This isn’t 1983 — why this ‘grotesque chaos’ is even worse
When the bell tolled, at 10.05 pm on Thursday night and the BBC announced the results of their astonishingly accurate exit poll, the emotions of some of us who had feared a Corbyn victory, went through a head-spinning, rapid progression.
For me, firstly there was bewilderment at the scale of Boris Johnson’s victory. “What? 86? It can’t be right? Well it can’t be that wrong though can it? Maybe it’s 40? I’ll take 40, I’d take 20…..”
Then the wave of relief, a deep sense of release after those days of nerves, the stress and worry, of those phone calls with Jewish friends talking about feeling physically sick in the stomach, whilst at the same time witnessing people you thought knew better posting their support for Corbyn on social media. That was all over. “Thank fuck for that”.
It was the kind of relief that is physical and it quickly turned into joy, a fist-pumping, stand up in front of the telly, hug someone, swear loudly, joy. And I won’t deny that in this case, the relief and happiness turned into a little taunting — “Jeremy Corbyn, Owen Jones, Paul Mason, Lily Allen, Gary Neville, Little Mix, Ash Sarkar, Aaron Bastani, your boys took one helluva beating”.
Was there, as a long-time Labour Party supporter, a guilty feeling, a little sense of sadness at the state of ‘the party’, a degree of sympathy for ‘comrades’ who were staring in disbelief at the projected result? Sorry, not one, little bit. Whatever lingering loyalty to Labour that had survived the Corbyn years had disappeared in the five weeks of this election campaign. To hell with them. Well played Boris, well played my son.
Then, with barely a pause, came the post-mortems. There is a central deceit in election campaigns which is the presentation of political parties as united behind their manifesto and their leader. We know it isn’t true, it never is, it cannot be, but for once, the politicians do a decent job of convincing us that they are a united, monolithic block, loyally behind their leader. But the veil of deceit is lifted with remarkable speed on election night television.
Within minutes of the exit poll, Liberal Democrats were admitting that simply cancelling the referendum result was a bad ‘offer’, Nigel Farage conceded that his ludicrous Brexit Party never really had a chance of winning a seat and of course, the Labour moderates were lining up to tell us that well, yes, “Jeremy was a problem on the doorstep”.
In fact, the Labour moderates, had already given the game away a couple of days earlier when Jonathan Ashworth’s conversation with a ‘Tory friend’ had been leaked. The ‘banter’ revealed Labour’s health spokesman knew Corbyn was a national security risk but that, “don’t worry mate, he’s not going to win….”
The argument that it was safe to vote Labour because (whisper it) “Jeremy can’t win”, had actually been part of the election strategy in 2017 when Labour voters were reassured of such by moderate candidates who mumbling about replacing Corbyn some time down the road. It didn’t work this time for various reasons, the most compelling of which could be described as “you can trick me once…”
The working class voters in the North and the Midlands certainly weren’t going to risk the ‘vote Labour but don’t worry we won’t win’ strategy this time and indeed the campaign was so Corbyn-focused that the moderates simply couldn’t even attempt the trick.
Add into the mix, Labour’s two-faced approach to Brexit (a second referendum with a ‘credible Labour Leave option and Remain on the ballot’ could be described as the shortest suicide note in history) and you have the simple explanation why their previous voters turned their backs on them.
But back to the studio, where Labour moderates were reminded of how this election result was actually worse than after the party had presented the longest suicide note in history, the manifesto used in Michael Foot’s defeat in 1983.
Labour moderates need no reminders about 1983. That election and what followed, is central to their story, their political history. It was the election that marked the beginning of the end of Bennism and 1970’s socialism and the starting point for the process of reform and change that led to New Labour and Tony Blair’s electoral success.
But between 1983 and Blair’s huge victory in 1997 was 14 years of internal struggles, of battles over policy, conflicts over the Miners strikes, over left-wing Labour councils, over the Militant tendency, the internal party structure and decision-making, and indeed the whole political culture of the party.
And now the Labour moderates are telling themselves, it all has to be done again. They wearily gaze at the state in front of them and reluctantly sigh that they are going to have to sort the children out once more and clear up the mess another time. As Jonathan Freedland put in the Guardian, “(We’ve) seen this movie before but, it seems, we needed to see it all over again.”
But the problem with viewing Corbyn’s Labour through the prism of 1983 is that while Corbyn himself is directly of the Bennite lineage, the support mechanism for him, is a political force very different to the dour committee-men of the old Campaign for Labour Party Democracy.
It was hard to spot the difference between Momentum campaign material and official Labour material in this election because there is barely any separation between the two. The failed battle over antisemitism in constituency Labour parties shows the scale of Momentum’s power within the party. If you can’t beat the cranks over something as basic as not being racist to Jewish people, what hope do you have of convincing them to drop all the divisive identity politics, have a credible economic policy and moderate manifesto?
And do Labour moderates, even if we are to take them seriously after their Corbyn-enabling years, give the indication of being people who could clear up the party and drive out Momentum and all the toxic cranks who flowed into the party with them?
The 1980’s Labour Party contained some disciplined and battle-hardened social democrats, what used to be called the ‘Labour right’. They were people who were willing and able to drive out violent Militant thugs from the party, investigate them, charge them and expel them. Do you imagine Jonathan Ashworth in this role?
Can you see Jess Phillips undertaking years of disciplinary procedures whilst cleverly re-positioning the party’s policies so they are palatable to the actually existing British working class and Middle England? Where are the right-minded trade union leaders willing to confront Len McCluskey and bring the unions around into supporting a sensible modern social democratic position? Don’t even start me on Margaret Beckett, who signed Corbyn’s nomination papers for the party leadership and allowed the destruction of the Labour Party to begin in the first place.
Stephen Kinnock has the family pedigree and will need no reminders about how tough it was to straighten Labour out in the 1980’s, but is there any indication he could build a majority coalition of moderates to achieve the same results as his father managed? His ranting on Friday about Boris being a racist about to impose five years of austerity, suggests he hasn’t even started to discover the plot.
And fundamentally, it comes down to this, how can we have any faith that the people who stood by as Luciana Berger was hounded out of the party by antisemitic thugs and then campaigned for her persecutors to be put in charge of the entire country, are going to spend years clearing out the poisonous far-left from Labour?
Boris Johnson has been elected on what is essentially a version of a social-democratic policy platform (as libertarian Tories have noted with horror). The slogan about a “dynamic market economy delivering world-class public services” is a declaration of that shift in the Conservative Party. You can scoff that his commitment to end austerity and invest in the NHS, education and the police, is some con-trick but the electoral map of Thursday night means that he knows that if he doesn’t deliver on those commitments, his departure from office will be as emphatic as his arrival. He has as much electoral incentive to trick those voters as he does to sell off the NHS to Donald Trump.
Of course, the country needs a healthy opposition party and it needs to be one of the centre-left. But do you really think Labour moderates still in the party, the spineless and two-faced cowards of the past four years, are up to the job?
They are the East German reform communists of 1989, “Of course the wall was a mistake and the Stasi went too far, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater”……
If there are a group of Labour politicians who have emerged from the recent period with any honour and credibility left, it is the likes of John Mann, Ian Austin and Gisela Stuart. It is the 15 former MP’s who signed the declaration urging voters not to back Labour.
The starting point for any progressive politics in this country is to turn your back on the Corbynistas, the Trots, the Stalinists, the antisemites, the cranks, the thugs and yes, the useless Labour moderates.