By Mark Newman
If you think that the Labour leadership must be feeling bruised and downhearted about the events of the last three months then you’ve missed the point of this summer.
Maybe you’re wondering why Labour are still unable to pull away in the polls despite facing the worst government in living memory, or you’ve watched bewildered as the only initiative to have surfaced all summer appears to have been a poorly thought out plan to curb press freedom, in which case you haven’t grasped why the leadership will be looking back on the last three or four months as the most successful yet in Corbyn’s bid to become Prime Minister.
Whether you’re angry at how the anti-Semitism issue has been weaponised by the right in order to get rid of Jeremy Corbyn, or despairing at the inability of the leadership to empathise with the unease felt by Jewish members of Labour – don’t worry, this summer hasn’t been about you and your feelings about voting for the party.
The only voters that matter, the really important ones, are the four million who chose Ukip in 2015. In 2017 most of them went to the Tories by default, but since Theresa May’s Chequers disaster they have been searching for a new home. And Labour, it seems, have been reaching out.
If you think that’s ludicrous, look at what the party have been doing since February, when Jeremy Corbyn announced he would back a customs union – which of course the EU will only accept if Labour also come round to keeping the single market and freedom of movement. Since that moment, the leadership have barely spoken about Brexit, leaving Keir Starmer a lone voice to hint that they might soften their stance, when the leadership are clearly planning no such thing.
For a long while this was clever positioning by Labour. Allowing the Tories to own Brexit means Labour will not be blamed when it all goes horribly wrong next year. But for many traditional Labour supporters the refusal to back freedom of movement or wholeheartedly endorse the campaign to protect the three million EU citizens living here is seen as going against everything they believe in.
Those people may have also felt unease about the continuing anti-Semitism row, but the truth is there aren’t enough of you who will stop voting Labour because of it. If there were, Corbyn and his team would have apologised and shut down the debate long ago.
Looking at the people Labour have been alienating over the summer, it’s almost entirely the big city left – left-leaning journalists, Labour-voting Jews, and remain voters, all of whom are accused of being Tory enablers whenever they say anything that might be seen as criticism, constructive or otherwise, of the leadership.
These are mainly people in inner-city constituencies like Corbyn’s own, with massive five-figure majorities. In terms of winning or losing seats, they don’t matter. Corbyn himself could lose 20,000 of these people in Islington North alone and still be returned as the MP. Labour may be squandering metropolitan votes by the thousand, but it won’t lose them a single Parliamentary seat and they’re picking up new fans along the way.
Labour’s pro-Corbyn membership are being urged to be gentle towards the fascists and far right who are calling for the same hard Brexit that Theresa May is instigating, and Labour are refusing to condemn. The activist Owen Jones, employed as a bellwether on every newly floated leadership idea on an almost daily basis, warns his followers and detractors of the dangers of upsetting the forces of the far right.
While Momentum have been expending huge amounts of energy criticising anyone on the left expressing even the smallest misgivings about Labour’s anti-Semitism stance, right wing bully boys like Steven Yaxley-Lennon and Jacob Rees Mogg have barely raised a sneer. Truly shocking Brexit papers have been released in recent days, but apart from Starmer there’s been hardly a word from the most senior figures in Corbyn’s team on these titanic No Deal scenarios.
Four years ago the far left were furious when Ed Miliband introduced the now infamous Caps On Immigration mugs. Now the people who shouted loudest against those mugs are refusing to engage in the one activity that used to be their usp – fighting fascists on the ground.
While some may have been horrified to see former BNP leader Nick Griffin backing Corbyn’s stance on anti-Semitism, this won’t have bothered the leadership. It will have given Ukip voters, already told by their own leaders that they have been betrayed by the Tories, one more reason to switch their allegiance to Labour.
Those Ukip votes matter because so many of them are in Tory-held marginals like Pudsey (majority 331) and Southampton Itchen (31). Labour only need a handful of these to rid the Tories of their majority. No wonder Momentum activists are spending so much time in Chingford, Ian Duncan Smith is in real danger of losing his seat.
It’s one thing to allow the Tories to implode over Brexit – it was Miliband’s tactic in 2014 but it’s more likely to work now – quite another to refuse to articulate a single idea of what kind of country we want to become after next March.
But if you’re a typical Labour activist from the pre-Corbyn era, what are you supposed to do?
Keeping anti-Semitism as the story of the summer has allowed the leadership to avoid discussing Brexit or climate change, another subject where Corbyn appears to be ambivalent. More important, it has made it harder for Corbyn’s critics within the party to stay loyal to him, while showing them they have nowhere else to go – especially the MPs.
All this talk of a new party has also helped, because it has spelled out the options to the electorate.
Forming a centre party will split the left vote and continue the life of the worst government in living memory. You may not like Corbyn, his followers and his leadership team, you may not have any idea what he intends to do about Brexit, or climate change, or how to save the NHS or our bankrupt councils or our crumbling education system or our cruel and broken welfare state. You know Brexit will kill off any financial plans John McDonnell may have for rebuilding our decimated country. But you also understand that the alternative – a hollowed-out, torn apart, angry right-wing Tory non-government with an even worse leader than they already have – cannot be countenanced.
In these volatile times there is only one danger Corbyn’s party faces, and that is the rising tide of anger on the left about Brexit. Some advocates of a second vote have learned from decades of Daily Mail hectoring that the only way to get what you want is to shout louder than the other side, and if they can persuade Labour conference to discuss the issue then the leadership will be forced to make a stand that will potentially lose them those marginal voters. Which is why I expect them to make sure the issue is side-lined.
For the vast majority who voted Remain, but were prepared to accept the result, or Leave, in the expectation that its political leaders had a plan, the only hope appears to be if the Lib Dems can reverse their fortunes and articulate the views of that silenced majority. A new leader would need to navigate an incredibly difficult path, managing the expectations of the noisy religious anti-Brexiters and offering a People’s Vote that would be acceptable to almost everyone – apart from Jacob Rees-Mogg and Jeremy Corbyn.
Good luck with that.