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The Labour Right Has Become Everything It Ever Hated

07/12/2015 12:30 GMT | Updated 04/12/2016 10:12 GMT

Not for thirty years has the Labour Party been so deeply and so publicly divided. The war metaphors are out in force, MPs flagrantly denigrate their leader in the newspapers, on the television, and in the kingdom of fluttering fatuousness that is Twitter. Jeremy Corbyn has largely kept his dignity but entirely lost his authority, and beneath the ascent of Hilary Benn following the Syria debate can be heard the sounds of knife-sharpening in Westminster. Who is responsible for this state of affairs? According to most observers, it is Corbyn's inability to command his party, or else the maddening aggression of his clamouring acolytes. What is remarkable, if not wholly astonishing, is how little scrutiny has been applied to the Right of the party for their role in the conflict. In their desperate haste to throw the new leadership off their shoulders, they have jettisoned every priority that once they trumpeted: party loyalty, sensible electability, and sensitivity to the people's voice.

The well-trodden grumble of Rightist Labour against Tony Benn is that he stimulated the factiousness of the party in the 1980s - Luke Akehurst couldn't resist pontificating on it even in his obituary of Benn - and that wing has long sought to cast itself as the voice of sensible loyalism within the party. Hence, during the leadership election, the Right seized upon a poll that was released seeming to suggest that Corbyn's base did not care whether or not Labour got into power. I have no reason to doubt the integrity of the poll and such an attitude is undeniably vexing. Not as vexing, however, as the current behaviour of those very same people for whom that poll caused so much indignation. Their devotion to a Labour government has become secondary to their grating chagrin over their defeat in the leadership election, articulated in the form of anti--Corbyn articles in the Sun, speeches to Cambridge students beseeching them to 'save the party', the incessant prating interviews on the Daily Politics. An MP ought to vote according to their individual conscience, even if this leads to rebellion, and it is healthy to entertain opposing views. But the Right cannot have it both ways. Either they are sturdy party loyalists, sticking by the leader through thick and thin and posing a united front against the Conservatives; or they are warriors for firmly-held principle, ready to sacrifice party unity for the sake of their convictions. And if they do opt for the second, then they must accept that they have taken the position which they have excoriated for so many years.

Alternatively, the Left peddled fantasy politics that beat futilely against the irresistible currents of modernity. Yet now, it is the Right that flounders in a stagnant intellectual pool, unwilling to recognise that their vaunted idol of triangulation breathed its last a decade ago. Among the proposed paths to Labour victory have been a commitment to radical devolution and democracy, some guff about the hi-tech jobs of tomorrow, and a call to win back 'Labour's heart and soul' (which many are arguing they have now done). This is heady mix of vacuous rhetoric and issues most find irrelevant might not sink Labour, but it is difficult to see even so much hot air propelling the party into power.

That groping at democracy as the remedy for their woes is ironic given their apparent contempt for the concept. The PLP can argue with justification that Corbyn's victory does not give him a mandate to make policy unilaterally. But when 59.5% of the party (including, since the Right seems to accept the opinion of nobody else, 49% of full Labour members) voted for Corbyn, they weren't just voting for a nice-sounding bloke with a beard. They were voting for a man advocating unilateral nuclear disarmament, an attempt to find a peaceful solution to the atrocities of Isil, a true social democratic economic programme and intervention in the economy, a more mature style of politics, a society in which rewards are distributed more fairly. These are the values which the membership has incontrovertibly demonstrated it believes in and wants the party to espouse. Obviously, if the Right will not accept the weight of this overwhelming mandate, then there is certainly no way in which we can compel them. But if they do not want to look like hypocrites, they can now stop harping on about their devotion to democracy and their feel for the will of the people.

The accounts of the 1980s in the thought of the Labour Right is infused with bitter frustration that the Left would not accept facts and reason, preferring to stand with their backs to the harrowing landscape of public opinion. Yet it is the Right who, in 2015, are deaf to facts which do not correlate with their own prejudices. Corbynistas must be unpleasant and abusive thugs; no matter that this is a cynical and intellectually-dishonest narrative relentlessly pushed by the hostile media. Corbyn himself must be lending quiet succour to his belligerent hordes; no matter that he has condemned abuse on every medium available to him bar standing in the street and just shouting it through a loudspeaker. Corbyn must be unable to appeal to those who are not middle-class students; no matter that Labour has now won a thumping victory in the traditional working-class constituency of Oldham. They claim that Momentum co-ordinates a shadowy cabal, drawing up kill lists of MPs who refuse to kowtow to General Corbyn. I actually went to a Momentum meeting recently, and we did not while away the two hours cackling into glasses of port and throwing darts at pictures of Mike Gapes. Much of it was spent listening to a bearded man talk anxiously about buses. If MPs are truly concerned about disloyal fifth columns, they might better turn their gaze to the likes of Labour First and Labour for the Common Good, which make no pretence that their aim is any other than to resist Corbyn.

None of this is to defend to actions of the Left of the party, which suckles more than enough of its own hysterical fools. But these are very much in the minority, their examples projected unjustly on to a much larger and very decent group of people. Meanwhile, the Right has remained untainted in the media narrative, and its hypocrisy must be exposed. Sooner or later, the Left and Right of the Labour Party are going to have to come to some accord. And if the Right is facilitate this, it must swallow its resentment at being turfed out of the leadership, and begin abiding by the principles it has always claimed for its own.