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Labour Shoots Itself in the Head

W Stephen Gilbert

Beyond the world transformed by Covid-19 – save Brazil, a country according to its maverick president free of the virus – a few scheduled events are still ticking over. The Labour Party will proceed to unveil a new regime on April 4th. And it will be making an historic choice.

Barring a major upset, it is going to elect Keir Starmer as its first leader in possession of a knighthood.

Indeed, neither has any leader in all the party’s 120 years been created a knight after leaving the leadership, not even Tony Blair (who, many believe, would settle for no title short of Order of Merit and President-for-Life).

Margaret Beckett, who was acting leader for two months after the untimely death of John Smith in 1994, subsequently accepted a damehood (and, uniquely for a former leader, has already remained an MP thereafter for more than a quarter of a century); several ex-leaders have gone to the Lords, though none since Neil Kinnock. But there have been no knights. You can bet that Jeremy Corbyn will not accept a knighthood or a peerage, even if either were offered.

Meanwhile, the leadership election necessary in the Liberal Democrat Party has been postponed until next year. In the interim, by convention, the party is co-led by the deputy leader and the (revolving) party president.

Sir Ed Davey, runner-up to Jo Swinson in the last leadership election, will hence have been acting co-leader for at least a year and may be considered a shoo-in eventually to succeed Swinson. Thus is offered the amusing spectacle of both nominally left-of-centre parties being led by knights of the realm.

The Conservatives – now repositioned as claiming to be the party most representative of every class stratum, even while being led by an Old Etonian (though an untitled one) – has not chosen a leader with a title since Lord Home in 1963, and he was the last to be appointed by party grandees; his immediate successor, Edward Heath, was the first to gain the leadership through an internal election.

Home was obliged to renounce his peerage (following the precedent set by Tony Benn, the former Viscount Stansgate) and fight a faintly humiliating by-election as Sir Alec Douglas-Home in a safe Tory seat in Scotland in order to lead the nation from the Commons. It’s an indication of how far in the past is this event that there could have been such a beast as a safe Tory seat in Scotland.

So Labour is apparently no longer concerned to be viewed as a party that foregrounds levelling up and greater social equality.

Though Sir Keir flourishes working class origins, working class people will not obviously identify with a chap independent-school and Oxford educated whose position prior to becoming an MP – he was Director of Public Prosecutions – carried with it an automatic knighthood.

It’s a widely canvassed view, within as well as outside the party, that Labour has progressively lost touch with its grassroots and its traditional base. Indeed, the most dramatic illustration of this supposed trend was offered by the December election, whereat Labour lost seats all across the North of England and the Midlands, most of them for the first time in living memory. As well as the parliamentary party being deemed elitist and London-centric, it was also widely perceived as being dominated by those who wished to remain in the European Union, a group led by none other than Sir Keir Starmer.

The loss of support by both Labour – Corbyn having offered a further referendum following a renegotiation of the Brexit deal in an attempt to prevent further departures from the parliamentary party – and the Liberal Democrats – who vowed to stop Brexit altogether and return to the EU, and were rewarded by the loss of both the leader’s and the party EU spokesman’s seats – confirmed that a large majority outside London wanted the 2016 referendum result ratified as it stood. Those of us in the party who warned of this outcome had been shouted down.

In view of the evident reassertion of voter distrust towards men in suits, it beggars belief that Labour should seek its salvation under the leadership of a middle-class knight of the realm who sits for a North London seat and who staked his politician reputation on “saving” the nation from Brexit. Nevertheless, unless something very unlikely occurs before the party votes are counted, Sir Keir will be elected leader on the first ballot.

Looking at the platforms on which the three candidates stand, however, there seems precious little to choose between them. Sir Keir has very deliberately tacked to the left, where the support for Rebecca Long-Bailey is largely rooted. Lisa Nandy, though more individualist than her rivals and, as a backbencher, feeling less obliged to pay lip service to the 2019 manifesto, can be seen as leftish on most issues.

The most noticeable element in what will seem to define the party’s immediate future will be that, once again, the party has not entrusted its fate to a woman leader or indeed – an option offered by Nandy – a mixed heritage leader. The face of the chief party of the left in Britain will be what it has always been: that of a middle-class white man.

None of these candidates is going to win support from the mainstream media. Long-Bailey is vulnerable to being dismissed by the Corbyn-hating press as “the Corbyn continuity candidate” and hence readily decried as beaten before she starts. Nandy will be more elusive for the media to get a purchase on, but the outrageous maligning by the Daily Mail of Ed Miliband’s father Ralph as “The Man Who Hated Britain” will doubtless be rerun about Dipak Nandy, another Marxist immigrant intellectual with an impeccable reputation ripe for besmirching. Lisa Nandy should ready herself for this, even if she fails to become leader.

For Starmer, the Tory press will reserve special venom. Unlike his rivals, he declines to rule out the possibility of the UK rejoining the EU at some future time. That is sufficient motivation for the press barons to seek to destroy him. They will not have to look far into his record as DPP to find material that can be spun to his disadvantage.

As I’ve argued on this platform before, the two Tory prime ministers who both lost the support of the Tory press and subsequently lost a general election during the past half-century were the two prime ministers who were most enthusiastic about the European Union: Heath and John Major. This is not a coincidence. No other Tory prime minister lost office.

Although the potency of the European issue can be expected to recede, the Tory press will never give a fair ride to a leader of any party, let alone Labour, who is palpably pro-EU. That’s just a fact of life. Given all the other elements of Labour philosophy that the press barons are fundamentally opposed to, the party will be doing itself no favours, to say the least.

At the Dudley hustings on March 7th, Starmer said:

If people think we were cruising to victory but for Brexit, then I suggest they weren’t out there campaigning.”

I doubt anyone fancied that Labour were cruising to victory. But to pretend that Brexit wasn’t a major determining factor in the Tories’ win – and it contributed to the votes that the Conservatives took as well as to the votes that Labour shed – is to rewrite history.

As Starmer showed in the Channel 4 debate, he’s not prepared to hack retrospective chunks out of Corbyn, which is a) shrewd because he wants support from the hundreds of thousands who (re)joined the party precisely because of Corbyn’s leadership; b) understandable because the time for post mortems is past; but c) less than candid because nobody believes that he won’t jettison some of the policies – yet to be indicated – that Corbyn championed.

And there’s a disconnect between Starmer’s pose of relative loyalty to the retiring leader and the manifesto and the fact that he (as indeed do his rivals) readily concedes that Labour suffered its “worst defeat in 85 years”, as if it’s a judgment on the Labour movement and/or its leader and/or its manifesto in isolation from any other contributor to the political debate.

The Brexit issue, its framing and its timing, the mainstream media’s relentless mendacity, the global political climate in the time of Trump, the opposition’s innate inability to control, dictate or lead events, all these and other factors played into the election result too.

As I’ve argued here before, changes of government in Britain are extremely unusual – just twice in 40 years. Changes of government do not come about by oppositions winning elections, but by governments losing them. Labour needed to establish that thought in the electorate’s collective mind, but what has been conceded already makes that too late.

This is repeating the error that followed the 2010 defeat, when both Harriet Harman as acting leader and her successor left unchallenged the saw that “Labour crashed the economy”. If there’s one change that Labour sorely needs to make, it is to revolutionise its propaganda effort.

Starmer has foolishly committed himself to a number of what are deemed to be pledges or guarantees, ten in all. Politicians cannot guarantee anything because of “events, dear boy, events”. Covid-19 changes everything but no one could have foreseen that at the last election.

Rather, politicians should make clear what they exist to do, what are changes that they must make if they humanly can because those changes are the foundations of the movement that they lead and represent. But it can only ever be an undertaking about the direction of travel. As Jim Callaghan – a wise old bird if ever there was one – once observed: “you never reach the promised land. You can march towards it”. Undertaking to implement specific policies is a guarantee only of disappointing the electorate.

One of the issues on which Starmer is explicitly critical of his party in recent years is that of anti-Semitism.

In this, he is joined by Nandy and Long-Bailey; indeed, the last is the most outspoken of the three on the issue. Invited, in the Channel 4 debate, to give some indication of support for the Palestinians, all three gave voice to the conventional liberal stance but none undertook to recognise the state of Palestine (which, it may be noted, they were not invited to do).

Evidently, under all the leadership options on offer, any party member will be obliged to write in a uniquely treading-on-eggshells manner about anti-Semitism and about Israel.

At grave risk to myself, I essay this observation: I venture that Corbyn’s undertaking to recognise the state of Palestine in his first week of taking office fuelled a certain amount – I put it no stronger – of the effort both within and without Labour to impede his progress to Downing Street.

Now that the objective has been achieved, I hazard that it will be instructive to observe to what extent the allegations of anti-Semitism in the party go into a decline.

I propose that no fair-minded, unprejudiced reader could construe my argument as either overtly or constructively anti-Semitic.

As all leadership candidates subscribe to the astonishingly unBritish view that anyone accused of anti-Semitism (but not of anything else) will be deemed guilty until proved innocent, I should probably expect that I have written myself into trouble, despite that palpably nothing here offends against the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. Such are the times in which we live.

Starmer, Long-Bailey and Nandy all uttered conventional platitudes about online abuse. As with all such sentiments, the assumption is that no one associated with the speaker has ever gone in for abuse. There is a widespread implication that threats and vile comments on social media are only ever expressed by members of the extreme right and the Corbyn-supporting left.

But three years ago, according to no less an authority than MailOnline, an analysis of MPs’ Twitter feeds found that no Corbyn supporter registered in the ‘Top Ten’ for foul language and abuse, but that six habitual critics of Corbyn did. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine that any MPs receive more online abuse than Corbyn and Diane Abbott.

None of the putative leaders is advocating a simple and clearly beneficial control on social media. No tweet, no post, no text, no email should be untraceable by the regulator of the platform. The anonymity that trolls hide behind should only apply to what is readily traceable by other platform users. But the platform should not be permitted to open itself to users whom it cannot identify, expel and report to the appropriate authorities. If the price social media users pay is that the platforms are able to send them more adverts, it’s a price that is worth paying.

But there is a degree of piety about abuse that doesn’t bear much scrutiny. Politics, in a venerable finding, is “a rough old trade”.

Smears, dirty tricks, blackmail, parliamentarily protected slander and much else was part of the armoury of political exchange long before anyone invented online abuse.

Under the guise of protesting hurt, politicians sometimes fend off legitimate comment and criticism with claims of abuse. Grown-ups should know to roll with the punches, ignore empty gestures and reflect that most of the shit flung at them sticks to the flinger.

If Jeremy Corbyn can calmly face down Dame Margaret Hodge calling him to his face “a fucking anti-Semite and a racist” and it not even occur to him that some sort of reprisal might be justified, the rest of us can be a little more broad-shouldered when a maladjusted stranger blows us a raspberry.

Starmer as party leader had better brace himself for a tidal surge of disobliging comment from the press that will feel not unlike abuse. If he doesn’t possess the evenness of temper and the single-mindedness of purpose that inured his predecessor against despair and doubt, he will find his new role the proverbial poisoned chalice. I suggest he prepares an arsenal of pre-emptive and reciprocatory ammunition with which to deter his circling enemies.