The Conservative leadership race understandably occupies most of our time at the moment, but ConservativeHome is doing its best to keep up with the latest developments on the Opposition benches. It was clear from the moment the referendum result came in that it would spark conflict between Corbyn and his MPs, between those MPs and the grassroots, and between the party and its voters, though the true scale of their crisis has exceeded even our expectations – and it looks likely to get worse.
In a sense, those who predicted that a Leave vote would lead to a cataclysmic war were correct – they just ought to have specified that it would take place within the Labour Party.
Yesterday’s events saw them plunge deeper into farcical tragedy than anyone expected. The Chakrabarti inquiry was meant to calm concerns about the re-emergence of anti-semitism on the left, but instead it reignited the issue. First, Corbyn himself said:
“Our Jewish friends are no more responsible for the actions of Israel or the Netanyahu government than our Muslim friends are for those of various self-styled Islamic states or organisations.”
Managing, at an event about anti-semitism, to equate Israel, the Middle East’s only democracy, with ISIS, that most famous “self-styled Islamic state”, was a demonstration of not only his crashing clumsiness but also the poisonously relativistic ideological world which he inhabits.
That turned out only to be the beginning. A Momentum activist who had been handing out a press release demanding deselections then accused a Jewish Labour, Ruth Smeeth, of “working hand in hand” with the Telegraph, implicitly accusing her of disloyalty. Corbyn sat by as Smeeth left the room in tears, and then chatted to the activist without even mentioning the incident.
If the Labour leader really was “a decent man”, as people keep saying, he wouldn’t have behaved in that way – and he probably wouldn’t have stayed on after Smeeth’s statement about the event.
But then there was already plenty of evidence that decency is not a central feature of Corbyn’s character. It isn’t “decent” to invite convicted IRA bombers to tea shortly after Brighton, or to call Hamas and Hezbollah “friends”, or to turn a blind eye for years to the racism and bile that exists on the hard left of which he is part. Yesterday’s events weren’t a departure from his record, they were a fully consistent continuation of it.
If, as expected, he continues to refuse to resign despite the demands of his parliamentary party, then the polling still suggests that he would win a leadership challenge. Those polls don’t include the tens of thousands of new members from the last few days but, while some are joining to defeat him, Momentum is also on a drive to sign up new Corbynites to defend their revolution so there’s little sign of that changing. In all the circumstances I can think of, Labour’s future involves a bitter and ongoing battle between its factions, during which time its unhappy voters will be mostly ignored.
There’s another element of this row which is developing: if Labour cannot fill its front bench or effectively whip the majority of its MPs, can it continue as the Opposition? It’s notable that the SNP MP Pete Wishart raised this question in a point of order on Wednesday.
Under the Ministerial and other Salaries Act 1975, the final decision to recognise the leader of the Opposition is in the hands of the Speaker – and Bercow confirmed that Corbyn still holds that post. The SNP may well be hoping to make a case that it is the true functional opposition, but the Act states clearly that the Opposition is:
“the party in opposition to Her Majesty’s Government having the greatest numerical strength in the House of Commons.”
So apparently Labour continues to hold the title even if it can’t put up Shadow Ministers for questions or marshal its MPs to vote as it wishes.
To lose that status – and the money which comes with it – 176 Labour MPs would have to resign the Whip to sit as independents, leaving the SNP as the coherent party with “the greatest numerical strength”. That would be a disaster even Corbyn might struggle to achieve – but he’s drastically performed against even the worst expectations so far.