26 April 2019

The breaking of Andrew Adonis is a revealing moment in our politics

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As recently as last December, Labour peer Andrew Adonis averred that “British politics for the next generation will divide into those who resisted Brexit and those who promoted or appeased it. I will never fully trust or respect anyone who wasn’t in the resistance from the beginning”.

That was then, however, and now is not then. Grasp this and everything which follows makes sense. Lord Adonis has aspirations to elected office and, like many before him, is prepared to swallow his scruples in the pursuit of that ambition. That a seat, for a short while, in the European Parliament, seems a meagre altar before which to sacrifice his principles appears to matter less than you might imagine.

Having gained a place on Labour’s candidate list for next month’s vote, Adonis released a statement of extraordinary hilarity: “In our dangerously divided society, Labour is the only political party seeking to bring remain and leave voters together so that we can get on with the job of ensuring our country works for the many, not the few.”

Labour, you see, “has always been clear that it respects the result of the referendum. What we do not respect is the way the Conservatives have sought to use Brexit to create a more unequal economy and a harsher society”. Tory Brexit bad; Labour Brexit good. “That is why Labour has put forward a sensible alternative plan that would ensure a close economic relationship with the EU after Brexit.”

“I do not believe” he continued, “that the real divide in our society is between people who voted to remain or to leave the EU. The real divide is between the many and the few. As socialists, we must stand up for the many.”

Deliciously, “A vote for Labour is a vote for so much more than Brexit” – though, by jove, it’s certainly a vote for Brexit too – “A vote for Labour is a vote for a more prosperous, fair and united country”. I imagine Seumas Milne enjoyed dictating that.

The recantation is not supposed to be believed. But unless he signs, Adonis cannot be humiliated and humiliating him is the purpose of the exercise. It is a demonstration of political muscle and, comrade, you get with the programme or the programme gets with you. Deviationism is not permitted.

Quite why the noble lord should wish to abase himself in this fashion is something that must, I’m afraid, remain mysterious. Never, though, discount the importance and power of vanity. If that requires Adonis to sign up to a pro-Brexit manifesto so be it. If it demands that he out himself, for perhaps the first time in his life, as a socialist then, well, what’s a little massaging of the truth between comrades?

As Robert Colvile, director of the Centre for Policy Studies, observed “But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved a Labour Brexit”. Well, indeed, it’s not just the politics of the year 1984 that are fashionable in Labour circles these days.

Again, the transparency of this nonsense is part of the point. If the Labour leadership can get to Adonis, hitherto one of the most passionate Remainers in Britain, they can get to anyone. There is a performative aspect to this as well as an exemplary one. When the party orthodoxy changes, you change too comrade. There is plenty of “I was for it before I was against but now I am for it again” in Labour circles these days.

Still, sometimes even forced confessions are illuminating and in this instance Adonis’s whimperings should at long last dispel any remaining hopes – still, I am afraid, cherished by many people who ought to know better – that Labour is an anti-Brexit party prepared to make a serious commitment to revisiting and perhaps reversing the referendum result. There will be no “People’s Vote” for Jeremy and Seumas and the boys are the only votes that matter. What do you think this is, a people’s party?

That suspicion was reconfirmed by the leaking of Labour’s draft election leaflets which, once again, made it clear Labour’s Brexit ambitions lie in achieving – how? – “a better deal with Europe”. With Labour, “Britain will have a proper say in future trade deals” – how? – “and businesses wouldn’t have to pay to trade with Europe”.

Words are only words and there is no need to be overly fond of them or be attached to their meaning. In this respect, the breaking of Andrew Adonis is a small but revealing moment in our politics.

The extraction of the confession is more important than its substance and the chief reason for putting Adonis on the rack is to demonstrate that the Labour leadership can do so. Trust us, they say, this is going to hurt you a lot more than it hurts us. This, I suppose, is what the new, kinder, gentler, politics means. Be warned, however, there will be a lot more of this in the future.

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Alex Massie is a political commentator.