24 September 2020

The hard left have been crushed, now for the purge of the Corbynites

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Among the merits of Keir Starmer’s Labour conference speech on Tuesday is that it wasn’t Delphic. It could scarcely have been a clearer repudiation of the record of his predecessor. Whereas after Labour’s catastrophic defeat in December Jeremy Corbyn claimed to have won the argument, Starmer said: “When you lose an election in a democracy, you deserve to.”

It wasn’t the only deliberate contrast. Labour has deep historical roots in British Jewry, and leaders including Hugh Gaitskell, Harold Wilson, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have been committed friends of Israel. The choice of Ruth Smeeth, who as a Labour MP was the target of antisemitism by party activists, to introduce Starmer’s speech was a deliberate sign that the recrudescence of bigotry under Corbyn will be rolled back. There is no more basic moral responsibility of a political party than to fight xenophobia; Corbyn’s leadership instead exemplified it.

All of this is a powerful and welcome signal from Starmer that Labour has changed. To a longstanding Labour voter like me, who abandoned the party in 2019 in revulsion at the antisemitism that it not only tolerated, but in Corbyn’s case allied with and encouraged, this is vital. I didn’t expect it; when he was running for the leadership, Starmer struck me as an emollient figure rather than one who would engage in a necessary process of destroying his predecessor’s legacy. I’m delighted to see what he’s done. And it bears spelling out that it concludes a historically remarkable episode in British politics.

For the first time, a mainstream political party was captured by a revolutionary fringe; and as quickly as that fringe waxed, it has now been routed. Starmer has won a comprehensive triumph over the far left but he should show no magnanimity in victory. It matters for Labour’s future that nothing like the Corbyn leadership should ever happen again.

The objection to Corbyn and his circle is not that they were “too left-wing”. Labour has always represented a broad coalition of interests and philosophies, in which advocates of greater economic collectivism and nuclear pacifism have a place. These policies earned the party successive huge electoral defeats in the 1980s, yet the figure who above all espoused them, Michael Foot, was a decent man who was passionately committed to constitutional politics. He also despised despotism, including the Argentine junta that invaded the Falkland Islands in 1982 and the genocidal regime of Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s.

The Corbyn fringe was different from this. It indulged autocracy rather than opposed it, as evinced by Corbyn’s pitiful eagerness to exonerate Vladimir Putin’s regime from using a nerve agent in a British city. And the more thoughtful people within it, notably John McDonnell, explicitly drew on philosophical inspiration that is alien to the constitutional values that Labour has historically upheld. More than 50 years ago, in a landmark study titled The Revolutionary Movement in Britain, 1900–21 the labour historian Walter Kendall set out the history of the founding of the Communist Party in Britain. He demonstrated conclusively that the Bolshevik putsch in 1917 had driven the far left in Britain on to a path quite different from that of Britain’s authentic working-class movement.

When he was a backbencher with no expectation of frontbench office, as recently as 2006, McDonnell declared in an interview with the New Statesman that Lenin and Trotsky were his “most significant” political influences. It should not need pointing out that Lenin sought the defeat of “venal and rotten parliamentarism” whereas Trotsky was responsible for the butchery and slaughter of hundreds of protesting sailors in the Kronstadt uprising of 1921. Again and again, in his political activism, McDonnell would stress the need for a “revolutionary transformation” of Britain.

This is not Labour’s tradition. The party has many flaws and historical failings but it almost always (not quite invariably, as in the case of Ken Livingstone) attracted my vote up to 2019 for a single reason. When in government, it has usually made Britain a freer and more tolerant place than it was before. The great liberalising reforms of the 1960s on censorship, capital punishment, divorce, abortion and race relations owed much to the influence of Roy Jenkins as Home Secretary. Civil partnerships for same-sex couples were a great achievement of a Labour government decades later. And when in government, the party has invariably defended national security, not least in being instrumental in the founding of Nato in 1949. Its record is chequered in many areas but the party has been overall a net force for good in British society.

Starmer has cannily called for a “new management”, implying his difference from Corbyn as well as from a floundering Conservative government. But his supersession of Labour’s previous leadership is more important even than his slogan implies. Owing to a ramshackle structure and the culpable insouciance of Ed Miliband, as Labour leader from 2010-15, in bequeathing it, Labour was taken over by an atavistic form of politics that repelled the party’s voters and literally caused fear among British Jews. Reportedly, members who flooded into the party under Corbyn are leaving in disillusion.

That’s an excellent sign and Starmer can congratulate himself on a job well done. But it shouldn’t end there. Now is not the time to start a new front against a defeated force, but one by one the tribunes of the previous management should be picked off and expelled from the party. Clement Attlee did it to a group of Labour MPs, notably Konni Zilliacus and John Platts-Mills, who were more loyal to Soviet Communism than they were to Labour. Starmer should progressively thin the ranks of his enemies within the party by isolating and expelling them. Corbyn and McDonnell themselves can be left till last. There can be no statute of limitations for their baneful influence on a party whose values they’ve never supported, and there should be no stinting on the recriminations against them.

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Oliver Kamm is a leader writer and columnist for The Times.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.