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Harriet Harman: the irresistible force

Is Harriet Harman the most successful politician of her generation?

As the year 1982 began, Harriet Harman had a plan. She was already the parliamentary candidate for the safe Labour seat of Peckham, where her 66-year-old predecessor, Harry Lamborn, had announced he was standing down. If she had a baby now, she could get back to work before the next general election the following year.

Once she was pregnant, she and her partner, the union official Jack Dromey, swallowed their qualms about the patriarchal institution of marriage, “for the sake of my parents and my constituency”. In her memoir, A Woman’s Work, she records the scene at Willesden Register Office, north London, in August 1982: “There was no wedding ring, no white dress, no flowers, no vowing to obey, no father giving me away. Neither my, nor Jack’s, parents were invited.” In fact, there were no guests at all – just two witnesses. Harman wore a hot-pink dress and made no effort to disguise her bump.

Immediately afterwards, the newlyweds set off for La Rochelle in south-western France, with Dromey stopping the car frequently so his new wife could lean out and be sick. Sitting by a lake in the sunshine, they found a three-day-old copy of the Times, which carried the headline: “Labour MP dies”. It was Harry Lamborn.

And so Harman contested the resulting by-election while five months pregnant. She says the campaign of her SDP challenger, Dick Taverne, tried to suggest this was a problem – but the strategy backfired when working-class women in the constituency pointed out that they’d held down a job while raising their children. (Taverne says this claim is untrue, and that in his election night speech he expressed his happiness that Harman’s pregnancy did not stop her being elected. “I did not approve of her political views at the time, which have somewhat changed,” he tells me now. “I have much admired her record since and wish she had become Labour leader. The party would not be in the desperate and tragic state it is now.”) 

On election night, Harman ended up babysitting for a woman on the Glebe Estate who had wanted to vote but whose husband was late home from work. “That was just one of so many encounters which reinforced in me the belief that I had a particular mandate from women, and that it mattered to them and was important that I was different from the men,” she writes.

In her Commons office overlooking the chocolate-box grandeur of Big Ben, I ask her if life became easier once she’d arrived in parliament aged 32. In 1982, there were only 19 female MPs: eleven from Labour, and eight from the Conservatives – including Margaret Thatcher. “I was expecting to come in with other women,” she says now. “And then it was me, pushing open that enormous door. You know the doors to the House of Commons, opposite the Speaker? They are so huge and heavy . . . it was like the women’s movement was this irresistible force, but meeting the implacable object of the House of Commons.” She remembers hundreds of men in grey suits, with an average age of 54, surrounding her in her red velvet maternity dress. “It was awful.”

In December 2016, the 66-year-old Harriet Harman became the longest continuously serving female MP. After the 2015 election, there were 191 women on the green benches, including 99 from Labour. Her memoir is one giant rebuke to those who would dismiss efforts for more equal representation as tokenism or anti-meritocratic. There is strength in numbers; the equalities agenda to which Harman has dedicated her life would have faltered without a movement behind it.

 

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Harman now occupies a unique position in British politics. There is a faction of the right that finds her more irritating than almost any other politician from the Blair years, possibly because she is still around to annoy them. The work of Quentin Letts of the Daily Mail encapsulates the charge sheet. She is posh: “Educated at St Paul’s, this scion of the Pakenham family has become the Gromyko of Camberwell”. She has aged: “Those cheeks (on her face) have lost some of their usual pouchy pulchritude,” he lamented in 2007. She is humourless and perpetually vexed, “the frumpish Lady Indignant” (2015). And above all, she is Harriet Harperson, “Britain’s most ear-drillingly insistent feminist” (2013).

Over the years, such attacks as these have been counterproductive. Whatever problems other women in the party had with Harman, they could see how unfairly she was treated. And for the next generation, her resilience in the face of endless brickbats was inspiring. Jess Phillips, who was elected the Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley in 2015, opens her book, Everywoman, with Harman warning her that being a public feminist means “you will never be popular”; she says it felt as if the older woman was passing on the baton. A review of both books by Julie Burchill favourably contrasted the “gobby Brummie” Phillips with the “bogus and bossy” Harman. But the 35-year-old says this misses the point. “I get to be me, because she was so derided for so long,” Phillips says. “It’s like: my mum had to moan about the patriarchy, whereas I get to be funny about the patriarchy.”

Phillips says that Harman’s strength came from rejecting the idea that women should be in competition with each other. “She said to me, ‘There’s no need for people to compare us. We’re from different generations. You’re like Deliciously Ella, and I was Delia.’ And it’s true! Like we are using limes now, it feels like we always had coconut milk in our lives, and now people like us can make curries. That’s what Harriet did: she brought flavour to the Labour Party. So now I get to have a cocktail.”

One of the most interesting questions to ask anyone in Labour is this: is Harriet Harman funny? Half of those you ask will say that she is. “She learned how to slay with a joke,” says a former staffer. “At home, she is fun, silly, warm,” says her daughter, Amy. Yet others see someone who has learned to smother her humour for fear of being misinterpreted or dismissed. “Her generation – including Jack – are a bit humourless,” says one woman in the current parliamentary party. “They couldn’t be funny, because ­being Labour was so hard in the 1980s.” ­Alison McGovern, the Labour MP for Wirral South, puts it another way: “Women can’t be funny, because we’re already not taken seriously.”

The other criticism is that Harman is robotic – that she is typical of the control-freakery of the New Labour era, in which ministers were discouraged from thinking for themselves. “I can’t stand her,” one BBC producer told me recently. “She just parrots the line.” I put this to her: isn’t the rise of Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn, in their different ways, a reaction against her style of politics? Being loyal to the point of repetition has firmly gone out of fashion. “Yes, but it hasn’t in terms of what makes things work in politics,” she replies, crisply.

That loyalty has led to situations she now finds it uncomfortable to discuss. In her book, she mentions being sent out to defend Gordon Brown after Caroline Flint accused him of using women as “window dressing”. Soon afterwards, the prime minister revealed that – having refused to make Harman deputy PM despite her being deputy Labour leader – he had, in effect, given the job to Peter Mandelson, making him first secretary of state. So Flint was right, wasn’t she? Trying to explain her response, Harman’s already frequent use of the word “like” in conversation steps up a gear. At the end of it, she adds: “I was very careful not to criticise Caroline, and did words like, ‘We all want to make more progress.’”

I ask Flint how she felt about the incident. “Lonely and isolated”, she says. “Everything that Harriet has said since goes some way to vindicating what I was saying – you can have women around the table but unless they have meaningful influence, it feels like you’re there for the appearance only.” Nonetheless, Flint says that their relationship is now positive. “In shadow cabinet [under Ed Miliband], she did try to draw ­attention to some of the issues I was trying to raise about who we’re appealing to.”

For at least a year now, I’ve been putting a startling proposition to former and current Labour politicians, staffers and activists. Is Harriet Harman the most successful left-wing politician of her generation? She has dramatically increased the number of female MPs and ensured that women’s lives and needs are part of the political conversation. The Equality Act 2010, passed in the dying gasps of the Brown government, made significant demands on employers. They were no longer allowed to bar workers from comparing their pay; laws were brought in against age discrimination; positive action was allowed to increase the recruitment of minorities.

Its “Clause One” was so radical that it has still not been enacted. After all, it asked public bodies to strive to “reduce the inequalities of outcome that result from socio-economic disadvantage”. In other words, the public sector would have to take class into account in everything it did. (At the time, the journalist Polly Toynbee called it “socialism in one clause”.)

Harman regrets now that it was never enacted: “It would have been a big signal that class inequality is at the heart of what we’re concerned about.” But getting the bill passed at all was a struggle. Ayesha Haza­rika, who worked as Harman’s special adviser for women, compared the mood in her office to the film Cool Runnings, in which the Jamaican bobsleigh team improbably get to the Winter Olympics. “The civil servants said [the bill] was a mopping-up exercise, and she stood up and told them it wasn’t: it was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do something radical. Their faces were full of horror and disbelief.” Other parts of Whitehall, particularly the Department for Business, were obstructive. “I came back browbeaten by a load of male special advisers and she would say, ‘Ayesha, we will not take no for an answer.’”

 

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Here’s an easy way to wind up a right-winger: tell them that Harriet Harman is an anti-establishment politician. Yes, like Nigel Farage, she is the product of a comfortable home – her father was a doctor and her mother was a lawyer – and attended private school. But during her early career, she challenged the male dominance of parliament, the Labour Party and lobby journalism. She tells me early on in our conversation that she has a challenge she wants to throw down: Labour should publish its gender pay gap. “Let’s not just be [saying] we believe in equality – let’s be prepared to confront what is going on. So in each workplace, the women and the men can see how they’re differently valued.”

Unsurprisingly, this willingness to criticise her own party’s structures has made her enemies. John Prescott couldn’t stand her, muttering as she walked back from winning the Labour deputy leadership that he wouldn’t help her. (By contrast, Alan Johnson – whom she beat by less than 1 percentage point for the role – wrote in his memoir that she was the better candidate.)

Now, she won’t be drawn on what Prescott’s problem was, though she contrasts him unfavourably with Johnson. “Alan is very unusual in that he can see the bigger picture, and knows what is the right thing to do, and the right thing is to pull people together if you’ve lost an election.” She then drops in a casual criticism of the kind that occurred so often in her book, I gave it a nickname: the Harriet drive-by. “And David Miliband didn’t do that.”

It is hard to recall, now that feminism is so mainstream, but during the 1980s Harman was regarded as a dull, single-issue crank. (Her maiden speech in the House was on childcare.) When she called for half of Labour MPs to be female, “all the men felt it was a personal attack on them”. When she returned to work after her first maternity leave, one of her colleagues reported her to the serjeant-at-arms for taking the baby through the division lobby under her coat. She had to explain to the official that, in fact, “I was still fat from being pregnant.” She now says that such behaviour “was like harassment, really” and it made her want to give up. “But I couldn’t leave, because it would have been literally sending out the message that women can’t hack it.”

She describes it as “a bit of a mortification” that the Conservatives have elected their second female leader before Labour has managed a single one. She prefers not to use Theresa May’s name, referring acidly to “her”, and is sceptical of May’s pledge, in her first speech outside Downing Street, to be a champion of equality. “It’s like how I felt when Margaret Thatcher said ‘let there be peace’ when she was causing absolute misery and division within and between communities . . . If you want to change things, and change them for the better, you don’t join the Tory party.” She believes most Conservative attempts to increase female representation spring from the realisation that it’s good PR. In 1997, when 101 female Labour MPs were elected, she says, the Tories realised “they were going to have electoral problems if they looked like the 1950s Politburo and we looked like today”.

Her book is clear on the highs and lows of politics. The lows include her sacking from her first cabinet job, and the highs include the back-room role of solicitor general, improving the conduct of domestic violence and rape trials. She survived the unbroken opposition of the 1980s with her drive intact, but admits that the party is once again in “wilderness years”. She adds: “What we learned in the 1980s is that there’s no point kidding yourself that things are better than they are . . . and you can’t just wait for people to get fed up with the Tories, because people were fed up with the Tories in the 1980s. I mean, Thatcher had become such a hate figure, they even had to get rid of her, but it still didn’t mean people came to us.”

Harman admits she has struggled throughout her career with the idea that she was a bad mother, though the culture of parliament did little to help. In 1989, she took her son to the cinema at half-term, only to receive a pager message asking her to stand in for the shadow health minister Robin Cook in the Commons. She decided not to reply and expected a reprimand when she later told him simply: “I was not available.” Instead he beamed at her and let her go. On her way out, she realised that he had assumed she was having an affair.

The incident taught her two things: first, that no one is indispensable (in the end, Frank Dobson stood in). Second, it showed the double standards of a male-dominated workplace: “It would, in the eyes of my colleagues, have been beyond the pale for me to be absent because of my children, [but] falling down in my duties because of an affair was not only understood by my male colleagues but thoroughly approved of.”

She is still unashamedly maternal. Jess Phillips calls her “the mom of the Labour Party”. (Another female MP describes her as a “queen”, noting that her initials are HRH.) When I spent a day with her in 2015, Harman joked that she had subsumed her hunger for grandchildren into buying two Burmilla kittens, Minky and Silvio. Her daughter, Amy, is a classical musician, her older son, Harry, works at Channel 4, and Joe is a Labour councillor in south London. (The boys have their father’s surname, while Amy is a Harman.) Harman tried to shield them from the press interest in her life, though that wasn’t always possible. “I never found it weird seeing her on TV,” says Amy now. “But once, a classmate said that their dad told them that my mum hated men. And I was like, ‘She likes my brothers and my dad!’”

A frequent criticism is that Harman’s brand of feminism focuses too much on women like her. “She’s always employed women in her office,” says a Labour staffer. “But mostly they are quite privileged. I don’t know if she doesn’t see it, or if she just thinks it’s not her job.” One female Labour MP says “if you’re in her gang, she’s a tiger. But if you’re not, it can be quite brutal.”

Another former staffer describes a story about a Glasgow housing estate that circulated during the Gordon Brown years. “The story is that Harriet is door-knocking and a guy comes to answer in a football shirt, drinking a can of beer. And she asks him what he’s up to, and he says, ‘Watching the horses’. And she replies, ‘Oh, showjumping?’”

The story is almost certainly untrue – it has the same structure as the one told about Peter Mandelson mistaking mushy peas in a chip shop for guacamole – but the person who told it to me said it persisted because of its fundamental truth. Yet even if Harman is posh, she’s not elitist. “I’ve been out with other politicians who wouldn’t have got out of the car in that kind of estate,” he said.

This perception of her class privilege has made her life more difficult. When I ask Alison McGovern why so many people hate Harman, she replies, “There’s a simple answer to that: because she’s a woman. The more complicated answer is: because if you’re a working-class man, you feel she hasn’t struggled in the way you have.” This tension is a running theme between the trade union movement – long dominated by men – and left-wing feminism. “If the Labour Party’s central job is to raise wages at the bottom of the income distribution, right now that’s women,” adds McGovern. “The care sector, the hospitality sector – those are dominated by women.”

This chimes with my memories of shadowing Harman on the much-mocked “Woman to Woman” tour during the 2015 election – you know, the one with the notorious Pink Bus, which she insisted was actually “one-nation magenta”. It felt totally different from the rallies and set-piece speeches that otherwise dominate election campaigns; at one point, we ended up in a café in Leamington Spa, passing round an adorable baby as the child’s mother told us how she was struggling to find work that fitted around her ability to find childcare. Harman listened intently.

 

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There is a strange circularity to Harriet Harman’s front-bench career. It began in 1997, under Tony Blair, when she was made minister for social security. From the start, the appointment was troubled. She was also minister for women and equality, and her department resented half her focus being elsewhere. Turf wars broke out: the Home Office wanted to lead on domestic violence, while David Blunkett at Education wanted to be in charge of childcare. Her deputy at Social Security, Frank Field, had been working on benefits reform from the back benches and, Harman says, saw her as a “Blairite loyalist”. It also transpired that Blair had given Field the impression that Harman was merely keeping the seat warm until he could become secretary of state.

Her downfall came through a manifesto pledge: Gordon Brown as chancellor had committed Labour to observing Tory spending limits for the first two years in government. So she had to cut benefits for lone parents by £6 a week. By 1998, in the middle of press reports about her uselessness, she realised she was a dead woman walking. “I could even sense my diary secretary hesitating to schedule appointments,” she writes in the book. She was duly sacked in the next reshuffle. (Frank Field
resigned rather than be moved to another department, and has remained on the back benches ever since.) “What I should have done is made it not just my problem but everybody’s problem,” she says now. “If I’d had the energy and the political experience, I never would have got into that position.”

But fast-forward to the summer of 2015, when Harman – now acting leader – was again confronted with a manifesto pledge to match Conservative welfare cuts. The “benefits cap”, restricting the maximum amount a household can claim, was in Ed Miliband’s programme for government and was incorporated into the Tory welfare bill after he lost the election. Harman decided that the party would abstain on the second reading, call for amendments, and then vote against on the third reading. She intended this to send a signal to the party’s core working-class vote, which felt that Labour was a soft touch on welfare.

The move backfired. The abstention was seized upon by the left in the party to demonstrate that Labour was “pro-austerity” and “Tory-lite”. The leadership contenders in the cabinet had to vote with the whip, while, on the back benches, Jeremy Corbyn was free to oppose the bill at both readings. The decision is often credited with giving him the momentum he needed to win the leadership. (Ironically, Corbyn ordered MPs to vote for triggering Article 50 on its second reading because of a similar political calculation: it was unpopular with Labour members but popular with swing voters.)

Does Harman now regret her decision? “It was jumped on because there was a mood in the party to swing to the left,” she says. If not that issue, she believes that discontent would have crystallised around something else. “A lot of people were disaffected when we were still in government. That had grown, but because we only lost narrowly in 2010, and there was only a coalition, it was masked by people still hoping that we would get in. But once it was evident we weren’t, it was like ‘We told you so’ . . . repressed resentment, anger, disappointment just burst out.”

Ayesha Hazarika believes that there was no right decision: “She felt she was taking a personal hit, but she was trying to show the voters we had listened.” In any case, the mood inside Labour HQ was already bleak. “When Ed Miliband resigned, it was so fast. Ed Balls had lost his seat. We’d lost Scotland. Everyone was in tears in Victoria Street. Harriet said: ‘Go into the bathroom, dry your tears; we’ve got work to do. We’ve got a party to keep together.’ I thought it was harsh but it was so right.” Hazarika ­believes this is why the welfare vote will not cloud Harman’s legacy. “They see her as a trouper, even people who don’t like her.”

Alison McGovern also sees her as someone willing to subsume her ego into a movement. “Harmanism isn’t a thing . . . It’s why she’s been successful, but it’s also why she hasn’t been credited.” Jess Phillips agrees. “Unlike many high-flyers in the Blair government, Harriet has won at politics. With Blair or Brown, their legacies – regardless of the good that they did – are terrible. Look in the Commons and you can physically see the difference made by Harriet.”

Harriet Harman will be in conversation with Jackie Ashley at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on 22 April 2017.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 02 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The far right rises again

André Carrilho
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"Jeremy knows he can't do the job." What now for Labour and Britain's opposition?

Senior figures from all parties discuss the way forward: a new Labour leader, a new party or something else?

In the week beginning 13 March 2017, the Scottish National Party demanded a second referendum on indepen­dence, the Chancellor tore up his Budget and George Osborne was announced as the next editor of the London Evening Standard. One fact united these seemingly disparate events: the weakness of Her Majesty’s Opposition.

When Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, addressed journalists at Bute House, her Edinburgh residence, she observed that Labour’s collapse entailed an extended period of Conservative rule. Such was the apparent truth of this statement that it went unchallenged.

Twenty minutes before Prime Minister’s Questions on 15 March, the Conservatives announced the abandonment of their planned rise in National Insurance for the self-employed. Their expectation that Jeremy Corbyn would be unable to profit was fulfilled. “Faced with an open goal, Jeremy picked up a tennis racket,” one Labour MP lamented of his leader’s performance. Rather than a threat, the government regards PMQs as an opportunity.

Two days later, Osborne was announced as the next editor of the Standard. “Frankly @George_Osborne will provide more effective opposition to the government than the current Labour Party,” the paper’s co-proprietor Evgeny Lebedev tweeted. His decision to hand the post to a Conservative MP was another mark of Labour’s marginalisation. In more politically competitive times, owners are warier of overt partisanship.

The Tories have a parliamentary majority of just 15 – the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 – but they enjoy a dominance out of all proportion to this figure. Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat former deputy prime minister, told me: “The fundamental pendulum swing of democracy, namely that the people in power are always worried that the other lot are going to hoof them out, has stopped.”

Labour is hardly a stranger to opposition: the party governed for just 20 years of the 20th century. But never in postwar history has it appeared so feeble. By-elections are usually relished by oppositions and feared by governments. But in Copeland in the north-west of England, a seat that had not returned a Conservative since 1931, the Tories triumphed over Labour. In recent polling the governing party has led by as much as 19 points and on one occasion it was leading in every age group, every social class and every region.

Corbyn’s MPs fear that were he to lead Labour into a general election, the attack dossier assembled by the Conservatives would push support as low as 20 per cent.

When David Miliband recently said that Labour was “further from power than at any stage in my lifetime”, he was being far too generous. After the forthcoming boundary changes, it could be left with as few as 150 seats: its worst performance since 1935.

The party’s plight was both predictable and predicted – the inevitable consequence of electing a leader who, by his own admission, lacked the requisite skills. “Now we made to make sure I don’t win,” Corbyn told supporters after he made the ballot in 2015. The lifelong backbencher stood with the intention of leading debate, not leading the party.

Neil Kinnock, Labour’s leader from 1983 to 1992, told me: “From the outset, I said that Jeremy [Corbyn] just can’t do the job . . . Now I think he knows that. He’s been a member of parliament for 34 years and will have a sense of self-examination. Both he and the people who work around him know that he just can’t do the job.”

Morale in the leader’s office has seldom been lower. “They’ve got the yips,” a Lab­our aide told me. Shortly after the Tories’ Budget U-turn, Corbyn’s director of strategy and communications, Seumas Milne, asked journalists whether there would be an early general election. He produced no evidence of any hope that Labour could win it.

Yet Corbyn’s leadership alone does not explain the crisis. In the early 1980s, when Labour was similarly enfeebled (but still strong in Scotland, unlike today), the creation of the Social Democratic Party provided hope. But the mere 23 seats won by the SDP-Liberal Alliance in 1983 (on 25.4 per cent of the vote, against Labour’s 209 seats from 27.6 per cent) acts as a permanent warning to those tempted to split.

With only nine MPs, the Liberal Democrats are too weak to function as an alternative opposition, despite their accelerating recovery. The third-largest party in the House of Commons – the SNP – is an exclusively Scottish force. The hegemony of the Nats, which cost Labour 40 seats in Scotland in 2015, has encouraged forecasts of perpetual Tory rule. “I don’t think there’s any way the Labour Party in this day and age can beat the Conservatives south of the border,” Clegg said.

To many eyes, the UK is being transformed into two one-party states: an SNP-led Scotland and a Conservative-led England. “The right-wing press have coalesced around Brexit and have transformed themselves from competitors into, in effect, a political cabal, which has such a paralysing effect on the political debate,” Clegg said. “You have a consistent and homogeneous drumbeat from the Telegraph, the Express, the Mail, the Sun, and so on.”

In this new era, the greatest influence on the government is being exercised from within the Conservative Party. “Where’s the aggravation? Where’s the heat coming from? Eighty hardline Brexiteers,” Anna Soubry, the pro-European former Conservative minister, told me. “They’re a party within a party and they are calling the shots. So where else is [May’s] heat? Fifteen Conservatives – people like me and the rest of them now. So who’s winning out there?”

Soubry added: “The right wing of the party flex their muscle against the only lead Remainer in the cabinet, Philip Hammond, for no other reason than to see him off. And that’s what they’ll do. They’ll pick them off one by one. These people are ruthless, this is their life’s work, and nobody and nothing is going to get in their way.”

Theresa May’s decision to pursue a “hard Brexit” – withdrawal from the EU single market and the customs union – is partly a policy choice; there is probably no other means by which the UK can secure significant control over European immigration. But the Prime Minister’s course is also a political choice. She recognised that the Conservatives’ formidable pro-Leave faction, whose trust she had to earn, as a Remainer, would accept nothing less.

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The UK is entering the most complex negotiations it has undertaken since the end of the Second World War with the weakest opposition in living memory. Though some Tories relish an era of prolonged one-party rule, others are troubled by the democratic implications. Neil Carmichael MP, the chair of the Conservative Group for Europe, cited Disraeli’s warning: “No government can be long secure without a formidable opposition.” It was in Margaret Thatcher’s and Tony Blair’s pomp that calamitous decisions such as the poll tax and the invasion of Iraq were made. Governments that do not fear defeat frequently become their own worst enemy and, in turn, the public’s. The UK, with its unwritten constitution, its unelected upper chamber and its majoritarian voting system, is permanently vulnerable to elective dictatorships.

As they gasp at Labour’s self-destruction, politicians are assailed by Lenin’s question: “What is to be done?” Despite the baleful precedent of the SDP, some advocate a new split. In favour of following this path, they cite an increasingly promiscuous electorate, a pool of willing donors and “the 48 per cent” who voted Remain. Emmanuel Macron – the favourite to be elected president of France in May, who founded his own political movement, En Marche! – is another inspiration.

A week after the EU referendum, the Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, was taken by surprise when a close ally of George Osborne approached him and suggested the creation of a new centrist party called “the Democrats” (the then chancellor had already pitched the idea to Labour MPs). “I’m all ears and I’m very positive about working with people in other parties,” Farron told me. But he said that the “most effective thing” he could do was to rebuild the Liberal Democrats.

When we spoke, Nick Clegg emphasised that “you’ve got to start with the ideas” but, strikingly, he did not dismiss the possibility of a new party. “You can have all sorts of endless, as I say, political parlour game discussions about whether you have different constellations or otherwise.”

Anna Soubry was still more positive about a new party, arguing: “If it could somehow be the voice of a moderate, sensible, forward-thinking, visionary middle way, with open minds – actually things which I’ve believed in all my life – better get on with it.”

However, Labour MPs have no desire to accept that the left’s supremacy is irreversible. But neither do they wish to challenge Corbyn. An MP distilled the new approach: “There is a strategy to give Jeremy [Corbyn] enough rope to hang himself. So it has not been about popping up in the media and criticising him in the way that colleagues did a year or so ago.” By giving him the space to fail on his own terms, rather than triggering another leadership contest, MPs hope that members will ultimately accept a change of direction.

Corbyn’s opponents acknowledge the risks of this approach.

“People are incredibly mindful of the fact that our brand is toxifying,” one told me. “As each day goes by, our plight worsens. Our position in the polls gets worse and the road back gets longer.”

Shadow cabinet ministers believe that Corbyn’s allies will never permit his departure until there is a viable successor. An increasingly influential figure is Karie Murphy, the director of the leader’s office and a close friend of Unite’s general secretary, Len McCluskey. “She’s holding Jeremy in place,” I was told.

Leadership candidates require nominations from 15 per cent of Labour MPs and MEPs, a threshold that the left aims to reduce to just 5 per cent through the “McDonnell amendment” (named after the shadow chancellor, who failed to make ballot when he stood in 2007 and 2010).

Should the rule change pass at this year’s party conference – an unlikely result – the next leadership contest could feature as many as 19 candidates. Labour has no shortage of aspirant leaders: Yvette Cooper, Dan Jarvis, Clive Lewis, Lisa Nandy, Keir Starmer, Emily Thornberry, Chuka Umunna. (Rebecca Long-Bailey, the shadow business secretary and Corbynite choice, is said to believe she is “not ready” for the job.)

All are clear-sighted enough to recognise that Labour’s problems would not end with Corbyn’s departure (nor did they begin with his election as leader). The party must restore its economic credibility, recover in Scotland, or perform far better in England, and bridge the divide between liberal Remainers and conservative Leavers.

Lisa Nandy, one of those who has thought most deeply about Labour’s predicament, told me: “I do think that, for many people, not being able to have time with their families and feel secure about where the next wage packet is coming from, and hope that life is going to get better for their kids, is really pressing as a political priority now. They will vote for the political party that offers real solutions to those things.

“That’s why power is such an important unifying agenda for the Labour Party – not just through redistribution of wealth, which I think we all agree about, but actually the redistribution of power as well: giving people the tools that they need to exert control over the things that matter in their own lives,” she says.

But some Labour MPs suggest even more drastic remedial action is required. “In order to convince the public that you’ve moved on, you have to have a Clause Four-type moment,” one member told me. “Which would probably involve kicking John McDonnell out of the Labour Party or something like that.

“You have a purge. Ken Livingstone gone, maybe even Jeremy [Corbyn] gone. That’s the only way that you can persuade the public that you’re not like that.”

Political commentators often mistake cyclical developments for structural changes. After Labour’s 1992 election defeat it was sometimes said that the party would never govern again. It went on to win three successive terms for the first time in its history. In March 2005 Geoffrey Wheatcroft published his book The Strange Death of Tory England. Less than nine months later, the Conservatives elected David Cameron as leader and returned to winning ways. As the US political journalist Sean Trende has archly observed, if even the Democrats recovered “rather quickly from losing the Civil War” few defeats are unsurvivable.

From despair may spring opportunity. “It is amazing how this Brexit-Trump phase has really mobilised interest in politics,” Nick Clegg said. “It’s galvanised a lot of people . . . That will lead somewhere. If in a democracy there is a lot of energy about, it will find an outlet.”

Editor’s Note, 30 March 2017: Len McCluskey of Unite wishes to point out that Karie Murphy is his close friend not his partner as the piece originally said. The text has been amended accordingly.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition