YOU do have to smile. It’s three weeks since the landslide that saw the country dodge a Marxist bullet. Since the pale and shaken who run what used to be Her Majesty’s Opposition (because now it is the SNP in that function) have had to start working out quite what happened since the writing started to appear on the so-called Red Wall. It looks like it could take a while. A generation or so.
The trouble for Labour is that the very people who are most obstinately dug in and unable – or unwilling – to see what hit them in the General Election are those who see themselves as the party’s way out of the abyss. Emily Thornberry left no time before throwing her hat into the ring. Pumped up after announcing her decision to take legal action against former Labour MP Caroline Flint, she was soon out there giving her take on where it all went wrong. Nothing to do with Jeremy Corbyn. Absolutely not. It wasn’t the rejection in the traditionally Labour heartlands of Corbyn, a leader who appeared deeply hostile to his own country. It wasn’t that the Labour leader was consummately unable to address in an effective way the institutional anti-Semitism within sections of his party. No, nothing to do with him.
Nor was it that the people were being taken for gullible fools who believed that under the evil Tories it was going to be no time at all before you were writing cheques for five-figure sums for cancer treatment. It wasn’t that millions of voters believed that the ever-expanding wish list of spending running to billions was going to see their children saddled with debt for decades to come. No, none of that. What it was, according to Emily Thornberry, now ungagged and able to appear on the BBC again, was that there was just too much stuff on offer. Because it was a really good manifesto. It just was. There were simply so many great policies that people just couldn’t take it all in. In other words, it was a bit like a Michelin-starred menu which so overwhelmed you with alluring choice that all you could do was flee for some nearby fast food place where you got what you were given. That’s what it was. It was simply ‘so big’ and there were ‘so many ideas’ in it.
Inevitably, Richard Burgon was on our screens again. There he was on Politics Live, sharing his insights into Labour’s heavy defeat. Depending on one’s feeling about the election result, the MP’s performance was either excruciating or entertaining. Asked by presenter Jo Coburn why Labour lost, he responded evasively and blandly that ‘we all need to take responsibility’. Pressed immediately on whether Corbyn himself had made any mistakes, he rambled on about the mistake of their ‘being persuaded as a party that people didn’t quite want to get Brexit done in the way they did’. He went on repetitively about ‘under-estimating’ this, ‘under-estimating how high that was on their priorities’. It was suggested to him that the blame for the annihilation was therefore down to Remainers and the Second Referendum contingent. Burgon was not, he declared to all of us, ‘into a blame game’. They don’t want to hear that unacceptable, judgmental-sounding word ‘blame’, when instead they can use that much nicer word ‘responsibility’ with all its connotations of noble burden-sharing. And if Burgon can fudge it by saying they all share it, none of the lot of them has to carry the can. Sorted.
And there’s the rub. The people who have now put themselves in the frame for running what remains of the Labour sideshow just don’t have the bottle or the honesty for telling it like it is. It was Corbyn and McDonnell and the rot and the fantasy that they presided over. It was the wholesale delusion that people with difficult lives are necessarily eaten up with class envy and couldn’t possibly vote for an Old Etonian. It was the stubborn belief that those taken-for-granted once Labour voters didn’t have the ability to listen to what was being said, that they would turn away and stick to their tribal allegiances. Patronising and insulting. But don’t expect any of the leadership contenders to say much about that.
Wealthy barrister Sir Keir Starmer, thought to be soon officially in the running for the leadership, has class and money on his mind, for sure. His Wikipedia page has recently been edited to remove the reference to his being a millionaire. He has also been telling BBC Radio 4 how his father was a toolmaker and worked in a factory. The Labour obsession with background has always run deep. As for his view on what went wrong and the way ahead, it’s about building on radicalism, keeping firmly to the Left, not oversteering.
On the Today programme Starmer’s turn of phrase, when describing how he and his colleagues failed to deal on doorsteps with the slogan ‘Get Brexit done’, was notably pugilistic. He kept using the term ‘knock it down’, ‘knock it flat’, ‘knock it back’, ‘should have . . . knocked it flat’. Well, the point was they didn’t because they didn’t know how to. It was something for which they paid a price at the ballot box.
As an old friend (poet, retired Head of English) recently put it in an email reflecting on the new dawn, it had him channelling Norwegian sports commentator Borge Lillielien after Norway’s 2-1 victory against England in a World Cup UEFA qualifier in Oslo in 1981. ‘Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell, Andrew Adonis, John Major, Michael Heseltine, Matthew Parris, John Bercow, Dominic Grieve, Anna Soubry, David Gauke, Amber Rudd, Chuka Umunna, Keir Starmer, Emily Thornberry, Andrew Marr, Emily Maitlis, Robert Peston – your boys took a hell of a beating! Your boys took a hell of a beating.’