OVER the last five years, the Labour right went on regular summer manoeuvres against the left, the parliamentary recess giving MPs political space to launch attacks on then leader Jeremy Corbyn that could set the tone for the political conference season in the autumn.
Corbyn-bashing as a summer sport appears to have outlasted his leadership, with successor Keir Starmer’s decision to settle with former employees who were suing the party and now the row over Martin Forde QC’s inquiry into a leaked report both provoking media assaults on the ex-leader’s legacy.
One of the least edifying aspects of the right’s approach was the way MPs, lords and Establishment insiders accused left activists of behaviour that they were themselves guilty of: regularly we saw some of the most powerful and privileged people in the country claim they were victims of bullying by some of the least.
Former foreign secretary David Miliband has jumped on the hypocrisy bandwagon with his claim that by calling out the sabotage of his own leadership by certain staff at Labour HQ, Corbyn is engaged in a “wrecking tactic” aimed at destabilising Starmer.
Along with a host of media pundits, Miliband seeks to paint Corbyn as a sore loser refusing to accept responsibility for his failure to win an election. The specifics of the Forde inquiry submission by the former leader and seven former shadow ministers and aides are never mentioned in these broadsides. They would contradict a narrative being spun for posterity that Labour lost because it was left-wing, one that will echo the media portrayal of the 1980s, where factors like the Gang of Four’s split to form the Social Democratic Party are ignored when recounting Labour’s defeats.
The aim of this exercise is to exorcise the “spectre of Corbynism,” bury the socialist left and guard against any future revival.
To do so, Miliband deploys a few familiar attack lines. Labour’s 2017 performance, winning its biggest vote increase since 1945 and depriving Theresa May of her majority, is the most awkward fact for the “Corbyn was an unelectable disaster” brigade, so it is belittled. Now, Corbyn “couldn’t beat the worst Tory campaign in history.”
The line that “any other Labour leader” would wipe the floor with the Conservatives was common in the liberal press after 2016.
It was a delusion based on a refusal to believe that Brexit might actually be popular. If only a dependable pro-EU, pro-market leader such as Starmer were in charge, the nightmare would end.
Yet the current Conservative government hardly looks competent, presiding over one of the world’s highest death tolls from Covid-19 and mired in scandals over lockdown breaches and PPE procurement: but it’s still able to command a comfortable lead in the polls.
Similarly, Tony Blair once claimed that people “would not accept” a choice between Corbyn and Johnson at the ballot box. Yet all attempts at a “centre ground” vehicle to restore politics as usual — through Change UK to its main players’ desertion to the Lib Dems — fell flat on their face.
Countering these distortions of history is important for two reasons. One is that unless the left comes to terms with the real secret of Conservative success in recent years — the Tories’ absurd but successful pretence of being the party prepared to shake up the system — it will keep losing.
The other is that the left made a number of advances over the last five years that we must fight to defend. The case for a massive extension of public ownership to transport, energy and water, for publicly directed regional investment, for an end to privatisation and outsourcing in public services, has been made much stronger by Covid-19.
It must continue to be part of our political offer. Every attack on Corbyn is designed to discredit and demolish a socialist programme that remains essential to addressing Britain’s acute social and economic crisis.
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