Last week the Labour MP Alison McGovern explained that being likened to a Conservative was the worst insult she could think of. She had been willing to work with Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell when she knew he had been an IRA sympathiser but she found it too much when she learnt that he had accused the Progress group of having a “conservative agenda”. Are we Tories really that bad? Ms McGovern’s colleague, Toby Perkins MP once Tweeted to me that “You Tories never understand how much we hate you”. He later apologised for the remark but there is no doubt that many political partisans often feel great hostility for each other.
As the years have gone on and my hair has become greyer so the political world has appeared less black and white to me. At least until Jeremy Corbyn became its leader I had felt a deepening affection for the Labour Party, its values, its traditions and many of its members. Some of the best people I know have given the best parts of their adult lives to Labour politics.
The Labour and Conservative parties are partners as well as competitors. Britain’s two dominant parties build on each other’s work as much as correct it. It’s one reason why I possess a patriotic fondness for Labour as well as a partisan rivalry. I can think of many things that the Blair-Brown governments did that benefited Britain and which a Tory-led government would unlikely to have initiated (but has now embraced – and sometimes extended). The minimum wage. Free access to museums and galleries. The targeting of institutional racism in public bodies like the Metropolitan Police. The smoking ban in public places. The (near) abolition of hereditary peers. The establishment of the Department of International Development. Active measures to increase the diversity of parliament. A lower age of consent for gay men.
I have mixed emotions therefore when I watch the Labour leader give a disastrous interview of the kind Mr Corbyn gave to Andrew Marr yesterday. The Leader of the Opposition supported the return of secondary picketing, talks with Argentina about the future of the Falklands (against the clearly expressed wishes of its British islanders), outreach to ISIS and the economic and strategic nonsense of Trident submarines without warheads. It was a disastrous interview that deserved the terrible press it has received.
The Tory in me takes pleasure in the weakness of the alternative party of government but the patriot in me worries at the absence of the opposition and, of the decay of a party that has often been such a force for progress. The most worrying feature of Labour decline, however, is the lack of a plan from moderates to change things. At the moment Labour is slipping further away from its best traditions.
Since Jeremy Corbyn won an astonishing 59.5% of the vote in last year’s Labour leadership contest his grip on his party has become still firmer. Seven trends and facts stand out:
1. The Guardian has revealed that membership has grown from 201,293 last May to 388,407 today. These 200,000 plus new members aren’t joining to oust Mr Corbyn – they’re joining to protect his leadership and give him the kind of “roaring standing ovation” that he received at Saturday’s Fabian Society conference (a gathering, it should be noted, which attracted a record attendance).
2. I write “200,000 plus new members” because Labour has lost members as well as gained them. Some estimates suggest 15,000 have walked away. Others, notably Lord Mandelson, put the number of resignations and lapsed memberships at 30,000. The “ihaveleftLabour” Twitter account is keeping track of the more moderate Labour members like Dan Hodges who have given up. One Labour MP told me of her despair at resignations from her constituency party. She talked of the departure of now older members who had fought Militant and other extremists in the 1980s and weren’t willing to give up their evenings and lives to do it all over again. The spite and antagonism on social media had contributed to their quitting Labour’s ranks.
3. The National Executive Committee is inevitably moving further towards the Left – reflecting the transformed nature of Labour’s membership. Last year’s purging of the Blairite Community union from the ruling body was just the start of a process that will see power in the democratised Labour Party move from MPs to the NEC.
4. The Momentum pressure group will punish moderate Labour MPs who do not toe the Corbyn line. The reduction in the number of MPs from 650 to 600 and the accompanying redrawing of constituency boundaries mean that “troublemaking” MPs risk being deselected by Labour’s new, radicalised rank-and-file. The “lobbying” of MPs during the Syria vote provided a taste of things to come.
5. It’s not just Labour members who like Corbyn. A majority of the diminishing number of Labour voters also approve. Despite the fact that only 22% of all voters think he’d make a good prime minister, 58% of Labour voters told YouGov that they want him to remain as Labour leader – nearly twice as many (33%) who want him to step down. Union leaders tempted to move against Mr Corbyn know this, too. As James Forsyth concluded in this week’s Spectator: “the general secretaries know that their own re-election depends on maintaining a certain level of Corbynite support.”
6. The recent longest-reshuffle-in-history may not have achieved everything Jeremy Corbyn wanted (Hillary Benn is still in his foreign affairs post, after all) but the unilateralist disarmer Emily Thornberry now holds the nuclear-submarines-without-nuclear-weapons brief and the plain-speaking Michael Dugher and Pat McFadden were both sacked for too much, well, plain-speaking.
7. Jeremy Corbyn isn’t just benefiting from a peculiarly UK phenomenon. While they have been helped by the extraordinary arrogance of the Blairites we are seeing a global rise of an angry, anti-business, anti-austerity Left. Die Linke in Germany, Bernie Sanders in America, Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece and, nearer to home, the SNP in Scotland. The Corbyn phenomenon may be an extreme manifestation of the traditional Left’s global reawakening but it is part of an uprising that is unlikely to subside for some time.
Some Labour backbenchers like John Woodcock are fighting hard against the takeover but most Labour MPs are behaving in the most pusillanimous of ways – especially those who are serving on Jeremy Corbyn’s frontbench. They are providing cover for his main project – which is to ensure the radical Left gains comprehensive control of the party apparatus – a project that progresses with every day that passes. The internet age means that it’s never been easier to form a new political party but where is the plan to form a post-Corbyn, post-Blair vehicle for the values that moderate Labour represents? All who care about good government – including the Conservatives – need that plan.