Euan McColm: open season on Labour’s ‘righteous bystanders’

Stella Creasy has the number of the zealots in grassroots movement Momentum. Photograph: Ben Pruchnie/Getty
Stella Creasy has the number of the zealots in grassroots movement Momentum. Photograph: Ben Pruchnie/Getty
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A curious thing about politics is that many of those involved appear to have no interest in winning elections or effecting change.

Of course there are the ambitious ones who crave power (and I mean that as a compliment). But those sensible activists are so often dragged back by colleagues for whom moral purity matters more than anything else.

At its worst, its most self-indulgent, this refusal to consider any kind of compromise can tear political parties apart. Perhaps you’ll recall the Conservatives of the 1990s when the desire to leave the European Union clouded the judgment of so many of that party’s MPs that they failed to see that their pointless, petty division was electoral poison.

The Tories are currently re-living that turmoil but, thanks to Labour’s own implacable division along lines of “principle”, it will probably survive relatively unscathed.

Since Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader of the opposition last September, Labour’s comrades have been at each other’s throats. Those members who rallied behind Corbyn think those who did not are immoral while those who voted for candidates other than Jezza reckon his supporters to be idiots.

As Corbyn and his confidants drag their party further left, away from the electorate, those colleagues who can see the electoral disaster unfolding before their eyes have been powerless to intervene. Yes, there’s been muttering about plots and schemes to depose the leader but those who believe that Labour should pitch its tent on the political centre ground keep clattering up against the awkward truth that even if some kind of plot to topple Corbyn could be engineered, he’d simply stand for election again and win.

But the dominance of Labour by Corbynistas shouldn’t discourage those in his party who oppose the leader from going in, studs-up, to try to weaken his indulgent shift to the unelectable left. If there is to be a serious opposition at Westminster, then serious people in Labour must pick a fight.

So here’s to Stella Creasy, who last week delivered an excellent speech at the London School of Economics in which she went after Momentum, the grassroots group of Corbyn supporters, many of whose members have made clear that they’re in favour of deselecting sitting MPs and installing candidates who reflect their particular worldview (which seems to be that voters who rejected Labour for being too left-wing last year actually want a more left-wing version of the party).

These activists were, said Creasy, “righteous bystanders”, more interested in meetings and moralising than real campaigning. Creasy has examined the behaviour of the Corbynistas – many of them screeching fury chimps to rival the most fervent cybernats – and now she has their number.

Creasy, the MP for Walthamstow in London, lumped Corbyn’s supporters in with those who have backed far-left Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece, as well as those who are – even now – helping the appalling Donald Trump take a run at the White House. Their motivation could be summed up by a line from the novel The Hunger Games – “if we burn, so do you”.

The righteous bystanders Creasy identified have had the most pernicious influence on Labour – and our wider politics – in recent months. Piously, they denounce those who do not share their views to the letter.

What Sigmund Freud described as “the narcissism of small differences” means that Momentum members spend as much time attacking Labour members with whom they might actually share a great deal of common ground as they do holding the Conservative government to account. I find it impossible to disagree with Creasy’s brutal assessment that groups like Momentum are draining the energy from the political process they claim to be promoting. Who has the energy to get involved in politics if to do so means having one’s morals and motivation attacked by others, ostensibly, on the same side?

Election results – for both Westminster and Holyrood – show us that despite the conviction of Corbyn’s most excitable supporters, the majority of voters across the United Kingdom remain stubbornly in the centre. The agendas of both the SNP and the Conservatives owe much to the New Labour project. Sure, lots of people might now enthusiastically loathe Tony Blair, but they still like the sort of politics he espoused. Well, the social democracy and support for business stuff, at least.

Creasy’s colleague, John Woodcock – another Labour MP who holds the seemingly unfashionable view that his party should probably try to win an election by talking with voters rather than shouting at them – also intervened last week. Writing about the leak from Corbyn’s office of a document that categorised Labour MPs as either supportive or hostile to their leader, he pointed out that the affair had let the government off the hook on the matter of Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation from the cabinet over benefit cuts.

Woodcock wondered just how, on one of the worst weeks of David Cameron’s time as Prime Minister, the big story had been about Labour’s division.

Many Corbyn supporters, wrote Woodcock, were still valiantly attempting to blame the “mainstream media” for taking the focus away from the government.

The truth is that it was the righteous bystanders of the Labour party who caused their leader’s humiliation.

There are some in the Labour party – and I’ve met them – who seriously put strict adherence to their personal ideology before the desire to get back into government; for them, it is enough to be a “principled opposition”.

These people are fools: voters do not dismiss out of hand the very idea of a party forming a government while, at the same time, hanging on its every word from the opposition benches.

Stella Creasy and John Woodcock may yet be brought down by Corbynista campaigners. But at least they’re fighting. At least they want to engage with voters rather than sitting in rooms drawing up lists of who’s a good socialist and who isn’t.