Nick Cohen

The opposition-shaped hole in British politics

The opposition-shaped hole in British politics
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If you want to judge the extent of the crisis that is paralysing the left, look at this morning’s Guardian. On the one hand you have an article from Abi Wilkinson, who tellingly doesn’t even mention the Labour leader’s name. Convincingly to my mind, Wilkinson argues that the May government ought to be in all kinds of trouble. May herself is an evasive and awkward politician. She is presiding over an NHS that has had more austerity than it can stand. The British Red Cross may have been guilty of hyperbole when it said the UK faced a 'humanitarian crisis' across the whole of its health service. But individual patients are finding that, as far as they and their families are concerned, a humanitarian crisis is exactly what they must endure. So much for the NHS being safe in Tory hands.

Wilkinson might have added that the criminal justice system is now so dilapidated the police say they can no longer charge paedophiles who view images of children being abused, and that prisoners beg to be locked in their cells to avoid beatings from the gangsters who run the jails. So much for the Tories being the party of law and order, and indeed the party of the family.

May’s claim to be for the just-about-managing working class, meanwhile, is a black joke. She and Philip Hammond are threatening to turn Britain into an offshore, low-tax, low-regulation economy if the EU does not let us have our cake and eat it, which somehow I don’t think it will. The contradiction in the Leave campaign was the disconnect between the millions and the millionaires. Its rich leaders wanted Britain to become a foggy Singapore, while the majority of the millions who voted for Leave wanted a communitarian welfare state. As Tony Blair and John Major have said in their different ways, you can have one or you can have the other but you can’t have both.

We do not even have to wait for Brexit to see a collapse in aspiration coming. Working class living standards, which have barely recovered from the great recession, are about to take another pounding. Cuts in benefits for everyone but pensioners will target the working age population (including, unforgivably, poor parents). The fall in the pound after the referendum result is pushing up inflation. As Torsten Bell of the Resolution Foundation puts it we could have the 'catastrophic' outcome of average earnings in 2020 being only slightly higher than in 2005.

I could go further and say that May’s hard Brexit is at least raising the possibility that, far from conserving, the vandals of the modern Conservative party will push Scotland and Northern Ireland out of the union. What with one thing and another, why not fight the buggers? Wilkinson ends with a stirring cry to do just that and not to give up on the next election.

Very plausible she would sound, were it not for the snag she does not mention: the Man with No Name. I could give you thousands of links to polls that demonstrate how unsuited to high office the British public thinks Jeremy Corbyn is. Theresa May beats him in every class and every age group and in every region of Britain.

And yet the far left will not let go of the Labour Party, for reasons I do not  believe many understand. People think that far leftists are rational. They hear them declaim their hatred of Tories, and conclude that they will not just squat on the Labour party and allow Mrs May to win the next election. But the cause that animates Corbyn and his supporters is not hatred of Tories, but hatred of 'Blairites' – a group that has grown to include everyone on the centre-left who does not agree with them. They are only truly alive when they fight them.

For Corbyn to stand down and hand over to anyone except a true believer would be a betrayal. Better to allow one, two, who knows how many more victories for the right than that. They can explain away their defeats. They will be blamed on the media, the intelligence agencies, and, I suspect, the Jews. They can live with that, but they cannot live with what to their minds would be a self-inflicted defeat. In 1985, Arthur Scargill rejected every offer of compromise, split his union, and led his men to destitution and defeat. At the end of it all, John Monks of the TUC asked: ‘How are you feeling, Arthur?’. Scargill gave one of the most revealing answers in British labour history, which gives you a window into far-leftist psychology that is still open today. ‘I feel pure,’ he replied.

Like Scargill, Corbyn and his supporters would rather see the Tories win again and again, than compromise their purity by giving way to a Chuka Umunna, Keir Starmer or any other plausible Labour leader. Men who have spent their lives accusing everyone else of treason cannot bear the thought that they will be remembered in the demonology of the left as traitors, who gave up on the chance to have a spotlessly pure Labour party. They won’t bow out. They will have to be thrown out. But as Rafael Behr explains in today’s Guardian, Labour MPs will not make a move against them. They will not run another leadership challenge – the last one just strengthened Corbyn. They won’t form a new centre party – the failure of the SDP in the 1980s proves to their satisfaction that breaking away is a hopeless course.

They believe that they can just sit still, saying nothing, until a majority of Labour party members come to realise that, not only is Corbyn a personal failure, but Corbynism is a failed ideology. They see Labour members as rational or potentially rational people, able to reach this conclusion for themselves. Labour politicians will not make public criticisms. They will let the far left damn itself in the eyes of its adherents. I cannot promise you that they are wrong. But I can say that their strategy feels all wrong. No piece of apparent wisdom is more mistaken than George Santayana’s saying:

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

The discovery of our unconscious biases, one of the great intellectual revolutions of our time, shows that the opposite is the case. We go wrong because we seize on the memories available to us and the stories we remember. Our ‘images of the future are shaped by the experience of the past,’ the great Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky said as they explained the availability heuristic. What we remember, the examples that leap to our minds, warp our judgements about the opportunities available to us. Santayana would have been more accurate if he had said.

Those who can remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Because Labour MPs remember that the last leadership challenge failed, they will not mount another one now. Because the SDP failed, they assume that any new centre party must fail now. Because Corbyn got away in the past with blaming his failures on Blairite criticism, they assume that they can make no criticism now, and leave Labour members without their arguments or guidance.

There is no rational reason to believe any of these assumptions are true. Or to put it another way, Labour MPs could well be as irrational as the far leftists who are keeping the Tories in power. Yet keep them there they are prepared to do. And for as long as their resolution holds Britain, at a time of national crisis, will have a 'O' shaped hole where its opposition should be.