Labour needs a better leader

Published by The i paper (23rd October, 2019)

Could the Labour party be in a worse state as it meets for its annual conference? Jeremy Corbyn is breaking records for dissatisfaction, with almost eight in ten voters disapproving of his performance as opposition leader. The deputy leader just survived what he described as a ‘drive-by-shooting’ plot to ditch him.

The policy chief is quitting, blaming colleagues for a ‘lack of professionalism, competence and human decency’ as they wage ‘class war’. MPs face deselection battles, including Britain’s first Bangladeshi MP and a superb campaigner who recently won an award as backbencher of the year. And the party is being investigated for anti-semitism by the official equalities body.

It is a breathtakingly bad backdrop – even before examining daft policy ideas such as scrapping the education watchdog to appease teaching unions and abolishing prescription charges for the few middle-class people who pay them.

And that is without any mention of Brexit, the explosive issue ripping apart all political norms, where Labour’s latest contorted policy seems to be win an election, renegotiate a deal, hold a special conference to back it, then another referendum including the option to remain during which key figures including the foreign affairs and Brexit spokespeople will oppose their own party’s deal.

Try selling that on a doorstep.

But it gets worse. Corbyn refused to say yesterday when quizzed if he would back his own deal if he won everything he wanted from Brussels. ‘I’m leading the Labour Party,’ he claimed. This is highly questionable. For on the biggest issue confronting the country, one reshaping politics before our eyes by breaking apart tribal loyalties, he proposes a policy that pleases almost no one while refusing to clarify his own stance.

Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats consolidate their position as the home for Remainers. And union boss Len McCluskey, a key Corbyn backer, has the cheek to tell shadow cabinet ministers who do not back this blurred approach to step aside.

This is pitiful – as well as an abject betrayal of voters looking for a serious alternative to a dismal hard-right Conservative government. If Labour had a decent leader, let alone a clear policy on Europe instead of sitting with such visible discomfort on the fence, it would be streets ahead in polls.

It is challenging a party that inflicted Brexit on the nation for its own selfish purposes, demeaned our democracy, sent a serial liar to Downing Street and expelled many of its most attractive figures as it morphs into a nasty nationalist force. Yet one poll puts Labour 15 points behind Boris Johnson’s band of Little Englanders.

Corbyn insists he is taking Labour into the general election, dismissing any idea he might step aside as ‘wishful thinking’. Yet McCluskey assured plotters three years ago during an attempted coup that their leader would step down in spring of last year. There are rumours the move to dislodge Tom Watson as his deputy was part of the preparation to finally do as pledged by clearing the path for a different interim leader.

Certainly Corbyn looks tired, while his passive-aggressive interview style feels grating now rather than avuncular. One wag yesterday mused whether he is really a secret agent for the Tories, torpedoing Labour hopes of returning to power.

So why does Labour still back a leader clearly not up to the job and distrusted by voters – even allowing for the lack of courage shown by centrists remaining in the party unlike those in Tory ranks?

After all, even those who back Corbyn’s brand of socialism must see he is not the leader to make their great leap into power. Some fans suggest he will prove doubters wrong again with his election campaigning, just as he did in 2017 when it was widely assumed the Tories were set for crushing victory – and Johnson does seem strangely ill at ease when meeting members of the public just like his shy predecessor as prime minister. But times have changed, Brexit divisions have hardened and the LibDems look reinvigorated.

One reason is simple: hardliners control party machinery and many local parties, so plots against the leadership could easily backfire again. ‘Support for Jeremy has fallen from 80 or 90 per cent in my constituency to about 50 per cent due to Brexit, but any move against him would only galvanise his backers,’ said one former cabinet minister.

Yet it is hard to quibble with the verdict of another source close to Watson, who believes Momentum is focused on turning Labour into a ‘genuine hard-left party’ rather than making the kind of compromises currently needed to win power. This allows them to influence national debate – especially when the Tories seem to have lost faith in capitalism and their own core beliefs – before winning a general election at some point in the future. “They play the long game,” he said.

The result is an awful dilemma for our country. On one side there are nationalist fanatics who will stop at nothing, regardless of the havoc, to achieve their hardline vision of Brexit. On the other, a cabal of class warriors seeking to reshape Britain in a different way, the shadow chancellor even privately promising to make reforms to the economy as irrevocable as those made by Clement Attlee to public services.

Both parties have been captured by extremists offering differing forms of populism, claiming to represent ‘the people’ as they seek to create coalitions in a cultural battle against abstract elites of either Brussels bureaucrats or privileged plutocrats.

Pity our divided and tortured nation. No wonder Britons are now the most pessimistic people in the world regarding the direction of their country. Over the coming days we will see clearly how these populist creeds have infected our body politic and two traditional parties. And pity the poor voters who must choose between them in such torrid times.

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