WATCHING the Labour Party leadership contest is beginning to feel a lot like rubbernecking a particularly gruesome car crash. One feels rather ashamed as the disaster unfolds before one’s eyes.
And yet the sight of a recently dominant political party in its self-inflicted death throes is just so grimly compelling it’s impossible not to gawp.
Only a handful of his parliamentary colleagues have anything but contempt for him
Next weekend, Jeremy Corbyn is all but certain to be confirmed as the new leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, carried to victory on a wave of optimism that could not be stopped by the barrier of reality.
The 66-year-old’s supporters – Corbynmaniacs – are, you will doubtless be aware, utterly convinced that their man is the answer to Labour’s woes. They believe that, having rejected the party in the general election for David Cameron’s Tories in England and Nicola Sturgeon’s centrist SNP in Scotland, voters crave a more old-school, left-wing agenda. This is pure delusion, a certainty that defies logic.
But look, they say, look at the numbers of people who have flocked to the party to vote for him. And, yes, it is certainly true that Corbyn has rejuvenated the Labour Party membership. But are these people who helped give the Tories their majority in May? No, of course they aren’t.
But Jeremy’s so inspiring, they say, he will help us win over non-voters. This ignores two facts. First, non-voters split along party lines. Second, and more importantly, they are non-voters. They don’t bloody vote, and anyone who thinks Corbyn is the man to inspire the apathetic should get a grip of themselves.
Having made it on to the ballot paper with the support of MPs who have publicly declared they wouldn’t vote for him but wanted to see the broadest debate, Corbyn has – with the use of a series of vague “I care” platitudes and the aid of a screechingly holier-than-thou band of supporters – reclaimed his party for the traditional left.
All that Tony Blair unpleasantness, when the party considered the instincts of voters, is a thing of the past. With Jeremy, purity is all. Dare point out his unfortunate tendency to associate with anti-Semites and terrorists and one is accused of smearing him. Suggest that he’s leading his party towards a precipice and the response is that Cameron must be quaking in his boots if such a campaign against Corbyn has been mustered.
If Corbyn wins next week, he will take over a party divided by his victory. Only a handful of his parliamentary colleagues have anything but contempt for him and his views, and supporters have already muttered darkly about a reckoning of sorts with Blairite members.
Just watch as long-standing MPs are deselected by local parties now packed with Corbynmaniacs who’ll then install candidates with purer “old Labour” DNA.
If Corbyn, by some twist, loses next week, Labour will be a party divided by his defeat. Such an outcome would be greeted by his supporters by claims of foul play. Those of the faith could not conceive of the rejection of their man. There would now follow a prolonged period of infighting, with new members doing all they could to reshape the party in their true leader’s image.
Whatever the result of the Labour leadership election, the news for other parties is good.
The Conservatives will face a fractured opposition and – if my reading of Cameron’s instincts is even in the vicinity of accuracy – consolidate their place on the centre ground of English politics.
Meanwhile, in Scotland, the SNP will enjoy the same Corbyn dividend. Scottish Labour is already on its knees. The division caused by Corbyn will make recovery all but impossible for the foreseeable future.
Labour insiders talk about the bitterness and vitriol that’s spilled out in recent weeks; they talk of former comrades who now find it difficult to share a party.
The implications of this are not only grave for Scottish Labour but for those who support the United Kingdom. A poll this week showed a majority now support Scottish independence. Of course, one swallow doesn’t make a summer, but what use a hopelessly divided Labour Party will be to a future campaign against a Yes vote is anyone’s guess.
The cementing of Conservative dominance at Westminster will certainly do Sturgeon’s prospects of leading the Yes campaign to victory in a second referendum no harm at all.
We’ve predicted the death of a major political party before of course. Less than 20 years ago, we wrote off the Conservatives. Tony Blair’s 1997 election victory not only toppled the party that had dominated UK politics for decades but left it looking utterly destroyed. Would the party ever recover, we wondered. As it chose unsuitable leader after unsuitable leader, it seemed unlikely.
What brought the Tories back from the brink was electing a leader in Cameron who understood that voters did not, generally, support extremes of left or right but were, in fact, happier somewhere in between.
Similarly, the SNP transformed its fortunes by ditching its fieriest rhetoric and adopting policies that appealed to the middle classes.
Both the Tories and the Scottish Nationalists learned how to win elections by studying the success of Tony Blair; by going – as he did – to the electorate rather than stubbornly waiting for voters to come to them.
When it becomes clear to Labour members that they’re on course for oblivion then there will, most likely, be an attempt to re-establish the party as a centrist, social democratic force.
But will there be room on the centre ground once the Tories and the SNP have built their fortresses?
Corbyn has already torn Labour apart, regardless of the result of the leadership election. Whether he wins or loses, the divisions that have opened up are deep and are sure to be enduring.
Whether the party can ever recover as a serious electoral force is far from certain. The leadership campaign of Jeremy Corbyn is the best thing that ever happened to both David Cameron and Nicola Sturgeon. «