Saturday, 15 August 2015

The ghost of David Owen yet to come

The apocalyptic language being used by the Blairites at the moment around the prospect of a Corbyn victory is risible.  At the very least it demonstrates the contempt that they hold both for their own party and for the function of an opposition to a government, one hundred days in power, that is exploiting the divided opposition to force through an agenda that, held to scrutiny, should curse its protagonists into the furthest abyss.

Most of Blair's acolytes are pathetic in their assumption that they have a legitimacy not merely to put forward their arguments but to prevail even against what looks like an electoral landslide.  Wheeling out their remaining talismen, as well as the Unregretted Leader himself, to announce that Labour is heading for disaster if the membership don't obey them shows quite how close to Tory paranoiacs they have morphed.  Now there is huffy talk, egged on by some in the Liberal Democrats who should know better, of breakaways and hissy splits should the current trend continue and Corbyn be elected.

It says very little for them that they have so little confidence in their own party, bearing out the theory that they regarded the membership as necessary idiots to secure power for their own technocratic clique.  The idea that there is somehow a great appetite for a second SDP, predicted by Baroness Williams, which could in some way recreate the "glory days" of the 1980s, shows an unwillingness to learn from history as well as crass stupidity in the context of the SDP's own immolation around ideological purity and hatred of the party which many of them regarded much as a parasite contemplates its host.

The Liberals, following the experience of being ravaged first by the SDP and then by the Conservatives, with a side dish of Blair's hypocrisy and cant in the 1990s, should be very wary of any new Owenites.  For the Blairites are not social liberals and pursuers of the freedom and interests of the individual, and whatever Corbyn's personal weaknesses, most of his supporters in Labour are probably closer to radical Liberal thinking than the washed-up and entitled remnants of the neo-conservative putsch.  Any defector would be a Trojan Horse, trying to push the Liberal party into an amorphous centre ground, which, in the experience of annihilation, demonstrates that the electoral tactics of becoming a squashed hedgehog remain as suicidal now as then.

For every unspoken pact between the three shades of grey managerialism opposing Corbyn, his chances are boosted.  For every citation of "resistance" and a sulky refusal to participate in their own party processes the attraction of clearing away dead wood must be increasing for Labour members, anxious to redefine a left position that is not purely calibrated by whether it will cause the front page of the Daily Mail to implode in a paroxysm of dishonest invective.  However, the planks should not be exported to become a cuckoo in the nest of other parties.

Increasingly Blair's messianic streak resembles that of David Owen, another megalomaniac who considered pragmatic politics and the reality of an electoral system to be beneath his contempt.  Perhaps there is an opportunity for them to align in the kind of aggressive authoritarian party that Owen wanted the SDP to become - and which many of his former acolytes and boot-lickers have discovered within the Tories.  A breakaway New Labour would inevitably end up suffering the kind of humiliation that the continuing SDP enjoyed at the hands of the Monster Raving Loony party in the 1989 Bootle by-election, which would provide both a measure of amusement and justifiable schadenfreude.

The failure of Labour at the General Election was not about left and right, but around competence and emotional disconnect.  For all Corbyn's faults, the latter is not a tenable accusation to lay at his door - and at least it would provide an alternative narrative to the bland, bipartisan consensus around the desirability of minor changes to the status quo.  Much of what he is proposing sounds like a practical, populist agenda, even if the detail will be open to scrutiny, which is where the disconnect from Labour's implosion in the 1980s is at its starkest.

However, monomaniacs have long memories, and the spectres now being exhumed are those of entrism and Trotskyism.  While it is true that Corbyn's policies are more attractive to the far left than those of Kendall and Cooper, the idea that wider participation in politics is a bad thing if it delivers the result you don't like, and that those who engage in it are subverting the process is a curious proposition.  New members and supporters should be welcome in any party, particularly when the atrophy of all mainstream membership numbers has been so precipitous.

For the Labour right, not rooted in principle or sentiment to the party, the future does not look bright (but then nor do they).  If there was an alternative position not based around being a slightly humanised version of the Tories, then they would deserve to be heard.  The function of a leader is to inspire, and at this stage of an electoral cycle to set out values and the principles upon which tactics can be based.  It looks as though Farron has grasped this on one side - if Labour don't elect someone who is not a smug continuation of the Blairite failure then they will be landed both with launching their very own SDP coup in the party and alienating the people who might be persuaded that Labour is part of the solution rather than a blob of historical curiosity heading in the same direction as the Orange Book Liberals.

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