Labour has always contained a remarkably, probably impractically wide spread of political opinion. For twenty years, the leadership has been monopolised by the very rightmost bit of that spread of opinion – individuals whose views put them further to the right than some moderate Tories, and on the opposite side of the spectrum completely from the vast majority of Labour members and supporters.
Aggressively defending positions of power in the party from anyone who dared think differently, Labour’s ultra-right has hardened into a sort of grim, entitled political aristocracy – barely acknowledging the existence of, let alone consulting, the foot-soldiers who deliver the leaflets and drive old ladies to polling stations, and instead allying with big business, the corporate media, and obsessing over the swing-seat Tories who, in their eyes at least, offer the most sure-fire route to lucrative cabinet jobs.
Unfortunately for them, it now looks like Jeremy Corbyn, way out on the left of the Labour spectrum, might win the leadership election. They’ve reacted spectacularly badly, slurring Corbyn-supporting party members as nostalgic, stupid and extreme, and doing their utmost to make a Corbyn win look as apocalyptic as possible.
The 35 MPs who nominated Corbyn are ‘morons’ according to New Labour-era apparatchik John McTernan – basic underlying argument: you can’t actually give voters a choice, because then they might choose the wrong one. You can’t let a candidate who vaguely represents the reasons people join the Labour Party slip into the contest – because we don’t represent those views, and have built entire careers around leading a group of people we fundamentally disagree with.
Ultra-right godfather Tony Blair has obviously intervened, overlooking the fact that he remains the absolute worst person you could choose to try and talk round Corbyn-leaning Labour supporters. The charge levelled against Labour leftists is that they don’t want to win – and the standard riposte to Blair-hate is that “he won three elections in a row”. But while the media are latching on to the pre-prepared soundbite – people who say their hearts are with Corbyn “should get a transplant” – Blair’s most startling comment was that he’d rather not win an election at all than do so on a left-wing platform.
Chuka “how can I avoid mixing with trash” Umunna says Labour is “behaving like a petulant child”. Labour under Corbyn would become just a “pressure group”, says Tristram Hunt. The ultra-right’s favoured candidate, Liz Kendall, says she’d refuse to serve in a Corbyn-led Shadow Cabinet. There are already whisperings of coups and mutinies if Corbyn does end up winning. It wouldn’t be surprising, because Umunna, and Hunt, and Kendall and friends are fighting for their futures.
The fact is, a great many of the ultra-rightists are only in parliament to be Prime Minister, or at least get one of the more impressive-sounding cabinet positions. Can you imagine Chuka Umunna or Liz Kendall doing what Corbyn and Dennis Skinner and John McDonnell have done – spending decades as backbenchers and activist constituency MPs, helping the little people, knowing they’ve got absolutely no chance of high office at a time when the party Right’s got a stranglehold on power? Can you see Hunt and Cooper sitting quietly at the back while the Left has a go?
On twitter the other day, Clive Peedell of the National Health Action Party neatly summed up the strange spectacle of the modern Labour Party – a 200,000-strong organisation mostly made up of socialists and social democrats led by centre-right neoliberals. It makes you wonder what the next step would be if the Labour right got its way. They’ve got their candidate in the race – it’s Liz Kendall, and she’s coming last. The membership of the party they want to continue sitting at the top of clearly doesn’t like what they have to say. Will Peter Mandelson or John Reid come forward and suggest leaders aren’t elected at all? That he or she should be chosen by some sort of wise men’s committee made up of Blairites in the House of Lords? That the party should remove the democratic element entirely and just ring up the editor of the Sun? It would be the last step towards what Labour’s been in danger of becoming for years – just another section of a revolving neoliberal establishment.
Our track record for making accurate predictions isn’t much better than Mystic Meg’s – but as keen students of history with a particular interest in how the Right uses political myths to limit democratic choice, we’ll chance just one: that if Corbyn does win, Labour’s ultra-right will immediately start arguing that it’s an illegitimate result – the work of far-left infiltrators and mischievous Tories signing up as supporters en masse.
What we need to remember, and not stop banging on about if that grisly scenario does come to pass, is that Corbyn clearly has huge support among ordinary, existing Labour Party members as well as various newcomers. At the time of writing, Corbyn has been nominated by 78 Constituency Labour Parties. Burnham’s second on 73. Liz Kendall has 12. And now that it’s a one member one vote system, whoever ultimately comes out on top will have won the most democratic leadership election in Labour’s recent history. If a few hundred rightists in the Parliamentary Labour Party refuse to accept that, those 200,000-odd members need to send them an ultimatum.