History repeats itself: the first time as farce, the second as – who knows?
Albert Einstein said that time travel into the past is impossible. He was, however, only talking physically. Politics does not necessarily obey the same laws; a fact he recognised when he turned down the presidency of Israel due people needing to be treated differently from ‘objective matters’.
Later today Labour will attempt to prove that those universal physical laws don’t apply by trying to turn the clock back to May or earlier. Resignation letters will be unwritten, votes of no confidence unheld and the leadership election wished away. One big family will come together in a sense of unity and attempt to put their past divisions behind them. It won’t work.
It won’t work for three reasons. Firstly, while MPs, shadow cabinet ministers and even Corbyn for the time being might like to conveniently forget the internal war for control of Labour, the other parties and the media will not. Any former shadow cabinet minister who unresigns is certain to have their resignation letters quoted back at them. While a few might get away with the line that they erred in believing that Corbyn’s position was untenable (which was indeed an error, if an understandable one), most made specific and personal criticisms of the leader. They will have a hard job of explaining why those criticisms no longer apply.
Secondly, and relatedly, Corbyn has gone out of his way to emphasise that those criticisms will still apply. In a BBC interview this week, when asked what would be different under his leadership mark two, he said: “sadly for everyone I’ll be the same Jeremy Corbyn.” And so he will: his is not a career marked by tacking to enable consensus.
All the reasons why his first year failed so badly will be revisited in the second. It is a triumph of hope over experience to think otherwise.
And thirdly, the battle for control of Labour goes on. That battle is currently in something of a stalemate, as I wrote elsewhere. Corbyn’s allies control the leadership (but cannot pass it on), and have majorities in the membership and among affiliated unions, particularly Unite. His opponents hold a majority in the PLP sufficient to block a far-left candidate. The NEC remains finely balanced.
For the moment, the mainstream can adopt a drawbridge strategy: the Corbynites aren’t yet strong enough to purge the central staff (and Iain McNicol in particular) or reform the rules to their liking, and the centrists/pragmatists can believe that they will prevail if only they can endure the left’s storm until it blows itself out. Unlike in the 1980s, it is they who have the tenacity and the left which has the numbers. But both sides will be watching for opportunities to tip the balance their way.
Another Einstein observation was that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. But for lack of options, it’s anyone’s guess as to why Labour would want to repeat their last year but it seems close to inevitable that they will, all the same.