Unity. According to Sir Keir Starmer, it’s the pre-requisite for Labour to re-establish itself as a serious party of government. As he put it recently (and has said repeatedly): “I don’t think there’s any victory without unity.”
Yesterday, back on the theme, he thanked the party for the unity it has shown during the leadership campaign. “I honestly believe that we have come out of the other end of this contest as a better party,” he said: “more united and ready to build another future.”
To which George Orwell had the appropriate response: “There are some ideas so wrong that only a very intelligent person could believe in them.” Unity is the precise opposite of what Labour needs or what its new leader should seek. Unity is the comfort blanket of the third-rate politician, afraid to confront his or her base with unsettling truths, pushing unity as a goal in itself. But to seek unity between decency and the abhorrent is not merely a mistake — it is itself indecent. Labour is now an indecent party. To purify itself, it needs not unity but a bloodbath.
It should not require a great feat of memory to remind oneself why Labour suffered its worst election defeat since 1935 last December. There were many specific reasons but they all had one thing in common: Labour has been overrun by nutters.
“Nutters”, you will of course know, is the technical political term for the allies and supporters of Jeremy Corbyn. People like Shadow Justice Secretary Richard Burgon, who regards Venezuelan dictator Nicolas Maduro as a hero; like communications chief Seumas Milne, who argues that Nato is the villain of the piece in Crimea, prompting Putin’s “defensive” annexation; like Mr Corbyn’s former key adviser Andrew Murray, who in a 2003 Morning Star article expressed his “solidarity with Peoples Korea (North Korea)”.
Or like Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, who described a thug who nearly killed a police officer by throwing a fire extinguisher from a rooftop during a student riot as “the best of our movement”; and, in fact, like Mr Corbyn himself, who… well, you know the charge sheet. It’s familiar stuff now. And it has all sunk Labour.
There will be a temptation tomorrow to herald the removal of Mr Corbyn and his replacement with (one assumes) the patently decent and intelligent Sir Keir as somehow marking the end of Labour’s four and half years of shame. For sure, the party will have a leader whose views are within the mainstream of politics. And it is not impossible to imagine Sir Keir sitting round the Cabinet table or even leading it. But Labour’s problems go far deeper than the indecency of its soon-to-be-former leader.
As editor of the Jewish Chronicle I have led a team of reporters who exposed a seemingly never-ending stream of extremism among Labour members since Jeremy Corbyn became leader in September 2015. Specifically, of their anti-Semitism. It would not be an exaggeration to say these cases came up daily; indeed on same days they were an hourly occurence.
In December, a week before the election, the Jewish Labour Movement submitted a 53-page dossier of evidence to the Equality and Human Rights Commission into Labour’s institutional anti-Semitism. This followed a 1,000-page body of evidence supplied to the EHRC last May, which together added up to hundreds — perhaps thousands — of examples of Labour members’ hatred of Jews.
These are very same people who have been so unified, as Sir Keir puts it, in voting to choose the party’s next leader. These are the people with whom he aims to unite.
To be fair to him, Sir Keir has said he will ensure that any anti-Semite is expelled. Good — but that would only those foolish enough to show themselves publicly as racists (more often than not on social media). But that is just one type of extremism which has emerged. Labour has a much bigger problem with the Burgonesques, a far larger group who aren’t obviously hateful but whose views are way outside the boundaries of normal British politics.
We will find out tomorrow how many votes each candidate secures but in the most recent poll of Labour members by YouGov on 26 February, 19% said they would vote for Richard Burgon to be Deputy Leader. Think about that for a moment: one-fifth of party members believe that a man who looks to Venezuela for political inspiration should be the party’s deputy.
In reality, no decent mainstream left-of-centre party should give houseroom either to Burgon or those who support him. That is what fringe parties are for.
Instead of seeking to assuage the anger of Corbynite members because their hero will no longer be leader, Sir Keir should confront them and — as Neil Kinnock did with Militant in the 1980s — highlight the grotesque chaos of having such people in a mainstream party.
It’s obvious why he won’t. For one thing, the hard Left now dominates Labour’s National Executive Committee by 21 votes to 13 (with two places up for election). Anyone with the faintest memory of the 1980s is aware of just how energy- and attention-sapping it is for the leadership when engaged in a fight with the NEC. But some fights are worth it. Some are essential.
Had Neil Kinnock not fought and defeated Militant, Labour would have ceased to exist as a mainstream party in the 1980s. The situation today is of course different, but the same dynamic holds; if Sir Keir refuses to fight the hard Left, Labour will continue on its current trajectory and cease to exist as a mainstream party.
Does that matter? As an erstwhile member (very erstwhile — I left when Tony Blair was deposed in 2007) I believe it is essential for British politics and British public life.
Yes, another vehicle will surely emerge if Labour strides off further into irrelevance, but there is a residual base of electoral support for the people’s party that will always be difficult to shift. It makes far more sense for Labour to return to the mainstream and act as a serious challenger for government than for a wholly new party to take shape. Instead it will limp on as a large but politically irrelevant party, a permanent drain on the centre-Left.
Labour’s return to normality, and with it British politics’ return to normality, will only happen by design. By design, that is, of the party leadership. And that requires not unity but a bloodbath — a fight to the death.