19 January 2016

Labour’s moderates are sunk


In sport, the unexpected is a constant source of delight. At the beginning of the current cricket series against South Africa, there were still doubts about Ben Stokes. Was he really Test class? Then he strode to the wicket, pulverised the bowling, dominated the ground and saved the match, ensuring that England would win the series. One of the most thrilling innings in the history of the game sent the commentators on a futile search for adequate superlatives. No, he was not Test class. He was world class. He may well be all-time class.

From the sublime to the ridiculous. A year ago, if you had mentioned Jeremy Corbyn, the reply would have been: ‘is he still in the House?’ If anyone had said ‘Yes, and he is going to be the next Labour leader’, he would have been laughed to scorn. In Tory dreams, in Labour nightmares – but it would never happen. At the last Night of the Proms, Malcolm Sargent liked to keep a couple of bars ahead of the promenaders. Today, Jeremy Corbyn likes to keep a couple of blocks ahead of his deriders. A Trident submarine without warheads? You could not make it up. Admittedly, there is almost a precedent. With the aircraft carriers, Gordon Brown tried to turn defence procurement into a job creation scheme for Rosyth in his constituency, but a naval rationale could be invented. The latest Corbyn betise: I cannot think of a more fatuous proposal ever by the leader of a major party.

Yet his leadership is sailing on. That Oldham by-election back in December may turn out to be the most important by-election in British political history. Up to now, East Fulham in 1933 took the laurels, because a dramatic Labour gain was said to have postponed rearmament. But that is a doubtful claim, whereas there is no doubt that the Oldham result has postponed the rearming of the Labour moderates, sine die. If, as was expected, Labour had done badly, Mr Corbyn would have been under pressure. If, as had not been deemed impossible, Labour had lost, the party’s moderate mice would surely have recovered their manhood. But a swing to Labour? Like Ben Stokes after he had smashed his way past his first fifty, Jeremy Corbyn is not stopping.

Nor can he be blamed. He did not invent the electoral system which swept him to the leadership. That is an example of the threat from group-think. Everyone talked about the need to attract the young, to reach out to alienated voters, to those who had been put off politics by Westminster’s antique arcana. No-one said: ‘Hoi, hold on a moment. This would mean that every Trot in the country could join the Labour Party for the price of a pint in the local Poly bar.’ So it did: so they did. Equally, the moderates were pathetic. There must be a factory somewhere which turns time-expired bank cards into cheap utensils – and the Labour politicians who opposed Jeremy Corbyn. Not one of their statements in the course of that contest was as good is the least shot in Ben Stokes’s innings. Liz Kendall is especially to blame. She does have a brain and it is not made of plastic. She does have beliefs, so why did she feel the need to muffle them? She came a bad last, which is what she deserved. If she had aspired to a Gaitskell moment, and fought, fought and fought again for the party she loved, she would probably not have defeated the electoral system. But she would be the acknowledged leader of the sane wing of the Labour party. More important still, she would have been entitled to self-respect. Instead, as Jim Laker used to say, it was ‘Out for a duck, and lucky to get that.’

So where do the moderates go next? In some cases, the answer to that question may be: out of politics. You are fifty. You were a Parly Sec under Gordon Brown, expecting promotion when Labour won. By now, you would have been in the Cabinet. Suppose it takes fifteen years to recapture the party? They will not be enjoyable years. At the end – even assuming that you are successful – you may be too old for the promised land. Fifty: plenty of time and energy for another career, better paid – and vastly less frustrating. I am told that the smart head-hunters are aware of all that.

There is an alternative: the SDP Mark Two. But that does not seem an inspiring precedent. Moreover, where are Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, David Owen, David Steel? If they could not break the mould, what chance have the escapees from the plastic factory?

Yet matters might not be as hopeless as all that. Liz Kendall has one advantage. She did so badly that no-one noticed. You cannot be written off if you were never written on. Back to the nets for her; work on her courage, and she could have a second innings. There is also Major Dan Jarvis, late of the Parachute Regiment. His courage is not in question. Moreover, Labour survived the SDP because Neil Kinnock began the move away from the Left. Who could do that today? If Jeremy Corbyn went, his successor would be John McDonnell. The Tories have two related anxieties about Jeremy Corbyn. The first is that he will come across as likeable and win a sympathy vote. The second, that if David Cameron hit him hard, he would break. None of that is true about Mr McDonnell. The Tories would be delighted about a McDonnell succession – and there could be more to follow.

Macbeth had to suffer a soul-destroying vision: an endless succession of Banquo’s descendants would rule Scotland. In the case of the Labour moderates, it is an endless succession of Corbynistas: Jeremy Corbyn’s children, Ken Livingstone’s children. It is not yet clear what role Mr Livingstone will have in Labour’s defence review, unless he is proposing that the Trident subs should be used as newt ponds. The other day, someone asked Tristram Hunt what he thought of the Livingstone role. ‘It’s marvellous – and do you know who’s going to be in charge of the NHS review? Harold Shipman.’

There will be more jokes to come, though who could rival a sub with no weapons? The moderates have to decide what next. Are they happy to acquiesce in daftness, or do they fight back, establishing a non-Corbyn Parliamentary Labour party? It may well be that the Trident nonsense does inspire a revolt. Otherwise, Labour is doomed to live in a yellow submarine.

Bruce Anderson is a political commentator