Labour leader flounders as zealots keep of agenda on left and right
Forget about Frank Field’s views on Brexit or council houses sales. Overlook his prickly loner’s distaste for the compromises necessary to party loyalty. The best comment I heard about the Birkenhead One’s tussle with the Labour leadership came from a well-placed veteran who disagrees with him on all of them.
‘Labour can’t win without people like Frank. Tony Blair resisted attempts to purge Jeremy Corbyn precisely because he understood that Labour is a broad church which can’t succeed without the votes of Jeremy’s supporters and of Frank’s,’ he explained over a shared bottle of mineral water.
That sounds about right. But the zealots don’t get it, any more than Theresa May’s hard Brexit zealots get it as No 10 squares up to a third winter of tag wrestling with Brussels, parliament and her own party. It’s not going to be the ‘fixed fight’ glibly depicted in the Boris Johnson’s latest £5,000 column for the Telegraph.
In a weekend remarkable for political pillow fights over Brexit, the other revealing observation that caught my attention dropped from the bearded lips of Momentum guru, Jon Lansman, who looks increasingly like an Old Testament prophet of the milder kind.
In the Saturday ‘Lunch with the FT’ interview spot – conducted at Soho’s Gay Hussar, just before it closed – the Benn-to-Corbyn veteran organiser revealed that, not being a 100% Bennite on Europe, he’d voted Remain in 2016 – but assumed the right side would win.
‘I think I would have been much more engaged with it if I thought there was a chance it was going to go the way it did… I am a cosmopolitan anti-nationalist,’ the famously affable Lansman told the FT’s Jim Pickard. Oh dear, oh dear. Is that why Corbyn barely bothered to ‘engage’ for Remain? It wasn’t cynicism or Seumas Milne’s anti-capitalist advice. No, it was Lansman saying ‘Relax, Jeremy’. So complacent Lansman sounds like David Cameron did or – for that matter – that closet cosmopolitan, Johnson, who also banked on a Remain win that would save him from the consequences of his own calculating folly.
Lansman’s naivety matters for the obvious reason. It was Remain complacency which allowed the two Brexit campaigns – Official and Provisional – to get away with lies, scare stories and under-investigation funding that swung the June 23 referendum. They did so without any clear strategy for handling the outcome apart from Nigel Farage shouting ‘Betrayed’ whenever he wakes up. Labour’s Brexit strategy is not to have one.
But the FT lunch also matters as an insight into the tin ear which Lansman (61) and so many of his allies routinely display for elective politics. Yes, he has been on the right side of the anti-Semitism argument which devoured Labour’s energies for much of this year and was belatedly patched up at Tuesday’s National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting, the one Corbyn scratched an MI5 briefing to attend.
Lansman could hardly do otherwise, he’s Jewish himself – the child of moderately orthodox, Tory-voting Jews who sent him to Highgate School on a scholarship. At Cambridge he was an ally of ‘Red Andy’ Marr (sic), later of Corbyn, more recently researcher to the late Michael Meacher MP: the eternal backroom, student politician, happy to see defections on the Labour right as a means of pushing the party leftwards. Bye, bye, Frank Field.
But Lansman clearly finds it hard to believe anti-Semitism in the Labour ranks is more than a few awful individuals, not rooted in the intellectual architecture of the left (very pro-Israel in the 1940s) since Soviet Russia – a sponsor of Israel in 1948 – turned against ‘Zionist imperialism’ as an outpost of global capitalism. Karl Marx and Stalin weren’t too keen on Jews either, now you mention it.
By the same line of reasoning he seems to regard many Labour campaigners against Brexit – and for a People’s Vote second referendum – as using the EU issue, as well as anti-Semitism, to undermine Corbyn’s leadership, though money and opinion polls are slowly swinging its way as Brexit stalls. Ahead of the TUC, the GMB union this week backed a second vote.
This so reminds me of Tony Benn who averted his gaze from awkward or ugly facts, from bullying at ward meetings and moderates going home in tears – precisely the charge which Field made last week about grassroots realities in Birkenhead and elsewhere.
This ought to have been a brilliant summer for Labour. Can you imagine what past Labour leaders would have made of the chaos which daily engulfs Theresa May’s government as party discipline unravels, allowing all sorts of dishonesty and intrigue to thrive?
Johnson’s Telegraph ‘diddly squat’ column was a shabby and inflammatory disgrace. David Davis also attacked the Chequers plan, but does not want its defeat to usher in a Johnson premiership. Jacob Rees-Mogg seems willing to take the risk. But clever Nick Boles and cabinet resigner, Justine Greening, attacking Chequers – ‘more unpopular than the poll tax,’ said Greening – from the Remain side? What was that about?
If Labour was united on Europe, able to work with the Lib Dems, pro-European Tories and assorted nationalists it could dictate the pace and direction of events against a weak prime minister. But that would require forceful and dynamic leadership, plus a serious commitment to Europe. Neither component exists.
So the best the Corbyn ‘leadership’ can hope for is to paper over its internal cracks – Field, anti-Semitism, Brexit, the command economy, a looming deselection purge – and hope for a general election which it might just win after a fashion. Heaven knows what would happen next. But an election is unlikely, whatever you may have read in the Sunday papers about May considering one if her eventual Brexit deal is rejected by parliament.
Also highly unlikely is a Labour split, says me, though there may be further splinters as individual backbench MPs decide they can’t stomach more malice and incompetence. They could quietly drop out, or decide to run as deselected independents in 2022 – possibly sooner if Field (76) forces a by-election and (big gamble) re-elected.
A former cabinet minister to whom I spoke this week says that most of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) feel a mixture of ‘paralysed and guilty’. They don’t want to split the party, not least because they can remember what happened when Roy Jenkins and Co tried that in 1981. Nor do ‘Blairites’ like Peter Mandelson and Gordon Brown – who did one of his last minute ‘Gordon to the rescue’ speeches over anti-Semitism on Sunday. He hasn’t lost his touch.
But worried mainstream MPs – on the left as well as right – can’t see a way back from left-wing domination of the party machine – either through a membership drive to counter Momentum’s crusade or through the policy route.
So my ex-cabinet pal thinks Labour is likely to stay in opposition for the next 10 years, allowing the Tories to hobble on, bad but not that bad. It is a grim prospect for the post-Brexit decade. Of course, for many left wing activists party purity has always been more important than real power which either necessitates messy compromises with reality – or bloodshed.
‘Pure, but impotent,’ as Nye Bevan used to say. With so-called ‘Tommy Robinson’ and his dollar-funded bovver boys looking for trouble, lurid bloodshed scenarios are no longer impossible if the economy weakens sharply – as it has not yet done. I don’t sense Jez or Lansman would be much good in a brawl.
The fundamental difference about Labour’s current lurch to the left is that the unions – usually a sheet anchor for common sense and moderation – are currently dominated by the mega-union, Unite, its general secretary, Len McCluskey (68), and his hard left entourage. Their fateful promotion of Ed Miliband over brother David in 2010 did not provoke much soul-searching before they decided to back Corbyn in 2015.
Unite has since given Labour at least £11 million, as well as Andrew Murray, Karie Murphy and Jennie Formby as senior Corbyn aides. It’s a pretty tight set-up, incestuous even, and not without personal and policy feuds and fluctuating alliances.
That is exacerbated by the fact that shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, politically much smarter than Corbyn – as his conciliatory role in the anti-Semitism dispute showed – sometimes get frustrated by the shambolic things he sees.
McDonnell, 67 this week, would make a much better leader than cuddly Jeremy, but he’s had heart trouble and deep wells of voter-unfriendly anger. No Glastonbury for him. Current gossip has McDonnell and Lansman working to ease out Karie Murphy, a McCluskey protégée.
Insiders I talk to don’t rule out a change of party leader before the scheduled 2022 election, when Jeremy Corbyn will be 72 or even 73. But who? Let’s not go there today, there’s no obvious candidate, either from among the Blair/Brown high fliers or the post-Corbyn generation of left-wingers. I wouldn’t want to damage wannabes with potential by naming them.
There is regular talk of choosing a Northern working class woman. Let me know if you have spotted the answer. But the critical change that might rescue ‘paralysed and guilty’ Labour MPs who see their party happily making itself unelectable might be at Unite.
If McCluskey decided to quit before the end of his designated third term (as he did with two previous terms since 2010) who knows what direction the membership might decide to take. ‘Red Len’s’ last narrow win in 2017 rested, as usual, on a low turnout, 12.2%. Turnout matters, that’s one bit of complacency we’ve all been forced to discard.
I don’t expect Corbyn to make the kind of speech at Labour’s Liverpool conference on September 22 that changes the political weather. It’s not his style and he doesn’t have a clear message: expect drift and fudge while internal battles rage over selection rules. Unless I’m misreading the mood, don’t expect a clear mandate for a People’s Vote either.
By late September, Sir Vince Cable will have signalled his desire to step down as Lib Dem leader, possibly handing over the reins to a non MP. He’s 75 and – like most of those oldies mentioned here – past his best. Carwyn Jones will also have a successor as Welsh Labour leader and first minister via a special conference on September 15. Fingers crossed.
In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, usually a reliably capable leader, has taken a hit from the Alex Salmond affair in which her predecessor seems to have put self before party or country. If the DUP’s Arlene Foster is the best the new devolved politics can offer by way of stability, it’s a poor show. DUP and Sinn Fein are locked in backward-looking point-scoring while urgent problems pile up for officials in Belfast.
Such weak and vacillating leadership – not confined to the UK in this dismal year – allows the ruling Conservative party in Westminster to indulge in tribal warfare on a destructive scale, encouraged by newspapers more than usually keen to generate sales and online clicks.
In the Sunday Times the resourceful Tim Shipman declares ‘May and Corbyn Face Double Coup’, this on the basis that ‘rebel Labour MPs’ plan another no confidence motion and, possibly a ‘breakaway party’. Believe them when you see them in broad daylight. Likewise that Australian campaign strategist, Sir Lynton ‘Dog Whistle’ Crosby is ‘secretly masterminding’ (I love ‘secrets’ all over the front page) a cunning plan to defeat May’s Chequers plan – if Michel Barnier doesn’t sink it first – and install Johnson as what the portly plotter used to call World King.
We last heard of Crosby making a mess of May’s 2017 election campaign and passing the buck. Before that he helped Zac Goldsmith botch his unpleasant campaign for London Mayor, the one in which he tried to stitch up Sadiq Khan as a friend of terrorists. Fortunately for Khan his record is clearer than Corbyn’s.
But all this plotting and nonsense consumes valuable political oxygen, much as Labour feuding does. Conor Burns MP, a Thatcher groupie who was recently Johnson’s unpaid PPS, has unveiled a new group, Standup4Brexit which plans to produce alternatives to the Chequers plans. Not another new group? And not another promise to produce ‘plans’ which will cut the Gordian Knot of Brexit? Isn’t it a bit late?
Nick Boles is at least clear. Leave next March while staying inside EFTA – and the single market – like Norway while using the two-year transition period to negotiate a Canada+ (or even ++) free trade agreement. Justine Greening was specific too: a People’s Vote ballot offering May’s blueprint, a no-deal/WTO Brexit or Remain. Barnier would love a Remain option, though I fear he would be disappointed at this stage. He might buy Boles, using an off-the-shelf blueprint. But he – and his master, Emmanuel Macron – have been sending up conflicting signals as the autumn season opened.
‘Macron Willing to Cut a Deal,’ said the Times, until the briefers corrected the promised ‘strong special relationship’ to something more modest. Barnier’s reported emollience didn’t last either. In an interview with the lofty German Sunday paper, FAZ, he said Chequers would ‘destroy the EU’ and is therefore not a runner. So Brits are not the only ones feeling fragile in a week which witnessed those disturbing anti-migrant clashes in the fading East German industrial city of Chemnitz and political turbulence again in Italy. But at least the new regime in Paris is thinking hard.
Over the summer, the president and his allies have been trying to grapple with urgent EU challenges that go far beyond Brexit. They include eurozone reform, migration policy, the EU budget and the rise of populism. What would best stabilise the system?
Macron has even revived the familiar idea of a Europe of concentric circles, briefly popular when John Major was struggling with his Brexit ‘bastards’. He hasn’t got far with eurozone reform yet, but leadership is about setting a course and pushing ahead hoping others follow. So it’s worth noting that Macron is still only 40, with more energy than all those oldies.