19 July 2019

Labour’s supine soft left MPs cower in the face of big decisions

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It is, to put it mildly, a rather crowded field. And yet this week may have seen a late and surprisingly competitive entry in the battle to hold the most ludicrous Brexit position in Parliament. The unwitting submission to this dubious title came from Sarah Champion, Labour MP for Rotherham, on Tuesday’s edition of the BBC’s Politics Live show. Asked to choose between no deal and no Brexit, Champion plumped squarely for the former. “If it came to it” she agonised, “I would take no deal if that meant we could leave”.

Now, there is nothing necessarily illogical about her choice but remember this also happens to be the same Sarah Champion who voted down Theresa May’s deal no less than three times earlier this year. At the time, Champion opposed the deal for not conceding enough ground on regulatory alignment with the EU. In other words, the deal was too hard a Brexit, but no deal is supposedly now OK. Got that? Me neither.

I should probably put on record that I have worked with Sarah Champion in my political past and found her to be a thoughtful and extremely hardworking MP. But, then again, regular readers of CapX will know that the absurdly specious Brexit stance of my own political tribe is something of a running frustration for me.

At least twenty-six Labour MPs are now on record as saying Brexit must happen, the vast majority of whom joined Champion in the no lobby every time they could, you know, make Brexit happen. But when this argument was politely put to the Rotherham MP she described that process as “poker” – a game to try and bounce the Prime Minister into further concessions. Once, maybe even twice: fine. But by the final vote, with May announcing her departure and even her likely successor lining up for the deal, surely this ‘game’ was transparently up? Apparently not.

Yet in truth Champion’s confession is revealing only in its mask-slip candour. The reality is her position – or something like it – speaks for a lot more Labour MPs than are willing to let on. Yes, ultimately many of her currently non-committal colleagues might break another way when faced with the dreaded ‘no deal or no Brexit?’ question.

But it is also undeniably true that a lot of Labour MPs – including, most obviously, the leadership – would much rather not make a decision at all. Or, to put it more darkly, that when faced with one of the most important and decisive choices of many a Parliament their first thought is towards minimising their own political culpability.

Perhaps this gets rather closer to the poker game Champion and colleagues were really playing. After all, there is a certain safety in numbers and it may just be easier to avoid a backlash for vacillating than it is for compromising with a hated Tory government. To be sure, this says something deep and worrying about how political accountability works in our parliamentary system.

But it may also say something even more urgent about the supine condition of Britain’s ‘soft’ centre-left. Because there is a depressing similarity here with that same group’s morally bankrupt acquiescence to Jeremy Corbyn’s racism-enabling leadership of the Labour Party.

For me, this capitulation is best understood psychologically rather than ideologically. Indeed, as far as I can see, the muscular Scandinavian-style social democracy Britain’s soft left cherishes seems much closer to the now reviled New Labour approach – which it largely supported – than it is to the Venezuelan vision Jeremy Corbyn has cited as a more hopeful alternative.

Yet despite this the soft left seems utterly incapable of defining itself in any way against anything to its left; a vainglorious intellectual blindspot that leaves it powerless to either constrain or meaningfully critique Corbynism.

This matters because it shows, perhaps, how ineffectual internal opposition to Corbyn might be in the event of a Labour Government. But more pressingly it may help explain the lack of urgency with which they have responded to the party’s shameful anti-Semitism scandal.

The question they must answer, asked with ever more desperation following the recent Panorama documentary, is how on earth they can in good conscience recommend Corbyn and his advisors to the British people? If they cannot do that they must do something about it and fast. But as with Brexit, they find themselves merely handwringing, hoping against hope that something just turns up.

For many people in this country the threat of a no deal Brexit and Labour’s anti-Semitism are two of the darkest shadows in a dark time for British politics. Labour’s soft left MPs could strike huge blows against both. Instead they are dithering.

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Alan Lockey is a former adviser to a Labour MP