Brussels over Britain

Tory politicians' behaviour over the EU shows their contempt for ordinary people -- and their confid

At a time when many people can't find jobs, many others are struggling to pay the bills, and many more are slipping into an ocean of debt, the Conservative Party shows how much it's in touch with the electorate by having the same old fight about Europe.

While Britain sinks into poverty, it's time for the age-old EU hokey cokey. Are we in? Are we out? Are we going to shake it all about? Are we going to have a referendum, or just sit around talking about a referendum? More to the point, does anyone care? People are suffering out there, really suffering, and it's not going to stop anytime soon.

Go and look with your eyes. People can't afford to buy their shopping; they can't afford their electricity bills; people are going to die this winter because they're going to worry about leaving the heating on. And our political masters, with their subsidised bars and canteens and lovely second homes on expenses, are getting worried about our part in European integration. They're more concerned about Brussels than they are about Britain. What more evidence could there be of the contempt in which ordinary people are held by our political classes?

It's a bit of a spectator sport for everyone who isn't in the Conservative Party, a chance to sit back and enjoy watching them bruise each other and get all upset. It's tempting to just chuck the Tories in a room and marvel as they beat each other up. And yes, those of us on the so-called "political left" might raise a familiar smile at the infighting of the Tories. It's a much-worn stereotype that while the right patch over their differences, the left get mired in attacking each other.

Any of us who has, at one time or another, been involved in leftish causes will recognise the familiar scenario: after five hours of arguing over points of order and constitutional wrangling about who is going to be voted into the pencils and paperclips sub-committee, there are only three and half minutes left at the end to discuss how we're going to smash the state. Watching Tories squabbling over Europe is a reminder that they, too, can be irrationally bogged down with the same old arguments.

But no one should take any pleasure from Tory infighting over Europe. Labour shouldn't; their Coalition partners -- so often the human shield against the public when it comes to unpopular policies -- shouldn't; and we shouldn't, either. Because this resurfacing of the Europe question indicates that the Conservative Party is getting its feet under the table of Government and preparing for a second term in office.

They're not worried about electoral defeat in 2015, or the fact that their policies are going to make millions of us miserable and worse off: that they are already back to beating themselves up over Europe means they're pretty confident that they've sold their message and can get on with the business of being in charge -- where they belong, where they are entitled to be, and where they were born to be.

What that indicates is that the Conservative Party are confident about their administration and comfortable enough with it to have a punch-up in public. They believe they've sold the "we inherited this mess" trope successfully enough to the electorate, and are pressing ahead with their Small State, Big Society agenda safe in the knowledge that a large chunk of their potential voters will blame Gordon Brown for any hardship they are enduring right now, and will be enduring for some years to come.

The rift over Europe -- the faultline that runs through the Conservative Party and has done for so many years -- is not going to go away, but that it has popped up so soon in this administration could be an indication of strength rather than weakness. The economy may be spluttering, the dole queues may be lengthening, the struggle to pay the bills may be increasing, but the Tories are so confident that they're in charge, they're happy to play out the same old Europe pantomime. It should worry anyone who hopes for a change of government at the next general election.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.