3 September 2018

Labour’s original sin


The response of Wes Streeting, Labour MP for Ilford North, to the row surrounding Frank Field’s resignation of the Labour whip was typical of Labour moderates:

“The character assassinations of Frank Field have already begun, but the two issues he raises – antisemitism and the toxic political culture of our Party – must be addressed if we are to prevent this becoming a full-blown existential crisis for the Labour Party.”

One response to such a statement is to see it as a stern warning to Corbyn and his supporters.

Another is: “oh, come on.” How many obscene acts does Jeremy Corbyn have to commit, how much online thuggery from his supporters does the country have to tolerate, before “decent” Labour members stop swallowing down their vomit, and get rid of Jeremy Corbyn?

A few weeks ago, The Word magazine splashed its cover with a photo of Margaret Hodge, a Jewish Labour MP. Her photo was decorated with the headline “The Enemy Within”. This marked the stage, I thought, the descent-into-fully-Goebbelsian-repellance, when the “decent” Labour MPs would act.

I was wrong, of course. On and on the “moderates” like Wes go, tweeting their disgust at the party they also promote; their revulsion at the man they’re trying to make Prime Minister. As time passes and the moderates do precisely nothing, the more convinced I am that the relevant question isn’t “Why don’t they act?” but: How did the Labour Party come to incubate Corbynism in the first place?

After all, the idea of a Conservative with mirror-image views to Corbyn being selected as a parliamentary candidate is unimaginable, let alone such a creature becoming Tory leader. Neither Conservative Members of Parliament nor the ordinary party workers would tolerate such extremism. So why did Labour permit someone with Corbyn’s views, confrères, instincts and behaviour ever to hold the Labour whip? Why didn’t they expel him decades ago?

The answer to that question, I think, explains the psychological paralysis afflicting Labour’s members of Parliament. I said that a Tory-Corbyn is “unimaginable”: but such an assertion wouldn’t be accepted by the mainstream Left, would it? For Labour — not just the Corbynite squealers, but its moderate wing, its Blairites, its Old Labour social democrats — it is an article of faith that all Tories are bad.

I can’t think of any Tory leader who hasn’t paid homage to the decent and patriotic instincts of moderate Labour: the movement, its voters, its leaders. But neither can I recall a single example of any Labour politician in modern history who did anything but demonise Tories.

This goes deeper than the rubbish about the NHS that Labour produces at every single election — it’s a deliberate refusal to acknowledge that goodness can exist beyond Labour. This conflation of “Being Labour” with “Being a Good Person” is Labour’s original sin.

It has consequences to which Labour’s moderates appear blind, but which they ought to find instructive: watching their party over the last year or so, it’s been hard (for a Tory) to see the qualitative difference in the way the Labour “moderates” have been treated by the Corbynites — the campaigns of vilification and delegitimisation to which they’ve been subjected — and the way those same “moderates” have treated mainstream Tories my entire life.

You can hear it in the truly odd squawks of disbelief from the moderates, their endless lament that “Labour should be the natural party for Jewish people.” Why? You know, not being anti-Semitic would probably help, but absent that: why should Jewish people automatically vote en masse for any single party? We know why: because even moderate Labour thinks itself morally better than everyone else… and so we get to the root of the problem.

If your politics pivots on telling 40 per cent of the country it’s evil, or at least morally disordered, then you’ve kind of lost the right to be surprised when an even more extreme wing of your own movement decides to expand that proportion to 70 per cent, and to push you to the other side of the (self-)righteous barrier.

So expelling Corbyn wouldn’t cure Labour. Corbynism was a long time coming, and, crucially, not an accident. It is the inevitable outcome of a movement which refuses to accept that it can be anything but virtuous: from which it follows that anyone within its tent must also be virtuous.

Corbyn is Labour, and Labour is good, so Corbyn cannot be bad: the insistent syllogism that Labour’s subconscious has whispered in its members’ ears for decades.

Of course, Labour is then prey to wickedness originating from its own movement; it can’t develop antibodies against such a virus, because the virus is grown from its own DNA. Labour didn’t expel Corbyn when his abhorrent views became known in the 1980s because the party’s psychological conflation of “goodness” with “Labour” wouldn’t let it. They couldn’t even see it: Labour Good, not-Labour Bad runs too deep in the party’s psyche.

There are some very great minds on the Left. Would the owner of one of them, please, stand up, in public, and say “Corbyn is our fault, the necessary consequence of demonising everyone not-Labour, and insisting that our party alone is synonymous with virtue. We must change our approach to politics, in order to prevent it happening again. Labour aims to build the good life for Britain, but all of goodness does not reside within our party, as we’ve belatedly been made aware, so we will no longer act as though it were the case.”

Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters call a Jewish MP “The enemy within”; they’re wrong, of course, as well as disgusting. The real enemy within Labour is its dysfunctional reasoning about the nature of goodness, and its inability to see that voting Labour doesn’t make you a better person than the millions of people who don’t.

Graeme Archer is a statistician and writer.