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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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Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.