29 September 2016
Time To Rat
The plight of the Blairites.
By John Watson
“Poor Tom’s a-cold” cries Edgar in Lear, but he isn’t the only one. Following Corbyn’s emphatic endorsement by the membership of the Labour party, Blairite MPs too must be feeling the draughts of oncoming winter. Of course it is all meat and drink to the press. With a taciturn government anxious not to say anything which might prejudice our position in the forthcoming EU negotiations, real political news has been rather thin on the ground. No wonder then that they have descended on the tensions within the opposition like sharks jumping into a goldfish bowl.
“Will there be a purge?”asks one. “Will Corbyn let bygones be bygones?” asks another. Will deselection stalk the land like some mediaeval plague? Every speech is analysed for hidden threats, for indications as to what Mr Corbyn and his circle really think. Will they be generous or will they turn on those who have sought to undermine them?
It is all complete nonsense. Whether Mr Corbyn turns vindictive or offers an olive branch, decisions on deselection will not be made by him but by constituency parties. Imagine that you have a constituency with a Blairite MP and a left wing membership. The members will feel, quite rightly, that the MP does not represent their views. Why then should they support him? Why should they go out canvassing on wet and windy nights? Why should they deliver election addresses with which they do not really agree? Surely the logical thing is to choose a candidate who shares their views. Then they can campaign away happily, glowing with a satisfaction engendered by the belief that they are doing a public good.
Whether or not moderate MPs are deselected will, therefore, not depend upon whether Mr Corbyn forgives them or even embraces them, but rather on whether their local constituency parties believe that they will represent their views. For many of them the writing must be well and truly on the wall.
So what should they do to avoid inevitable extinction at the next election? There are a number of possible strategies. One, let’s call it the “Vicar of Bray route” after the eighteenth century song, is to trim their views to the prevailing wind and take a place in the shadow Cabinet. It’s not heroic perhaps, but no doubt when the wind changes again they will argue that they stayed at the centre of the party to maintain a moderate influence or some nonsense of that sort. For those who cannot stomach that, there is the possibility of standing as an independent. The prospects there are bleak. History has not been kind to those who stand as independents against their former party – not least because it is difficult to carry activists with them and seats are hard to win without some form of party machine. Also, even nowadays, party names count for a lot. In the US a “yellow dog Democrat” is someone who would vote Democrat even if they put up a yellow dog as candidate. They have their equivalents here .
If standing as an independent is out, the only alternative is to defect to one of the other parties. The obvious choice might seem to be the Liberal Democrats; after all they, like the Labour Party have certain socialist credentials. But they are not riding particularly high at the moment, and in many constituencies that would make joining them the equivalent of jumping into a lifeboat with a hole in it. There is a heroism about that, of course, but, on balance, perhaps not.
That leaves the Tories as a possible home, and just over a year into a new Tory government there are certainly attractions. To begin with we are talking about people who are at present Labour MPs so there will be no incumbent Tory member in their constituencies. At this stage there may be no candidate either but even if there is it might be possible to get an opportunity somewhere else. To cross the floor and then ingratiate yourself with the local and national parties might be a worthwhile strategy.
There is a little point of principle, of course, but here things have suddenly got easier. Mrs May has come to the office of prime minister with a reformist agenda and, for the moment at least, on a wave of public goodwill. Could you not argue that your socialism has always been based on the need to break down social divisions and improve social mobility? Mrs May’s agenda makes her party the most likely to achieve this.
From the government’s point of view, anyone crossing the floor would be welcomed with open arms. The Conservative majority is only 16 and that puts their program at the mercy of small groups of “nutter” MPs who combine together in revolt. At the moment that doesn’t matter too much. Tory MPs who brought down Mrs May’s government and wrecked the Brexit negotiations would be forgiven neither by the public nor the party. However, in due course, as the government loses its initial popularity, that may change. Then an increase in the government majority would be valuable indeed. In these circumstances someone crossing the floor to the Tories would surely be welcomed enthusiastically.
Of course ratting isn’t particularly popular, particularly with those you leave behind and the best thing is to do it over a matter of principle. You wait until your leader says something particularly unacceptable (it probably won’t be a very long wait in the case of Mr Corbyn) and then, weeping crocodile tears of sadness, you hold a press conference announcing that in future you will feel forced to accept the Tory whip. That isn’t to save your skin, of course. Oh no, your personal preference would be to stay with the party you love and help it through its tribulations. No, you are doing this out of your duty to your constituents. After all, it was to serve them that you went into politics. Ideally the Band of the Grenadier Guard playing “Jerusalem” can just be heard, fortuitously and faintly, in the distance.
Well, perhaps it’s like that or perhaps the theatricals take place on the floor of the house itself with you shaking your head disapprovingly at what one of your colleagues has just said and, slowly and sadly, making your lonely way across the chamber to howls of derision from behind and jubilant cheers from in front. The Tory publicity people will help you choose the exact formula. One thing is certain, however. If it is to be done “then t’were well it be done quickly”. Mrs May’s honeymoon period will not last for ever, so that a switch of support which may be viewed generously now could be hard to justify later. Also, the longer you leave it the more chance that the constituency will already have selected a Tory candidate. So if you want to fight the next election with a party machine at your back and are not particularly choosy as to which one, there is just one rule to follow. Best rat now!
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