Labour faces a painful reckoning: those who enabled Corbynism can’t be trusted with its future

No other Labour leader has sympathised with the IRA or similar terrorist organisations, much less had truck with anti-Semitism.

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If Labour is to recover from its electoral defeat in December, it needs an agonising reappraisal such as was offered by the party’s leader Hugh Gaitskell in 1959 after three election defeats and by Tony Blair in 1994 after four. That can only be done by someone not complicit in the Jeremy Corbyn regime. For the fundamental cause of Labour’s defeat was Corbyn and Corbynism.

“The first thing that must strike any outside observer,” George Orwell wrote in 1937, “is that socialism in its developed form is a theory confined entirely to the middle class.” The same was true this time around: Corbynite socialism appealed more to graduates than the working class. Writing in the New Statesman in 2017, John Gray noticed that Labour represented a form of “populism for the middle classes”, and appealed less to the downtrodden than to “the material and psychological needs of the relatively affluent and the well-heeled”. 

Labour was attractive to university students, most of whom come from middle-class families, and who would benefit from Labour’s manifesto promise to abolish tuition fees, at a cost of around £12bn to the taxpayer: money that would be better spent on FE colleges, the Cinderellas of the education system. Labour succeeded in the constituencies of Canterbury and Putney – the latter being its only gain from the Conservatives in the 2019 election – but failed in Bolsover and Workington. Survey evidence indicates that among graduates, Labour had a 14 percentage point lead over the Conservatives.

The 19th-century liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill favoured plural voting to over-represent the learned classes, suggesting six votes for those with professional qualifications, and for graduates “at least as many”. Until 1950, university graduates enjoyed a second vote in university constituencies. Had Mill’s system been in place in 2019, Corbyn might now be prime minister.

But Corbynism had nothing in common with traditional British socialism. No other Labour leader has sympathised with the IRA or similar terrorist organisations, much less had truck with anti-Semitism. At the time of the 2019 election, Labour was under investigation by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) which suspected that it “may have committed unlawful acts,” in relation to anti-Semitism. The only party previously so honoured was the British National Party, although Margaret Hodge has said she had faced more anti-Semitism within Labour than from the BNP in her Barking constituency. 

The submission to the EHRC by the Jewish Labour Movement detailed overwhelming evidence that anti-Semitic conduct is “pervasive at all levels of the party”. According to a 2019 poll by the Jewish Chronicle, 47 per cent of British Jews indicated that they would have seriously considered leaving the country had Corbyn entered No 10.

Anti-Semitism had not been a force of any significance in British politics since the 1930s. But even in the dark days of the Depression, fascism found no resonance with the British people and Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists, became a pariah. Corbyn was not a pariah, but leader of the opposition.

Of course, progressives were troubled by Corbyn’s racism, but not too much. The Guardian declared before the election that, “The pain and hurt within the Jewish community, and the damage to Labour, are undeniable and shaming. Yet Labour remains indispensable to progressive politics,” as if racism was just a minor blemish on the face of progressivism. Some sought moral equivalence by pointing to Islamophobia in the Conservative Party and the incautious comments that Boris Johnson had made during his career as a journalist.

Most of the shadow cabinet maintained a cowardly silence. Labour MPs had declared no confidence in Corbyn in June 2016 by 172 votes to 40. Many of the 172 were still MPs come the election and so were, until a few weeks ago, trying to persuade voters to put Corbyn into Downing Street. Yet if Corbyn was unsuitable as leader of the Labour Party, he was, presumably, even more unsuitable as leader of the country.

The Corbynite project was destroyed not by “moderate” Labour MPs, still less by the educated classes, but by the patriotism and good sense of the working class, which showed more wisdom and maturity than the intelligentsia. They judged that a man who had welcomed terrorists from the Provisional IRA into the Commons in 1984, and had consorted with Holocaust deniers and anti-Semites, was a nasty piece of work. 

Many now compare Labour’s position with 1983, when Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives comprehensively beat Labour in the general election, after which it took 14 years for the party to regain power under Blair. He transformed Labour, removing Clause IV from the party’s constitution – which promised common ownership of the means of production – and turning it into a successful social democratic party.

But Labour’s position today is far worse than it was in 1983. Michael Foot never gave the slightest encouragement to terrorists and was horrified by anti-Semitism. Labour now faces a moral as well as an electoral crisis. It did not just lose the election, but, in the words of Andrew Fisher, Corbyn’s former head of policy who resigned last September, it also lacked “human decency”.

Keir Starmer has said that Labour must build on Corbyn’s “radicalism”. But, if it is to regain its “human decency”, the party must repudiate both Corbyn and Corbynism. The progressive intelligentsia, however, and those in the academic community prepared to commend an institutionally racist party, have been even more severely damaged. Having so utterly lost their moral compass, it is hard to see how they can ever regain it.

Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government at King’s College London

This article appears in the 07 February 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Europe after Brexit