Echoes of the 1970s and 1980s as Labour MPs choose to indulge in opposition

Purists and clever theorists are putting what they wrongly see as their interests above those of the

If the latest reports are correct, the Liberal Democrats are now swinging back to the Conservatives, with whom they may even strike a deal today. If that is the case, and the progressive alliance representing the progressive majority in the UK is to go down as nothing more than a dream, there is one group to blame above all others: those Labour MPs who are giving up and backing a Tory government.

One senior back-channel negotiator for the prog-alliance tells me: "They want to go into opposition. It reminds me of 1979, when Labour thought it was better to go into opposition because it thought Margaret Thatcher would be in for a short period while it regrouped -- and then, 18 years later . . ."

Throughout the 1980s, there were still some who sought ideological purity over a compromise with the electorate. Labour figures who want to go into opposition to "renew" are a combination of purists on the left and figures on the right who either are driven by their hatred of Gordon Brown or take part in clever-clever discussions about seminars instead of recognising their duty to govern. From a Labour point of view, after all, surely it is better for the country to have Labour cuts inflicted on it, rather than Tory cuts.

But these MPs appear to prefer what they (probably wrongly) perceive as their own, short-term interests to those of the country.

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James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.
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Jeremy Corbyn's Labour conference speech shows how he's grown

The leader's confident address will have impressed even his fiercest foes. 

It is not just Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate that has been improved by his re-election. The Labour leader’s conference speech was, by some distance, the best he has delivered. He spoke with far greater confidence, clarity and energy than previously. From its self-deprecating opening onwards ("Virgin Trains assure me there are 800 empty seats") we saw a leader improved in almost every respect. 

Even Corbyn’s firecest foes will have found less to take issue with than they may have anticipated. He avoided picking a fight on Trident (unlike last year), delivered his most forceful condemnation of anti-Semitism (“an evil”) and, with the exception of the Iraq war, avoided attacks on New Labour’s record. The video which preceded his arrival, and highlighted achievements from the Blair-Brown years, was another olive branch. But deselection, which Corbyn again refused to denounce, will remain a running sore (MPs alleged that Hillsborough campaigner Sheila Coleman, who introduced Corbyn, is seeking to deselect Louise Ellman and backed the rival TUSC last May).

Corbyn is frequently charged with lacking policies. But his lengthy address contained several new ones: the removal of the cap on council borrowing (allowing an extra 60,000 houses to be built), a ban on arms sales to abusive regimes and an arts pupil premium in every primary school.

On policy, Corbyn frequently resembles Ed Miliband in his more radical moments, unrestrained by Ed Balls and other shadow cabinet members. He promised £500bn of infrastructure investment (spread over a decade with £150bn from the private sector), “a real living wage”, the renationalisation of the railways, rent controls and a ban on zero-hours contracts.

Labour’s greatest divisions are not over policy but rules, strategy and culture. Corbyn’s opponents will charge him with doing far too little to appeal to the unconverted - Conservative voters most of all. But he spoke with greater conviction than before of preparing for a general election (acknowledging that Labour faced an arithmetical “mountain”) and successfully delivered the attack lines he has often shunned.

“Even Theresa May gets it, that people want change,” he said. “That’s why she stood on the steps of Downing Street and talked about the inequalities and burning injustices in today’s Britain. She promised a country: ‘that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us’. But even if she manages to talk the talk, she can’t walk the walk. This isn’t a new government, it’s David Cameron’s government repackaged with progressive slogans but with a new harsh right-wing edge, taking the country backwards and dithering before the historic challenges of Brexit.”

After a second landslide victory, Corbyn is, for now, unassailable. Many MPs, having voted no confidence in him, will never serve on the frontbench. But an increasing number, recognising Corbyn’s immovability, speak once again of seeking to “make it work”. For all the ructions of this summer, Corbyn’s speech will have helped to persuade them that they can.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.