By Paul Halas
The blame game continues. Meanwhile…
While the general public and the media obsess about Coronavirus – both those who are terrified of it and the others who think the whole issue’s blown out of proportion – and while the planet is steadily passing various tipping points of climate change, the Labour Party has busied itself gazing at its navel.
As was said throughout the Corbyn era, the Conservatives should be there for the taking. If Theresa May’s government was accident-prone, Boris Johnson’s is the Frank Spencer of administrations. The one thing they do well is getting people to vote for them. At the last election they played their hand exceedingly well, tapping into popular discontent and appealing for the first time to a demographic of have-nots with a diet of gung-ho nationalistic Brexitism, dog-whistle xenophobia and faux anti-establishmentism. They were also able to take their traditional voter base for granted, because the only genuine alternative on offer was was viewed as highly tainted for a variety of reasons
The Tories still have some of their potent weapons. Thanks to Dominic Cummings and his shady little pals they still have a distinct advantage when it comes to cyber-campaigning, data mining and targeted canvassing. They still have the weight of dark money and wealthy corporate backing to bolster them. But thanks to the pandemic their rabble-pleasing, blagging front man has lost his lustre far quicker than anyone would’ve expected. The normally supine press has started to turn on him. And Dominic Cummings, previously portrayed as a back-room mastermind, is now seen as a shifty, Rasputin-like figure, reviled rather than respected.
The Conservatives will be thanking their lucky stars they still have four years in which they can steady the ship. Remove the figurehead and appoint a leader with a little more credibility – although last year’s sacking of anyone with any gumption from the cabinet will hinder the cause. But the party is not in good shape. They will be under intense scrutiny as the world eases its way out of the Coronavirus crisis, and lumping the cost of bailing out the economy on the poor for the second time in a decade will not go down well.
Meanwhile the silence from across the House is palpable. You get the impression that the Labour Party has its mind on other things – and indeed it has. The party may have a new leader, but all the soul-searching and recriminations following the general election defeat continues to occupy minds. Much as the new leadership would like to draw a line under the wrangling, it shows no sign of abating just yet.
The left and the right of the party have very different takes on what transpired, and, with the unsubtle support of many media commentators, it’s the right – aka the Centrists – whose voices are being heard the loudest.
The Centrist perspective is that Corbyn’s Labour Party was unelectable. Under him the party’s ideas were way too far to the left, its policies were pie in the sky, questions had to be asked about Corbyn’s connections with numerous controversial figures, and then there was his supposed tolerance of antisemitism. Add to the mix that Corbyn was weak on the EU and should’ve declared outright for Remain, and that the public had developed a high degree of personal antipathy towards him, and you have a narrative that demands that every trace of Corbynism be expunged from the party henceforth. To quote Polly Toynbee in the Guardian – itself no friend of Corbyn of the Labour Left – “The memory of Jeremy Corbyn will take years to erase. Starmer has sought unity, but he will have to challenge the Corbyn legacy before long.”
The Labour left, however, sees these issues differently. Labour’s policies under Corbyn were mainstream centre-left, pretty much in line with many of the UK’s near neighbours, and the loony-left scenario was a fabrication by an antagonistic media commentariat and hostile right wingers in the party. In fact, the argument goes, many of Labour’s policies were shown to be very popular with the public, which explains why Corbyn’s opponents usually chose to play the man rather than the ideas. Brexit was seen as a fiasco, with formerly safe seats falling to the Tories because the party failed to back Brexit wholeheartedly… according to many. The media had it in for Corbyn, and used every low down trick in the book to smear him – especially over the antisemitism issue. The last straw was the exposure of the party’s internal report into antisemitism, which showed that many Labour Party workers had pursued a hate campaign against the left, especially targeting some BAME members, and conspired to help lose two general elections. While one or two of the rogue apparatchiks have been suspended, this long history of subversion couldn’t have taken place without the support of the Labour right’s backers and more than a few anti-Corbynites in the PLP.
And will the twain ever be brought back together? The new management’s ‘new broom’ approach appears to be to sweep the left away. Starmer and his backers’ thinking appears to be that Labour will only ever regain power by swinging sharply towards the perceived centre ground. He certainly has support for this from the media – which is perhaps acknowledging that the Good Ship Tory is sailing in reef-strewn waters – and also from the City. And this, by implication, suggests that the establishment doesn’t see Starmer’s New Improved Labour as any sort of threat to its vested interests.
The left is under pressure. Numerous left wingers have left the party, saddened that many of the ideas they held dear are apparently no longer shared by party leaders, and many who are still hanging in there feel their days may be numbered.
There was always a degree of control freakery within the party mechanism, but now many members feel increasingly worried that speaking their minds could land them in hot water. The opinion is growing that the ‘members upwards’ approach to forming party policy is under attack, but the extent of it will only really become apparent whenever the next party conference takes place. There is a feeling that Keir Starmer will pander to establishment interests as much Tony Blair did, and neither his words nor his actions appear to contradict this.
What does Keir Starmer actually stand for? What is his vision for the future? Like others before him in the prelude to their taking power – Tony Blair and David Cameron spring to mind – Starmer is very sparing with specifics, light on policy. He is trading on his image of being prime-ministerial and electable, of appealing to the broad centre, the possessor of a safe pair of hands.
We need rather more than that, especially now. When the Coronavirus issue recedes we’ll still have a far larger and infinitely harder problem to combat: climate change. To cope with the vast societal changes that’ll have to take place in the swiftly deteriorating world situation that we’ll face over the next five, ten, forty years, we’ll need a politics with the will and ability to implement enormous and far reaching changes over a short period of time. The Labour Party currying favour with the establishment and the numerous vested interests that always seek to maintain the status quo, that desperately cling to an obsolete neoliberal system that has imploded twice is the last dozen years, does nothing to inspire confidence that it’s willing or able to do so. The current Labour leadership is harking back to an outdated, busted paradigm, when a completely fresh approach will be necessary if we’re to stand any chance of an equitable, sustainable future.
Over the past three years the Labour Party took the climate change issue very seriously, producing plans for a Green New Deal to help combat the twin evils of inequality and climate change. Alan Simpson (Corbyn and McDonnell’s advisor on sustainable economics) has since produced an updated vision for a GND, but it’s almost as if the issue has become a niche interest under the present leadership – just something to placate the muesli-eaters. Climate change is alluded to in some communications – but it should be front and centre in everything the Labour Party is speaking about. It’s deeply worrying that it isn’t.
The party is no longer a comfortable place for left wingers, but they have to stay and make their voices heard. Labour needs its Jiminy Cricket voices – and will do so more and more as our worrying and uncertain future unfolds. It will be up to a future Labour government – perhaps in collaboration with other smaller, progressive parties – to effect the seismic changes that’ll have to take place.
So come on Sir Keir, show us what your vision is. Playing safe just shouldn’t be an option.
Paul Halas’s escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader, which led to five years’ political activism. He left the party two years ago with a heavy heart.