Hard-left viciousness will tear Labour in two
Momentum’s purge of party moderates is likely to be the catalyst for a much-needed realignment of the centre ground
Every threat is also an opportunity. Even the systematic takeover of the Labour Party by the hard left could end up being a blessing in disguise for those who long to have a sensible, centrist opposition to the Conservatives. The moderates are understandably unwilling to surrender their party to the hardliners but perhaps they are in fact shackled to an old tribe in which they no longer belong. The purge now being embarked on by the Corbynistas is deeply unpleasant and emblematic of the intolerance of the hard left but it could also ultimately liberate those who favour progress and modernity over outdated ideas.
Lord Mandelson, who helped Labour to three election victories, sees Momentum as a much greater threat to the party than Militant tendency. “In the Eighties Militant were climbing over the barricades and the perimeter of the party was breached, but now the citadel is occupied,” he told me yesterday. “The leadership, the party machine and rule-making process are transferring to Momentum control. That’s the difference.”
Certainly, the left-wing coup is proceeding with ruthless efficiency. The leader is installed and feeling confident enough to pose, arms folded, for the cover of GQ. His troops are marauding around on social media attempting to assassinate deserters. Slowly but surely the hierarchies are being captured. In elections for three extra members of Labour’s National Executive Committee, the left-wing slate, headed by Jon Lansman, Tony Benn’s former adviser who now runs Momentum, is expected to beat the list of moderates that includes the comedian Eddie Izzard.
There’s something deeply conservative about left-wingers
Meanwhile, Kezia Dugdale, a non-Corbynite, has been replaced as leader of the Scottish Labour Party, by Richard Leonard, a left-winger. Across the country, Mr Corbyn’s supporters stand accused of carrying out an “aggressive purge” of centrist councillors so they can put up their own candidates in local elections next year. In the key marginal seat of Watford, local party officials were ordered to place a Momentum-backed senior official from the Unite union on the candidate shortlist even though they had rejected him after an interview. In Sheffield a candidate has reportedly been deselected for being “too working class” and “not left-wing enough”.
In the north London borough of Haringey, Momentum is poised to take control of its first council. Around ten centrist Labour councillors have either stood down or have lost their seats to left-wingers after being denounced as “zombie Blairites”. Three of them published a joint letter at the weekend saying they had withdrawn from the selection process because the atmosphere in the local party had become so “factional and poisonous” that they did not believe they would get a fair hearing.
It is no coincidence that Momentum has made a housing regeneration project involving a public-private partnership the focus of its campaign in Haringey. “Gentrification” has become an insult for the Corbynistas, more associated in their minds with “social cleansing” than self-improvement. Many of those who live in the poorest parts of the country are desperate to see their neighbourhood go up in the world, but the public school lefties who now run the Labour Party condemn the whole idea of aspiration from the comfort of their lovely inherited homes. There is something deeply conservative about this section of the left.
Angela Rayner, the impressive shadow education secretary, has no time for the self-indulgence of left-wingers in their “Che Guevara T-shirts” who pursue ideological purity over power. Having grown up on a council estate, nursed her mother through mental illness as a child, became pregnant at 16 and left school with no qualifications, she finds it “heartbreaking” that Labour councillors are being deselected for the sake of factionalism. “I’m not Momentum, I’m not Progress, I’m not trade union, I’m a Labour MP to represent all my constituents,” she told Alice Thomson and me in an interview in Saturday’s Times, for which she was immediately denounced by the Corbynistas.
Europe rows and deselection threats could start the split
There is a nastiness to the hard-left because for these true believers the ends always justify the means. In his new book Fall Out, Tim Shipman describes a session at Momentum’s politics festival The World Transformed, held in Shoreditch in April. Asked what the left should be doing during the election campaign, Paolo Gerbaudo, director of the centre for digital culture at King’s College London, told the assembled Corbynistas: “My answer is hate . . . Make the left hate again . . . I’m full of hate these days”. He suggested Philip May, the prime minister’s husband, was a legitimate target for hate because he worked for a hedge fund.
With Mr Lansman a long-standing supporter of the mandatory reselection of MPs, it cannot be long before Momentum also comes for the moderates in the House of Commons. Prospective parliamentary candidates are already being asked to sign a loyalty pledge in order to secure the support of Momentum.
Yet on Brexit, national security and the economy, the centrists have profound political disagreements with Mr Corbyn. One MP admits there is a “massive problem” looming for moderates such as him. “At the last election we could quite reasonably say to people ‘don’t worry, you can safely vote for me because there’s no chance of Jeremy Corbyn becoming prime minister’. I won’t be able to say that any more. That creates an electoral difficulty but also a moral dilemma because for me the issue is not whether he can win but whether he should win.”
The truth is that Labour has morphed into a completely different party to the one it was under Tony Blair. Moderate MPs and councillors are being edged out but they no longer feel comfortable in the party anyway. “The tectonic plates are shifting and great glaciers that once looked unbreakable have a series of hairline cracks which could cause them to suddenly burst apart,” says one former cabinet minister who believes that a combination of Europe rows and deselection threats could lead to a split.
With Labour veering off to the left and the Tories careering to the right, there is a gaping hole in the centre of British politics. One MP describes the impossible choice the moderates face: “Can we save the Labour Party or do we have to set up something new? Both are really difficult.”
The completion of the Momentum takeover might just be the electric-shock therapy which forces that decision to be made and triggers a long overdue reshaping of British politics.