By tolerating Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s moderates are complicit in their party’s shame

By tolerating Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s moderates are complicit in their party’s shame

By Bagehot

ANOTHER day, another figure in the Labour Party facing allegations of anti-Semitism. Today it is Ken Livingstone, who went on the BBC to comment on Jeremy Corbyn’s belated and reluctant decision yesterday to suspend Naz Shah, an MP who had suggested that Israel’s population be relocated to America. The former mayor of London, who is close to his party’s hard-left leader and was leading its review into foreign policy, claimed that this was not anti-Semitic and that Ms Shah is a victim of the “well-organised Israel lobby”. He then unburdened himself of the observation that Hitler was “supporting Zionism” before he “went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.”

Moderate MPs have a habit of responding to such incidents—whether related to the anti-Semitism now coursing through their party’s veins or to the broader chaos that has gripped it since Mr Corbyn became leader—by treating each as a separate case; part of distinct sub-problem or a piece of outrageous individual behaviour. With the exception of the pugilistic John Mann, who this morning confronted Mr Livingstone outside a television studio and called him a “fucking disgrace”, today was no exception: MPs lining up to issue limp tweets calling for the former mayor’s suspension. The party has just confirmed that this has taken place (raising the question: what do you have to do to be expelled from Labour these days?).

Too few are willing to face up to the reality that the wave of disgraces is one phenomenon, not many: a function, pure and simple, of Mr Corbyn’s leadership. A whole range of loony, self-destructive views and practices have thrived in the party since his win last September because his supporters, his advisers and the man himself have created an environment in which they can do so. His persistent failure to take on anti-Semitism is not some incidental quirk, like a stutter or an esoteric taste in music; it is fundamental to his leadership. The very essence of his politics is inflexibility about this sort of thing; one acquired over decades of brain-desiccating hours spent in lefty talking-shops where the same dusty people make the same dusty arguments and everyone agrees with everything else.

Most moderate Labour MPs, it is true, agree that he has to go. But now, they invariably insist, is not the time. Mr Corbyn has to fail on his own terms. The opposition needs time to gather its forces. The membership is still too Corbynite (some polling suggests the Labour leader would do even better in a new contest than he did last September). Some even suggest that he can be coaxed out, perhaps replaced by a compromise candidate somewhere between his positions and good sense. Virtually no one entertains the possibility that their party’s past cycle of electability and unelectability is not a law of nature.

This reeks of cowardice. There is little evidence that the party will become less Corbynite over time. John McDonnell, more or less as bad as Mr Corbyn, is preparing to take over if the current leader goes. With every day, the chances of the party ever recovering its credibility and integrity disappear further into nothingness. And with every incident, like today’s pantomime, that moderates excuse by the meagreness of their criticism and their refusal to acknowledge the systematic crisis engulfing their party, their right to our pity over Labour’s self-mutilation diminishes.

Joe Haines, Harold Wilson’s former spin doctor and a man with more historical perspective than most, gets this. In an article for the New Statesman in January he described the curious stupor in which Labour’s moderates seem to be suspended as the “Micawber Syndrome”: the vain and self-effacing hope that “something will turn up”. He urges them to declare unilateral independence from Mr Corbyn’s sorry excuse for a Labour Party, sit separately in the Commons and proclaim themselves the true heirs of the party’s progressive tradition.

Put this to moderates and the heartier ones admit that it is an option, but not for now. The more common, more watery reply usually involves sappy formulations about “not abandoning the party I love” and “staying to fight”. I suspect these are part-sincerity and part-unwillingness to risk their own jobs and confront the onerous task of building a new infrastructure. Tellingly, one party insider sympathetic to this view suggests that MPs would only move against Mr Corbyn if they faced losing their seats to deselection or election defeat. Some principle, that.

The truth is that Labour is dying, and every MP who thinks she can wash her hands of responsibility for that with the odd disapproving tweet has another thing coming. Today’s fracas will repeat itself, in slightly different forms, again and again, burying any scraps of self-respect (let alone electability in the next decades) the party has left. Perhaps there is a case for not rocking the boat before the European referendum. But then moderates must move to oust Corbyn. If they fail, they should proceed with the Haines solution. I see no good reason why if, say, 100 MPs and a sizeable minority of members quit and set up a Labour Party with integrity, they could not give the Conservatives a run for their money in 2020. This would not be “abandoning” their party. But staying put would be.

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