By Dave Cohen
I was dreading Labour Party Conference.
Convinced that the party had a summit lined up of ignoring Brexit and careering happily towards certain defeat, I was already fearing the narrative that this loss would be placed squarely at the tail of me and my fellow media-controlling lizards.
As the weekend approached, you could sense the excitement from delegates heading to Liverpool, ready to declare war on the only enemies they feel truly passionate about – their own MPs, and Binyamin Netanyahu.
Throughout the summer I was being reminded on a daily basis by friends and former comrades on Twitter that my feelings of discomfort about Labour’s problem with Jews were not only unfounded, but a direct result of me having been got to by Mossad.
Why then did I feel more optimistic at the end of conference about Labour than I had for the previous three years? The answer, which I had never imagined would be an answer to anything, was John McDonnell.
While a small but significant chunk of the Labour membership have been responding to every conversation on Twitter about Labour with “Yes, but Israel”, urged on by Jeremy Corbyn’s refusal to kill the story and engage in any other issue, McDonnell has been asking serious questions about what a future Labour government would do if they won power.
Ideas had been peeping out all summer, interesting continuations of the work of Jon Cruddas and Ed Miliband from before 2015, that could have been setting the political agenda if it hadn’t been for you-know-what. One of the few rays of light in this dark summer of Semitism was knowing that McDonnell was as exasperated as I was at the months of pointless Jew-baiting.
Whatever he may have done in the past McDonnell, like Martin McGuinness 20 years ago, seems to have discovered a taste for engaging with people he doesn’t necessarily agree with. He’s been watching the PLP – not to carp, or threaten deselection, but to learn from them. MPs like Lisa Nandy, developing a raft of ideas for bridging the gap between towns and cities: Luciana Berger pioneering new ways of dealing with mental health, David Lammy scoring hit after hit against the Tories simply by standing up for immigrant communities. Labour’s talented MPs have been blocking out the angry din, articulating the hopes and ideas that brought them into politics in the first place.
Freed by the breath-taking incompetence of George Osborne from having to flesh out every policy and cost every penny, McDonnell can think aloud and honestly about our economic future in a way I haven’t seen from our party since Blair and Brown in the mid-1990s.
Meanwhile deselection, which threatened to be the main story of the conference, was barely mentioned after the weekend. (Deselection is a proven vote loser: I can vouch for this. A year ago, Momentum activists deselected our local councillors. Three inexperienced Momentum members were chosen to replace them, all three lost to the Lib Dems.)
Instead Brexit, which in Corbyn’s ideal world is never mentioned in his polite circles again until faithfully delivered hard and fast by May and Johnson, became the main issue at conference.
The split among Corbyn supporters that emerged this summer over anti-Semitism went public over Brexit, its surfacing at conference a big defeat for Corbyn and the hardliners. Their position of ordering us not to upset the far-right Brexiteers was shown up in its absurdity. Three years ago the people who correctly asked “who’s going to vote for a Labour party that promises to manage austerity slightly better than the Tories?” are now asking their members to stick with a party that promises to manage Brexit slightly better than Theresa May. That first argument persuades us this second is without foundation.
To the die-hard Remainers who have been waiting for Labour to get fully behind a second referendum, this was one more depressing confirmation of the party’s spineless dereliction of their moral duty. For those of us who’ve been trying to get Labour to even mention Brexit, it was a rare and welcome sighting in public of a debate that should have been happening across the party for more than two years.
It’s true there was much confusion, and what appeared to be a stand-off between Starmer and McDonnell about whether Labour would back a second referendum. This is totally understandable – after all that silence our Brexit policy is still bumping into obstacles as it adjusts to this unusual experience of illumination.
The fall-out between Starmer and McDonnell was serious but somehow you got a sense that they sorted it out like adults – something else we haven’t seen in the party for three years.
Another issue that emerged after months of indifference was the welcome attack on the far right in Europe. I’d been exasperated at my local branch trying to stress the importance of this. At first I thought maybe they struggled with a rise of fascism that was based on Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in equal measure. I realised that for the die-hard supporters, events in Europe are of no interest whatsoever.
Corbyn was a marginal figure at conference. Up until now for all his faults – ambivalence to discussing Brexit, supporting Putin, attacking the free press, rock bottom polling figures, and so on – he at least could take credit for moving the debate on the economy further left than Miliband managed. Now McDonnell has taken control of the economic agenda – apart from the green jobs announcement, which was all Corbyn had left for his own speech, having previously shown even less interest in tackling climate change than staying in the EU.
Corbyn was at his most animated when condemning Gordon Brown. Attacking the old left and centre may have been necessary to take hold of the party machinery, but three years on, his grip on power as tight as it will ever be, why does he still feel the need to attack the party he has represented for decades?
The answer is the same as it has always been. He’s proved throughout his career that he is simply not as comfortable taking on the Tories as he is trashing anyone or anything to do with pre-2015 Labour.
I got a sense that for many of his erstwhile supporters, this truth, known to those of us desperate for the Tories to be kicked out of office, is beginning to filter through.
Sure, the faithful got their Palestine debate. We already knew Momentum members considered that issue more important than Brexit, the NHS, the economy, welfare, education and climate change. Can you imagine McDonnell having that list of priorities? And can you imagine Corbyn not?
All of which makes it now completely legitimate to ask, if the non-Corbynite left can get behind McDonnell’s engaging with the whole of the party, which is the antithesis of the boss’s approach, what is the point of Corbyn staying as leader?
Obviously it’s not that simple. The outrage among some members at this very suggestion would keep Twitter in meltdown for days. I understand their feelings. Before the 2015 election, like them I refused to believe the evidence of my own eyes on the doorstep, convinced by the flow of horror stories on Twitter that revulsion for Tory policies causing appalling hardship would mean people could never vote for them again.
Then there’s the issue of who replaces him. McDonnell doesn’t want to be leader, and he won’t want to be seen as the one to get rid of his old friend. He’s angered the faithful enough by backing IHRA, he won’t want to upset the grassroots any more for now. But if McDonnell and Starmer can get their act together in the autumn, they should be able to land blow after blow on the hollowed-out corpse that is the Conservative Party. Labour could shoot ahead in the polls – but Corbyn’s popularity will not rise with it. People will piece together the facts and conclude the bleedin’ obvious for themselves.
And if McDonnell won’t do the deed, will McCluskey? After last week’s conference, that could be a genuine possibility.