28 September 2016

It’s harder than ever to imagine a Labour government


Allow me to be the first to congratulate Theresa May on becoming Britain’s longest-serving Prime Minister. It’s a bit presumptuous, I know, given that Sir Robert Walpole’s record can only be beaten in 2037. Yet May now faces an easy run to the title – thanks, in large part, to John McDonnell.

The Shadow Chancellor perhaps didn’t see the memo meant to remind him that no politician in their right mind quotes John Lennon’s Imagine in a conference speech, even one delivered in Liverpool. Not just because nothing written by human hand contains as much distilled nonsense as that one song, but because it’s such a mawkish cliché – the political equivalent of turning up drunk, sloshing a Russian vodka over the lectern, and announcing that ‘I love you all’ before hiccupping loudly into the mic.

Labour’s chief dreamer – yes, I do say that he is one – wants Labour supporters to abandon their differences. The fractious leadership contest now behind it, the party is looking to unite under its leader. Of course, there’s a fine line between restoring unity and imposing it: after all: nothing says “party unity” quite like the shadow defence secretary punching a wall

Yet Labour’s problem is not that it doesn’t have political imagination, but that it has an excess of it. Corbyn sits at his white baby grand, tinkling the synthetic ivories, as McDonnell leans against his shoulder. They sing about preparing for government, about having the right plans and policies in place, and about building a society that’s “radically transformed”.

The thing is that even if the lyrics are memorable, there is a problem with the delivery. Corbyn, for all his sartorial flaws, is capable of carrying the tune: hence his re-election by the adoring Labour faithful. But this modern Lennon’s greatest weakness is his devotion to Yoko – who even in a smart suit cannot disguise the ideological certainty and presentational naivety that once led him to wave his pocket Mao at the Despatch Box.

John McDonnell’s bumbling performance on Monday’s Newsnight was typical of the Shadow Chancellor: light on policy detail but long on words. It is a style heard throughout this second incarnation of new Old Labour, for example in the breathless forays into partyspeak by Dianne Abbott and Emily Thornberry. The party has moved so far to the left that it has brought perennial satellites such as Ken Livingstone and George Galloway back into close orbit. The result is that Labour in Liverpool began to resemble a conclave of mystics, gathering to swap crystals and sing songs beneath pyramids imbued with magic.

There is, of course, nothing magical about politics, and especially the politics of winning elections. British prime ministers have long understood that, to gain power, they must establish a strong connection with the majority of the people. It is why John Major went on the hustings carrying a soapbox and why Harold Wilson smoked a pipe in public but cigars in private.

It is also why Tony Blair worked so hard to mimic Conservatism, absorbing nutrients from the centre right but keeping the earthy moral goodness of the centre left. The British public, indifferent to ideology, bought into the symbiosis – indeed, for a time, it was believed that no political force would ever shift New Labour from government.

“The greatest threat to Labour’s hold on power is not the prospect of a Conservative revival but the very real possibility that, faced with the futility of its present course, it will simply lose the will to govern,” wrote David Clark in The Guardian back in 2004. In the New Labour journal, Progress, Hazel Blears went even further, suggesting that “It is possible that Labour can govern for decades, not merely years.”

New Labour did fail, and it failed rather quickly. Yet the failure was not one of concept but of execution. The Iraq War blighted Tony Blair’s reputation, giving his opponents on the left of his party a chance to traduce his legacy and to spread discord throughout the party. Gordon Brown then produced one of Britain’s least convincing electoral performances – which Ed Miliband managed to repeat by losing an election on personality as much as policy.

Labour, unable to find the totemic figure that all parties need in order to bind them together, then allowed the old militant Left to have the loudest voice in its leadership contest. They elected their own totem – but he is a totem for the few and not the many.

As such a totemic figure, Corbyn’s re-election makes perfect sense. He represents a faith in something other than the empirical evidence; a magical force in politics, perhaps, that will see the consensus shift dramatically to the left.

Yet it is less of a conviction and more of a feeling. “Surely,” they seem to think, “a nation cannot keep electing Tory governments!” The problem for Labour is that the nation can, could, and very well might.

That is the cold reality that cannot be easily folded into John McDonnell’s socialist imaginings. When Tom Watson took to the stage on Tuesday, the Paul McCartney of the party received rapturous applause with the political equivalent of The Frog Chorus, all reassuring croaks and a memorable lyric about standing together – alongside more than a hint that, like Paul, he thought he’d be rather better at running the show than John.

“It’s time for Labour to get back to business,” Watson declared, once he’d finished with the Corbyn-taunting paeans to Blair and Brown. “Time to get the band back together.”

The problem is that the band once capable of penning popular hits now pursues its own muse. The Labour leadership see popularism as selling out, believing instead that the audience will indulge their experiments in the avant-garde.

McDonnell might well quote Imagine but he is spiritually closer to that other Lennon song, I am the Walrus. He is the eggman. They are the eggmen. Naively believing that:

Sitting in an English garden waiting for the sun.
If the sun don’t come
You get a tan from standing in the English rain.

David Waywell writes and cartoons at The Spine.