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by Tom Freeman
30 July 2015
Did Labour’s big beasts eat the party?

Did Labour’s big beasts eat the party?

"Who cares about the grassroots?"

This one sentence by leading Labour strategist John McTernan in a podcast for the Spectator yesterday reveals a lot about the state of the party.

As new members, CLPs and trade unions back Jeremy Corbyn, the veteran left-winger has become the bookies’ favourite for the Labour leadership, and the party establishment isn’t happy.

Some of the 35 MPs who nominated Corbyn now say they regret the decision because people might actually vote for him.

McTernan told Newsnight they were “morons”.


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"Political parties are full of suicidally-inclined activists and clearly some Labour members are suicidally-inclined," he said.

But looking at Labour’s position now, especially in Scotland, one is tempted to think the Hari-Kiri ritual has already been performed.

As Scottish Labour’s only MP pointed out today, the ‘big beasts’ are no longer around to lead the party north of the border. Looking at the General Election result, it’s not unreasonable to think those beasts had a considerable role in its demise.

But many of the big beasts remain in the picture, and they don’t want Corbyn. Shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna accused his Labour Party colleagues of “behaving like a petulant child who has been told you can't have the sweeties in the sweet shop”.

Tony Blair said a Corbyn victory “would not take the country forward, it would take the country back.”

McTernan even told the Spectator he should be removed immediately from office if he’s victorious.

The argument is Labour must reach out to Conservative and UKIP voters to gain back power, and to do that it must adopt prevailing political and economic narratives.

But Labour has being doing that for 30 years. It’s the game big beasts play. Tony Blair did exactly that to win in 1997.

And every time they do it, turnout at elections drops. The 1997 election saw turnout drop below 70 per cent for the first time in post-war history. In 2001 it dropped to under 60 per cent.

When Labour lost power, it found itself flailing in opposition, unsure of whether to oppose benefit and immigration caps.

So now, instead of treating a surge in membership as a positive thing, Labour is suspicious it is being infiltrated by those who would favour nationalisation of the railways, a higher top rate of income tax and rent controls. The type of people who opposed the war in Iraq.

Yet all of these policies have the support of the majority of the British public, according to polls. So what are the big beasts afraid of?

The truth is trying to win over a narrowing electorate is a far more comfortable journey than trying to create a movement of those who haven’t engaged in politics in a generation.

The independence referendum saw such a movement emerge in Scotland, but unfortunately Labour was on the other side.

It could be argued ignoring the grassroots is exactly what got Labour into this mess in the first place.

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