I despair of the paper to which I’ve subscribed for years, The Times. I’d subscribe to a different paper, if the alternatives weren’t all worse. In the last Sunday Times Magazine there was an appalling and admiring four-page interview of Special Snowflake, aka Laura Bloody-Bates. I decided to spare you the stress of reading that.
A piece by columnist David Aaronovitch, which will appear in tomorrow’s edition:
It was the 1970s. He had hair then and to me he was Mr Labour. She was striking looking then, and still is, and she was Ms Conservative. Over the years they kept the faith and became members of parliament and I ended up doing this for a living. As of this week they’re both independent.
Their stories are important. Let’s talk about him first. I first met Mike Gapes at a student conference in Liverpool in 1975. Back then he was battling against the “supporters” of Militant — in reality members of a semi-secret Trotskyist outfit — which had taken over the Labour students organisation, after having captured the Labour Party Young Socialists.
Mike was a south Essex working-class boy, the son of a postman, who had got a scholarship to Cambridge. He joined his local party at 16, signed his whole family up a couple of years later, routed Militant among Labour students, worked full-time for the party, became an MP for Ilford in 1992. The man who left the party on Monday was possibly the most Labour person I have ever met. One of the wonders of social media and modern politics has been to see him being abused for the last three years by know-nothing £3 Labour sign-ups as being “a Tory”.
On the day Mike left his party Derek Hatton was readmitted to it. If you google “Kinnock Militant speech 1985” you’ll see Hatton shouting at the then Labour leader as he makes his famous speech condemning the hard left.
I met Hatton too but briefly, in 1983. I was a journalist by then on a TV current affairs programme and Labour, dominated by Militant, had won the council elections in Liverpool. The issue was whether the new council would break the law to defy the Thatcher government.
Hatton was made deputy leader. But why was the leadership given to a gently spoken non-member of Militant, John Hamilton? I interviewed Hamilton. He was afraid of his own shadow. Hatton wrote about it later that “we [Militant] let him stay as leader. We knew that at no stage would his existence prevent us doing our job. We knew, too, that he had his uses.” Hatton was expelled in 1986 for being part of a party within a party. Mike Gapes and his colleagues could get on with the slow business of getting a Labour government elected. Now Gapes is out, Hatton is back in.
And what about her? I’ve written before about Anna Soubry, until today the Conservative MP for Broxtowe. She was that impossible thing in the 1970s, the Conservative student activist. But instead of doing what the Conservative student right did and go around wearing “Hang Mandela” T-shirts and looking to incite a punch-up, she took on all-comers in the cause of One Nation Toryism. She was, frankly, magnificent but for a lefty like me, sometimes uncomfortable. Anna didn’t arrive in parliament till 2010. All of us who had known her wondered why it had taken her so long. As of today she’s out too.
Her party has also undergone a transformation. Though unlike Labour its leadership has not yet been captured by extremists, she can see that it’s probably a matter of time. The European Research Group, the Militant tendency of Toryism, has defined the internal debate. The members themselves have been ERGed on to the extent that in January a poll suggested nearly 60 per cent of them support a no-deal Brexit. When Theresa May finally turns up her kittens, her successor will probably only get there with ERG backing.
Not that it’s significant to anyone but me, but I’ve been a Labour member for 15 years now. I joined on the day George Galloway left. I was supremely inactive, doing the very occasional speech at an event and otherwise just paying my dues. Mostly because I think that though journalists are entitled to their affiliations, too close an association makes you reluctant to tell comrades what they don’t want to hear.
I quietly voted for the losing sides in the last three leadership elections, then for the losers in the national executive committee, where Momentum swept the board. That winning slate included a man who had recently dismissed Jewish worries about antisemitism in Labour as got up by people who were Trump supporters.
But you know, keep a toe in, things might change, what’s the harm? Then last week I heard about the man who chairs the constituency Labour Party for Wavertree in Liverpool. That’s the seat Luciana Berger holds. The CLP was to discuss a motion of no confidence in her; senior Labour people, including shadow chancellor John McDonnell, went on air to say that the motion had nothing to do with antisemitism. Was not (they actually said) the chair of Wavertree CLP himself Jewish?
Almost immediately it transpired that this same person, Dr Alex Scott-Samuel (however Jewish he might or might not be) had been very much involved in campaigning against those worried by antisemitism. Furthermore he had himself appeared on several editions of an online conspiracist chat show linked to the virulently antisemitic self-styled Messiah, David Icke. While there, just two years ago, Scott-Samuel had delivered himself of the view that “The Rothschild family are behind a lot of the neo-liberal influence in the UK and the US. You only have to google them to look at this.” Over his words the producers had laid a graphic from a notorious American antisemitic website.
I’m not paying for that. Or to sustain anyone who tolerates it. Not a penny. Yesterday, in the immortal words of Private Eye, I cancelled my subscription. No one will care but me, but then that’s true for most of us.
Heaven knows I understand the “stay in and fight thing”. First there’s the power of inertia. Then there are your friends and comrades. Mike Gapes’s hardest conversation, he told me yesterday, was with a Labour councillor he first met at a party summer school in 1970. Finally there’s the hurdle of becoming an effective electoral force, given that the political duopoly has to agree to damage itself in order for there to be reform of the voting system. And what cartel votes to allow new businesses in?
I see other excellent MPs: Ben Bradshaw, Stella Creasy, Dominic Grieve, Mary Creagh, Hilary Benn, Philip Lee, Jess Phillips, Keir Starmer and dozens of councillors and thousands of ordinary members too and I want to say, “I respect whatever you decide to do, but tell me, how do you think you’re going to win it back?” Because the broad churches are demolishing their aisles and becoming narrow sects and today millions of people feel politically homeless. And wouldn’t it be better to work for things you believe in rather than spend your time guarding your back against those who hate you?
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