The persecution complex of the British left is both a psychological reality and the outcome of a cynical strategy. No one can doubt that the left feels victimised. But left-wing politicians have an interest in pretending that dark forces predetermine its defeat. If they are to keep their supporters in line, they can never take responsibility. They must convince Labour members they are victims of an elite conspiracy rather than of their own abysmal leadership.
Maintaining the necessary levels of paranoia in the current Labour leadership contest looked a hard task. Until this week, the Labour party has resembled a Victorian family with a dirty secret. No one wanted to mention the rot in the foundations, the mad uncle hidden in the attic, or the shame the family brought on itself over five years.
Keir Starmer was cruising to victory on a ‘we don’t wash our dirty laundry in public’ ticket. He was not taking on the left. He was not asking the majority of Labour members to explain why they voted for Jeremy Corbyn as leader, not once but twice. He has not required them to confess their part in helping the right impose Brexit and sending the centre-left down to its worst defeat in 80 years. To paraphrase T S Eliot, Labour members ‘cannot take too much reality’ and Starmer knows it.
Starmer would win and Labour would begin to change, without anyone admitting it was changing or explaining why it needed to change. The plan might have worked, but the left is determined to give the dirty laundry a public airing.
The sense of its impending removal from power is too much to bear. Corbyn and his supporters controlled the leadership, the shadow cabinet and Labour’s National Executive Committee. Weird men and women received well-paid jobs and slots on the political talk shows for the first time in their lives.
The threat of the loss of status a Starmer victory will bring is producing desperate tactics. An anonymous Twitter account ‘Corbyn fans for Lisa Nandy’ tweeted its admiration for Nandy as naïve readers would expect. Until this week, that is, when inevitably it announced, just in time for the ballot papers to arrive, that Nandy was a let-down. She ‘hasn’t turned out to be the candidate I was hoping for. On Scotland, foreign policy, electoral reform and climate change she has disappointed’. By contrast, and equally inevitably, Rebecca Long-Bailey has ‘grown enormously in stature’ and revealed herself to be ‘a clear communicator, optimistic, straight-talking, personable, pluralistic, radical,’
The Corbyn establishment’s complaint to the Information Commissioner’s Office that Starmer’s campaign was ‘data-scraping’ information from the party’s membership system is a more serious and revealing attack.
The brass neck of the operation is dazzling. It is a matter of record that the first complaints about potential illicit access to data on Labour members were made by Starmer about the Long-Bailey campaign. Starmer’s researchers had picked up messages from Long-Bailey’s supporters. These contained a button to click if you were willing to canvass for her. When you clicked through the screens, you ended up at Labour’s ‘Dialogue’ phone bank system that accesses members in constituencies across the UK.
Starmer complained to the party that Long-Bailey was in potential breach of the rules. But instead of punishing her, the machine referred his researchers to the information commissioner instead.
Starmer’s campaign condemned the attempt to turn the victim of allegedly shady conduct into the perpetrator as ‘scurrilous’. The Information Commissioner now has a duty to rule quickly of the Corbynites’ accusation and make the verdict public.
You can see why they are throwing around accusations of unfair practice. The left could use them to deny Starmer access to the full database of members when candidates are put on the ballot paper. It might well want to stop Starmer’s supporters building a list of activists who could be mobilised against Momentum in forthcoming party elections.
Most important of all, the accusations build the legend of the left’s victimhood. When Long-Bailey loses, it is essential that a conspiracy theory is in place and Starmer’s alleged hacking looks to me like an oven-ready excuse for defeat.
The need to play the victim represents a new paradox at the heart of the far left. The old Marxists believed that the collapse of capitalism was inevitable. In theory, they could sit back and just wait for socialism to come. In practice, a life on the far left in the 20th century was one of unremitting drudgery. The Communist or Socialist Workers parties expected members to give all their spare time and much of their spare money to working for the revolution.
As Matt Bolton, the author of a fine study of Corbynism pointed out to me, their successors have rewritten the old paradox. Before the election, Corbyn and his supporters insisted they could win. They scoffed at all who said a hugely unpopular leader and incoherent policy programme could never succeed. Since their defeat, they have turned the Marxist theory of the inevitability of socialism’s victory on its head. Now an establishment that is powerful beyond measure preordains socialism’s defeat.
A poll by Lord Ashcroft of Labour members shows how deep the culture of evasion had sunk. Nearly three-quarters of Labour party members said that anti-Jewish racism on the left was invented or wildly exaggerated by the right-wing media and Corbyn’s opponents, rather than a real disgrace thousands of Jews have experienced.
Voters told Ashcroft that not wanting Corbyn as prime minister was the main reason they refused to vote Labour. Labour members, however, knew better. They blamed the defeat on Brexit, Tory lies, a biased media and the bigotry of white voters.
If Labour supporters truly believed that the system was rigged against them, they would give up on politics. For what is the point of fighting an unwinnable war against an omnipotent foe?
Rather than examine the logic of their excuses, however, appreciate their psychological power. They absolve Labour members and their leaders from responsibility. They explain why, far from being ashamed by what he has done, Corbyn looks so pleased with himself. They explain why Long-Bailey, Richard Burgon and the rest of the ruling clique have not shown the smallest remorse and can propose to carry on as before. Above all they explain why Keir Starmer is being so very cautious
The legend that the left’s defeat is everybody’s fault but the left’s must be nurtured and believed to ensure the left’s survival.