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How Labour’s Civil War Came to Dominate British Politics

Who cares about the boring Tories wrecking everything when a Labour candidate made a joke about their knob?

Absolutely the only politicians in the UK I can even be bothered to look at (Photo by PA/ PA Wire)

Ah, I love politics, and being a political person! I love to follow politics on the news! I love things that happen domestically, in the country I live, Britain! My favourite thing about politics? Glad you asked! How the whole political conversation in the UK is exclusively about the Labour party and absolutely nothing else!

Why would anyone even care about the boring Tories, who are in actual power, who have actually trashed the country by staging a divisive, racially-charged referendum in a misguided attempt to resolve their own internal divisions? Who have actually presided over six years of economic malaise. Whose ongoing fuck-ups include debacles over healthcare, education and the crucial matter of what happens to the country now we've voted to leave one of the most fundamental institutions helping to ensure our prosperity and our place in the world. Who are currently engaged in the process of transparently gerrymandering the whole electoral system. Whose recently-departed former leader has been accused by a parliamentary inquiry of being literally responsible for the rise of ISIS.


Why should any of this matter at all, when someone from the Labour party has made a joke about their knob, or started ranting inexplicably about Hitler, or – God forbid – sat down on a train?

At some point over the summer, the future of the Labour party ceased to be simply one of the many important issues in British politics, and became Literally The Only Thing That Matters At All. A perfect storm of mass resignations, a parliamentary hiatus and Theresa May having Andrea Leadsom killed (iirc?) meant that the abortive Labour leadership coup was able to rise to the top of the news agenda and stay there, with every little thing that anyone in Labour does now morbidly picked over, tiny non-issues ("traingate" or, God help us, "biscuitgate") overinflated into matters of the utmost national importance, while most of the Tories' actual policies are now skimmed over as if they are a bit too boring and complicated to really matter – reported like the weather, but rarely held up to the sort of genuine, sustained scrutiny they demand.

It's almost as if what the Tories do doesn't matter because everything they do is like the weather: something that will happen anyway, which we can't do anything about – so why expend the energy on anything beyond a bit of vague moaning? This impression is reinforced by the position the Tories seem to occupy in the British psyche: the "default" part of government, the "born-to-rule pony-fuckers", as Glenn from The Thick Of It once put it, the interruption of whose rule – dating back to the "strange death of Liberal England" – is always remembered as something of an aberration. They are the party of the present state of things: a vote for the Tories is a vote for the quasi-natural disaster of all of their policies to continue unfolding.


It might seem strange that most people would continue voting for this, if it really is as bad as I am claiming – but in fact I think most Tory voters are exercising an entirely understandable caution. What if we were to think about a vote as a choice between potential disasters? The hurricane is going on in the living room, but we've already nailed down the television and we're clinging valiantly on to the couch – it's not good, but it's alright. A vote against the hurricane would probably let the flood waters in, and we wouldn't know how to deal with them at all.

By contrast, Labour typically conceives itself as "the one Realistic alternative" to the Tories. The Labour party know they're not like the hurricane, and they're not like the flood waters: they're the rainbow, and the dove. Unfortunately, they have to convince the public of this – the public who are used to everything always being bad. And of course, whenever Labour have actually got into government, the results have been… mixed, to say the least (but don't worry about that, just keep saying the words "NHS" and "SureStart centres").

This is why it makes sense, even under normal conditions, for the Labour party to receive more heated coverage than the Tories: if you start to present what you're doing as a positive proposal, you're always going to receive more scrutiny than if you stick to blank, necessitarian negativity.


Right now, of course, conditions are far from normal, and everything is even more heated than it is usually. As we know, Labour is at present engaged in a "debate over the party's future", for which we can read: a petty, childish squabble where everyone keeps purging and suing and projecting their own bad behaviour onto each other like they've been trapped grimly re-enacting the "Sectioning" scene from Peep Show for eternity.

In the one corner, you've got the people (the party establishment, mostly) who appear to be of the genuine belief that Labour will only be able to win parliamentary power (hence, "really help" people) if they disguise their goodwill as a slightly lower category of hurricane to that which the Tories are offering. In the other, you've got the broader party base, led by a bunch of career backbenchers who everyone had previously assumed were irrelevant cranks. Both of these are weary and skeptical of the notion that this "less bad disaster'"strategy could ever possibly work (which, given the recent history of the party, makes complete sense), and are trying to formulate something more substantial.

This Saturday, the leadership election process will thankfully be over. Regardless of the outcome, it will be interesting to see how Labour as a whole responds. If the party is going to live up to its own self-conception, then it needs to show – right away – that it really is the serious party for serious people who seriously want to help the victims of the Tories.


What does this mean? Not what at least half the people fighting for the party's future will tell you it does. In the last electoral cycle, the coalition government was able to get away with far more than they should have because Labour was focused on winning in 2015 – a goal they failed badly at regardless. What Labour really needs to do is to stop quarrelling over what grand overall vision the party is going to put to the voters in a winner-takes-all contest that they are (let's face it) likely to lose anyway. Instead, they should build their alternative by trying to stop whatever bad things are happening right now. If there's any point to Labour continuing to exist at all, then surely it's got to be this: stop navel-gazing, start resisting.


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