We exclude the Labour left from British politics at our peril

Jeremy Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is on borrowed time. That assumption has hung over it throughout his three and a half years in charge. It’s there during every Labour crisis. It’s there before every perilous election – such as the local polls this May. And after every bad or even so-so Labour result the end of Corbyn’s leadership is there in the minds of his many enemies, of many commentators, of many anxious Corbynistas.

When the party is doing better under him, such as during and immediately after the 2017 election, this sense that he is on perpetual probation recedes, but never completely and never for long. In June 2017, two days after Labour had won its largest general election vote since Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide, the then Labour MP Chris Leslie told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We shouldn’t pretend that this is a famous victory. It is good … but it’s not going to be good enough.” Twenty months later, without waiting to see if his scepticism about Corbynism’s electoral potential was justified, he left the party to co-found the Independent Group.

Some of the temporary, besieged feel of the current Labour regime is down to Corbyn himself: his initial reluctance to fill Labour’s leadership vacuum, his relative lack of conventional political skills, his advanced age for a modern British party leader. He will turn 70 in May, shortly after the local elections, which will be handy for his political obituarists if Labour does as poorly as polls currently suggest.

Yet the unforgiving standards by which he is judged are also applied to the Labour left as a whole. Despite Corbyn’s two enormous democratic mandates, the left is endlessly said to have “taken over” the party; to be a “sect”, a “cult”, an alien “virus”. The language has become so commonplace, it is rarely pointed out how loaded it is. The Labour left has been othered.

Many people in the rest of the party, and wider British politics and the media, don’t consider the left to be a legitimate Labour tribe, let alone legitimate rulers of the party, let alone a legitimate potential government. This is rarely stated explicitly. Excluding a large and currently vibrant group from mainstream politics can be an awkward argument to make in a democracy – especially when the radical right of the Conservative party has never been othered in the same way. Instead, starting with Margaret Thatcher, it has often run the country. But once you appreciate the implacable hostility the Labour left arouses, it explains a lot of otherwise puzzling British political phenomena.

In recent weeks, MPs at a meeting of the parliamentary Labour party have reportedly applauded the Independent Group breakaway, despite the immense damage it has done to the chances of a Labour government. Tom Watson, in theory Corbyn’s loyal deputy, has said things that could end up on Tory election posters, such as “I love…

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