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The stench of decay and failure coming from the Labour Party is now overwhelming

Speak to any Conservative MP and they will say that there is no opposition. Period.

 

Who will speak for liberal Britain? Not the SNP, for a start, which understandably wishes only to speak for Scotland, even as it provides more coherent and determined opposition to the Tories than Jeremy Corbyn’s demoralised party.

Explaining in a speech at Bute House, Edinburgh, on 13 March why the SNP wanted to hold a second independence referendum, Nicola Sturgeon stated as a self-evident fact that the Labour Party had “collapsed” and that the Conservatives would be in power until at least 2030. Such sentiments have hardened into received wisdom and pass unchallenged by Labour MPs.

Delivering his first Budget as Chancellor, Philip Hammond taunted his opponents by referring to the last Labour government as being the last Labour government. Speak to any Conservative MP and he or she will say the same thing: they feel no pressure from the Labour opposition. More, they will say that there is no opposition. Period.

The Labour leader’s left-wing media cheerleaders have, one by one, given up on him. Charlotte Church, Caitlin ­Moran, Owen Jones, George Monbiot, Zoe Williams: all invested considerable hope in Corbyn, who has not turned out to be the inspirational leader for whom they yearned. Even Simon Fletcher, who masterminded Corbyn’s leadership campaign in the heady summer of 2015, has quietly walked away.

From the beginning we were opposed to the Corbyn leadership but, in the spirit of plural debate, happy to open our pages to him and his confidants. Our view was that Corbyn was ill-equipped to be leader of the opposition and, indeed, an aspirant prime minister. Irrespective of his ideological obsessions, there was nothing in his record as a parliamentarian to suggest that this serial rebel would have the organisational ­capacity to unite his party and evolve a far-reaching, transformational policy programme. There was nothing in his record to suggest that he could remake social democracy or under­stand, let alone take advantage of, the post-liberal turn in our politics. The decline of Labour pre-dated Corbyn’s leadership, of course, but he and his closest allies have accelerated its collapse into irrelevance.

We accept that, after the traumatic defeat of Ed Miliband and Labour in 2015, activists were despondent. Corbyn was an unapologetic socialist, unembarrassed by his long career of rebellion from the back benches. He was a passionate anti-capitalist. His determination and consistency appealed to those who value stubborn principle over pragmatism and who loathed Tony Blair, or at least what he became. Students who knew nothing of the Bennite wars had never before heard a front-line British politician speaking as Corbyn did at “anti-austerity” rallies during that late-summer reawakening of radical socialism in 2015. And as the rebel insurgent he was untainted by the inevitable compromises of power.

Corbyn evidently unlocked something long repressed on the left. David Cameron’s England was characterised by public penury and private ostentation. Labour activists were sickened. They wanted an alternative and believed Corbyn would provide it.

Why, even his dishevelled appearance and clipped beard gave him a certain boho, hipster chic. Unlike the tortured Ed Miliband, Corbyn knew his own mind. He knew what he wanted to say and how to say it – because he’d been saying it ever since he entered the Commons in 1983. Corbynism was meant to be a counter-hegemonic project. It was meant to herald a “new kind of politics”: gentler, kinder, dynamic, more progressive. But what is most striking about Corbynism – apart from the dysfunctionality and incompetence of the leader’s office – is its intellectual mediocrity, its absence of ideas.

In the 1970s, as those who would later be called Thatcherites set about dismantling the postwar consensus and creating a new economic settlement, the sense of intellectual ferment was thrilling. There is no comparable sense of intellectual excitement on the Corbynite left. It’s as if Corbyn has nothing of substance to say.

“A house divided against itself cannot stand,” said Abraham Lincoln. Labour is fatally divided inside parliament and outside it. On its present foundations this Labour house cannot stand. The MPs do not want the leadership. The leadership does not want the MPs; it wants to unhouse them. Corbyn, with his self-deprecating humour and Orwellian eccentricities, is a considerate man – as I discovered when I spent a day with him in Prague just before Christmas – but he is not a leader, even more pressingly so at a time of national emergency. Corbyn has failed even on his own terms, and his failure has created a crisis of the left but also, more optimistically, an opportunity for some kind of realignment.

In the film adaptation of James Ellroy’s LA Confidential, Officer White (Russell Crowe) makes a home visit to an elderly woman whose daughter is missing. There’s an unpleasant smell coming from the basement. “A rat died behind a wall,” the woman, who is called Mrs Lefferts, says. Crowe investigates and discovers a decomposed body hidden under some sacks. “Was it a rat?” Mrs Lefferts asks. “A big one,” Crowe says. It’s as if the woman had grown used to the smell and could tolerate it as one tolerates changes in the weather.

It is something like this now with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour. The electorate can smell that something is seriously wrong and is recoiling, but those closest to the triumvirate of the leader, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott seem oblivious to or unconcerned by the stench of failure. Meanwhile, as a consequence of Brexit, the fractures in the Union widen and deepen, yet Labour abandons all pretence at competent and unified opposition. And so the question remains: who will speak for liberal Britain?

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

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

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The Tories play Game of Thrones while the White Walkers from Brussels advance

The whole premise of the show is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

If you’re a fan of asking “who’s that, then?” and “is that the one who killed the other one’s brother?”, I bring great news. Game of Thrones is back for a seventh series. Its vast assortment of characters was hard enough to keep track of before half of them got makeovers. But now the new Queen Cersei has reacted to the arrival of the long winter by investing heavily in the kind of leather ball gowns sold by goth shops in Camden, and Euron Greyjoy, once a fairly bland sailor, has come back as a Halloween costume version of Pacey from Dawson’s Creek, all eyeliner and epaulettes.

The show’s reliance on British character actors is the only thing keeping me vaguely on top of the cast list: what’s Diana Rigg up to these days in Highgarden? And what about that guy who was in Downton Abbey that time, who now has the scaly arms? (Luckily, the next thing I watched after the Game of Thrones series premiere was the first two episodes of the revived Twin Peaks, which put my confusion into perspective. There, Agent Cooper spent most of his time talking to a pulsating bladder attached to one of those fake trees you get from Ikea when your landlord won’t let you have real plants.)

The day-to-day business of Game of Thrones has always been power – answering the question of who will sit on the Iron Throne, forged by Aegon the Conqueror from the swords of his defeated enemies. But its backdrop is a far bigger threat: the arrival of a winter that will last many years, and the invasion of an army of the undead.

That might seem like an unkind way to think about Michel Barnier and his fellow Brexit negotiators – inexorably marching towards us, briefing papers in hand, while Liam Fox frantically rings a bell at the entrance to the Channel Tunnel – but nonetheless, the whole premise of Game of Thrones is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

The current internal Conservative struggle for power might be vicious but it is at least familiar to its contestants; they know which weapons to deploy, which alliances are vital, who owes them a favour. Meanwhile, the true challenge facing every one of them is too frightening to contemplate.

In 2013, this magazine celebrated the early success of the show with a cover depicting one of our terrifying painted mash-ups: “The Tory Game of Thrones.” Our casting has been strangely vindicated. George Osborne was our Jaime Lannister – once the kind of uncomplicated bastard who would push a child out of a window but now largely the purveyor of waspish remarks about other, worse characters. Our Cersei was Theresa May, who spent the early seasons of The Cameron Era in a highly visible but underwritten role. Now, she has just seized power, only to discover herself beset by enemies on all sides. (Plus, Jeremy Corbyn as the High Sparrow would quite like her to walk penitently through the streets while onlookers cry “shame!”)

Michael Gove was our Tyrion Lannister, the kind of man who would shoot his own father while the guy was on the loo (or run a rival’s leadership campaign only to detonate it at the last minute). Jeremy Hunt was Jon Snow, slain by the brotherhood of the Night Shift at A&E, only in this case still waiting for resurrection.

The comparison falls down a bit at Boris Johnson as Daenerys Targaryen, as the former London mayor has not, to my knowledge, ever married a horse lord or hired an army of eunuchs, but it feels like the kind of thing he might do.

We didn’t have David Davis on there – hated by the old king, David Camareon, he was at the time banished to the back benches. Let’s retrospectively appoint him Euron Greyjoy, making a suspiciously seductive offer to Queen Cersei. (Philip Hammond is Gendry, in that most of the country can’t remember who he is but feel he might turn out to be important later.)

That lengthy list shows how Conservative infighting suffers from the same problem that the Game of Thrones screenwriters wrestle with: there are so many characters, and moving the pieces round the board takes up so much time and energy, that we’re in danger of forgetting why it matters who wins. In the books, there is more space to expound on the politics. George R R Martin once said that he came away from The Lord of The Rings asking: “What was Aragorn’s tax policy?” (The author added: “And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?”)

Martin’s fantasy vision also feels relevant to the Tories because its power struggles aren’t about an “endless series of dark lords and their evil minions who are all very ugly and wear black clothes”. Instead, everyone is flawed. In Westeros, as in the Conservative Party, it can be difficult to decide who you want to triumph. Sure, Daenerys might seem enlightened, but she watched her brother have molten gold poured down his throat; plucky Arya Stark might tip over from adorable assassin into full-blown psychopath. Similarly, it’s hard to get worked up about the accusation that Philip Hammond said that driving a train was so easy “even a woman” could do it, when David Davis marked his last leadership campaign by posing alongside women in tight T-shirts reading “It’s DD for me”.

The only big difference from the show is that in real life I have sympathy for Barnier and the White Walkers of Brussels. Still, maybe it will turn out that the undead of Game of Thrones are tired of the Seven Kingdoms throwing their weight around and are only marching south to demand money before negotiating a trade deal? That’s the kind of plot twist we’re all waiting for.

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 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder