8th April 2016
Not peace, but a sword
I no longer think of myself as a Labour supporter, and the reason for that isn’t Corbyn’s leadership. Well, not quite that. The reason I can’t vote Labour is that the rest of the party has failed to oppose him. I might have continued to identify with Labour on some level and perhaps to vote for some Labour candidates, had there been a vigorous anti-Corbyn faction I could rally to. But where is it?
So, yes, my natural instinct was and is that the Labour that won three elections in recent memory ought to be bucking wildly to throw its hopeless leader off its back. But it’s not just an emotional spasm. I also think it’s the only realistic strategy if Labour wants to return.
What holds Corbyn’s opponents back is, of course, the value they place on loyalty. I don’t mean that they actually feel loyalty towards Jeremy Corbyn. I dare say few of them do. What they do feel, though, is that party loyalty is so valued by members, and loyalty to Corbyn himself so valued by many, that it’s necessary just now to seem loyal, or at least plausibly deny your known treason. Otherwise, you won’t inherit.
This is linked to the view that challenging Corbyn is only sensible when it’s likely to succeed; and that unity is required behind a candidate who stands for loyalty itself. Just such an argument was put forward here recently by Paddington Baby, who concluded that Andy Burnham is that candidate. This seems to me with respect to be “party comes first” thinking that ultimately wouldn’t help Labour at all. Quite the opposite. There’s no estate to inherit anyway.
The best strategy to rescue Labour becomes clear if we remember that (as someone wisely said) country comes first. It really doesn’t matter how huge someone’s internal “mandate” is. It really doesn’t matter that a would-be leader “has to convince Labour members first”. If you’re up to the neck in internal Labour politics those seem huge political facts but in the medium term, they’re trivial. The only thing that matters—truly, the only thing—is if and when the wider public will forgive Labour.
Labour’s slim prospects of bouncing back hang less on how soon Corbyn is removed than on how. It’s vital that his replacement, whether before or after May 2020, should be a visible, dramatic break from both him and Ed Miliband and immediately seen as such. A new, clearly moderate, clearly anti-Corbyn leadership that seemed to have learned 2015’s lessons would not have to spend years begging voters for another chance. It would find good will and support flowing to it surprisingly quickly and strongly.
How, then, can Labour get to that happy place? You certainly can’t get there by stealth. The only way new leadership could be instantly recognised as having broken from Corbyn is if it had been seen to oppose him when he was in charge. That means speaking up against him now; it means seeking division and being prepared to take the blame for “disunity”; it means wanting to cause maximum political turbulence, not quiet and calm; it means political courage.
It’ll seem grandiose to draw a parallel with Churchill—but bear with me. When he came to power in 1940 he didn’t have to persuade the public what policy he stood for. Everyone knew, because he’d made his attitude obvious for years. He was hated for it on his own side. Yet it was those troublesome wilderness years that meant that when he achieved leadership his political victory was complete. His party’s loyalty and his country’s gratitude to his predecessor (which had been real and strong about a year earlier) were both, suddenly, history.
This is how Labour must recapture itself. It will require hopeless fights and humiliation. It may seem—for a time it probably will—that Corbyn is being strengthened by it, not weakened. The first step is not only to refuse to serve in his shadow team, not only to stop cooperating with it, but openly to work against and destabilise it. The next is to challenge Corbyn not just this year but every year, no matter what the rules are, and no matter what result. Might it mean deselections? Yes. I told you it required courage.
I’ve probably lost you by now. You probably think I’m ardently and naively pleading for a strategy that’d see Labour dead among smoking ruins. But consider the alternative. Consider the false careerist choice (false because without true recovery, there are no Labour careers); consider the “I will be the MP for Bray” choice.
One day, in 2017 or 2020, Jeremy Corbyn’s had enough. He’s obviously failed, and his colleagues settle on bland Mr Loyalty MP to take over. Loyalty’s elected unopposed by Corbyn or any genuine Corbynite. Newer members drift off disillusioned, but older ones acclaim Loyalty, more relieved than inspired, as he’s “unveiled” at the special conference in his red tie. I’m calling him “him” for a reason, by the way.
Only then does the grind begin. It took Neil Kinnock two elections to not win the country’s trust. How long would Loyalty need to make Labour credible, inch by painful inch? How could he explain why he’d been in Corbyn’s team? How would be defend his “compromise” stance on defence and on public spending? How would he ever answer the questions Ed Miliband couldn’t?
It’s precisely the continuity strategy that won Loyalty the leadership that would stymie him electorally as Labour died not with a bang, but with a whimper. Or perhaps, after all, with a sudden slide: because when Loyalty runs out it collapses, like in Scotland. Loyalty is fatal.
Make your choice, Labour.
By Carl Gardner
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