Andrew Vine: Purge of moderates could doom Labour to oblivion

There are concerns that MPs, like Hilary Benn, who wont toe the Jeremy Corbyn line could be targeted for deselection. (PA).
There are concerns that MPs, like Hilary Benn, who wont toe the Jeremy Corbyn line could be targeted for deselection. (PA).
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THE purge of Labour’s moderates has begun, just as a senior regional figure in the party predicted a year ago.

I wrote here of his worries, about how he bore the scars of the corrosive Labour infighting of the early 1980s, and his conviction that it would all start again now that Jeremy Corbyn had gained control of the party.

If he was gloomy then, he’s despondent now. Everything he feared has come to pass, with hard-left activists making concerted efforts to gain control of local parties with the intention of deselecting MPs who won’t toe the Corbyn line.

The first to be targeted appears to be Leeds Central MP Hilary Benn, who committed the unforgivable sin of disagreeing with Mr Corbyn and speaking in favour of airstrikes against Islamist extremists in Syria.

Nobody should underestimate the depth of dislike – bordering on hatred – of moderate MPs like Mr Benn amongst supporters of Mr Corbyn.

After I wrote of the Yorkshire Labour figure’s conviction that the party he had fought for all his adult life was about to fall victim to activists who would drag it to the extreme left, a handful of emails arrived. The vehemence of the animosity towards moderates was breathtaking.

One named a number of senior Yorkshire MPs who epitomise mainstream Labour politics and said their views “made him vomit”.

Another was less unpleasant in its language but expressed the determination that anyone who had supported Tony Blair had no place in the party’s future.

It was futile to point out that whatever the current view of Mr Blair and the mistakes that shredded his reputation, it is unarguable that he delivered Labour’s biggest electoral success of modern times.

Zealotry is in the ascendant amongst a substantial section of Labour activists, determined to remake the party in their leader’s image, whether or not it results in it becoming unelectable, which it will.

No matter that Mr Benn and MPs like him are the heart and soul of a Labour Party that can reach out to voters across a broad spectrum of views and make a credible case for gaining office.

Nor that he is a principled and formidably intelligent parliamentarian with an honourable record and an unshakeable devotion to doing the best for his country.

He isn’t one of the true believers in the creed preached at rallies of the faithful in Islington North, and so he and others face being cast out.

The shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, pointedly failed to offer support to Mr Benn when asked about the prospect of deselection at the weekend.

If anybody still doubted that the current Labour leadership is pursuing a policy of plausible deniability whilst their foot-soldiers carry out purges at local party level, such an explicit lack of support provided all the confirmation that was needed.

It helps the insurgents that the world is looking the other way. In the run-up to the referendum on EU membership, a spotlight was turned on Labour’s problems, and its inadequacies as The Opposition. But now all attention is on Brexit, and the internal convulsions of the Conservatives as rival factions engage in blue-on-blue infighting.

And so quietly, without a lot of fuss being apparent outside constituency party circles, moderate MPs will be picked off one by one.

Those trying to resist the march of the hard left say matters are worse now than during the 1980s. Then, militants trying to seize control of Labour were in the minority and faced strenuous resistance from the party leadership.

Not any more. There could be no more appropriate name for the grassroots movement that comprises Mr Corbyn’s most fervent supporters than Momentum. That is exactly what they have, along with the tacit approval of the party’s high command for the purge.

Hard to credit though it is for the veteran of the 1980s, what he viewed in those days as the enemies within now have their hands on Labour’s levers of power, and are reinvigorated by an influx of younger supporters with no memory of how infighting cast the party into an electoral wilderness.

That is where it is heading again. The road from local parties ousting good, sensible MPs who understand that Labour has to be a broad church that appeals to moderate voters if it is ever to regain office leads nowhere except oblivion.

The hard left either don’t understand that or are wilfully blind to it. Or maybe they just don’t care, preferring their party to be a permanent voice of protest and dissent instead of one of government.

Followers of Mr Corbyn who twice gave him the Labour leadership, making his position unassailable, account for only a tiny fraction of the voters who will decide who governs whenever the next General Election comes.

They have no credibility with an electorate that will turn in despair from a party that does not reflect their views or concerns. But that will not deter activists from continuing the purges, even though each takes Labour farther from office.