Issue 112: 2017 07 06: Entryist Politics (John Watson)

06 July 2017

Entryist Politics

The knives of McDonnell.

By John Watson

The Ides of March are still many months off but, if the press are to be believed, Mrs May would do well to keep an eye out on her visits to the Palace of Westminster.  It would be nice to think that those sharpening their knives are driven by nobility: reluctant rebels repelled by the Prime Minister’s autocratic style; remainers, longing for a soft boiled Brexit; leavers trying to escape the Brussels yoke; visionaries afflicted by the struggles of the younger generation.  Well, perhaps some are, but one cannot help but suspect that a few of them are merely opportunists waiting for their chance.  It is hard to see that Mrs May can survive for long.

But those who read their Shakespeare will recall that Caesar was struck down at the pinnacle of his power, at the very moment when the sceptre was within his grasp.  Perhaps then Jeremy Corbyn had better listen to the soothsayers too.  Has he not just built a fine lead in the polls?  Entitled to a little hubris, perhaps, as he reflects on the prospects of victory next time round?  Isn’t this just where Mrs May was a couple of months ago?  Just how safe is Jeremy?

Actually there are two threats to Mr Corbyn’s position and they are rather different.  The first is that his support falls back as his policies are exposed to public scrutiny.  There is some chance of that but, as the Government staggers from one disaster to the next, the tide certainly seems to be running his way.  The other comes later, when he arrives at Downing Street to cries of “Oooh Jeremy Corbyn” from his ecstatic fans and finds behind that black door, not the glory he had expected but the ghost of Andrew McIntosh clanking its chains.

Andrew McIntosh, who died in 2010, was a Labour peer, a one-time chairman of the Fabian Society and, yes (I kid you not) a one-time Captain of the Yeomen of the Guard.  For our purposes though the important moment was in 1981 when he led the successful Labour team which took the Greater London Council (the forerunner of the Mayoralty) from the Tories.  The electorate had been attracted by nice and moderate Mr McIntosh and assumed that he would become the new Leader.  They were wrong.  On the day after his victory the knives flashed and he was replaced by Ken Livingstone, quite a different sort of politician altogether.  Mr McIntosh had fulfilled his role of blinding the public to what they would really get.  He was not needed any more.

Look now at Mr Corbyn.  His views may be incoherent and at odds with those of his MPs, but no one would suggest that he was other than a decent man.  Ask those who shout “Ooh Jeremy” at the rallies why he does not frighten them and they will reply that when he says he does not wish to become some sort of dictator, they believe him.  So, as a matter of fact, do I.  The problem will be if he does not want to go as far as some of the hard left with whom he surrounds himself – John McDonnell, for example, a man whose references to murder were designed to extract as much poison as possible from Grenfell Tower.  Will the knives come out as they did for McIntosh on the basis that once the left have power they no longer need their avuncular spokesman?  Probably, because that is how entryist politics work.  I should know.  I was once part of it.

It was back in the 70s.  I think I will leave out the name of the constituency but suffice to say that it is in North London and that the Conservative executive was sleepy and, in our view, ineffective.  We were politically ambitious young professionals who had moved into the area and wanted to take the local party over.  So what did we do?  We found out the latest date on which you needed to register if you wanted to vote for the officers and got a number of our friends to join on that day.  The old executive were caught on the hop and had no time to join their friends up in response.  Job done.  In we came.  Out they went.

The point of telling you this is not to start a debate on whether it was or was not a respectable way of proceeding but to give you an example of the way in which power can be captured within political parties.  Of course many in the Labour party admire Mr Corbyn.  What he has achieved is remarkable and the electorate may decide he is the leader they want.  But down in the caucuses of the hard left they will be seeing things differently.  How can he be kept in line?  How will they replace him if he strays from their messianic path?  To keep control they need a majority of the parliamentary party so that is what they will try to secure through reselection of candidates.

Each time they replace a moderate member by a true believer, Mr Corbyn’s grip on his party will increase.  So too will the risk of a knife in the back if he should fail to toe the hard left line.


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