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How does Labour come back from this toxic mess? MPs who stayed in an 'institutionally racist' party will find it hard to reclaim their moral authority

Jeremy Corbyn Credit : Leon Neal/Getty Images

December 23, 2019   4 mins

Some considerable enjoyment can be gleaned from watching people you don’t particularly care for trying to get out of holes of their own creation. That’s possibly why this past week and a half has just whizzed by.

Take the strange, hitherto unknown man called Lloyd Russell-Moyle who gave a shouty barricade speech on election night when he was returned as a Labour MP, and who has since decided to woo over those who now have criticisms of Jeremy Corbyn by calling them “cunts“.

Then there is Corbyn himself, who declared that although he had just lead Labour to its worst defeat since 1935 he and his party had somehow nevertheless “won the argument”.

Corbyn’s loyal band of media outriders have been trying variations of the same trick. The weird authorities at Norovirus Media, without qualifications or experience, have been telling people about the wild popularity of Labour Party politics, but one senses that the air is finally starting to drain out of these once-useful media creations.

The other loyalists, Owen Jones and Paul Mason, have both performed as one would expect. Neither has any experience in getting a prime minister elected; neither has ever been in frontline politics; both are full-time campaigners for the far-Left anywhere who present themselves as “journalists” everywhere; both spent recent years telling the country to vote for Jeremy Corbyn to be PM.

So it has been a joy of a kind to watch both men spend the days since the General Election explaining what the Labour Party needs to do now to get back into power. Both men presumably think that the switcheroo they have been hiding behind for years (journalist, not a journalist) is going to keep working and that people will forget that having pounded the streets for Corbyn they are now merely disinterested psephologists who are available to provide help whenever asked.

Still, these are media outriders. The problem for the party as a whole lies deeper at its heart, where the virus that Corbyn and his supporters brought will continue to linger. Putative competitors for the leadership talk about the importance — post-Corbyn — of a Labour leader having a meeting with the Chief Rabbi. Perhaps they could bring a “sorry” card and deliver it by hand? Such ideas again suggest that at the top of the party there is little-to-no recognition that Labour has one almighty problem.

But the most interesting escapology is still to come, and here things turn from the vaguely comic to the fairly solemn. Because, of course, there should be an Opposition in Britain, and in this Parliament — if not afterwards — it will continue to be provided by the Labour Party. And here we catch sight of one almighty problem.

All parties have bad years and there is not only a certain sense but even a nobility in sticking through them. Anybody can hold onto things when they are on the up, but it is in grimly keeping on when everything is down that character is shown. But the MPs who now sit on the Labour benches have suffered not just defeat at the ballot box but a very considerable exodus from their party.

Take Chuka Ummuna, who was for a time talked about as though he might be a future Blairite leader of the party. He quit Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour in February this year, partly because he said that it had become “institutionally racist”. That is a very serious charge indeed, especially to throw at a party whose members have perhaps been keener than most at levelling it against others.

Ordinarily the sins of failure surrounding a leader and a party are easier to brush off. When Conservatives needed to escape the legacy of William Hague or Iain Duncan-Smith they had to make lots of noise about wrong turns taken and the lack of leadership in the party. Labour knows the drill, too, and when Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband led them to electoral defeat nobody had to explain why they had been comfortable to hang around in an institutionally racist party.

But Corbyn is different. Corbyn toxified the whole thing.  So what are those who were content to stay around and be toxified now going to say?

When we see people such as Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer announcing that they would like to be Jeremy Corbyn’s successor as leader of the party, there are a number of questions that might be asked of them, perhaps the first being “Do you think that Chuka Ummuna was right or wrong in saying that under Corbyn Labour had become ‘institutionally racist’?  If you do not agree then please say why, otherwise please explain why you chose to stay in a racist political party?”

Likewise with Jess Phillips. Among her generation of MPs there are very few who have started out sounding so independent and ended up doing exactly the opposite of what their words suggested. Phillips’s political schtick is that she exudes a sense of moral outrage and that “I’ll say whatever needs saying, however much harm it does me, if I know it to be true”. So at some point, as she sketches out her moral vision for Labour in the years to come, and explains how Labour can come back to government, Ms Phillips will have to be asked some questions.

They may include some variation on the following: “Your friend and now former fellow MP Luciana Berger was chased out of the Labour Party because of racist and sexist bullying. She said she would not put up with it and so she left. She ran as a Liberal Democrat and did not get back into Parliament. However, you, Jess Phillips are still in Parliament. Do you think your friend Luciana Berger was lying when she talked about the racism in your party? And if she was telling the truth then why did you not leave the Labour Party in solidarity with your racially abused friend?”

Now of course Phillips might have a number of attempted ripostes to that. She might say “I thought it was important to stay in the Labour party because I knew that one day the nightmare of the current leader would be over and we would need to rebuild the party from the inside.” And that might have worked fine if the nightmare leader had been a Miliband or a Hague. But it was not like that.

So this past week and a half has given us plenty of interesting things to watch. But I suspect that the era to come is going to include some digging so contorted that we are going to have to watch it between our fingers.

And for those who talk glibly of simply doing a cheap refurb job on the Labour party there is simply no recognition of the scale of the task now in front of them. Corbyn wasn’t just toxic himself. He made the entire party of the Left toxic. It remains so, contaminating all who stayed through his tenure. And like the decontamination of any toxic terrain this is not going to get cleaned up swiftly or without further casualties.

Douglas Murray is an author and journalist.


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