So far, Corbynites have been "boiling the frog" to keep moderates on board. Now, it is as if they have picked up the frog and thrown it into the deep-fat fryerby Chaminda Jayanetti / July 28, 2018 / Leave a comment
Labour’s shadow chancellor and strategist-in-chief John McDonnell was touring the airwaves this week offering assurances that Margaret Hodge would not be ‘disciplined’ for her denunciation of Jeremy Corbyn.
Given the fraught relations between Labour’s Corbynite left and its centre, it was less surprising than it should have been that someone had filed a complaint against the Blairite ex-minister for accusing Corbyn of being a “racist and anti-Semite” after the leadership modified the broadly (though not universally) accepted definition of anti-Semitism.
Labour’s internal divisions over the code highlights three broad dynamics within the party.
First, and most obvious, is the split over foreign policy, particularly towards Israel. While most Jewish organisations in the UK back the IHRA code, critics claim it could be used to restrict criticism of Israeli policy—an especially fraught issue for those who, like Corbyn and his press chief Seamus Milne, have been trenchant critics of Israel for decades. Both sides feel strongly about the issue, and the gap appears unbridgeable.
Second is what McDonnell’s intervention revealed—that whatever fierce divides exist between Corbynites and Labour centrists, the former desperately need the latter to stay on board. Barrow MP John Woodcock has already cited his belief that “anti-Semitism is being tolerated” (as well as claiming that he cannot “expect a fear hearing” on recent harassment allegations) in his resignation letter from the Party.
McDonnell knows that were action to be taken against Hodge on such a sensitive issue, it could provoke more centrist MPs to head for the exit. At a time when Blairites are wondering what where their ‘red line’ is, Labour’s anti-Semitism row risks making their decision for them.
There should be no doubt at all just how much Corbynites despise Labour centrists—and vice versa. This is not so much an unhappy marriage as a forced one. Many Corbyn supporters regard Tony Blair as a war criminal and Blairites as Tories with red rosettes.
However, the leadership is desperate to avoid a centrist breakaway that could draw votes away from Labour, potentially handing victory to the Conservatives on a plate, as left-wing journalists have warned.
Labour has already devoured the Green vote, is struggling in Scotland and may have maxed out what support it can get from Tory Remainers. It needs to hold on to what it has. That means keeping Blairite MPs on board—but only until a general election. Once in power, Labour centrists would be the enemy.
To understand this contradictory stance, we have to remember that Corbyn and McDonnell never for one moment dreamt they would ever get near power. Having spent decades lingering in dishevelled corridors, locked outside committee rooms, they suddenly find themselves inside the inner sanctum, the front bench reserved for their people.
The chance to seize the commanding heights of political and economic power has never existed before, and may never exist again. They do not want to do anything that could imperil it—be that backing another Brexit referendum, or sparking a centrist breakaway.
But equally, once in power, their time on the throne would not be assured. Corbyn and McDonnell are ageing. They are unlikely to have a secure parliamentary majority. Powerful interests would be determined to see them fail and fall swiftly. A future government could undo whatever reforms they made.
What Corbyn and McDonnell want is a dramatic transformation of economic power and control that cannot be reversed—to entrench democratic socialism and economic democracy at lightning speed.
This makes centrist Labour MPs an existential threat. They could obstruct McDonnell’s socialist agenda while defeating Corbyn on foreign policy. This leaves Corbynites in a bind: they need the centrists on board until an election, but they need them out immediately afterwards.
They would like to deselect them so they cannot obstruct a Corbyn government—but making deselections easier risks sparking a breakaway party.
So far the strategy has been “boiling the frog”—gradually raising the heat without the alerting the centrists to the fact they are being cooked alive.
This requires triangulation: the old Blairite strategy of taking a middle line that appeals to people on both sides of a debate—the Party’s ‘tactical ambiguity’ on Brexit, for example.
But the IHRA row reveals the third dynamic that is wrecking this approach—Corbynites keep lifting the centrist frog from the saucepan and chucking it in the deep fat fryer. On Brexit, Corbyn can triangulate—Eurosceptic he may be, but he is not passionately so. On the issues closest to his heart, no triangulation is possible.
Corbyn is who he is—his views have never changed. This is his strength and his weakness, his appeal and his repellent: he cannot back down on his core issues, and when he tries to it comes across as pretence. Triangulation thus falters – he sticks to his guns. Corbynite activists double down on social media and in local branches by launching full throttle assaults on dissenters. Those dissenters ask themselves why they stay.
Labour will stagger from one row to the next until the centrists either flee or are driven out. The Tories are in a similar mess, riven between hard Brexiters and Remainers. Britain’s future belongs to whichever loveless family can hold out the longest.