If Labour is ever to clamber out of its cage on the fringe of politics, it will have to convince the 250,000 supporters who voted for Jeremy Corbyn to turn from far-leftists into social democrats. The necessity of persuading them that they made a terrible mistake is so obvious to Labour MPs that they barely need to talk about it.
In case it is not obvious to you, let me spell it out. Corbyn exacerbates every fault that kept Labour from power in 2015, and then adds some new ones, just for fun. To the failure to convince the voters that Labour can be trusted with control of the borders and the management of public money and the economy, Corbyn and his comrades bring their support for the nationalist and imperialist Putin regime, the theocratic Iranian regime, and the women-, Jew- and gay- haters of radical Islam. Corbyn’s Labour will ask a Britain it seems to despise to give it power. Britain will never do so, and every Labour politician I have spoken to accepts that the Labour party will have to destroy Corbyn before Corbyn destroys the Labour party.
A palace coup is not impossible. The party conference has to endorse Labour’s leader annually. In normal times, the endorsement is a formality. These are not normal times, however, and if the parliamentary party puts forward just one candidate, and refuses to nominate Corbyn or a supporter of Corbyn, the members would have to accept the replacement.
Tony Blair’s former adviser John McTernan has been arguing for weeks that MPs should put the interests of Labour voters before Labour members and dump Corbyn in 2016. The left would go wild; Labour members would scream that MPs were backstabbing bastards who had overridden party democracy. But so what? Politicians are meant to be backstabbing bastards. There are moments of crisis when their party and their country’s interests demand backstabbing bastards. If today’s Labour MPs can’t bring themselves to be backstabbing bastards, they should step aside and make way for proper politicians who can.
Although the McTernan plan is feasible, it raises formidable difficulties. Corbyn and his supporters would call in the lawyers. They would argue that, as leader, Corbyn’s name should be on the ballot paper however few MPs nominated him. No Labour MP I have spoken to wants to take on that fight — not for now, at any rate. Instead, they want to persuade Corbyn’s supporters that he has to go.
The long-term nature of that argument accounts for much of the paranoia in the Labour party. The far left knows that nine out of ten of Corbyn’s colleagues want him out. MPs know that the far left wants to deselect and replace them. In the middle of these manoeuvres sits the puzzled figure of Corbyn himself. Shadow cabinet members tell me that he isn’t a bullying leader. On the contrary, he treats their objections to his policies politely, and lets them follow their consciences. Such is the tension in the Labour party that MPs regard Corbyn’s virtues as a vice and his tolerance as weakness. They say he lacks the authority to stop Momentum, Socialist Organiser, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and the rest of the far left coming for sitting MPs, even if he wants to.
Corbyn supporters’ screams of ‘Tory!’ at all who disagree with them — their gobbiness and on occasion their gobbing too — suggest it is delusional for Labour MPs to hope that one day they will agree to abandon their hero. On the left at the moment, if you don’t accept Corbyn’s intrinsic goodness and dismiss reports of his alliances with the Russian nationalist right and Islamist religious right as ‘smears’, then you are making a public declaration of your own wickedness.
‘I’m a very low-rung academic in the humanities, and I have learnt the art of holding my tongue 24 hours a day,’ writes a correspondent reporting in from the core Corbyn heartland of higher education. ‘It’s like Invasion of the Body Snatchers here. If I could get out of academia, I would. It’s almost as if they prefer having Tories to shout at than a Labour government to be disappointed in.’
Cultists who damn doubters as not just wrong but wicked are not easily persuaded to change, particularly when beneath the hypocrisy, the utopianism, the posturing and the sickly indulgence of secular and religious tyranny, they have a decent argument. The 2008 banking crash led to the punishment of working- and middle-class people who were not responsible for it. We now have a Conservative government intent on pushing the ‘striving’ poor it purports to support into penury. Surely it is not ‘far left’ to see the immorality in that, and not utopian to believe that a populist political movement can be built to fight it?
Herein lies the Labour membership’s problem, and Labour MPs’ slim hope. The careers of Corbyn and his advisers have been dominated by opposition to Anglo-American wars, and support for the IRA, Chavista Venezuela, Iran, radical Islam and every Russian dictator from Brezhnev to Putin. They have not been interested in domestic politics, and have no idea how to change it.
Corbyn’s shadow chancellor supported George Osborne’s fiscal responsibility charter, only to U-turn when the poor fool finally realised it would stop him opposing austerity. The strongest stand against the government’s cut to tax credits has not come from Corbyn’s supposedly left-wing Labour, but from the supposedly compromised Liberal Democrats.
Several shadow ministers told me that Corbyn’s support would shrink as members realised that he was hopeless at opposing the government. In the long run, his own incompetence would do for him, they said.
Whether Labour has the luxury of waiting years for its members to realise that Corbyn is not the fighter they thought him to be was not a question they either posed or answered. In the long run we are all dead, said Lord Keynes. For Labour, it may be sooner than that.