards”. I fear British politics is about to get very ugly indeed.