Spare no sympathy for the Labour moderates

Published by The i paper (22nd January, 2018)

The contrast could not have been more striking. First up on The Andrew Marr Show was French president Emmanuel Macron, answering his questions in fluent English with more directness and poise than we almost ever see from British politicians in their native tongue. Typical was his admission that France would ‘probably’ have the same referendum result on European Union membership as our own, such was the impact of globalisation. He described his political philosophy as “efficiency, humanity and authority”, any one of which we would take with gratitude in our contorted domestic politics.

Then came John McDonnell, the Labour shadow chancellor with his trademark sinister smiles, slippery talk and savage factionalism clad in a shiny dark suit. First he praised Macron for straight-talking. Then he pretended to be a stout defender of the City of London, despite decades in politics opposing its core philosophy. He posed as a man of integrity, batting away questions about personal hypocrisy over opposing private finance initiative deals except in his own constituency. Then he dissembled over his ‘lynching the bastard’ comments about Tory minister Esther McVey, an issue that exposes the real face of what his leader defines as ‘kinder, gentler politics’.

As ever, the shadow chancellor dodged attempts to define his party’s shameful stance on Brexit with vague talk of reform and negotiation. Yet perhaps the most significant section of the interview was when asked about a Centre for Policy Studies study that Labour’s plans for renationalisation would add £176bn to national debt – effectively costing every British family £6,500. McDonnell brushed this aside, saying the think tank was virtually a branch of the Tory Party. Fair enough. But when his own party talks in airy terms about Parliament setting a price on substantial state takeovers and compares massive public spending to a family mortgage, this was at least an attempt to put a price tag on Labour’s core plans.

I am no fan of McDonnell, his leader Jeremy Corbyn or their largely regressive policies based on reheated Seventies socialism. I used to cover Corbyn on a local paper at the start of my journalism career and have seen how their far-left faction undermined Labour for more than three decades. They are the mirror image of selfish obsessives on the hard right who wrecked the Tory party and led to the disaster of Brexit. The shadow chancellor exemplifies the malign forces lurking behind Corbyn. And the Labour leader himself is ever more reminiscent of Chance the gardener in the satirical book Being There, who wins over Washington after his simplistic statements about tending plants and changing seasons are taken for profound political wisdom.

The party should – as reviled former leader Tony Blair so kindly pointed out – be way ahead in the polls as a bumbling Tory prime minister struggles with Brexit and revives the nasty party. Regardless of this failure to woo moderate voters, however, it is equally obvious that Corbyn and co are wildly popular with some parts of the electorate, have built impressive membership, display smart political duplicity and are winning the fight for Labour’s soul. They are backed by a revived far left, which has been turbocharged by social media amid incendiary culture wars, as they ride waves of fury over economic and political failure seen again last week with Carillion’s crash. And they have brought new people into politics.

It is easy to forget that Momentum, the grass roots campaign group for Corbyn, was formed just three years ago after his successful leadership campaign. Now Jon Lansman, a long-standing soulmate of the Labour leader who heads the group after so long on the Marxist fringes, has landed on the party’s national executive. Two other allies joined him last week as the hard left sealed its takeover in a result that opens up prospects for a purge of party officials, moderate MPs and centrist councillors. Already there is vague talk of a 50-strong hit-list of MPs facing deselection.

Yet waste no tears on the moderates. They have been out-fought and out-thought, failing to keep the far left at bay unlike more pugnacious predecessors, despite having a majority in the parliamentary party. At best, this shows that they are lousy politicians. At worst, it exposes them as cowards who failed to stand up for their policies or principles. They signed motions of no confidence in Corbyn, spoke of rebellion, yet were then stunned into submission when Corbyn surged to “only” 56 seats behind the Tories at last year’s election. They rally behind a leader in public whom they whisper privately would be a disastrous prime minister, putting blinkered tribalism before their beliefs or their nation. They do not deserve to be spared the cull.

You might feel shards of sympathy for politicians trapped by fast-changing circumstances. But these trembling moderates no longer represent the new force flying the Labour flag. If they had any dignity they would form a new political grouping rather than supinely backing Corbyn as they await execution and indulge their party’s collaboration with Boris and the Brexiteers, just as moderate Tories might conceivably soon face similar dilemmas. This might even hasten the search for a centrist British saviour like Macron. But if enlarged local parties in a mass membership party have lurched leftwards, democracy dictates their right to pick new people to represent them if unconvinced by current standard-bearers. Call it populism, call it Stalinist purging, but this is the brutal reality of politics.

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