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Going backwards with Labour’s wannabe breakaways

Those talking about forming a new political party have a distinct lack of fresh ideas, says SOLOMON HUGHES

THE Times reports some Labour MPs are talking to Tories about forming a new breakaway party that is pro-EU and anti-Corbyn. 

What stood out for me was the names. The MPs had toyed with The Democrats, Back Together and Regain before settling on Start Again as the name for the new party.  

Three of the four names are overtly backward-looking and nostalgic. 

“Can we go back to before when Jeremy and Brexit spoiled everything?” they say.  

You can hear the background whisper: “The last time I felt truly alive was 1997, with Tony in No 10 and Shed Seven on the CD player.” 

To underline the midlife-crisis feel, Regain sounds like a treatment for baldness or impotence. 

The maybe-a-new-party people are quite a narrow band, even in Parliament. The Times suggests they come out of cross-party Brexit talks. 

The implication is that Labour’s Chuka Umunna, Chris Leslie and Tory Anna Soubry are at the core, though they deny the story.  
The plotters are hesitating, perhaps because they see the weakness of this backward-looking approach. 

Unless they try to “own the future,” they won’t have support outside their narrow ranks. 

They could launch with guaranteed huge support from the media, the punditry and their own very high self-regard and fall flat in the country.

In a separate report, The Times claims “several senior figures” in the Parliamentary Labour Party are considering a breakaway because Corbyn is a “threat to national security” and “there was a real chance he could get to No 10.” 

The same article says the right-wing rebels think “the Labour leader may be winning an economic argument,” but his “foreign policy stance will make it hard for him to persuade voters.” 

So Labour’s wannabe breakaways simultaneously think Corbyn can win an election, which would be terrible, and can’t win an election, which is terrible. 

The only consistent thing in this fear and confusion is the belief that Corbyn is terrible.

One report of Labour’s would-be splitters is all about nostalgia, the other is all about the negative. 

But you can’t really launch a party just by looking backwards or by being “against.” You have to be “for.” 

The 1981 SDP breakaway from Labour was a failure. It split the vote and kept Thatcher in power. After making this gift to the Tories, the party failed. 

Like the current crop of wannabe breakaways, the SDP leaders broke with Labour because they didn’t like Labour calling for nuclear disarmament and breaking with the EU. 

They objected to trade union leaders having too much power in the party through the “union block vote.”

But they did have a bit of a buzz about their launch, actually winning by-elections and polling about as high as Labour. They had the big support from the media that any new anti-Corbyn “rebels” can expect. 

But they also tried to have a “positive” message. They didn’t say they were “centrists,” insisting: “We do not believe in the politics of an inert centre.” They called for “decentralisation,” a “radical challenge to the statism of the two big parties” and claimed to be “breaking the mould” of British politics.  

To my mind this was all window dressing, but at least they tried to dress the window. The current rebels are calling to remake the mould of British politics in the shape of Blair’s face. 

The nostalgic approach of the small number of Labour’s would-be breakaway MPs will, I think, mean that they will finally lack the courage to break away. 

Which is a shame in a way. Because it would clarify the picture and clear some dead wood out of Labour if they did have the guts to split, stand and lose their seats.

The right-wing media attacks on Corbyn also seem mired in nostalgia. We recently saw a comedy rerun of the cold war with the absurd newspaper attempts to suggest Corbyn and 10 other Labour MPs were Czech agents. 

The nonsense story, based on the ramblings of a bitter old spy, went straight onto the front pages of the Sun and Mail and other papers. 

The tale was ridiculous, but it was also a middle-aged man’s fantasy. The right expect to get traction by claims that Corbyn was a paid agent for a country that doesn’t exist any more. Unable to argue about a better future, the right is reduced to publishing fiction about the past.

The Czech agent story fell apart, but the press has moved on to a new approach. Unlike the ridiculous Czech spy story, the poisoning of the Skripals in Salisbury is real and serious. 

There is very good reason to believe the Russian state is behind it at some level. 

However, Corbyn has pressed for proper investigation and for Britain to follow international rules governing such an investigation. 

In light of the Iraq and Libya disasters, this is a wise choice. However, the press is claiming Corbyn has a weak spot for Vladimir Putin. 

It is trying to revive the old cold war charge — used, for example, against US President John F Kennedy — that Corbyn is “soft on communism.” The red flags and hammers and sickles are all over the newspaper cartoons and graphics. 

This is again a weird historical re-enactment because Russia doesn’t pretend to be “communist” and doesn’t have a red flag or hammer and sickle. 

For good measure, Corbyn was a critic of Soviet authoritarianism in the 1980s and ’90s. So not only are they caught in the past, it is a past of the imagination. A hysterical historical fiction.

The pound shop McCarthyism that was the “Corbyn Czech spy allegations” — the House Un-American Activities Committee as performed by Benny Hill — does make you see how the real cold war red scare worked, with a lot of liberals going along, in a tutting sort of way. 

We had tabloids going full mad fakey front page “allegations” that were obviously false, but the main response by “liberal commentators” was, “Maybe these specific stories are false, but that Corbyn is, at a deeper level, a red traitor.”

Pundits who would in other times be worried about the press debasing itself with front page distortions tried to make something of an obviously fake story, much as the “cold war liberals” went along with red scares and the “crusade against communism” even as far as supporting the Vietnam war.

 

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