Nick Cohen

How the far left killed itself

How the far left killed itself
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The Labour right is as happy as I have seen it in a decade. It thinks it has its party back, and the far left has rolled itself into a ball and tossed itself into the dustbin of history.

This week’s media coverage of the fights and back stabbings at the conference is missing a fundamental shift in power. By making it impossible for a minority of party members to trigger a deselection, Labour has freed its MPs from the need to spend a large part of their careers talking to their comrades (friendly or not), rather than persuading the public that at some point it might make a refreshing change to elect a Labour government. By lifting the threshold of MPs needed to endorse a candidate, they have made it impossible for another Jeremy Corbyn to become leader – or so they think.

‘At the next election the Tories will not be able to say 'you will let Corbyn and his supporters in through the back door if you vote Labour,' said one shadow minister, who could not contain his delight.

Meanwhile Rachel Reeves has given the party's mainstream new hope. Perhaps hers was one of the few party conference speeches that won’t be forgotten in a few days. Her colleagues now believe they have a shadow chancellor who could take the Conservatives apart.

For all that, Keir Starmer still gives the impression of a man who has taken a wrong turn and wandered into the Labour party by mistake. It is as if he is still to learn the customs of this strange tribe. 

The leader of the opposition’s office did not do the basic political groundwork of consulting with the big unions before launching his reforms, and his MPs knew nothing about them. 

Labour’s press operation continues to swerve between the ridiculous and the abysmal. Sympathetic journalists despair of it ever delivering anything resembling a news-worthy story before the 2030s. Labour ought to be setting the agenda every morning as Johnson presides over a country running on empty without adequate supplies of food or fuel. Instead all we hear about is the cack-handed attempts of Starmer’s rivals to undermine him.

Yet we are living in an anti-political age, and the fact that Labour has a political novice learning on the job does not appear to matter as much as it once might. Starmer is winning because the Labour left has made a fundamental mistake. It might have accepted defeat and played to its strengths. The Socialist Campaign Group has 33 MPs (35 if you include those suspended from the party for refusing to accept the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s findings on anti-semitism, or currently on trial before the criminal courts.) It retains a significant presence in the trade unions and constituency parties.

I find no sense of shame among many members who went along with Corbyn. The attacks on Jewish and now gender-critical women MPs – as well as the online hatred – has not provoked a fundamental rethink. The worst most will say is words to the effect of ‘we tried that, it didn’t work, it is time to move on.’ But they would have been open to ideas from his supporters.

The far left might have done a deal with the new leadership, and offered its support in return for serious policy commitments. It might have committed itself to insisting that the new leadership kept its promises on a green new deal and oversaw a radical transformation of British life. Or it might have worked on turning universal benefit income from an interesting idea into a workable policy.

In the United States, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have moved the Democrats leftwards. They did not endanger their influence by being disloyal to Biden once he had won the presidential nomination.

By contrast, the rump of the Labour left is behaving with the same lack of strategic foresight the Labour right behaved with when Corbyn won in 2015. They are petulant, vicious, and unfocused. Nearly 30 per cent of delegates in Brighton voted for the party to break its legal requirement to combat antisemitism. They continue to treat Labour MPs as traitors or potential traitors who need to be placed under the perpetual surveillance of suspicious activist spies.

The legacy of Tony Benn runs deep. Benn tried to deliver socialism, not by winning arguments but by changing the structures of the Labour party. The result is that the left he influenced is obsessed with internal procedures. Idealists who joined under the early rush of enthusiasm for Corbynism have found themselves trapped in a life of perpetual meetings.

Granted Corbynistas still throw out dozens of pronouncements. But they are closer to poses than policies: stances that only sound good on Twitter. 

The hard work on climate change of, for instance, reassuring manufacturing unions their members will not suffer in a green new deal, of building alliances with the Green party – or of working with academics and scientists to help tackle the climate catastrophe – has not been attempted precisely because it is hard work. Better to abuse 'Sir Keith Starmer,' on Twitter and think you are being funny, than commit yourself to a long and unglamorous struggle.

Instead of influencing Labour, they are fighting it, and losing every battle. For all its former power and continuing potential, the Labour left is starting to resemble Change UK: an emotional spasm rather than a cogent political movement.

Written byNick Cohen

Nick Cohen is a columnist for the Observer and author of What's Left and You Can't Read This Book.

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