Corbyn’s Labour is stuck fighting the old fights

Matthew d'Ancona

Matthew d'Ancona says that, in Liverpool, the party is exhuming its past and celebrating its worst features.

25 September 2018 08:49

Thirty-three years ago, a great Labour leader addressed his party’s annual conference thus:

‘I’ll tell you what happens with impossible promises. You start with far-fetched resolutions. They are then pickled into a rigid dogma, a code, and you go through the years sticking to that, out-dated, misplaced, irrelevant to the real needs, and you end in the grotesque chaos of a Labour council– a Labour council – hiring taxis to scuttle round a city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers. I’m telling you – and you’ll listen – you can’t play politics with people’s jobs and with people’s services.’

Neil Kinnock’s courageous warning to his movement in 1985 about the perils of infiltration by Militant – and its consequences for working people in Liverpool – was a milestone on the party’s long road to recovery.

From the conference floor, Derek Hatton, the far left deputy leader of the city’s council, shouted: ‘Liar!’ Eric Heffer, Labour’s MP for Liverpool Walton, stormed off the stage. In that moment of extraordinary drama, the seeds of the party’s eventual landslide victory in 1997 were sown.

Instead of embracing the future, the party is exhuming its past and celebrating its worst features.

Fast-forward to Liverpool in 2018, where Labour has gathered for its fourth conference under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Instead of embracing the future, the party is exhuming its past and celebrating its worst features.

On Saturday, Dawn Butler, the Shadow Equalities Secretary, hailed the achievements of the city’s council in the Militant era, declaring that it was ‘better to break the law than break the poor.’ Hatton, for his part, has applied to rejoin the party that expelled him in 1986.

This year’s gathering is very different to the party’s conference in Brighton in 2017 – which more closely resembled an evangelical festival than a strategic political convention. Still intoxicated by its unexpectedly strong performance in the June snap election (in which it secured 40 per cent of the vote), Labour celebrated as though its numerical defeat had been a moral victory. Corbyn, the unlikely star of Glastonbury, was hailed as the ‘Absolute Boy’, a grizzled guru whose passage to Number Ten was now only a matter of time.

Twelve months on, the party is no closer to election victory than it was in Brighton. When one considers the humiliations, setbacks and political trials to which Theresa May’s government has been subjected in the past year, it is extraordinary that Labour is not far ahead of the Tories in the opinion polls. How open does an open goal have to be?

After the 2017 general election, Corbyn looked like he might be unstoppable. As the Conservatives reeled from the loss of their Commons majority, the Labour leader took once more to the campaign trail, apparently determined to close the deal with the voters as soon as May was forced, by the intrinsic weakness of her position, to go to the country once more.

Somehow, the PM has managed to keep that moment of electoral reckoning at bay – though the collapse of her Chequers plan for Brexit and the impasse over Britain’s departure from the EU suggest that her luck may run out sooner rather than later. All the more striking, then, is Labour’s failure to capitalise upon the Government’s strategic collapse, and to broaden its own appeal to the electorate.

It is extraordinary that Labour is not far ahead of the Tories in the opinion polls.

At present, Labour holds 257 seats – 69 shy of an absolute Commons majority. The Boundary Commission’s review, which recommends that the number of constituencies be reduced from 650 to 600, would, if implemented, favour the Conservatives, perhaps to the tune of 12 seats. Either way, Corbyn has an electoral mountain to climb.

Not that you would guess this from his party’s conduct in Liverpool. Far from extending a hand to the unpersuaded, to older voters, to businesses and to those who fear that the Left’s economic plans spell disaster, Corbyn’s tribe has hunkered down and presented itself as a sect of true believers rather than a welcoming coalition or big tent. The question posed by the conference is not ‘How can we persuade you?’ but ‘Are you with us or against us?’

After a summer made torrid by his conspicuous inability to deal with allegations of anti-Semitism – on which, see Charlotte Henry’s piece for us earlier this week – you might think that Corbyn would display contrition and empathy. Yet, on Sunday’s Andrew Marr Show, he could scarcely conceal his deep irritation with the charges, quibbling, for instance, that the notoriously antisemitic mural in London’s East End which he initially defended in 2012 ‘contained other symbols, such as the freemasons’.

Even now, he cannot bring himself to concede, unambiguously, that he has shown a chronic lack of sensitivity towards Jewish people in the past, and that he still has work to do to repair the damage he has caused. To borrow the words attributed by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to a fictional Soviet official: ‘We never make mistakes.’

Indeed, Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite, was rewarded with a standing ovation in the conference hall yesterday when he declared: ‘Anyone screaming “you are a racist” at Jeremy Corbyn has lost any sense of moral proportion and every shred of decency as well.’ This was a clear reference to the confrontation in July between the Labour leader and Dame Margaret Hodge, whose grandmother and uncle, among many other relatives, were slaughtered in the Holocaust. In a single roar of applause, Labour showed without caveat that it axiomatically favours the Dear Leader over a Jewish MP scarred by the most terrible genocide in history.

The true enemy in Liverpool is not the Conservative Party, but Tony Blair, who cannot quite be forgiven for winning three general elections – or, more specifically, for what he did in order to achieve this historic hat-trick. No opportunity is missed to berate the former Prime Minister for the Iraq War, as though that were the sum of what New Labour did in thirteen years of government. On Tuesday, Andrew Murray, one of Corbyn’s closest advisers, went as far as to blame British ‘foreign policy’ for the Manchester Arena bombing – a monstrous remark to make about an act of fundamentalist terrorism that claimed 22 lives.

The true enemy in Liverpool is not the Conservative Party, but Tony Blair.

At every turn, we see the clock being turned back. There is a perfectly plausible case to be made for a centre-Left government in 2018. The sheer exhaustion of the Tories, the impact of austerity, the pathologies of globalisation and the imminent impact of automation upon employment practices: this is rich terrain for a party willing to present a broad, social-democratic programme to the electorate.

But that is precisely what Labour is not doing. Instead, it unravels the necessary reforms of the past, making it easier for local party members to deselect their MPs. McCluskey accuses the leading moderate, Chuka Umunna, of ‘country club plotting’: a charge that is rich coming from a union baron who is the master of the backroom stitch-up. But the Corbynites have shown no interest in healing the wounds of the past three years: it is uncompromising loyalty, not hard-won unity, that they seek.

Even on Brexit, the issue that could transform Labour from a stalling ideological sect into a party of enlightened patriotism, the debate is hopelessly introspective. Having declared itself open to a People’s Vote if the membership so willed it, the leadership then tied itself in knots. On yesterday’s Today programme, John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, appeared to insist that any fresh referendum would only be a vote on a putative deal with Brussels – ‘Remain’ not appearing as an option on the ballot paper. Later in the day, he and other Shadow Cabinet members seemed to backtrack, suggesting that nothing had been taken off the table. But what could have been a moment of piercing clarity and huge political energy was utterly squandered, as the party’s hard Left Brexiteers struggled to fend off what they saw as a mortal challenge to their doctrinal position on the EU: in this they were much assisted by Corbyn’s fundamental agreement with their hostility to Britain’s membership. To understand why Labour cannot play the most obvious card available to it, look no further than the man at the top.

The ‘rigid dogma’ against which Kinnock fought so valiantly is back with a vengeance.

The tragedy of the Left has always been its inability to see that those who pay the highest price for its ideological puritanism are those whom Labour was founded to represent: the disadvantaged, the vulnerable, working people who struggle to make ends meet. Blair’s great insight – despised by those who now control the party – was that political principles, however high-minded, are irrelevant without the power to do something about them.

Corbyn and his allies, of course, remain convinced that power is well within their grasp. In an age of extraordinary political volatility, it would be foolish to predict with confidence that they are wrong. What is certain is that the ‘rigid dogma’ against which Kinnock fought so valiantly is back with a vengeance. Glib in its utterances, sanctimonious in its spirit and intolerant in its culture, Labour has ceased to be a party that seeks to convince or stretches out a hand to those who dare to waver.

In his speech tomorrow, in the spotlight once more, Corbyn has a chance to be more than a tribal chieftain, to show that he is, indeed, a prime minister-in-waiting. He says he is ready. Is he?