The Labour party must dig deep into roots if it is to survive. The Blairites cannot do it, they are finished now. The far left is triumphant but they are a tiny force in the Parliamentary Labour Party, and nowhere near as popular in the country as their deluded supporters imagine.
In the middle sit the broad mass of social democratic Labour MPs, and they do not know what to do. The leadership campaign showed that they could not inspire, although I thought that Yvette Cooper found her voice in its final weeks. They don’t know whether to sit in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet or to stand by their principles and retire to the backbenches.
Corbyn humiliates those who try to be loyal. They thought that they were serving a pro-EU leader, then Corbyn implies that maybe they are not. They want to say that the Tories’ attack on them as a danger to national security is outrageous, then their deputy leader Tom Watson has to admit that he doesn’t know if it is still Labour policy to remain in Nato.
The Tories strategy is clear: they don’t just want to beat Labour, they want to destroy it. They will taint the whole party with accusations of treason. A Labour leader who apologises for Putin, Iran, and Hezbollah and every variety of crank, Holocaust denier and hate preacher gives them every opportunity to do so. A politician, who cannot even bring himself to sing the national anthem – at a Battle of Britain memorial service, for goodness sake – is wide open to the accusation that he loves Britain’s enemies more than he loves Britain.
Here is a question interviewers have yet put to a Labour MP, but will ask, the longer this chaos goes on. However much you deplore the Tories, however much you hate having this awful choice being forced on you, do you in your heart fear a Cameron or an Osborne government less than the Corbyn administration? You only have to raise the question to know the answer millions of voters will give.
The assault is not only ideological but institutional. As Dan Hodges said in a Telegraph piece every Labour supporter read, the vindictive Trade Union Bill going through the Commons shows that the Tories want to bankrupt Labour, and wipe it off the face of the earth.
During the last Parliament, I asked why Labour had not sacked Ed Miliband. If a driver were taking a bus over a cliff, the passengers would try to seize the wheel. Yet Labour MPs were prepared to sit in their seats and pretend that everything was fine.
They duly went over the cliff, but there were enough survivors to build a new parliamentary party from the wreckage. I am not sure Labour will be so lucky next time. Indeed, I am certain of it.
To date the parliamentary party has said that it cannot intervene. If they were to stab Corbyn in the back, they would conform to every cliché of the scheming politician, who overrides the democratic will of the party membership. They have no mandate to remove him. If MPs fired him, the members could just elect him again, or someone just like him. In any case, Labour people say, the far left must ‘own’ the defeat; accept it as its fault and its responsibility.
These seem reasonable objections. Frankly, they seem overwhelmingly reasonable objections. But come now. The far left never accepts responsibility for its mistakes: it will blame the Labour right, the media, Mossad, the CIA, MI6… anyone or anything but themselves. As for giving Corbyn time, the question arises, how many more weeks like this can Labour take?
Labour has been here before. Commentators say he is the most left-wing Labour leader since Michael Foot. That is hugely unfair on Foot, who was an anti-fascist, which Jeremy Corbyn is not. The best comparison is with George Lansbury – a genuine pacifist – and Labour’s leader in the early 1930s. As the power of the Nazis grew, his pacifism seemed ever more ridiculous. Paul Schmidt, Hitler’s translator, remembered Lansbury’s meeting with the Führer:
I almost felt sorry for the old gentleman from England. Again and again, he advanced his pacific plans… He seemed wholly unaware of Hitler’s lack of interest, being obviously delighted with his replies, vague though they might be.
At the 1935 Labour conference, the great trade union leader Ernie Bevin, who was to go on to found the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation which Corbyn now appears to wants to leave, took to the stage.
Lansbury had been greeted with a rendition of For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow – for the Labour party has always been more sentimental than a Hallmark card-makers convention. He was committed to peace with Germany, he cried. ‘I am ready to stand as the early Christians die and say, this is our faith, and if necessary, this is where we will die.’
The conference loved it. But Bevin had had enough. He took to the stage and boomed:
People have been on this platform talking about the destruction of capitalism. The middle classes are not doing too badly under capitalism and fascism. The only thing that is being wiped out is the trade union movement. It is we who are being wiped out and will be wiped out if fascism comes here.
He turned to Lansbury and accused him of dithering in the face of tyranny: ‘hawking your conscience around from body to body asking to be told what to do with it.’
The conference erupted. Poor old Virginia Woolf burst into tears. But Lansbury was finished. Bevin was upholding a principle too many on the left have forgotten: your comrades should be the victims of fascism in the 1930s and the victims of the reactionary and the far right today. You do not, in other words, appear on Iranian TV, as Corbyn does, without speaking out in defence of the women gays, and ethnic and religious minorities the theocracy oppresses.
Bevin was unrepentant about knifing his leader. ‘Lansbury’s been dressed in saint’s clothes for years, waiting for martyrdom. All I did was set fire to the faggots.’
The modern politician who reminds me most of Bevin is Tom Watson. He has Ernie’s girth and also comes from the deep roots of the Labour and trade union movement. If anyone can tell the unions that they will be ‘wiped out’ if the Tories stay in power until 2025 or 2030, it’s him. If anyone can explain to left-wing Labour members why they must think again, he can.
Politicians get a bad press. But there are times when their best and most moral choice is to be a scheming swine. Someone has to grab the wheel. Someone has to stop the bus, and if not Watson, I cannot see who else can do it.