The result is worse than feared. Corbyn’s command of the Labour membership is greater than last year, even when faced with a single left-wing candidate. Owen Smith is likely to be pilloried, but he showed bravery in taking on Jeremy Corbyn, as the union rep for a long-abused parliamentary Labour party. I argued last year that Labour is no longer the political party we’ve known for a generation. With almost an entirely new membership, new branch secretaries, a new shadow cabinet and a new leadership team, a pub you quite liked has now been turned into a student union.
I’m not still leaving the Labour party, even though Corbyn and Corbynism are the antithesis of my politics. The charge sheet against Corbyn and McDonnell is long. Anyone who takes money to present programmes for the propaganda arm of the Iranian state – after its collusion in torture – is not fit to be a Labour party member, let alone its leader. The fact that Ruth Smeeth, a female Jewish MP, requires a bodyguard at Labour party conference would shame France’s Front Nationale, let alone a social democratic party.
Yet, there is a moral responsibility to stay – even if only as guests in this new house. Politics globally is in chaos. It is not inconceivable that Trump and Le Pen could be two of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council alongside Putin and Xi, in just over a year. The other member would be Theresa May, the final voice representing Enlightenment values in a world turned upside down. It may not come to pass, but the coming decade is beginning to look like the 1930s. It may feel good to storm out of the Labour party, but unless you have a plan, you are abandoning the defenders of social democracy to the wolves.
Hilary Benn’s speech on Syria represents what I think about the world. He made a direct democratic internationalist argument for intervention:
“What we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated and it is why, as we have tonight, socialists and trade unionists were just one part of the International Brigade in the 1930s to fight against Franco… It’s why our party has always stood up against the denial of human rights and for justice”
No party than Labour has done more in parliament to argue for the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the UK. Murdered MP Jo Cox embodied this internationalist concern for refugees with her colleague Lord Dubbs (who came to Britain in the Kindertransport upon the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia). It is Labour MPs who argued for action in Afghanistan against the Taliban, who made the moral arguments against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, stopped the slaughter of Kosovan Muslims and ended the civil war in Sierra Leone. In my lifetime, it has been Labour MPs and the Labour party that has been the internationalist party, while the Conservatives did nothing to prevent genocide in Rwanda, or the genocide in Bosnia.
Leaving Labour makes it easier for this internationalist tradition to be hollowed out by the degenerates of the Stop the War coalition. While Labour remains a single party, it remains the only group of parliamentarians who (on balance) marry a belief in NATO and Trident with a hard commitment to international human rights and a tradition that has used force to take on tyranny. Give me a post-war Conservative who could fill Ernest Bevin or Tony Blair’s boots? You can’t.
I agree with Ellie Mae O’Hagan, the majority of the new members are not militant Trotskyists. But they are angry. Angry at a society where the over 50s hold over three-quarters of the financial wealth of the land. Angry at a political class whose judgement has fallen short; whether the MPs expenses scandal, or the politicisation of intelligence that led to the Iraq War, or the deregulation of the financial services sector that led to the longest fall in living standards since the Great Depression. Across Europe there is a generation of young people who have never known full employment. Too many of my peers have zero hour contracts; almost no one has a pension or company car, or a home big enough to raise a family. Corbyn, like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, is above retirement age. Yet he remembers a time when politicians did big things. Corbynism is the wrong answer to the wrong question, but neither Owen Smith, nor Yvette Cooper, nor Andy Burnham were even asking questions of the status quo. Until we have answers, social democrats and liberal interventionists should stay under the only political umbrella that has the ability to ask these questions in parliament.
In the short-term, Britain needs an effective opposition. The only way is for Labour MPs to hold their noses and work with Corbyn. Since the European referendum the ground has shifted from soft Brexit (membership of the Single Market) to hard Brexit (WTO membership). Unless the Tories are held to account, Britain is about to become Singapore on steroids. Again, the only group of MPs who are overtly pro-European are the caucus of moderate Labour MPs.
When Corbyn and McDonnell begin their programme of forced de-selections and party rule book changes to favour the hard-left, they will be digging the party’s grave. Yet, this could have been foreseen. For too long, Labour moderates held their tongue as their colleagues shared platforms with reactionaries – whether members of the Muslim Brotherhood, or the rape cultists of the SWP, or the Stop the War coalition. When Nick Cohen pointed this out in What’s Left, leading Labour figures denounced him to colleagues saying he was merely exposing a marginal fringe. Well, look who is the fringe now.
This is temporary. In this country, there will always be a Conservative tradition and a Whig tradition. The Conservative tradition will sometimes be reactionary, at other times Enlightened. The Whig tradition will is sometimes radical, but more often reformist. Labour is just one of many parties who form part of this historical tradition. Ultimately, Labour has no right or need to exist.
The Whig tradition will re-establish itself, either inside the Labour party, or in a new form. Until we know what that looks like, it would be the height of selfishness to march out of a party containing decent, principled social democrats. Corbynism is predicated on it capturing the Labour party and destroying the space for the tradition of reformist social democracy. This is where his band of merry men will fail. In the face of a revolt against globalisation and the rise of populists, social democracy will reinvent itself. In the meantime, Labour may survive, maybe it won’t. But it is far too early to abandon parliamentarians who have the job of standing up to reactionaries from the left and the right. For that reason, and that reason alone, I am staying in the Labour party.