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Hugo Rifkind

Labour’s last good idea: hold floating voters to ransom

Give us your money, or the centre-left gets it

23 July 2016

9:00 AM

23 July 2016

9:00 AM

In order to become a ‘registered supporter’ of the Labour party, you first have to disclose whether you’re a member of an organisation opposed to the Labour party. Such as, I suppose, the Labour party. You also have to affirm that you agree with the party’s ‘aims and values’, which must be the hardest bit, because who alive now knows what those are?

If the leader of the Labour party — to pick an example not wholly at random — agrees with the aims of the Labour party, then how come he just voted against the party’s own manifesto in order to oppose Trident? Or is the idea supposed to be that Labour was only pretending to have those aims and values, in order to get the electorate into bed? Was it perhaps a bit like a dating profile where you pretend to have a GSOH but, in truth, only really laugh at Mrs Brown’s Boys and The Vicar Of Dibley? If so, somebody should write down the true aims and values, sharpish. Maybe on a large gravestone.

You also have to pay £25, which is a stroke of absolute genius. As the country becomes ever more polarised, and people grow ever more alarmed at the directions in which we may be headed, it’s bloody clever of Labour to have found a way to directly profit. Perhaps, as union funding falls away, the Parliamentary Labour Party could nominate a series of ever-more implausible and damaging figures — George Galloway, Julian Assange, Bianca Jagger, maybe even Nigel Farage — and hold Britain’s terrified floating voters to ransom. Give us your money, or the centre-left gets it.


This is the fault of Labour’s National Executive Committee, which may have even thought they were helping. A week and a half ago, you may recall, they met in order to consider whether Jeremy Corbyn should be on the ballot paper in Labour’s rumbling leadership election. There were two possible sane outcomes here. First, they could have said that he shouldn’t, which would have led to uproar and ridicule and so on, but also might have led to Labour beginning to pull itself back into a state where you’d trust it with scissors. Or they could have left him on, thereby inviting a re-run of the contest which put him in place, but this time doing it properly. That would have been my preference, actually. Rival candidates could have called for new £3 ‘registered supporters’; begged for them. Reached out to the nation at large. Found, perhaps amid the 16 million-odd people who voted Remain last month, a few hundred thousand who wanted the centre-left to stay in the game. Fought populism with better populism. More popular populism. Why not?

Only they didn’t do that, either. Instead they kept Corbyn on, but upped the vote fee to the aforementioned £25, thereby scything away even the possibility of a new mass influx which could have unseated him. Given the membership surge which happened after Corbyn got the job, it seems unlikely that full party members won’t re-elect him a second time. Another surge happened after the EU referendum, only there’s no knowing if it happened in the same direction, and Labour isn’t letting those people vote this time unless they pay another £25. As I said, anyway, you need a surge. You beat a surge with a better surge. The NEC decided that there would be no more surging. You might say they were slamming the stable door after the horse had bolted, but it was worse than that. They were bricking up the stable door, even after the horse had returned and was whinnying to be let back in.

The people now giggling about this the most, obviously, are the Corbynites. John McDonnell caught a lot of flack for going on stage last week and describing Labour rebels as ‘fucking useless’, even while Angela Eagle was getting bricks through her window and Corbyn was doing his best to look like he cared. He wasn’t wrong, though, was he? What’s more, the reason why the rebels are useless now is the exact same reason why they put Corbyn on the ballot last year, despite already disagreeing with everything he thought about everything. That’s also why they keep banging on about ‘Labour aims and values’, despite nobody knowing what they are. It’s because in the end, even now, they are not a party motivated by the approval of the electorate. Instead, it’s all still about the approval of themselves.

My stately roam

Chevening, the stately home in Kent henceforth to be shared by David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson — and in a manner which hopefully provides the inspiration for at least one West End play — is a lovely house. I was last there 20 years ago when my father, as Foreign Secretary, had the use of the place. I had a ponytail at the time, and dressed like a hobo. My strongest lasting memory is of two policemen with sub–machine guns catching me smoking a rollie behind a bush.

My next strongest is of my first trip there, in the hot, hot late summer of 1995. We wandered the grounds, my sister and I, awestruck and finding things. She thought we might find a tennis court; it took us half a day. There was a boating lake, a maze, an ancient disused kitchen. In the cellar, there was crate upon crate of dried food; I suppose to withstand a siege.

Wikipedia tells me that Chevening has 115 rooms, which sounds about right. That first afternoon, though, my parents, sister and I all ended up sitting in a circle on the floor of the entrance hall. We told ourselves it was because of the heat, because the flagstones were cool. Thinking back, though, I’m not so sure. It was awfully big.

Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.

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