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Lessons from history that Labour need to learn

Jeremy Corbyn will stand down as Labour leader. Picture: JONATHAN BRADY/PA IMAGES - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

FRANCIS BECKETT, a historian of the labour movement, on a figure from the left’s past who seems to have inspired the party’s calamitous current state.

As soon as the exit poll was announced at 10pm last Thursday – and perhaps even sooner – the line came down from Labour’s high command: Blame Brexit. But Brexit did not bring down the Labour Party. The Labour Party brought Brexit down upon all of us.

Jeremy Corbyn does not think he has failed, and in his own terms, he hasn’t. But here’s the measure of his failure.

Anti-Brexit parties got 16.6 million votes; pro-Brexit parties – Conservatives, Brexit Party and DUP – got 14.8 million votes. Our absurd electoral system managed to turn that into a Brexit victory. But we have known about our electoral system for some time now. It was up to the Remainer parties like Labour to find a way to make it work for us. It wasn’t hard.

Anyway, those figures don’t tell the whole story. Thousands of Remainers – there’s no way of knowing exactly how many – voted Conservative last week because they feared Corbyn more than they hated Brexit, more even that they hated Boris Johnson.

Yes, the press behaved appallingly, but no worse than in 1945 when a typical Daily Express headline read “Gestapo in Britain if Socialists Win”, and Clement Attlee won a 145-seat majority.

If the Labour leadership had applied itself to the job in hand over the last three years, we would have had a second referendum, and it would probably have been followed by the election of a Labour government.

If, by some mischance, Labour had been forced into an election before the referendum, the party could have sailed home on a sea of Remain votes, plus votes against a prime minister who is despised even by those who voted for him, for his untruthfulness, arrogance, laziness, and intolerance of dissent.

Instead, I found myself hopelessly canvassing for Labour in the cold, persistent rain on December 12. I knocked on the door of an elderly Jewish man in a rundown street in marginal Hendon. He had just voted Conservative.

For 50 years he’d voted Labour. He thought Brexit was mean-minded and insular. He liked the Labour manifesto. He thought Corbyn sounded decent and dignified, and liked what Corbyn said. He remembered the days when many, perhaps most Jews regarded Labour as their party. But he believed that anti-Semitism had grown in the party under Corbyn’s leadership.

If Brexit didn’t bring Labour down, what did? The anti-Semitism row is a symptom, not the cause. The cause is the sectarianism of those who advised Corbyn, principally Seumas Milne and Andrew Murray, who are the modern equivalents of one of the strangest figures in Labour movement history, Rajani Palme Dutt. Dutt was the leading theoretician (that was the word they used) of Britain’s Communist Party, from the 1920s until he died in 1974.

Like Milne and Murray, Dutt came from a privileged background. Milne is the Wykehamist son of former BBC director general Alasdair Milne; Murray, educated at top Catholic public school Worth, is the son of Peter Drummond-Murray, stockbroker, banker and herald, and the daughter of a hereditary peer.

In the 1930s Dutt, pictured, pioneered a Moscow-inspired policy called ‘Class against Class’ which required communists to reserve their first and most deadly fire for their rivals on the left, who would divert the working class from the true path of socialism.

In the 1980s Murray and Milne ran Straight Left, the monthly journal associated with the ‘Stalinist’, pro-Soviet, anti-Eurocommunist faction of the Communist Party.

This group was ruthlessly and bitterly sectarian, in the spirit of Class against Class. After the miners’ strike of 1984-5, they reserved their bitterest abuse for anyone on the left who criticised Arthur Scargill (disclosure: I was the target of some of this).

When it came to the election, the spirit of Class Against Class ensured that, throughout the campaign, Corbyn’s office was already fighting the next Labour leadership election.

So when a Labour spokesman was needed, Richard Burgon and Rebecca Long-Bailey were sent along to the studio. We heard almost nothing from the shadow foreign secretary, the fluent, passionate, charismatic Emily Thornberry, even when the subject was foreign affairs, nor from the heavyweight lawyer-turned-politician Keir Starmer.

When the Labour leadership took their fire away from the enemy within, it was only to turn it on the Liberal Democrats, exactly as old Palme Dutt would have suggested. The unrestrained online abuse heaped on Jo Swinson, and on Labour people who thought about voting tactically, helped ensure her party’s eclipse, but left the Conservatives unscathed.

The same philosophy has Labour fiercely attacking European social democrats while pursuing a Brexit policy which leaves us at the mercy of American Republicans. Once we are free of Europe and dependant upon Trump’s USA, it
will not much matter how much nationalisation the yearning masses of Scunthorpe would like to have, they aren’t going to get it.

Practical politicians know that, as Harold Macmillan put it, what creates your agenda is “events, dear boy, events.” Theorists think that you can transcend events with the beauty of your ideas, and that’s what Labour tried to do, becoming visibly irritated when people persisted in talking about the issues of the day.

The event was Brexit, and anti-Semitism was in the minds of many voters. On both of these, Corbyn shifted a little bit when under pressure to shift, and gave no impression of engaging with the issue.

When they had to think about Brexit, this is what they thought. The line was laid down in 1975: The EU is a capitalist club which will stifle the strivings for socialism of the British working class. As Dutt would have said, the key thing for socialists is to follow the line – never mind that when we are outside the EU and need the USA to give us a good trade deal, it will matter not a jot how much the British working class yearns for a socialist society, they won’t be getting one.

Finally, Dutt disliked personality politics. People were frightened of Corbyn. He is actually a pleasant, un-threatening man, and his manifesto was a rather moderate one. So a sensible PR strategy would have been to let people see and hear him, and in particular to have him talking a lot about anti-Semitism. They kept him under wraps.

Corbyn’s enemies in the Labour Party bear their responsibility too. The disillusion of the Blair years created the Corbyn phenomenon, and is the reason why I, for one, voted for Corbyn the first time round. Once elected, Corbyn should have been given a little time before he faced a challenge to his leadership – and had his enemies given him a little time, their challenge might have succeeded.

But this disaster – a damaging, insular Brexit, a fiercely right-wing, cynical and untruthful government, which most Britons did not want, and which has the time and the power to reshape Britain in its own image – this disaster is the responsibility of a small group of sectarian theorists around Jeremy Corbyn.

If Labour is to be useful in five years time – perhaps in rebuilding some semblance of our public services, perhaps in rebuilding our relationship with our closest neighbours – it needs now to make a decisive break from the Corbyn years – while not returning to the disillusion of the Blair years.

So no Long-Bailey, thank you, and no Burgon; but no Yvette Cooper or Angela Eagle either. Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer both look like the sort of leader who might just be able to rebuild the party.

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