Labour is its own worst enemy. In the words of Helen Liddell, ex-Labour MP and former Secretary of State for Scotland, “Labour could start a fight in an empty house”. The party’s ceaseless capacity for internecine backbiting, wrangling and in-fighting is as baffling as it is legendary.
This tendency towards the disputatious and the jealous was no more intense than during the Blair-Brown years, when explosive feuds between the occupants of Number 10 and Number 11, their backers and their officials were a daily, disruptive occurrence for nearly a decade. During the New Labour years, ego and personal ambition were often more consequential than political principles or public policy in shaping the way the government operated.
The intense rivalry and mistrust which developed between Blair and Brown created a deep psychological and political wound which has still yet to heal. As the Tories focus on winning elections and exercising power, Labour is still distracted by the settling of pathetic internal scores between former acolytes on both sides.
However, in public at least, the only two living Labour Prime Ministers are on the same side again, for now. The entire Labour establishment, both Blairite and Brownite, has united in vigorous (some might say vicious) condemnation of Jeremy Corbyn and his candidacy for the party leadership vacated by Ed Miliband.
The chorus of incessant lecturing from Blair and Brown, which has been added to by other has-been figures like Peter Mandelson, Tessa Jowell and Jack Straw, has been predictably fruitless. Repeated speeches, articles and interventions from both men and their allies, however, appear to have made little difference. Corbyn is still riding high in the polls, far out-stripping his less leftist colleagues.
The reason, of course, is simple but seemingly ignored. New Labour’s leading lights have forgotten one of the first rules of politics: never insult the electorate. People do not like to be called “stupid” or “naive” or “suicidal”, especially not ordinary Labour members whose views are moderately left-of-centre. To attack Corbyn voters as “mad”, to call anti-austerity politics “irrational”, to demand that party members get back in line and do what party grandees tell them to, is not just intellectually dishonest, it is staggeringly counter-productive. Voters react with understandable anger and scorn to politicians who insinuate, subtly or otherwise, that they are thick. Ergo, Corbyn keeps on rising.
If Corbyn wins, which now looks like a somewhat inevitable outcome, then Labour is dead – but not for the reason you probably think. The mainstream media and the Westminster establishment assume that Corbyn is so hopelessly, fatally left-wing that he cannot fail but lead his party into the electoral abyss. They maintain that Corbyn’s “radical”, “Alice-in-Wonderland” policies would scare-off millions of moderates, especially those all-important right-leaning swing-voters in Middle England’s Labour-Tory marginals.
However, the Blairite-Brownite argument is fallacious. The conclusion is actually relatively sound – Labour will almost certainly be in deep trouble if Corbyn wins – but the alleged cause, is mistaken. Many, if not most, of Corbyn’s policies are extremely popular with the public.
According to YouGov, like Corbyn, 60% of people want to renationalise the railways, 56% want annual incomes over £1 million to be taxed at 75%, 64% want to ditch Trident and ban nuclear weapons via an international convention, 59% want to introduce rent controls and 60% want a mandatory living wage. His stand against the self-destructive economic orthodoxy of austerity and the pain and misery it has heaped upon the weakest and poorest in society is gaining widespread support. While his opponents Liz Kendall, Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper offer only marginal dilutions of the Conservative agenda, Corbyn offers a genuinely progressive alternative.
The real reason why Corbyn’s victory will be a disaster for Labour is not because he is desperately out of touch with public opinion, or that he is wrong on the biggest issues of the day – his focus on the single greatest issue of our time, income inequality, is correct, in my view.
Rather, the Islington North MP’s triumph will be a disaster for Labour because it will tear the party apart. A majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party will be unremittingly hostile to his leadership, a significant proportion may leave the party entirely and quite a few will seek to topple him. His leadership will quickly become either utterly unsustainable or entirely impotent.
Labour has long been implausibly ideologically diverse (or divided). It is difficult not to come to the conclusion, as the writer Will Self did on Newsnight a few weeks ago, that Labour is “too broad a church”. Liz Kendall, David Miliband and Chuka Umunna simply should not be in the same political party as Ken Livingstone, Diane Abbott and Paul Flynn. And yet somehow they are. But, one wonders, for how long?
The Blairite wing of the party is already on manoeuvres. Tristram Hunt and Umunna have formed “Labour for the Common Good” – a name so intentionally misleading and brazenly vacuous that Armando Iannucci would have been proud of dreaming it up – a parliamentary group for disgruntled right-leaning MPs. Ominously, it is already being spoken of as “the resistance”. Corbyn’s leadership is being undermined before it has even begun or voting has even finished.
Within weeks, perhaps even days, of a Corbyn victory being announced, a coup d’état will be attempted. Hunt, Umunna et al will seek to ignore the democratic will of party members, render the leadership election result null and install an ideologically reliable figurehead. The Labour establishment views Corbyn and his platform as such a serious threat to its power and influence, and to neo-liberalism itself, that the veteran socialist must be stopped at all costs. Odds on David Miliband returning from exile have already begun to shorten.
If the right manage to oust Corbyn and seize control of the party, then Labour will be fatally discredited. Inevitably (and rightly) it will be dismissed as an undemocratic, self-absorbed, cynical party. If the right somehow fails to remove Corbyn, or chooses instead to break away as the SDP did in the 1980s, not only will they split the UK anti-Tory vote still further, but they will rob it of almost all of its parliamentary strength.
So many Labour MPs have denounced Corbyn or vowed not to serve in his Shadow Cabinet that it is difficult to see how he can hope to command the loyalty of even half of the party’s MPs. He will be left in charge of a greatly weakened rump.
Dozens of Labour MPs will shun, attack or destabilize Corbyn’s leadership, making every single moment of his time in charge a debilitating fight for survival. The party will spent more time fighting itself than the Tories.
Over the past several weeks, each leadership candidate has made platitudinous noises about maintaining party unity regardless of the result. But none of them have explained how this will be achieved. The unspoken, increasingly unavoidable reality is that, if and when Corbyn wins, the differences between the Labour establishment and Labour members, between the new leader and the old masters, will be an ideological gap too large to bridge. Some kind of reckoning, followed by some kind of split, is fast approaching.