Saturday, 9 July 2016

This is a confrontation that can't be avoided. But the long-term future looks bleak.

So the battle has been joined. The revolt by Labour MPs – denounced as a ‘chicken coup’ by Corbyn supporters online – turns out to be serious. After the Party made a disastrous decision to elect the Islington leftist last summer, the chickens have actually come home to roost.

As Angela Eagle prepares to launch her challenge at a smart central London venue on Monday morning, there are two important questions to be answered.

The first is whether Owen Smith will stake his own claim to be the challenger. The MP for Pontypridd is viewed as much more sympathetic to the embattled socialist incumbent and only resigned very reluctantly from the shadow cabinet. He has been vocally supportive of the ill-fated ‘peace deal’ proposed by Deputy Leader Tom Watson and some representatives of the trade unions.

If Smith has any remaining ambitions, it needs to be made clear to him very firmly that there can be only one challenger. Angela Eagle presents much more of a serious ideological counterpoint to Corbyn, which is important. This election is only worth winning if it sets Labour back on the road towards electability. Smith’s pronouncements give me no confidence in that regard.

The second question is whether Corbyn even makes it on to the ballot paper. Conflicting legal advice on this question might lead to a High Court judge making the ultimate decision.

While Neil Kinnock maintains the precedent is for the incumbent leader to obtain nominations in the same way as challengers, others worry that a ballot paper without Jez’s name might not go down too well with his vehement and increasingly belligerent supporters. It may be that the PLP wants to avoid accusations of some kind of fix.

It is hard to see Angela Eagle winning, although on this occasion, I would tend to agree with the Corbynistas that the winning of elections isn’t the most important thing, as long as we stand up for what is right. Some people speculate that Angela might be a stalking horse, but the really credible candidates – David Miliband, Sadiq Khan, Chuka Umunna and Alan Johnson – are all unavailable or probably have too much sense to get involved.

This may well turn out to be a final and pivotal contest for the very soul of a party which has existed since 1900. It is a party which was founded to achieve progress for working people and has huge achievements to its name. We only have to scratch the surface to find momentous changes forged by Labour, which have shaped the lives of everyone in the UK.

The National Health Service. The modern welfare state. Comprehensive education. The Open University. The first legislation against racial and sexual discrimination. The national minimum wage.  Devolution of power to Scotland, Wales and London. Freedom of information.

In the space of just under a year, this proud party with its incredible track record, has been brought to its knees. Why? Because its membership – wholly unrepresentative of Labour voters, let alone the Tory and UKIP voters Labour needs to win back – deliberately opted for political oblivion and irrelevance.

The members were warned a thousand times that Corbyn’s 80s-style metropolitan socialism could never have a wide appeal in 2016. They saw the evidence of the veteran left-winger’s poor communication skills and lack of natural leadership ability. But, swelled by large numbers of three-pound fly-by-nights, they set in train a series of events which has been truly catastrophic.

We are at a crossroads right now. Either Corbyn is defeated and his faction breaks away, leaving the Labour name and brand in the hands of moderates. Or Eagle loses in a valiant last stand and the mainstream Labour contingent forms its own new party.

The prognosis isn’t good for British politics either way.

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