Another summer, another massive mobilisation of new members, the most predictable result since Brexit (at least for those of us who’d been canvassing). The only surprise was that this year’s Groundhog Day managed to be duller than the last one. As each candidate battled to see who could elaborate the most parochial policies that will be irrelevant by the time of the next election, it was as exciting as watching a debate between two Andy Burnhams.
Here was a chance for Owen Smith to rise above the squabbling of recent weeks, to ignore the in-fighting and lay out a vision of how the country can deal with Brexit. A perfect opportunity to reach out to ‘leave’ voters, some of whom are starting to realise Brexit is not what they thought it was, and at least give some confidence to the millions who voted to stay.
Let’s leave aside the breath-taking silliness of suggesting a second referendum, which will work for the moment to mobilise LibDems but otherwise successfully alienates anyone who wishes to abide by democracy. His decision to use his campaign to attack Corbyn personally, succeeded in winning over thousands of the undecided either to Jeremy, or, for those who had wanted to get rid of him, to leave in disgust (as many did).
And here was a chance for Jeremy to lay out his vision of how Labour should rebuild Britain in our new-found situation on the fringes of a Europe currently sleepwalking towards fascism. Instead we remained entrenched in our favourite comfort zone, we’ll save the NHS and railways, Tories are mean and nasty, we don’t like people who don’t like immigrants, no more bombing foreigners. It was a rerun of Ed Miliband’s five-year campaign as leader, only without the need to convert people who have stopped voting Labour.
And still I look at both main parties, and see the Tories are far more split than Labour. Once you take out the personal rancour (a big ask, I understand), there really is not a lot to choose between the views of Jeremy Corbyn, Lisa Nandy and even Harriet Harman.
Some may point to Chuka Umunna’s recent intervention over Brexit, which saw him appointed as Labour’s latest Controls On Immigration Mug. Chuka suggested that we need to start listening to the Brexit voters who are leaving Labour in their droves.
His choice of language was, to be kind to him, not helpful. But the fact that he was able to do this reflects the vacuum at the heart of Labour, since neither leadership candidate dared to venture into areas where they don’t like what they see. It’s easy to get why. Many of us are uncomfortable at the idea of engaging with people who appear to have abandoned our liberal multicultural outlook and adopted views that we thought had become extinct.
Chuka’s intervention is not a reflection of a disagreement on policy but on leadership. At least he’s addressing the one question Labour is too scared to ask – how do we deal with the toxic issue of immigration – and all the nasty side-effects that have turned people away from us, such as racism, asylum, globalisation and freedom of movement for labour? Do we “listen to people’s concerns” (which to many in Labour sounds like Cameron’s disastrous pandering to xenophobia), or do we slowly, painstakingly attempt to build a notion of what kind of country we are, the country that changed forever not after Brexit but after the murder of Jo Cox?
Corbyn and Smith both had two months to articulate this problem, and both shied away. But, we are where we are. And, with a small injection of self-confidence, we should be capable of moving ahead and searching for the answer.
I have a simple request for each side, which is to concentrate on what you do best. PLP, you are not the Tories, thank God, but it does mean you’re rubbish at coups. Most of your plotters didn’t even know a coup was happening. Stick to attacking the Tories. They are an easy target. Remember every time you plot you look like Ian Duncan Smith. He actually got the Brexit result he’s been craving for 25 years, and he’s still angry. Winner or loser, sour grapes is a bad look.
Non-Corbyn voters, please don’t leave now. I left in 2002, I thought I was being principled. I realise now I should have stayed.
New members, you have your man in charge, now give him and the PLP time and a chance to heal the wounds.
Yes I know that’s not going to happen. At Westminster plotters gotta plot, it’s how they survive. Meanwhile on the ground, the prospect of seeing your Corbyn-opposing party workers, Councillors and MPs replaced by people you agree with will be too tempting to let go of. Unlike last year, when it was almost impossible to engage new members with local party activity, I suspect the new intake will stay interested at least up to the point where anyone who disagrees with them is culled.
But there is another option. When I was a teenager in the 1970s, the biggest threat, every day of my life, was racists on the street, at school, at the football matches I went to. I found a fellowship among the loose knit but passionate band of far left and anarchist groups who dedicated their lives to fighting fascism in all its forms.
True, the Revolutionary Communists hated the International Socialists more than Tories, the International Socialists hated the Workers Revolutionary Party, and the only reason nobody hated the Marxist-Leninists was because there weren’t any in Leeds at the time. But as soon as anyone got a sniff of the National Front organising a march, they buried their differences and mobilised hundreds of people to demonstrate against them. I’m not saying we were responsible for their defeat, but we certainly put off the kind of people who may have considered joining a demo, but thought it would be safer in the end to keep their racism to themselves.
What greater service could groups like Momentum perform than to mobilise thousands up and down the country, whenever they hear of Britain First demos or attacks on Poles? Instead of attacking people in your local party who largely agree with you, look outside your door and do something about the increasing numbers who are carrying out racist attacks under the excuse of Brexit. I realise it’s not the whole answer but it’s a better place to start than reliving that infamous mug.
Being the leader of a left wing party these days is a massive ask. Sometimes it feels to me like it’s both 1933 and 1945, the leader has to combine Attlee’s vision of rebuilding Britain on a budget, with the Churchill who focused single-mindedly on saving Europe from fascism.
That’s the party I want to belong to, and we now have the numbers both at Westminster and on the ground to achieve it.