Just imagine what your family members would be saying if you’d been a decade in the dying and there was still no prospect of you doing the decent thing. People say very bad things indeed about the Labour Party so does that mean it’s taking its time getting into the ground?
The Daily Telegraph columnist Tom Harris thinks it has been dying for ten years, eight of them, it should be said, with him as an MP. A party member since 1984, Harris has upped the ante on former Labour MP Austin Mitchell who in 1983 wrote Four Years in the Death of the Labour Partyabout the Bennite divisions during the early Thatcher years. Added together, Labour has been insensitively withering for at least fourteen years of its relatively short existence, more if you include the precarious early days, the MacDonald betrayal and the Gaitskell-Bevan disputes that were so boring they sucked the colour out of the 1950s. It’s remarkable that this publicly disputatious organization has occasionally governed the country. Of the four leaders who have steered the party to Downing Street, only Clement Attlee is regarded affectionately. No one thinks about Harold Wilson because that would distract from hating Ramsay Mac and Tony Blair. Reflecting on the party’s current discomfort, Harris argues, ‘the supreme irony is that Labour could not point the finger of blame for this calamity at any of its political opponents or the media or big business or any of the range of its traditional enemies.’ This is nearly right. The most fearsome of the Labour Party’s traditional enemies is almost entirely to blame for current difficulties: itself.
Suggesting Labour’s demise can be traced to Gordon Brown’s premiership is impeccably Blairite and therefore eminently questionable. Harris is careful to flow with the consensus that allows Brown a successful few months in office but thereafter it’s largely a tale of indecision and blunder, starting with the botched election speculation in autumn 2007 and ending on the street in Rochdale where he met that ‘sort of bigoted women’ and accidentally said as much. Harris accuses Brown of conducting a decade long campaign against Blair ‘with a staggering level of self-regard’ and his punishment is to be mentioned only fleetingly in the chapter about the independence referendum. ‘It was this needless rivalry that poisoned the New Labour well,’ Harris argues in a way that implies Brown’s campaign against Blair is the reason the New Labour project is old news. But the element currently ascendant in the Labour Party views both prime ministers as having succumbed to the pursuit of dirty power.
Among voters, New Labour’s reputation was most seriously tarnished by Iraq and by the Conservatives blaming it for the deficit, a charge only limply countered by Ed Miliband who became leader after an uncomfortable contest that saw him defeat his brother, David. Harris believes both brothers viewed the job ‘as something of an entitlement’ because of their greasy-quick progress up the political pole. The tragedy was neither brother thought the other was more entitled than himself. David was viewed as the favourite because he was slightly less strange, but Ed triumphed thanks to significant trade union support for his slightly more left-wing stances. Harris fairly criticizes those MPs and trade unionists ‘who believed that electing a less capable leader with whom they agreed was preferable to having a more capable leader with whom they agreed slightly less’. The qualities of a leader are hard to define but Ed Miliband is no model. The same could be said of Gordon Brown and Jeremy Corbyn. Indeed, the Labour Party has burdened itself with a succession of leaders who look a bit strange, sound even stranger and who can’t smile naturally. Insufficient attention has been paid to how leaders will exist in the public imagination as opposed to their position on the party’s interminable squabbles. Throughout the 2010 parliament, Labour MPs reported working-class constituents were suspicious of the younger Miliband for usurping his older brother. They suspected it was ‘indicative of a deeper personal flaw’ but the public flaws were perfectly sufficient to hand David Cameron an unexpected majority at the 2015 General Election. Not even the Ed Stone, unclaimed to this day, could avert disaster. Harris is critical of Miliband’s decision to flee the scene rather steady the ship by helping the party form some perspective on its defeat. More than this, however, Harris believes ‘it is Miliband’s reforms to the party for which he will not be easily forgiven’, particularly the adoption of ‘election rules ripe for exploitation by entryists’.
Enter Jeremy Corbyn, but only just. It’s startling to be reminded that Corbyn secured the thirty-five nominations needed to stand in the election because MPs, including Sadiq Khan, hoped to ‘use their comradely gesture’ to secure their own place in the looming London mayoral contest. That plan was a success, mainly for Khan. Much to the dismay of the parliamentary party, Corbyn triumphed thanks to an electoral system that severely diminished the clout of MPs. Harris dutifully goes through the familiar list of Corbyn’s dodgy dealings during his years living out a teenage fantasy on an MP’s salary. The charges feel tired and Corbyn’s unexpectedly successful performance in the 2017 General Election proved they are of little tactical value for those wishing to depose him. ‘Corbyn’s historic political judgement became less of a drag on his and his party’s popularity than many had assumed,’ Harris concedes. Despite his dismay at the submission of former Corbyn opponents in parliament, he painfully acknowledges the long-term survival of the Labour Party depends on ‘that uneasy alliance, ugly and detestable in its cynicism and dishonesty’.
Ten Years in the Death of the Labour Party provides a brisk, efficient account of events in UK politics since 2007 but it lacks analytical depth and imaginative speculation. This is particularly noticeable in the sections that deal with the Scottish political scene and about which it might be thought Harris would possess useful insights. Not so. There is little new information to be gained about the independence referendum or the General Election the following year when Scottish Labour lost all but one of its MPs, including Harris in Glasgow South, to an SNP engulfment. Scottish Labour, the party Harris aspired to lead in 2011, had been sweating bad karma for a long time; the soul of Scottish politics having passed through it like a ghostly presence. It was dominant for too long and gave off the stale smell of old municipal facilities to people in need of something fresh. In local government, the party seemed to be a curious mixture of decadent and moribund; it’s representatives often looking like morticians who had ended up as councillors after getting lost on the way to buy more embalming fluid. Some of these time-served figures came up through the floors of parliaments in Edinburgh and London until enough voters seriously doubted the wisdom of their parents. Harris recounts the experience of one Labour MP who lost his seat in 2015. He boarded a plane to London the day after the election and Nicola Sturgeon got on after him. The First Minister ‘was greeted by a spontaneous and enthusiastic round of applause and cheers from the other passengers’. Something was already in the air.
The book’s most curious feature is a lack of passion. Harris stokes a sense of anticipation in the preface. ‘I make no apology for accentuating the negative while eliminating the positive,’ he says. As a matter of fact, it’s a disappointingly even-handed read with few damaging blows landed. Instead, there are just memories of old sores, the original impact of which is hard to recreate. This is a book that should be dripping with the red stuff, but it could be read by a bride to settle her nerves before she went down the aisle without fear of tarnishing her dress. Moreover, if the Labour Party is dying then Harris fails to convince that this is a matter of personal pain despite his three decades of membership. The emotional level is roughly equivalent to someone selling a car in which they had taken a handful of memorable journeys.
Is Labour dead? Dying? Headless? Legless? Ossified? Fossilised? Mummified? Petrified? Infected? Dissected? Here is Harris: ‘The theme of this book is not that Labour has died or even that it will necessarily die in the near or medium-term future; it is that it is in a constant state of dying that may or may not result in its final demise’. I think that means the party has a bad cough and the book has a misleading title. The Labour Party is neither dead nor dying but it is controlled by people with beliefs that differ greatly from those held by Harris. Voters don’t dislike divide political parties – they dislike political parties. Divided political parties are just that bit more awful because they bring to public attention disputes more trivial even than those that exist between rival parties. Suddenly the champion bores with the most inflexible outlooks come to the fore, reminding voters of the time they were stuck at a barbeque listening to the neighbour with the model airplane obsession. A dysfunctional party is worse than that because some of the bores end up on television. But it’s not just Labour. An inescapable feeling of bone-sucking tedium pervades British politics at every level below the high drama of Brexit. This tedium provides exactly the right conditions for the Corbynite Labour party to survive under a ceiling of low expectations. The obvious answer is for disgruntled MPs to form a new party but there is little appetite for that because they are smart enough to be terrified of the logical conclusion: merger with the Liberal Democrats.