In 1981 when Tony Benn stood for the Deputy Leadership against Healey and lost by a 0.9% margin , he got 30% of the Parliamentary Labour MPs’ votes but 19 members of Tribune abstained, including one Neil Kinnock. Margaret Beckett denounced him furiously as a Judas, allegedly prompting another MP to say: “So Benn is Jesus now, is he?”. Following the 1983 defeat, it took Kinnock two elections and hand-to-hand combat with Militant and others before Labour once again became electable. Mrs Beckett however remained an old Labour Bourbon, learning nothing, and 24 years later she famously nominated one of Benn’s acolytes for the leadership.
Still, cries of betrayal by the Left were common in the 1970’s and 1980’s: betrayal by Labour governments which did not implement Conference resolutions or watered them down, betrayal by union leaders conspiring with the leadership, betrayal by Labour toffs who paid more attention to the urgings of the IMF. And the theme of betrayal has recurred since: to hear some now, the whole of the 1997-2010 period was a betrayal of real Labour values.
Underpinning all this was a sense that if only the people were offered red-blooded socialism, they would seize it with both hands. No-one encapsulated this view better than Tony Benn himself. It was Alan Bennett who said: “You only have to survive in England and all is forgiven you….If you can eat a boiled egg at 90 in England they think you deserve a Nobel prize.” Only such an approach can explain the sentimental gushing about Benn, a man with flawed judgment, who did not practise what he preached and who did so much to render Labour unelectable in the 1980’s.
Now some 18 months after Corbyn was first elected, there are, once again, mutterings about Labour’s unelectability under his leadership.
The list of reasons why Corbyn is not up to being Labour leader writes itself:-
- He is not an election winner.
- He seems incapable of providing effective leadership of the Parliamentary party, being neither feared nor admired. Nor is competence one of his strengths.
- His personal ratings are dire.
- Labour is behind in all the polls and seems to be making no progress. Quite the opposite.
- Labour is not providing effective opposition and this matters hugely: for our Parliamentary system of government, for our government which needs a strong opposition to keep it honest and stop it becoming complacent, hubristic even, for Labour voters and for all those others who are entitled to have the possibility of a realistic alternative to the Tories.
- Under his leadership Labour has been tainted by the stain of anti-Semitism and by Corbyn’s past and present associations with persons and groups with, at best, an ambiguous relationship with and view of violence. That this should happen to a party which, at its best, has always had at its core a basic decency and a desire to make things better for the poor, the marginalised and the vulnerable is shameful.
- His policies are no more than reheated versions of old policies which have rarely worked and have immiserated those countries that have tried them.
- He has no or little strategic or tactical sense, as Labour’s recent votes over the Article 50 Bill show.
- Whatever his personal qualities may be, he seems incapable of reaching out to people beyond those with whom he is instinctively comfortable.
So why should he stay? Well, bad ideas get defeated in one of two ways: by better ideas or by electoral defeat. For all the criticisms made of Corbyn and for all the attempts to force him out, there has been a remarkable absence of alternative thinking by those opposed to him. Not one of the possible candidates has been able to articulate what the point of the Labour Party is, what it is for and how it wants to get to whatever destination it has in mind.
No-one has come close to doing so in a way which is attractive to the membership let alone the wider country. If Corbyn’s 1960’s socialism is not the answer, what is the social democratic vision for the 21st century? Answer comes there none. For the moment, it does not look as if Corbyn is going to be defeated by better ideas from elsewhere within Labour.
But even if someone were to come up with such a vision, is another leadership challenge the answer? Corbyn has been elected twice by the membership. Twice more than Mrs May, for instance. Arguably, he has a better mandate than many of his predecessors. Labour members have decided they want him and what he has to offer. Why shouldn’t that offering be put before the wider electorate so that they too get to have their say? Imagine the cries of betrayal if he is forced out, not by the electorate, but by the unions or the PLP or manoeuvrings by past leaders and “over the water” would-be leaders.
The usual objection to leaving him in place until the next General Election is that this would destroy the Labour party. Well, yes. But maybe this is necessary if a real, worthwhile Labour is going to survive and prosper. If the result is in line with recent polls it would be Corbynite Labour that would be destroyed. It would be his offering which would be rejected and be seen to be rejected by the electorate.
The Left could not shout betrayal. They could not complain that the people had not had a chance to vote for it. They could not mutter about stitch ups by union leaders behind closed doors. They could not moan about coups by the MPs. They could not blame defeat on breakaway parties (there is no Gang of Four and SDP to undermine them) or on a divided party or the dreaded Blairites. They could try and no doubt would. But such cries would not have much force. The Left would have had their chance. They would have failed.
And their defeat would have been inflicted by the people, the very people on whose behalf the Left often claims to speak. They would own the defeat. And that defeat, that failure would free up a new leader to do the hard thinking needed, to be ruthless rather than sentimental about the Left’s rubbish ideas and nauseating tolerance of illiberal violent groups, to build a Labour party that reaches out and listens to those whose votes it seeks. It would allow a leadership candidate to speak some hard truths to the membership. If a decent Labour is to survive, it has to be built in the wake of a clear message from the electorate.
So let Corbyn stay. Let him lead Labour to a crushing defeat. Let the Left he represents fold up its tents and disappear into the night. And let’s hope that there are enough decent people left with the courage and determination necessary to build a left of centre party fit for the 21st century.