To say that the May administration is ‘the worst government anyone can remember’ is to abuse the English language. It isn’t a government but a collection of factions so far apart I am surprised they can stay in the same cabinet.
On the backbenches the European Research Group operates as a separate English nationalist party. Everywhere Tory politicians are scrambling to position themselves to succeed Theresa May, rather than holding on to any notion as quaint as putting their country before their careers.
Yet faced with this ungoverning government, a maladministration that is so exhausted it is running out of Conservative MPs who can serve as ministers, the opposition is behind in the polls and Jeremy Corbyn is the most unpopular Labour leader ever.
The disintegration of the Conservative party is matched by the visible decay of Labour. Yet the standard argument of British political commentary is that nothing will change. The old parties will hold together. The electoral system guarantees their survival. Read up on the fate of the SDP, old chap — that will soon put you right.
Conventional wisdom is not always wrong. Eight or so Labour MPs will resign soon — maybe this week. That’s it. Just eight. How pathetic and inadequate. They leave behind about 130 MPs, who know that the old Labour party has been taken over by men and women from the communist tradition, who wish to destroy them, but cannot bring themselves to leave. ‘We must wait until there are enough MPs to form a party with a clear purpose that can offer itself as an alternative government,’ one told me.
The temptation is to dismiss them as cowards who are clinging on to their seats and hoping that somehow, some day, the far-left grip on the party will loosen without them needing to take a stand. Some are. Others no longer have the stomach for a fight. The gleeful abuse — the revelling in the power to humiliate — inflicted on them by Labour members they regard as sociopaths is too much. The far left is doing what it has done throughout its history: making life so unbearable for those who disagree with it that they give up and walk away.
‘An MP next to me just burst into tears in the voting lobby,’ said one Labour politician. ‘All the hypocrite union leaders support Corbyn, or pretend to,’ said another. ‘But if a boss treated his employees the way Labour treats its MPs, they would be shouting from the rooftops.’ A third, one of the party’s greatest assets, told me: ‘I may not stand again. Momentum wants to put me up for reselection. I’d probably win. But who wants to waste their life fighting them? And for what?’
Every MP I spoke to talked of the stress of dealing with a party dominated by tiny-minded people in the grip of paranoid fantasies. The stupidity of Corbyn and his supporters is their least-discussed feature, but it is the one that hurts the politicians who must live with it the most.
Corbyn’s first wife, Jane Chapman, told his biographer Tom Bower that she never knew him read a book in four years of marriage. Corbyn grew up in a family from the intellectual left, which sounds rather like mine. It is a milieu that places a huge premium on learning. Yet despite having all the advantages of educated parents, and private and grammar schools, he managed just two E’s at A-level and dropped out of the old North London Polytechnic, which was not an institution famed for its intellectual rigour, to put it mildly.
His academic failure was the midwife to his political failure. ‘Anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools,’ said the 19th-century German social democrat August Bebel. Instead of seeing the power structure as it is and trying to change it, the anti-Semite fantasises about a cabal of Jews controlling every-thing. In far-left as in far-right politics, no one is just a little bit foolish: you buy folly as a job lot or not at all. It is no surprise to find Corbyn babbling like Jacob Rees-Mogg about the EU being a ‘military Frankenstein’ or demanding Putin’s agents to be given a sample of a chemical weapon so those reliable Russians could say whether they were or were not behind the Salisbury attack.
The socialism of fools has made the Labour party a ship of fools. Who can blame MPs, members and voters if they slip away in whatever lifeboats they can find to a quiet life? For all that, the notion that as everything else crumbles the old parties will retain their hold feels wrong. Conventional wisdom has been a poor guide to the world since 2008, and there are reasons for believing it may flop again.
The first is the double bind the far left finds itself in. If it were a serious political movement, it would be looking at the polls and seeking to renew itself. It would thank ‘Jeremy’, as his chummy supporters insist on calling him, for doing more for the far left than it ever dreamed possible, and then replace him with a leader who could take power from the Conservatives’ lifeless hands. Yet nowhere in parliament, Momentum or in the left-wing media do you hear public discussion of what comes next.
Generals fight the last war and politicians fight the last election. The official line is that the polls underestimated Labour in 2017 and are underestimating ‘Jeremy’ again. The truth, as always, is more interesting than the authorised version. Corbyn is 69. John McDonnell is 67. Although they are pushing forward Rebecca Long-Bailey as the heir apparent, the two politicians touring the constituencies and building support are Emily Thornberry, whose loyalty to the far left is widely seen as insincere, and Angela Rayner, who is showing faint signs of developing a mind of her own.
In other words, the far left has a succession problem; a problem that flowed from its decision to imitate the communist dictatorships and build a personality cult around its leader. Corbyn’s supporters pretended that he led the anti-apartheid movement, when in truth he was but a bit player. They said he fought for peace in Ireland, when in truth he supported Sinn Fein. They claimed that he talked to all sides in the Middle East, when in truth he talked to Hamas, Hezbollah, and the propaganda organs of the Iranian state.
Most foolishly of all, they pretended that he supported Britain staying in the European Union and would campaign for a People’s Vote, when in truth he is a lifelong anti-European who will do everything he can to frustrate a second referendum.
‘Even if he notionally backs a vote, he will wait until it is too late or give enough Labour MPs the nod to vote it down,’ one of the leaders of the breakaway said to me on condition of anonymity.
Personality cults take time to crack. The sunk costs and the emotional investment is so great that believers do not want to admit they have made fools of themselves and every-one who listened to them. Corbyn’s will fail only when he becomes too old to lead the faithful in prayer. What then? Unspoken questions nag away at his supporters. Is it possible to have Corbynism without Corbyn? Can anyone else replicate that strange mixture of moral certainty, passive aggression and victimhood?
In the personality cults of the communist world, Khrushchev succeeded Stalin, Kim Jong-un succeeded Kim Jong-il, and there was nothing Russians or Koreans could do about it. But Britain is a democracy and even the Labour party would not tolerate a rigged election with a shortlist of one.
Because their dominance may be temporary, Unite and Momentum have to purge as many sitting MPs and councillors as they can. But deselection brings costs. Voters who supported Labour despite rather than because of its leaders are driven away. Sitting MPs and councillors are given greater incentives to join a new party or stand as independents and split the Labour vote. The old division between the social democratic and the communist lefts has returned in 21st-century clothes, and neither side feels an ounce of loyalty to the other.
And what of that new party? Let us return to that apparently pathetic total of eight or so MPs who are screwing their courage to the sticking place. They say they are not going to be Labour Mark II. ‘The public is sick of the old politics and the old established order — we will be something different,’ said one of its backers, before going on to point out that traditional Labour voters don’t trust Corbyn and his followers on defence, crime, terrorism and immigration. I am still trying to get my head around how a new party will apparently be modern and traditional at the same time. It sounded a little vacuous. So did the MPs who assured me there had to be a change, but not yet.
Maybe talk of a new politics is all vacuous. But I would not count on it. The media and, more seriously for its supporters, the Corbyn Labour party do not understand the fury at Brexit that is raging through liberal Britain. It is white-hot and capable of immense destruction. A member of the shadow cabinet told me that Labour had large majorities in Remain seats and small majorities in Leave seats and could therefore ignore the concerns of its pro-EU voters without suffering too much electoral damage. Likewise, Corbyn believes he can renege on his referendum promise without Remain voters making him pay. For all the world they sound like Scottish Labour politicians circa 2005, taking their voters for granted and guffawing at the notion that the SNP could ever sweep through the Labour heartlands.
We are meant to accept that while every-thing changes, the two-party system will stay the same. I find that hard to believe. In the small groups breaking away, in larger number of humiliated and abused MPs waiting for their moment, in the new alignments around values, and in the volcanic pro-European fury, you can see if not the certainty then at least the possibility of a new politics arising.
Now listen to Nick Cohen and Stephen Bush discuss the next steps for Labour rebels (00:30):