17 December 2019

Labour’s so-called moderates can’t escape the blame


It should not come as a surprise that moderate Labour MPs – that is, those MPs who consider themselves centre-left rather than hard left – wish to place 100% of the blame for their general election rout at the feet of Jeremy Corbyn.

But there is a staggering degree of deflection activity happening in the online comments and articles by those surviving parliamentarians who are already manoeuvring to impact the forthcoming leadership election.

It is, of course, entirely true that Corbyn turned out to be the worst candidate for prime minister that any of the main parties has ever proposed for the nation’s highest office. Anyone with just a passing familiarity with his past career knew this for a fact from the moment he was ill-advisedly nominated by duped and naïve parliamentary colleagues.

So the first charge to be levelled against the moderates is that, following the false dawn of the 2017 general election and Labour’s unexpectedly robust result at the polls, they capitulated. Yes, they still gave anonymous briefings to the press, but where it counted – in Parliament, in public, at local party meetings and in TV studios – they started singing from the same hymn sheet as Corbyn’s followers.

In Theresa May’s immortal words, nothing had changed: the man who took tea with repulsive anti-Semites and got himself arrested while protesting outside the trial of the Brighton bomber was still a terrible security threat; he was still inclined to take the side of whatever despotic and barbarous regime picked a fight with the UK. He still laid out the welcome mat to any wild-eyed conspiracy theorist and anti-Semite looking for a political home. But he seemed to be a vote winner, so that’s all that mattered, that’s all it took to get his formerly recalcitrant MPs on board.

So when these same MPs now tell interviewers that their leader constantly came up on the doorstep as a reason former Labour voters were turning their backs on the party, they should be reminded that it was they who agreed to campaign to make him prime minister, despite their own fears and judgment. As Obi-Wan Kenobi said to Han Solo: “Who’s the more foolish, the fool, or the fool who follows him?”

Just as the moderates refuse to countenance any other reason for the defeat than the figure of Corbyn, so Corbyn loyalists dishonestly claim that the fault lies solely with the party’s policy on Brexit. Neither side should fret: there’s plenty of blame to go round, more than enough to apply to both – and indeed, many other – issues.

And when it comes to Brexit, reaction to Labour’s promise of a second referendum is almost entirely the fault of the moderates. There is a fundamental principle in our democracy that when a referendum is held, and when all sides agree in advance that the voters’ verdict will be honoured, then the voters’ verdict should be honoured. It’s neither complicated nor controversial and it is eminently sensible.

Labour’s centre-left accepted, in the months following the June 2016 referendum, that Britain must leave the EU. What changed their minds was not a growing concern that the public had decided they wanted another go, or that they were suddenly convinced that the referendum was in some way invalid.

What changed their minds was the growing disunity in Theresa May’s government and the prospect that she might not actually get a withdrawal deal through the Commons. Labour’s volte-face was based on opportunism, pure and simple. There was no principle involved, other than a bewildering obeisance to cosmopolitan anger at the prospect of not getting their own way for once.

What did it matter that promises the party had made – in advance of the referendum and again in the party’s 2017 manifesto – were now to be reneged on? Constituencies that voted Leave would still vote Labour rather than opt for the Evil Tories. Probably.

It was an utterly dishonest and cynical act and the damage it did to the Labour Party last week was entirely deserved and justified. Never has the country witnessed such a brazen reversal of policy and principle as it saw in Labour’s actions these past two years.

There was much outrage over the weekend that Jeremy Corbyn seemed reluctant to accept his own culpability for Labour’s electoral disaster. But where was the Labour moderates’ public apology for attempting to reverse the result of a democratic referendum?

Is anyone in the hierarchy, any of those proud pro-Europeans who went on marches and signed petitions demanding a new vote – will any of them now accept they made a colossal mistake in forcing that position on their party? Do any one of them understand the visceral anger felt towards them – all of them, not just Corbyn – for that great betrayal?

Or are they too busy manoeuvring to take charge of the party, seeking to make the most of their post-election opportunity? Brexit may not be a central policy issue at the next general election campaign (and for what it’s worth, my bet’s on a May 2023 polling day, not a 2024 one) but it may still be an issue of personal principle and judgment, of character. Will those who proposed a rerun referendum now apologise? Or do they still think we’re too stupid to care?

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Tom Harris is a former Labour MP and the author of 'Ten Years in the Death of the Labour Party'