Dani Garavelli: Numbers don’t lie as Jeremy Corbyn projects hits new lows
There have been few good weeks for Labour since the EU referendum, but even by the party’s own low bar, last week was a very, very bad one. It was such a bad week that actor Sir Tony Robinson – best known for playing loyal dimwit Baldrick – threw himself over the wire into No Man’s Land; after 45 years’ service, he quit Labour, citing its anti-Semitism, its duplicity on Brexit and its “complete shit” leadership. That pretty much sums things up – although you could add to that firestorm of criticism a contempt for public opinion and lack of introspection over local election losses.
The party’s latest display of value-free ineptitude began with the shambolic handling of disciplinary proceedings against Davie McLachlan, the South Lanarkshire councillor said to have told the then leadership candidate Anas Sarwar, “Scotland wouldn’t vote for a Muslim Paki.”
Scared he might be accused of “playing the race card”, Sarwar took a while to raise a complaint and, even then, had to be persuaded to name the councillor involved. But the party was, it said, committed to rooting out racism in all its forms and launched an investigation.
So, almost 18 months later, how did all that commitment pan out? With a travesty of a disciplinary hearing. Having been given just four days’ notice it was taking place, Sarwar was then barred from giving evidence on the grounds he hadn’t given two weeks’ notice of his desire to do so.
McLachlan was cleared. Given the two men involved were the only witnesses to the alleged conversation, perhaps that was inevitable, but the way the situation was handled exposed the rot at the heart of the process, and suggests Labour may be as indifferent to Islamophobia as it is to anti-Semitism.
Shortly afterwards, Kezia Dugdale announced her decision to quit as an MSP to become director of the John Smith Centre for Public Service. The juxtaposition of these two stories was apposite. The reason Sarwar was involved in a leadership campaign was, after all, that Dugdale was effectively forced out by those loyal to Jeremy Corbyn (and his Scottish acolyte, Richard Leonard). One of Dugdale’s goals had been to increase the Scottish party’s autonomy. In defiance of Corbyn’s wishes she lobbied for a Scottish place on the National Executive Committee, then took it up herself, thus robbing him of his slim majority.
Leonard, on the other hand, has superglued himself to Corbyn; despite Dugdale’s warnings, he has carved out no separate identity for Scottish Labour; where Dugdale would have created a pro-EU narrative and backed a second referendum, Leonard parrots Corbyn’s position on Brexit to an electorate 62 per cent of which voted to Remain. When outrage was being expressed over the Sarwar hearing, a spokesman said Leonard had long-standing concerns over the disciplinary process, but there was no suggestion he intended to do anything concrete about it.
Dugdale had her flaws – even she knows she shouldn’t have done I’m A Celebrity – but on matters of racial, sexual and gender equality, and also on poverty, she was sincere and passionate. Like Robinson, however, she is well out of it. Last week was a masterclass in obfuscation and self-delusion and a reminder that – when it comes to not tackling racism – the Labour Party is an equal opportunity offender. Watching Corbyn insist that his glowing foreword to a book full of malign Jewish stereotypes was not an endorsement was frankly embarrassing. As always, he suggested he was the victim of a smear; as if the words “brilliant” and “a great tome” were automatic writing penned under the influence of evil Blairites. In other words, once more, he was present, but not involved.
Corbyn’s refusal to listen was on display again when he convinced the NEC to back him on not committing to a second referendum. What kind of an Opposition is there when you can’t slip a fag paper between Labour and the Tories? Corbyn may be putting pressure on Theresa May to accept a Customs Union, but he has left it very late. Meanwhile not unequivocally supporting a People’s Vote leaves left-wing Remainers with nowhere to go at the European elections. Corbyn ally Barry Gardiner may have committed the greatest Freudian slip in history when, in a moment of frustration, he told Tory James Cleverly: “We are trying to bail you out.”
Which brings me to the local elections. That exchange between Gardiner and Cleverley took place during the BBC’s election night coverage when it was already clear both parties were being punished. At the time of writing, the Tories have lost 1,334 seats and 44 councils, while Labour has lost 82 seats and six councils. The Lib Dems on the other hand have gained 703 seats and 10 councils. An objective observer might see this as an endorsement of the Lib Dems’ pro-European, pro-second referendum stance. But Corbyn has a different take. Because the party has done better in the pro-Remain north than in the pro-Brexit south – he reads the results as evidence that “we have to get a deal done as quickly as possible”.
This, I think, is what I dislike most about the Labour leader. Corbyn supporters who like to pick fights with me are fond of saying: at least he is a man who sticks to his principles. But I see no evidence of this; rather, I see an equivocator who sends out conflicting messages in a vain attempt to keep everyone onside. At the same time, I see a man who is so intransigent, he would rather lose the skills of someone like Dugdale than try to find common ground. Jess Phillips lanced him when she said Labour’s greatest asset ought to be its principled, internationalist outlook, but that Corbyn had adopted an indifferent “let’s just see” approach. “Let the Tories play with the Brexit ball,” she said, “and let it wreck them. Why on earth are we allowing it to do the same thing to us?”
The only positive from the latest debacle is that Corbyn does now appear to be facing a backlash.
His NEC victory over his deputy Tom Watson had already riled the likes of Emily Thornberry and erstwhile allies including Clive Lewis and Rachael Maskell. As the results came in, Neil Coyle said Labour would be performing better under any other leader. More significant than the parliamentary push-back, however, are the views of defeated Sunderland Council leader Graham Millar, who contradicted Corbyn’s take on what the losses meant, and high-profile supporters, like Robinson, who are voting with their feet.
Previous scandals – such as the claims of anti-Semitism and the row over the wreath – could be framed as ideological attacks on a leader the media loved to hate. But the numbers don’t lie. Even with the Tories self-destructing, Labour couldn’t prosper. And there may be worse to come at the European elections.
With the failure of the party’s incoherent Brexit policy now so visible, it is to be hoped the activists who have defended Corbyn’s every mistake will see the light and Labour will at last return to grown-up politics.