Who might save the Labour Party? That’s the question dividing dinner parties across London, causing spats at media soirees, getting socially conscious celebs scratching their heads. I have a different question. Why save the Labour Party? Save it to do what? To be what? To think what? The middle-class tussle over the future of Labour has become so obsessed with the stickler of which individual might make Labour electable again — safe, bland bet Owen Smith or ‘working-class northern girl’ Angela Eagle? — that its various factions have forgotten the purpose of a political party: to represent something, to say something, to embody popular opinion.
Never have I so strongly wanted both sides to lose a fight than I do with Labour’s sad, embarrassing civil war. When Shakespeare wrote ‘A plague on both your houses’ I believe he must have had a vision of the tweeting-and-bleating strife that would befall Labour in 2016. On one side there’s Corbyn and his trustafarian radicals, a pseudo-Trotskyist re-enactment society, their heads stuck in 1982, their hearts broken by the Sun-reading working classes whom they consider such a crushing disappointment to the revolution. And on the other side there’s the largely middle-class professionals wishing Labour could go back to the glory days of the late 1990s and early 2000s — pre-Iraq! — when it was in power and popular and Getting Things Done. Both sides are delusional.
To see how delusional, consider the narrative peddled by the self-styled ‘decent’ wing of Labour, the wing that hates Corbyn, the wing that has set up a celeb-backed website called Saving Labour to demand that Corbyn ‘step aside for the good of the country’. Their narrative is that the Corbynistas have defiled Labour, turning a once proud opponent of Toryism into a gang of brutes and boors who shout down anyone who is insufficiently left-wing and whose journalist-turned-spindoctor, Seumas Milne, is an especially nasty piece of work who protects the Dear Leader from criticism and briefs against defectors. What a terrible state of affairs, they say; if only we could go back to how it was pre-Corbyn.
Are these people on smack? Before Corbyn, and, to be fair to Ed Miliband (I’d almost forgotten about him!), before Miliband too, Labour was easily as unforgiving and brutish as it is now. Has our political attention span been so frazzled by Twitter and rolling news that we can’t even think back 10 or 15 years? We’ve forgotten what nasty bastards the Blairites were. Not only in their policies, their haughty, illiberal, poor-bashing policies, but also in their ruthlessness. They, too, had a journalist-cum-spindoctor who would hound any hack or Labour minion who doubted the leader. They briefed and backstabbed and shunned the insufficiently ‘new’, anyone who had a whiff of political dinosaurism. They were as much a cult of personality, a faction without substance, a sect that had taken over a broken, hollow party, as the Corbynistas are.
This is why I want both sides to lose: because for all their shrill exchanges on Twitter and even bricks through windows, they have more in common than they think. They’re the same kind of people, doing the same kind of thing. The thing that ultimately unites them is a desire to use the husk of Labour, this empty shell where a proud, working man’s party used to be, to insulate themselves from reality, and from the plebs.
Middle-class professionals who find themselves repulsed by both posh Tories and the stupid, EU-opposing poor are desperate to keep Labour as a hiding place for the metropolitan elite, the party of well-connected city-dwellers, a trench against Ukippers and Europhobes and Daily Mail drones and other people they fear and loathe. And Corbynistas want Labour to be their lefty playpen, a Socialist safe space, if you like, where they can play at being 1970s militants in a world in which there’s no appetite for that kind of thing, at a safe distance from a working class they no longer understand, or like.
In a nutshell — and how historically horrible is this? — Labour has gone from being a party that represented the working class to being a kind of safe house from modernity that the middle classes are fighting to occupy. It has nothing — literally nothing — to say to working people, to those people who still believe in industrial growth (which Labour doesn’t), who oppose the EU (which Labour loves), and who think families should be left alone to run their lives (which is absolute anathema to the new, suspicious, meddling Labour with its beloved ‘politics of behaviour’). Labour was founded to do one thing; the clue is in the name: to represent those who labour. Not only does it no longer do that, but it’s now staffed and led and fought over by people who have never even met anyone who labours. Save it? It deserves to die. The factions fighting over it should have the decency to set up their own parties, and the honesty not to use the word ‘labour’ in their party names.