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THE Countdown has begun. Rachel Riley, who replaced Carol Vorderman on the BBC puzzle show in 2009, was said to be in secret talks last week with Harry Potter author JK Rowling and Jonathan Powell, who served as Tony Blair’s chief of staff in No 10, on the prospects of a new centrist party.
It would be a modelled on Angela Merkel’s CDU, the Sun’s Steve Hawkes suggested. But given the unlikely prospect of Chris Leslie and Chuka Umunna understanding a German political tradition, this probably stands not for Christian Democratic Union — but Centrist Dads Unlimited.
The plotters met at the offices of Rowling’s agent Neil Blair, the Mail on Sunday reported, to develop plans “to launch a breakaway Labour Party within weeks.” So described not because of any connection to organised labour — but because the small number of MPs sucked in are all likely to be disaffected rightwingers of the Parliamentary Labour Party.
Not that such speculation is a new development. Talk of a breakaway has been rife ever since Jeremy Corbyn was elected as Labour’s leader. The trouble is, the break just never seems to come along.
Still, it should come as no surprise that Rowling, who divides her time between the Edinburgh suburb of Barnton, a London townhouse and a huge estate in Perthshire, wants in on the fun.
While continuing to amass a fortune from the spin-offs of her bestselling series, she doesn’t have quite the same status in public life that she had when kids were queueing round the block for midnight launches.
If I was reduced to tweeting bizarrely defensive diatribes against my fictional characters passing into the popular lexicon — think Rowling’s “Corbyn. Is. Not. Dumbledore.” offering in 2016 — I too would want a new claim to fame.
Rowling’s reputation for refusing to be cowed by critics on social media is probably why some of Labour’s splinter-merchants not only want her to join their party but to lead it. To a section of the liberal commentariat, she is an inspiration to all those who face “abuse” from the Corbynistas.
Ahead of the 2017 election, Rowling tweeted out an article with the tagline “what should you do if you support Labour but can’t stand Jeremy Corbyn?”
In what became one of the most unlikely Twitter spats of all time, the esteemed labour historian and University of the West of Scotland lecturer Ewan Gibbs asked: “What's worse about JK Rowling? Using an audience of millions to attack Corbyn and then complaining about polls, or Harry Potter politics?”
For this, Gibbs was labelled a “guffawing oaf” by the neocon columnist Nick Cohen. “The abuse which followed [Rowling’s apparent criticism of Corbyn] showed not only why Labour will go down in a historic defeat, but why Labour’s problems may not end afterwards,” Cohen wrote in the Spectator (and of course, Labour did not suffer a historic defeat in 2017).
Unacceptable trolling, including racist and misogynistic language and threats, has indeed become far too prevalent in British politics.
It is the duty of all of us to stand up to this worrying trend. The problem is when self-styled sensible centrists lump legitimate — and, in Gibbs’s case, lighthearted — criticism in with outrageous slurs.
Centrist pundits frequently accuse Corbyn of standing by in the face of trolling from his supporters — or worse, giving tacit support. It would be lost on Cohen that Rowling in fact encouraged a “pile-on” on Gibbs, tweeting a screenshot of his comment out to her millions of followers.
In this case, most of the responses were harmless enough — but Harry Potter fans have previously been known for sending death threats to a Canadian band engaged in a lawsuit with Warner Brothers.
I’ve heard it asked: “Why are these people so obsessed with Labour?” And it’s a fair point. Why does a new project, apparently in the mould of the Tories’ German sister party, need to be predicated on a split from the opposition? Why not just start from scratch, or join the Lib Dems?
But the level of irate, defensive aggression from those championing this new project is telling. When Alastair Campbell is complaining about BBC bias (over Brexit, of course), and Labour rightwingers are screaming at fellow MPs in corridors, you can’t help but conclude that the centrists feel as marginalised as Labour’s left did during the Blair years.
A party they still believe is their birthright — much more than the left, which historically acknowledged that, in Tony Benn’s words, Labour was “a party with socialists in it” — no longer feels like home.
The notion that Labour should be a party of labour, defined by its links to the trade unions, is beside the point to the likes of Rowling, Powell and Riley.
The Tories are too toxic in liberal dinner party circles, the Lib Dems too discredited from their days of coalition. What celebrity liberals really want is an oh-so-inspiring vision of compassionate platitudes from a party which ultimately maintains the status quo. And this they have no longer.
Or perhaps they do — north of the border at least. At the SNP’s conference last autumn, it was most apparent the party was prioritising business as usual over independence any time soon. And that was confirmed this week when Andrew Wilson, who authored the SNP’s controversial Growth Commission report, said independence should amount to “the softest of possible changes to the current arrangements, not the hardest.” So much for hope over fear.
And if it’s really all about stopping Brexit, where will the centrist plotters turn come the end of March? Do their cheerleaders really think the likes of Leslie and Umunna — who not so long ago advocated ending EU free movement of labour — will base their platform on a complicated re-entry into the trading bloc? Or will they, like the SNP, just continue to make platitudes their mission statement, and hope to simply manage the (changed) status quo?
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