Divisive vote on Syria is just the start of a bumpy journey for Labour

Jeremy Corbyn Protest

A mild-mannered veteran MP on the Labour left, one whose vote on the bombing of Syria remains uncertain, sent me an outraged text this morning, protesting at the “vile tone” of exchanges as the debate looms.

He singled out David Cameron’s “detestable” remark, made in private on Tuesday night to Conservative backbenchers, urging them not to vote “with Jeremy Corbyn and a bunch of terrorist sympathisers”. Quite right too, bad mannered and counter-productive, if not wholly untrue, only mostly so.

Unconvinced Tory rebels such as Basildon and Billericay’s John Baron, a former army officer serving in Northern Ireland, took pardonable offence.

What is it about Cameron, who can be so emollient and effective in his use of language, that he suddenly sees red mist and resorts to glib, bad-tempered abuse unworthy of his office? These are Dave’s “Flashman moments” and they do him or his Etonian education no good.

But my rarely quoted Labour friend’s targets also included his own leader. And why not? “Even those who will be voting with Corbyn are disgusted and angry,” he says. “He hasn’t shown the guts to stop the people involved in these waves of abuse. It’s totally unacceptable. If only party members are to be listened to, as he seems to be saying, why should anyone else vote Labour?”

It’s never easy to gauge exactly what is going on inside a party when the melodrama queens, hysterics and conspiracy theorists on both sides of any row naturally grab more than their fair share of media attention instead of their level-headed colleagues.

The kindest observation I heard this week from a female MP, who won’t (I think) mind being called Blairite. Some of her new party activists are being difficult, she conceded, making light of the usual posse of Trotskyite entryists, both comic and sinister (it is possible to be both) from parties long since expelled from Labour’s ranks in the post-Benn march back to electability after 1983.

Most are OK, she explained with a wan smile. “They’re on a journey, aren’t they? We’re all on a journey.” Indeed we are, though I never waver in my conviction that I know where the Corbynista journey is going to end: I’ve trod that path before.

After 7 May I thought Ed Miliband’s defeat would be Labour’s post-2010 “touch-bottom moment”, but it isn’t. “We’ve still a way down further to go,” one gloomster at a very busy Westminster confided on Tuesday night. Inside, various festive and fundraising events were going on while MPs debated the immigration bill. Outside, a big anti-war demonstration gathered, addressed by some MPs too. I heard the Greens’ Caroline Lucas.

Quite like the old days in more ways than one, though only old lags on both sides of the Corbyn divide can remember just how bitterly divisive the 80s were. Some incidentally were on the other side then, including the former foreign secretary Margaret Beckett, who upbraided Corbyn at this week’s PLP meeting, but was a firebrand then.

The idea of the incomers being on some sort of learning journey is a decent one, which we should usefully hang on to in hard times when established party politics are under pressure from authoritarian populist solutions – left and right – the world over.

What if we find ourselves with Presidents Trump and Le Pen in 2017 (plus Putin), an FT columnist warned his complacent readers this week. Clever Nick Pearce of the IPPR thinktank points to Cameron’s problems with his randy “Tatler Tory” brigade of young supporters as symptoms of party dysfunction not so different from Corbyn’s angry young army of supporters.

Are young Tory bullies threatening rivals, even trying to blackmail a minister over sex, really so different from those trying to intimidate Labour MPs into voting against an extension of the bombing on Wednesday night? Is a decayed Tory party funded by hedge funds managers so different from a hollowed-out technocratic Labour party largely financed by a couple of large and resentful trades unions?

For that matter, are passionate young Corbynistas so different from angry young Tory Eurosceptics, the one lot embracing mass immigration in as indiscriminate fashion as the other rejects it? Voters are sceptical at best and, as Pearce points out, only the SNP currently manages to combine mass appeal, strong leadership and broad-based, fairly competent government. (It has the magic elixir of nationalism, adds me).

Resentment at Corbyn’s behaviour takes several forms and is offset by active support from the rank and file which the leader has consciously sought – via text message, tweet and today his Guardian article – as well as by some MPs, such as Clive Lewis, new member for marginal Norwich South, who sounds alarmingly self confident (and has a very interesting CV). He’ll need to be.

Critics complain that Corbyn makes bad errors, advised by the wrong people to try and impose a whipped vote (shrewder John McDonnell and Tom Watson warned against it), that he does not answer questions, that his non-confrontational style includes not living up to pledges to protect MPs from abusive pressure in their constituencies.

Deselection motions, that sort of thing, are already emerging. The Times carried a very funny account of a very middle-class and middle-aged Momentum meeting in a comfortable London suburb where wine and cheese was proposed for future sessions. It’s funny, but it’s also very unfunny.

The poor, with whom voters think Labour is over-concerned at the expense of aspiration, are unimpressed. The party loses both ways: YouGov on Wednesday reports opinion moving away from Syrian bombs in the past week, but also away from Corbyn. As I argued here, he was starting from the wrong place to get much credit.

Is there much undue local pressure on Labour waverers? It depends who you talk to. Tough MPs in the Midlands and the north shrug and indicate that there’s either none or that they will see it off. In the old days they could rely on solid trade union leaders, regional officials and councillors with worldly experience, for support against assorted headbangers.

Part of the current crisis is union leaders such as Unite’s Len McCluskey are part of the problem. A shop steward in the turbulent 70s he remains one at heart. Unions are about public-facing solidarity and discipline, but the Unite leader could not resist threatening errant MPs, Ken Livingstone and Clive Lewis-style this week.

Enough decent MPs are feeling the heat to also feel resentful. When voters hear that Stella Creasy, a formidable backbencher and Labour deputy leader contender, is under deselection pressure in Walthamstow, north-east London, they must wonder.

Disaffected young voters, some of whom have plenty to complain about, can be forgiven. They’re on that journey, the kindly woman MP noted, learning what’s possible and what is pie in the sky, perhaps accepting that the despised Blair-Brown government did worthwhile things that Dave and George, the bankers’ friends, are taking away.

The old lags, the Trots and tankies, are different. They are gripped by an intellectual conceit which defies all inconvenient facts, one that either believes the British working class is finally ready to overthrow the old order or that “compromising with the electorate” is a mug’s game for a vanguard party.

But Labour is not a vanguard party, the kind that wins derisory votes, as the Scargill/Ken Loach parties routinely do at election. Labour is a mainstream big tent party, albeit one currently engaged in what the City would call a hostile takeover.

“Stella Creasy will see them off by out-organising them,” say colleagues. True or false, it will take a lot of time and energy which Creasy and her kind might better use doing the day job of providing opposition to the government. Voters are watching, as they were in 2010 when Labour self-absorption allowed Cameron to get away with blaming the banking crash on its tail.

Some people in the comfort zone of their public sector bubble are very slow learners. Wednesday night’s divisive vote on Syria is just the beginning. At least it’s not real blood – unlike poor Syria’s.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Michael White, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 2nd December 2015 12.45 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010