Battle is joined. After Angela Eagle had the balls to step up and challenge Corbyn for the Labour leadership and then nobly stood aside for Owen Smith so there was a unity challenger, we now have maybe the last chance to save the Labour Party as a coherent political force. Something that after Brexit and the change of Prime Minister, the country desperately needs.
The huge surge in registered supporters last week – over 180,000 applying in the 48 hour window, shows how much it is recognised that this contest matters. To give you a sense of scale and despite the 8-fold increase in cost, compare this figure to the fact that the number of £3 registered supporters in the Labour election last year was more like 100,000 (and that was seen as wholly unprecedented).
But the fact that there is even a leadership election is still in this most extraordinary of political years, itself extraordinary. There is simply no precedent for a party leader to lose the confidence of over 80% of his own parliamentary party and simply ignore it and carry on (Margaret Thatcher resigned as Prime Minister in 1990 after losing the support of 40% of the parliamentary Conservative Party). Equally, there is no precedent for a situation in which a major party leader is incapable of even filling the necessary shadow ministerial positions to function as a parliamentary opposition. Corbyn’s leadership of Labour as a parliamentary party is dead – whatever happens in the leadership election. His re-election will result either in a split or, more likely, the continuation of the recent farce, of effectively an opposition within the opposition (it may result in a bit of both – with some MPs figuring that there is no point continuing to pretend and defecting or setting up their own parliamentary party, given they are going to face re-selections anyway under a re-elected Corbyn). However you look at it, this will be a disaster for the forces of political progress in this country.
Yet, this political reality seems to make no impact whatever on Corbyn’s supporters within the Labour Party. The PLP is now, like the Tories, the enemy. In fact they are, in the eyes of Corbynistas, even more the enemy – the language is of ‘Blairite scum’, ‘traitors’, or in the eyes of the more swivel eyed (including Len McCluskey) infiltrators sent by MI5 to undermine the Great Leader. The fact that history has taught time and time again in British politics, that a divided party is a recipe for electoral defeat, is not only not heeded but not relevant. As Momentum head honcho and leading Corbynista, Jon Lansmann revealed recently this is not about winning elections but building a ‘social movement’. In this light, the PLP are, by definition irrelevant, decadent even, as the politics that matters takes place on the streets not in the House of Commons. Of course, this kind of politics can only actually effect change (rather than make a noise about it) either by being in a position to pass laws through Parliament which does require winning elections or by revolution. Students of history will know that revolutions are not exactly 10 a penny in this country and you are likely to have a mighty long wait if that is what you are aiming for.
The polls that have been taken so far in the leadership contest suggest that Corbyn will, despite this, win handily. The polls also suggest that even Labour voters prefer Theresa May to Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister, and give Corbyn the worst approval ratings of any opposition leader in history. The division is now between Corbyn and the membership on the one hand and the PLP and Labour voters on the other. On the one side a few hundred thousand, on the other (based on 2015 figures) 9.3 million. The maths should make the whole thing a no brainer.
Instead the reports are of huge numbers of fervent pro-Corbyn supporters at rallies across the land. Those seeking to suggest that a more electorally palatable option might be in the interests of those who Labour purports to represent are met with dark talk of conspiracy. Those who oppose Corbyn for whatever reason (even his former supporters within the PLP) are abused, and violence and threats of violence abound. When Angela Eagle’s office had a brick through the window combined with abusive calls to her staff, Corbyn’s supporters were quick to point out that the smashed window was actually on a communal stairwell (Eagle’s offices being in a shared building) as if the likely explanation was random vandalism, despite the coincidence with the abusive calls. This intimidatory thuggery has more in common with the the modus operandi of fascist movements of the 1930s than a progressive political force of the centre left.
Indeed the inability of Corbyn’s supporters to see any flaws whatever in the man and to excuse anything that is done in his name or by his supporters, suggests not so much a political movement, as a form of religious cult. Of course the two things are not wholly exclusive – there are more similarities between the Corbyn phenomenon and the Donald Trump phenomenon in the US than the former’s supporters would ever be prepared to admit. Everything is the fault of the mass media and conspirators in his own party against him. The man himself is a saint like figure speaking the truth to power.
Seamus Milne, Corbyn’s advisor has a history of praising Stalin, Diane Abbott, one of the MPs closest to Corbyn, has praised Mao as a net good. The cult of personality has always had its place on the (anti-democratic) left (on a more mundane level, look at all those Che Guevara tee-shirts and posters that lefty students have sported over the years). It’s reemergence now in the form that it has though has every chance of being the final death of the Labour Party. That is something that all who care about progressive politics in this country can only view with utter horror.