Friday 15 July 2016

Labour's Unholy War

Once upon a time, an organisation grew tired of its weak and self-serving leadership. It rejected the conventional candidates, and elected an old man from the wilderness. He was humble in appearance, ascetic in lifestyle, and uncompromising in his principles.

I am referring of course to the Catholic Church in the year 1294. At the time, the cardinals had spent two years failing to elect a Pope. They finally settled on Peter of Morena, a seventy-nine year old hermit who was enthroned as Celestine V. He was sincere, incorruptible and no doubt holy; but unable to handle the administrative and diplomatic duties of the papacy, he abdicated after five months -- the only Pope to do so until Benedict XVI in 2013.

Tomb of Celestine V. Source: Wikipedia

History does not repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes. Corbyn was elected in a similar mood of frustration with business as usual. He looked different, sincere in his convictions, and untainted by personal greed. That set him apart from his colleagues, and it was enough to win him the leadership election. Where Corbyn differs from Celestine is that he has no intention of going quietly.

In medieval terms, Corbyn has barricaded himself in a castle with a few devoted allies. He stands on the battlements, shaking his fist at the cardinals and bishops, refusing to accept their consensus that he should go. He hopes an army of his peasant followers will arrive to save him -- in something reminiscent of the People's Crusade, if we mix medieval metaphors.

They may yet do so. It now appears there will be a leadership election in the Labour Party, with Corbyn on the ballot against Angela Eagle and Owen Smith. I've noted that Eagle never expressed any confidence in Corbyn's leadership, and now she has the opportunity to take over his job. As for Smith, I follow politics closely, but my first reaction to his leadership bid was, "Who's he?"

Maybe Corbyn is still popular enough among the Labour membership to prevail. But win or lose, it's hard to see how this can end well for anyone.

If Corbyn loses, I don't see him serving as a loyal foot soldier for the leader who has unseated him. Corbyn, the forty or so MPs who still support him, and their backers in the membership and unions might split off and form their own party; or they might remain as a thorn in the side of whoever emerges as the new leader, the Militant Tendency of the 1980s all over again.

If he wins, his position is still invidious, with more than four in five Labour MPs expressing no confidence in his leadership. Corbyn would have a mandate from two leadership elections; but the MPs have their own mandates, from nine million Labour voters at the last general election. They have gone too far to come back and make peace with Corbyn. Again, they might break away to form a new party; or they might keep the current state of cold war going until the next general election, at which Labour would surely be demolished.

No matter how events turn out, one thing is certain: The Labour Party are unfit to run a village fĂȘte, let alone the country. If they were tasked with organising the proverbial piss-up in a brewery, it would at once degenerate into a brawl over the merits of conical pint glasses versus dimpled mugs.

All of this is a shameful dereliction of duty. The Conservatives have swiftly united under their new leader, Theresa May. With the vote to leave the European Union, they preside over upheaval such as we have not seen since 1945. Weighty and far-reaching decisions must be taken. Scotland may leave the UK; and Brexit will have drastic consequences for the peace settlement in Northern Ireland.

In the meantime, it looks like Her Majesty's Most Loyal Opposition will be busy arguing with itself. The Conservatives will have a free hand to do as they please. And it's very, very hard to see Labour coming back as a party fit for government in the next decade, if it even comes back at all. For all Labour's many flaws, it is the only progressive party of government available for the UK. It makes me angry to see it reduce itself to this state.

There is plenty of blame to go around. I understand the anger and frustration which brought Jeremy Corbyn to office. The mainstream Labour MPs were a grubby, uninspiring lot. Many were tainted by the expenses scandal or the Iraq War; and all had gone along with the woefully inept leadership of Ed Miliband.

I also understand the alarm of the MPs. Corbyn simply doesn't look like a Prime Minister in waiting. For more than thirty years as a backbench MP, Corbyn was an eternal rebel and protester. That was admirable in its way, but did not prepare him for leadership.

Corbyn is used to addressing meetings of people who already agree with him, not reaching out to persuade indifferent or sceptical voters. He has no experience of developing detailed policy. He scorns political compromise; but a leader who cannot negotiate or build coalitions is no leader at all. These skills are not some sort of optional extra; they are at the very core of what the Leader of the Opposition must do to hold the government to account. He might have been able to change and learn, but has shown no interest in doing so.

My natural sympathies lie with the MPs. I appreciate the value of practicality and consensus. I am leery of Corbyn's record. Among other things, he remained Chair of the Stop The War Coalition long after it became a ludicrous joke of an organisation, so bad that the Green MP Caroline Lucas decided to disassociate herself from it. But the MPs make it awfully hard; they can't even settle on a single alternative candidate, and the best they can do is Angela Eagle and Owen Smith.

Eagle appears to be a competent politician and administrator, and a dedicated public servant. But given the chance to present an inspiring vision for the country, a reason for us to follow her, she has so far provided... well, nothing much, except for the key quality of being Not Corbyn. It remains to be seen how Smith will do, but I have a sinking feeling his selling point will be Not Corbyn And Not Eagle.

Getting back to my historical comparison, the papacy's woes did not end with Celestine. He was followed by the relocation of the papal court to the French town of Avignon. Then came the Western Schism of 1378-1417, with two rival popes, one in Rome and one in Avignon. Unlike the Catholic Church, the Labour party is unlikely to survive a thirty-year schism.

It reminds me of the scene from Monty Python's Life of Brian:

BRIAN: Comrades, we should be struggling together!
COMRADES (busy punching each other): We are!

Labour's internecine warfare is fascinating, in the way of car wrecks and disfiguring diseases. But one way or another, it is the most vulnerable in this country who will suffer for it.

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