Nick Cohen

The middle class is Labour’s fickle friend

The middle class is Labour's fickle friend
Text settings

Labour is a movement of organised sentimentality. Its default sound is a coo. Its default gesture a hug.

For generations the party has wrapped itself in fuzzy feelings. You only have to hear the applause for councillors who have served the party since Clement Attlee’s day to understand the part cloying, part inspiring, solidarity that sustains it. They may have lost many of the battles they fought. Their victories may have brought unintended consequences they neither wanted nor understood. But they remain good people with fine motives – just like the rest of us. Even when history has proved them wrong, the world would have been a better place and humanity a nobler species, if it had proved them right. By definition, attacks on Labour must be 'smears' from Tories, who are, as axiomatically, wicked and designing creatures.

The affection extends to Labour leaders – for a while, at least. When I criticised Tony Blair for his embrace of thuggish gestures on crime and asylum seekers in the 1990s, left-wingers of the day made it clear to me and my editors that I shouldn’t be allowed to do it. Their successors in the left-wing commentatariat are once again appealing to the deep and infantilising urge to believe the best as they dismiss the story that Corbyn worked for the Soviet Bloc. It’s all smears and lies they say, a modern Zinoviev letter, as they neglect the indisputable evidence that Corbyn was an indefatigable propagandist for the homophobic and misogynist state of Iran, celebrated the vastly corrupt Chavez dictatorship in Venezuela, shared platforms with Holocaust deniers , and so on and on.

I am not mocking. I felt the urge to sink into the warm bed of Labourism and pull up the duvet many times until Jeremy Corbyn became leader. For who else could change the country? Who else could speak for the underprivileged? Who else, and here my eyes pricked as memories of past struggles came back like old friends, would stand and fight injustice.

Labour’s sentimentality may keep hard questions about the hard left suppressed for a year or so yet. But Corbyn and his friends should beware. Brutality is the reverse side of the sentimental coin. Just as gangsters announce their devotion to the mothers one minute and their determination to wipe out their rivals the next, so the Labour party switches from embracing to denouncing its leaders. The same people who lectured me on the need to back 'Tony' against the Tories – even when Tony was following Tory policies – went on to attack him with a hatred that passed all reason.

Now Corbyn is following a Tory policy on the most profound question facing the country. Admittedly, and in tribute to Tony Blair, he makes a few Clintonesque attempts to triangulate: Labour will not rule out staying in the Customs Union or Single Market – but it won’t rule them in either, and makes it embarrassingly obvious it would rather talk about any other subject than Brexit.

Its failure to hold this chaotic government to account is the greatest gift the Tory right has been given. There is an 'O'-shaped hole, where an opposition should be. A government that contains Boris Johnson and Liam Fox has much to fear. But it need never fear an attack from the Labour front bench. Ministers know that for all the talk of left wing purity and 'taking the fight to the Tories,' since Corbyn became leader, not one among them has been forced to resign because of a campaign by the shadow cabinet. If we have the worst government in living memory, that is because we also have the worst opposition.

My sources in Haringey and other areas taken over by the far left tell me Corbyn supporters vote down motions against a hard Brexit by saying that the fact that Corbyn and McDonnell have always been anti-EU is yet another ‘smear’. Labour is taking its time, and we just have to wait until it tells the rest of us where it thinks Britain should go.

How much longer it can imitate Blair and pretend to be all things to all men will determine the future of the party and the country. Corbyn’s supporters say the claim he supported the IRA is yet another smear, although the evidence against him is rock solid. But if he were truly promoting peace, as he claims he was, how can he now not commit to keeping Britain together with Ireland in the Customs Union. Labour is still touting its oxymoronic slogan of a 'jobs-first Brexit'. How much longer will the trade unions allow Corbyn to hide behind these mendacious words, and duck the reality that a hard Brexit will hit the working class and the poorest regions of Britain hardest?

The first aim of the far left is to hold on to control of the Labour party. By this reasoning, if pressure from members becomes too great, Corbyn and McDonnell will compromise. They will abandon, or at least moderate, their left Europhobia so they can hang on to power. That said, I see no sign of compromise yet. Even though it was middle-class activists who put them in power,  Corbyn’s supporters are sounding just like Blair’s supporters, and saying that real people in the Dog and Duck don’t care about their airy-fairy arguments.

Perhaps they do not understand the forces that brought them to victory.  Labour party membership and to a lesser extent Labour voters can be split in three, its MPs tell me. One third is pro-Corbyn and another anti. In the middle, sit the remainder, who think he’s a decent enough man and is doing a reasonable job. When those people change their minds, they change them fast.

The middle-class left is fickleness personified. It was all for Blair and New Labour in 1997. It abandoned the party after the Iraq War of 2003 and Great Recession of 2008, and helped return the highest number of Lib Dem MPs ever in 2010. The Lib Dems then betrayed its left-wing supporters, as everyone seems to do, and Ed Miliband and Corbyn brought them back to Labour. I wouldn’t expect them to hang around if they think they have been betrayed – yet again.

Never mistake sentimentality for kindness, let alone loyalty. The Labour supporters who back a leader because they know without ever having investigated the matter that 'Tony' or 'Jeremy’s' heart is in the right place lash out viciously against the betrayal of their dumb faith when they realise they have been deceived. My fear is that, by the time they realise that Labour has deceived them on Brexit, it will be too late.