In London, Labour emerged from the general election of 12 December relatively unscathed. True, the party lost 6.4 per cent of its vote share compared with the national contest of 2017, but it still took over 48 per cent while breaking even on seats, meaning it still holds twice as many as the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats combined. Meanwhile, Labour Mayor Sadiq Khan appears well on course to win a second term at City Hall on 7 May.
But political dominance is not the same thing as policy effectiveness. And when it comes to delivering good government and good outcomes in line with what Labour priorities ought to be, the party in the capital will continue to be hampered by the factors that led to last month’s hammering.
Where else to look first than Haringey, where a Corbynite faction and sundry non-Labour allies ran a famously successful campaign to de-select sitting councillors of whom it disapproved in advance of the 2018 borough elections?
The first meeting of the Stroud Green ward branch following Corbyn Labour’s pasting by Boris Johnson’s Tories was attended by Roger Sahota, one of the victims of that Momentumite purge. He listed on Twitter an account of opinions expressed at the gathering, beginning with an assertion that the man who had just led Labour to its worst general election outcome in terms of winning seats since 1935 deserves “our undying gratitude” and that “people will look back and think he planted a flag of humanity for posterity”.
From this point of view, the party’s manifesto was “incredibly popular”, the defeat was because of “long term trends” that (naturally) are the fault of Tony Blair, and, of course, staying true to “socialist principles” is “more important than winning elections”. Sahota signed off by urging fellow residents of the Stroud Green area to rejoin Labour “if you ever want to see another Labour government”.
I trust he’s not expecting them to attend too many meetings – they don’t sound like a lot of fun. But the real lesson here is that the breathtaking culture of denial, for decades so characteristic of the orthodox Hard Left, remains as alive and self-satisfied in its London strongholds as it was before Corbyn and Corbynism were squashed at the ballot box last month.
This means that all across the city capable Labour politicians who actually exercise power must waste time and energy maintaining their defences against whatever the latest of wheeze of Jeremy’s purity police is for stopping them doing anything useful for the people Labour is supposed to help. From Barking in the east to Ealing in the west, Labour councillors in leadership positions find themselves obliged to, at the very least, keep a wary eye on what the nitwit wing of the membership might be plotting in the name of yet more glorious defeat.
Who can blame them? Two recent borough by-elections didn’t get the in-depth coverage On London usually gives such events due to their taking place on the same day as the general election. Both saw Labour retain safe seats on councils they dominate, one in Islington and one in Hackney. In that sense, neither outcome is big news. But both the candidates elected demonstrate that ideological bindweed is still rampant in the “grassroots”.
It would be unfair to damn either of these new councillors so early in their tenures as public servants, but the signs are not encouraging: one maintains public devotion to the martyr Jeremy while the other has been described by a local Labour Corbyn-sceptic as “the most right wing Labour politician I have ever known” and as having secured the candidacy with Momentum’s help in order to thwart a so-called “centrist”.
And there remains a sinister aspect to all this. Emma Whysall, who might well have been the Labour MP for Chipping Barnet by now had her party not been led in the tradition of Citizen Smith, has reported that at her first local ward branch meeting of the year she had to challenge an “It’s all an Israeli embassy conspiracy” comment from a fellow Labour member.
Such is the backdrop against which the contest to become Labour’s next leader is being conducted, with hopefuls being judged not according to their leadership credentials, policy vision or the quality of their analysis of why their party hasn’t won a general election since 2005 despite the current Conservatives being in deep disarray, but on whether they can be trusted not to “lurch to the right”, whatever that’s supposed to mean.
Another measure of the state of Labour’s membership in London is the behaviour of Sadiq Khan since the general election. Even his sternest critics acknowledge that his political antennae have always been finely attuned to the mood of the voters he needs to please. Note, then, how swiftly the Labour Mayor has put the maximum possible distance between himself and Corbyn, describing as “ludicrous” any attempt to recast the national drubbing as some sort of victory, criticising a “shocking and repeated failure to tackle antisemitism” and pointing to a collapse of trust in Labour’s ability even to run the NHS.
Having been an early critic of Corbyn, Khan settled into an accommodation with him, perhaps mindful that his re-selection as mayoral candidate might not proceed completely smoothly if he offended the capital’s Jeremy-worshippers by being insufficiently loyal. Only now is he free to do what is politically wise – just as it was in 2016 – and disassociate himself from the MP for Islington North and the clueless, sometimes creepy, version of Labour he represents.
Labour’s continuing political command in London makes a stark contrast to its miserable rejection across Britain as a whole, but the challenge for its competent element in the capital is the same: whether seeking to win power or exercise it to best effect, the party must clear out the Corbynite blight.
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