It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when the British left died. It was certainly thrashing about in its death throes by the time Peter Mandelson and Tony Blair were forming their Tory tribute act, otherwise known as New Labour. Margaret Thatcher famously remarked that New Labour was her greatest achievement: ‘We forced our opponents to change their minds.’ In an ideal world she would have cackled with hysterical glee as she said it.
That Labour has lost its way is now undeniable. Last week’s vote in parliament saw 52 Labour MPs rebel against Jeremy Corbyn’s three-line whip. Forty-seven had already voted against the triggering of Article 50. Given that the passing of Theresa May’s bill was an inevitability, it would be myopic not to interpret this as anything other than a renewed assault on the Labour leadership. True to form, Corbyn won’t be sacking any of the rebels, merely issuing a few written warnings, which is the equivalent of sending them to bed without supper when there’s a stash of Haribo in the ottoman.
But the damage to Corbyn is secondary to how this vote will be perceived by many Labour supporters. Of course the 65 per cent of them who were Remainers should be taken into account. A parliamentary debate about the terms of Brexit is no bad thing. But with two thirds of Labour constituencies voting Leave, it is electoral suicide for such a high proportion of MPs to openly defy the referendum mandate. If I were asked to devise a scheme that would drive as many Labour voters as possible into the arms of UKIP, this would be the first step.
Whatever you may think of the referendum result, this kind of disdain for the electorate is, if nothing else, strategically reckless. It seems obvious to me that if Labour is to survive, it must reconnect with its traditional working-class base. Corbyn may not be the right man to do it, but at some point the Blairites are going to have to abandon their absurd fantasy that resurrecting New Labour will guarantee success in the polls. Another Labour defeat in the two upcoming by-elections would doubtless be put down to Corbyn’s ‘unelectability’. But surely the blame should fall on those rebel MPs who seem happier to undermine their own leader rather than foster any real opposition to Theresa May and her brood of sinister opportunists.
There has been much to enjoy in the apoplectic panic of the Blairites since Corbyn became leader. For them, the very idea of a socialist at the helm of a supposedly socialist party is the stuff of nightmares. Even if Corbyn doesn’t last for much longer, his leadership has exposed Labour for what it is: two parties masquerading as one. On one side of the fault line we have the old-school democratic socialists, and on the other those small-‘c’ conservatives who still cling to the memory of Tony Blair like suckling wolf cubs to a desiccated old teat.