Euan McColm: Labour on collision course with reality

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Picture: John Devlin
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Picture: John Devlin
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THE temptation is to give the Labour Party the benefit of the doubt, even when the evidence that it’s doomed is so compelling.

To write off Labour under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn is to ignore the enthusiasm of the tens of thousands of new party members who swept him to victory against three mainstream candidates. To suggest that, for all the optimistic engagement of his supporters, Corbyn is heading for failure on a thwocking great scale seems a little cruel.

And yet, with each passing day, it becomes more difficult to conceive of a set of circumstances that might see Corbyn become the next Prime Minister. The past 10 days have been a disaster for Labour. Only the wildest-eyed, true-believin’ Corbynista could argue differently.

Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell – a man who, regardless of any number of clarifications and apologies, will surely struggle to convince a majority of voters to overlook his past remarks in praise of the IRA – played the most significant role in creating Labour’s woes.

McDonnell decided, with the blessing of his leader, that Labour would no longer support Chancellor George Osborne’s “fiscal charter” which would require governments to run a budget surplus by 2019.

There was much briefing about this u-turn, the gist of which was that the decision to vote against the Conservatives was about a change of tactics rather than a change of belief (does McDonnell’s really think voters warm to politics for the sake of the game rather than principle?). But all the briefing in the world couldn’t dress the u-turn up.

News bulletins later in the day of the vote led with footage of McDonnell admitting that his wheeze had been embarrassing, a point he re-iterated by repeating the word “embarrassing” five times to a chorus of jeers from the Tory benches.

It was dreadful stuff. We desire from chancellors competence, dependability, and caution. McDonnell, a man whose demeanour suggests he’d make a decent Flash Harry in an am-dram production of St Trinian’s, did not display any of these appealing characteristics. I will be surprised if McDonnell’s is not first over the edge when Corbyn inevitably starts lobbing bodies out of the basket in order to keep the balloon aloft.

But Corbyn had more than his dunderhead shadow chancellor to worry about. There was also the matter of his deputy Tom Watson’s role in pursuing former Tory home secretary Leon Brittan over sex crime allegations.

Lord Brittan died in January without knowing that he had been cleared of the suspicion that he had raped a woman. Conservatives challenged Watson to apologise for insisting the police reopen a rape investigation into Lord Brittan. Watson has been under pressure since the BBC’s broadcast of an episode of Panorama which looked at the substance of historic allegations of sexual abuse by VIPs, alleged to have run a Westminster-based paedophile ring during the 1970s and 80s.

But Watson remained defiant, insisting that allegations of such a serious nature had to be investigated. There was some sympathy for that view, but whether it obscures from memory Watson’s crusade against a dying – and, it seems, innocent – man remains to be seen.

But regardless of whether Watson is forever dogged by his role in this murky affair is neither here nor there. The episode reveals enough of Watson’s character to suggest that he’s not the safe pair of hands some in Labour thought might steady the Corbyn ship.

Moderates in the party have indulged themselves with this idea of Watson as the voice of common sense without examining the man as he now is. He may have won his reputation as a skilful fixer who prioritised winning over ideological hand-wringing, but subsequently he has become better known as a campaigner.

Not without ego, Watson appears to have revelled in his new found status as the sheriff of Westminster, here to clean up the establishment. Having played a long and vocal role in taking on media mogul Rupert Murdoch – and the press in general – in the aftermath of the phone hacking scandal at the News of the World, Watson became a hero to those who believe in greater newspaper regulation. Given that those who work for newspapers are generally held in low regard, this made Watson a hero to very many people indeed. The bloke who took on Murdoch is something to be.

But I’m inclined to agree with one former colleague of Watson’s who says that the plaudits Watson received travelled directly to his head. Having been seen as a success over Murdoch, Watson believed he could right other wrongs. He became Tom Watson, the brand, rather than the loyal servant of the Labour Party.

A self-styled maverick – see that David Brentish resignation letter to Ed Miliband in which he recommended the then Labour leader get into the garage rock duo Drenge – Watson saw himself as the MP prepared to ask the difficult questions, willing to pick at scabs in pursuit of justice for those wronged by the abuse of power. This is a perfectly noble objective but Watson appears to have let his enthusiasm carry him away.

And there’s further misery, too, for Labour members who – having seen both the Tories and the SNP win elections on centre-ground manifestos – believe a Corbyn-led shift to the left is a mistake.

A new group – Momentum – has been established to work within the Labour Party. More than 30 years ago, the party got rid of members of the Militant entryist organisation. Now Corbyn is welcoming them back into the fold. Already, the Socialist Workers’ Party (most recently in the news for its attempt to cover up rape allegations) has suggested its members participate in Momentum meetings.

Labour is led by an unelectable ideologue and an egotist; there’s nothing to suggest to cautious voters that the party deserves the benefit of the doubt. Whatever momentum might be building behind Jeremy Corbyn will end with Labour’s inevitable crash against the brick wall of the real world. «