Last year I called Jeremy Corbyn the new Maggie. I don’t suppose that will be appearing on the side of a Labour election battle bus any time soon. A pity. The Twitterstorm that would have followed would have been such fun. So let’s see if I can be even more provoking this year.
Jacob Rees-Mogg and Derek Hatton have a surprising amount in common: their Catholicism (Jacob modelling himself on Waugh’s Bridey, Derek coming from the cradle Irish Catholic strand, to be replaced in teenage years by a belief in another unattainable utopia – socialism), their large families and sharp suiting, as well as a fondness for making money and enjoying its fruits. And politically? Well, there too they are more alike than either might like to admit. Both like Mrs Thatcher, for instance. Hatton has gone on record to describe her as “absolutely brilliant“.
But it is in their impact on their respective parties that they and the groups to which they belong and whose public face they are or were that they most resemble each other.
A party within a party: Militant was undoubtedly that and pretty open about its desire to replace what its adherents thought of as soggy Labour policies with a sharper-edged Trotskyist viewpoint and policies. (Rees-Mogg berating a Tory PM for turning red lines pink echoed another toff, Tony Benn, castigating Labour leaders for not being socialist enough.) It successfully infiltrated Labour, got its representatives elected and had some sympathetic listeners within the party hierarchy – at least for a time.
The ERG describes itself as a research support group. But what’s in a name, eh? In the way it has conducted itself it behaves like a party – with a leader, always willing to appear on television, to give a soundbite, however nonsensical (I am particularly fond of the “constitutional norms” Jacob invented last December to justify his claim that a party leader winning a party vote of confidence should resign), to present its programme and views and what it will or will not accept from the government (giving the impression that it is quite separate from the government and party to which it nominally belongs), a ruthless Whip-like figure (Baker) and lofty announcements about who its members will support for leader. It often feels that the Europe the PM is really negotiating with is located in SW1 not Brussels.
Electoral success – up to a point. In Liverpool for a time Hatton was king of all he surveyed. And there were other councils where Militant made its mark – all within 20 years of its creation. The goings on of loony-left Labour councils were a staple of newspapers in the 1980’s and not all of it was invented. In the 25 years since the ERG was created the Tory party has been turned into a largely Eurosceptic party where membership of the EU is seen as a bizarre, unBritish and quasi-traitorous pursuit. And this has not dented – so far – its ability to win power, even if by the skin of its teeth.
A love for ideology; a disdain for practicalities. Not surprising for a Trotskyist groupuscule. Though it is worth noting that for a time Militant gave its voters – at least in Liverpool – some of what they wanted. Until the money ran out. Or the evil Tory government denied an oppressed city the funds it needed. (Take your pick.). But to see a nominal Tory place ideology over what works is a strange development.
It is a rather European stance, it has to be said – a fondness for the grand projet, complete with stirring music and sonorous words. Brexit presents a wonderful opportunity says Jacob, while ensuring his own fund is located within the entity he wishes others to escape from. And even in that small – but telling – hypocrisy he mirrors Hatton’s own fondness for celebrity and opportunity while sacked Liverpudlian workers had to live on meagre rations.
A tendency to overreach. All good things come to an end. Hatton and his gang were disqualified. The money did run out. And the Labour leader excoriated the selfish, self-serving, harming and dishonest thinking behind it all in one of the finest and bravest post-war political speeches.
Too soon to say if the ERG has done the same. Brexit is on the statute book. It does not need a withdrawal deal to happen. Perhaps the ERG has been cannier than all those MPs voting for it in the expectation that a deal would be done but without making that requirement explicit. Perhaps.
But if a No Deal Brexit is not the success the ERG expects; if it is – as others have suggested – chaotic or disastrous, if voters turn away from the reality of it, the ERG’s victory could quickly turn sour. If it doesn’t happen at all because the ERG wanted the perfect rather than the good enough or even the so-so or the “we can live with this”, well, all its efforts will have been wasted. Though the cost to the country will still be high.
Long-term damage to the party. The antics of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s cost Labour three, arguably, four elections. Even now the Tories still hope to paint Labour as a party doomed to lead the country into chaos on the basis of events occurring long before many of today’s voters were born. After all, they say to themselves, Corbyn was rather more sympathetic to Militant than to the Labour leadership. This is true. But their hope that this will help them is a vain one.
The ERG’s stranglehold on the Tory party may be successful now but it comes at a cost. In its obsessive focus on one issue, to the exclusion of anything else, its almost religious fervour in pursuing its ideological hatred of the EU and in castigating opponents as lacking in decency or patriotism, as being somehow wicked rather than having a different opinion.
In its refusal to compromise, in its willingness to see conspiracies to do “the People” down, in its obliviousness to the consequences of its desired end on the real live individuals who make up “the People”, in its lack of understanding of complexities, its refusal to listen to those with actual knowledge, in its disdain for business, for those who earn the money that keeps the country afloat, in its assumption that others must be acting in bad faith when not agreeing with what it proposes, its almost Manichean division of the world into “us” and “them”, the ERG has turned the Tories into a party which has copied all the worst aspects of Labour but without any of its redeeming qualities. This is no basis for success, not long-term anyway.
Labour did eventually get a leader brave enough to speak truth to power. Kinnock reminded them that voters want a party with a heart but they want some basic competence too. Militant was expelled. But it still took a decade for Labour to gain power. The Tories are running scared of their own fanatics.
They seem to think that not only can they do without the heart but without the competence and sensible pragmatism as well. They seem to think that once Brexit is over (ha!) they can go back to governing and winning elections. They badly need their own Kinnock to speak some hard truths to them. Well, while waiting for him or her to emerge, how about this: “You can’t play politics with peoples’ jobs and peoples’ services.”