Five of the Best

The top five comment pieces from today's papers

The Times's Daniel Finkelstein says that if the Liberal Democrats want to become the leading progressive party, they must target Tory, not Labour seats at the next election:

Mr Clegg's stated strategic goal of taking over the centre left is at odds with his tactic of targeting Labour seats at the next election. Labour retains sufficient regional strength that an attempt by the Liberal Democrats simply to wipe them out seems almost certain to fail. They may, to be sure, win a few seats in Labour areas next time. But, after that, progress will stall. And the targeting will have had a huge cost. It will make the sort of soft merger of the forces of the centre left -- the informal coalition-in-all-but-name that the Liberals must hope to lead in a few years' time -- much harder to form.

In the Daily Telegraph, Irwin Stelzer reflects on Irving Kristol's life and his influence on David Cameron's thought:

It was Kristol, too, who realised an important fact that underlies much of David Cameron's thinking: culture affects economic performance. The family must be preserved, as it is the source of the stability that permits people to look to the future, save and invest. Crime must not be condoned, lest society unravels. Welfare that induces dependence is a disservice to the recipients, even if those who make it available feel good.

In the Guardian, Vernon Bogdanor writes that Britain's unreformed electoral system allows the main parties to ignore their declining membership:

There has been a prodigious alteration in the public perception of parties, but it remains unnoticed because the electoral system fails to register it. The system refracts rather than reflects opinion, emphasising the major party vote and de-emphasising the vote for minor parties and independents. It enables Westminster to remain a closed shop, so allowing the major parties to postpone confronting the crucial question of how they are to regain their lost members and voters.

The Wall Street Journal's Thomas Frank argues that the Democrats must champion health-care reform on moral, not technical grounds:

From the beginning they have understood the problem primarily as a technical consumer issue, not a bid for social justice in a manifestly unjust time. In their criticism of the insurance industry they have largely avoided terms like "profiteering" in favour of dry talk about lower costs and more competition -- hardly an ideal platform from which to launch a crusade.

The Independent's Johann Hari says that the EU and the US should concede to China's key demand at the Copenhagen climate talks:

China has hinted it would agree to more substantial restraint at Copenhagen if the rich world -- responsible for 90 per cent of all the warming gases belched into the atmosphere so far -- agrees to give 1 per cent of its GDP annually to poor countries to adjust to clean fuels. There's a lot to criticise the Chinese dictatorship for, but this isn't one of them. It's a reasonable request for simple justice. Poor countries have done very little to cause this crisis, but they will feel the worst, first. They deserve our reparations. Yet both the EU and US have damned this sane proposal as "totally unrealistic".

 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Five things we've learned from Labour conference

The party won't split, Corbynite divisions are growing and MPs have accepted Brexit. 

Labour won't split anytime soon

For months, in anticipation of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election, the media had speculated about the possibility of a Labour split. But the party’s conference confirmed that MPs have no intention of pursuing this course (as I had long written). They are tribally loyal to Labour and fear that a split would prove electorally ruinous under first-past-the-post. Many still expect Theresa May to hold an early general election and are focused on retaining their seats.

Rather than splitting, Corbyn’s opponents will increase their level of internal organisation in a manner reminiscent of the left’s Socialist Campaign Group. The “shadow shadow cabinet” will assert itself through backbench policy committees and, potentially, a new body (such as the proposed “2020 group”). Their aim is to promote an alternative direction for Labour and to produce the ideas and organisation that future success would depend on.

MPs do not dismiss the possibility of a split if their “hand is forced” through a wave of deselections or if the left achieves permanent control of the party. But they expect Labour to fight the next election as a united force.

Neither the Corbynites nor the rebels have ultimate control 

Corbyn’s second landslide victory confirmed the left’s dominance among the membership. He increased his winning margin and triumphed in every section. But beyond this, the left’s position is far more tenuous.

The addition of Scottish and Welsh representatives to the National Executive Committee handed Corbyn’s opponents control of Labour’s ruling body. Any hope of radically reshaping the party’s rule book has ended.

For weeks, Corbyn’s allies have spoken of their desire to remove general secretary Iain McNicol and deputy leader Tom Watson. But the former is now safe in his position, while the latter has been strengthened by his rapturously received speech.

Were Corbyn to eventually resign or be defeated, another left candidate (such as John McDonnell) would struggle to make the ballot. Nominations from 15 per cent of MPs are required but just six per cent are committed Corbynites (though selection contests and seat losses could aid their cause). It’s for this reason that allies of the leader are pushing for the threshold to be reduced to five per cent. Unless they succeed, the hard-left’s dominance is from assured. Were an alternative candidate, such as Clive Lewis or Angela Rayner, to succeed it would only be by offering themselves as a softer alternative.

Corbynite divisions are intensifying 

The divide between Corbyn’s supporters and opponents has recently monopolised attention. But the conference showed why divisions among the former should be interrogated.

Shadow defence secretary Clive Lewis, an early Corbyn backer, was enraged when his speech was amended to exclude a line announcing that Labour’s pro-Trident stance would not be reversed. Though Lewis opposes renewal, he regards unilateralism as an obstacle to unifying the party around a left economic programme. The longer Corbyn remains leader, the greater the tension between pragmatism and radicalism will become. Lewis may have alienated CND but he has improved his standing among MPs, some of whom hail him as a bridge between the hard and soft left.

Elsewhere, the briefing against McDonnell by Corbyn allies, who suggested he was an obstacle to recruiting frontbenchers, showed how tensions between their respective teams will continue.

Labour has accepted Brexit

Ninety four per cent of Labour MPs backed the Remain campaign during the EU referendum. But by a similar margin, they have accepted the Leave vote. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, both long-standing eurosceptics, confirmed that they would not seek to prevent Brexit.

Owen Smith called for a referendum on the eventual deal during his leadership campaign. But with some exceptions, such as Angela Eagle, most of his backers have rejected the idea. Though 48 per cent of the electorate voted Remain, MPs emphasise that only 35 per cent of constituencies did. Some still fear an SNP-style surge for Ukip if Labour seeks to overturn the outcome.

The debate has moved to Britain’s future relationship with Europe, most notably the degree of free movement. For Labour, like Theresa May, Brexit means Brexit.

Corbyn will not condemn deselections 

The Labour leader could have won credit from MPs by unambiguously condemning deselection attempts. But repeatedly invited to do so, he refused. Corbyn instead defended local parties’ rights and stated that the “vast majority” of MPs had nothing to fear (a line hardly reassuring to those who do). Angela Eagle, Stella Creasy and Peter Kyle are among the rebels targeted by activists.

Corbyn can reasonably point out that the rules remain the same as under previous leaders. MPs who lose trigger ballots of their local branches face a full and open selection. But Labour’s intensified divisions mean deselection has become a far greater threat. MPs fear that Corbyn relishes the opportunity to remake the parliamentary party in his own images.  And some of the leader’s allies hope to ease the process by reviving mandatory reselection. Unless Corbyn changes his line, the issue will spark continual conflict. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.