As it starts to implode, I no longer recognise Corbyn’s poisonous Labour party

  • Research shows that Labour is being taken over by alarming authoritarian impulses. Now it’s collapsing into bitter infighting, and progressive social democrats feel safer elsewhere

  • Chuka Umunna MP

I take no pleasure in watching the ongoing Labour Party implosion in Brighton this weekend. It seems set to continue throughout this week. It is, alas, an inevitable consequence of the change of approach and culture in what is a new party – Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour. This a very different Labour to the party of Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, who were all part of election-winning administrations that changed our country for the better.

When I joined the old Labour Party 22 years ago during Blair’s time, the party was about to start its first term in office. This would see the introduction of the National Minimum Wage, the establishment of devolved government in Scotland, Wales and London, the conclusion of the Good Friday Agreement, huge increases in spending on health and education, big reductions in pensioner and child poverty, and so much more.

All of this was in spite of the hard left which, at best, had a lukewarm attitude to the party’s social democratic agenda at that time – indeed they spent much of their energy campaigning against Labour during this period, often as members of other parties. Some agitated against the party from within, like Andrew Fisher, whom I remember turning up to meetings of Streatham Labour Party arguing for the party to take a more leftist direction (he was rarely seen out canvassing – more on Fisher below).

Our monthly constituency party meetings in Streatham featured a spectrum of opinions, but they were good-natured. When people disagreed, they did so in an agreeable fashion, and we usually would head to the pub for a pint after. This was the local Labour Party of around 600 members who selected me as their parliamentary candidate in March 2008. But the local party I left back in February 2019 was barely recognisable.

There were around two and half thousand members, fewer than 500 of whom had been members before the summer of 2015. At the time I left Labour, most of those who selected me seven years beforehand had resigned from the local party or had stopped attending meetings, which had become unpleasant and often shouty encounters where you were defined by whether or not you were sympathetic to Momentum and a disciple of “Jeremy”.

I witnessed the outright bullying of non-Corbynista members, and came to dread giving my parliamentary report at the meetings. Heckling and pointless points of order were the order of the day. Most of the dedicated group of moderate members who stayed came to dread these meetings too – you could endure them, but rarely enjoyed any more. In the end, the hard left took over. 

The picture I paint of my local experience was far more rosy than many a tale I’ve heard in the parliamentary Labour Party. A large number of former colleagues have experienced far worse. They’re now fighting to survive the trigger ballot process currently taking place, the rules for which have been changed to smooth the deselection of MPs who are not sufficiently on board with the Corbyn project.

To see exactly what’s happened to Labour, we need only look to new findings from Mainstream, a new campaign to encourage a return to respectable and responsible politics, and to banish extremism from British politics. It commissioned YouGov to conduct research into Labour members’ views, and the findings are stark.

Just 15 per cent of today’s Labour members are proud of Britain’s history, most blame Britain and not the IRA for terrorist attacks in Northern Ireland, 69 per cent now blame Western governments instead of groups like al-Qaeda and Isis for Islamist terrorist attacks on the streets of Britain or think they are equally to blame as the groups that plan and execute them.

Less than one in four thinks Labour has a serious problem with antisemitism despite the avalanche of evidence under Corbyn’s leadership; the majority think the accusations are down to the media or Corbyn’s opponents. And in one particularly disturbing figure, 51 per cent think a Labour government should take greater control of broadcast media.

This paints a pretty disturbing picture of illiberal, authoritarian attitudes – and that’s putting it generously. It also explains why, in order to quash any dissent from St Jeremy’s views, the hard left attempted to abolish the deputy leader, Tom Watson.

The day before the failed move against Watson, Emily Thornberry, the shadow foreign secretary – in her not-so-subtle campaign to succeed Corbyn – attacked my party, the Liberal Democrats, for wanting to stop brexit. She compared us to the Taliban for saying that if we win a general election, we will revoke Article 50 and end this Brexit chaos once and for all.

In so doing, she ignored the 6 million people who signed a parliamentary petition earlier this year calling for just that – including 23,000 of her constituents and 27,000 of Corbyn’s. As my Lib Dem colleague, Tim Farron, tweeted: “if we really were like a Middle East terrorist group, don’t you think Jeremy would’ve invited us to a conference fringe meeting before now?”

It’s one thing to attack your political opponents for wanting to stop Brexit; it’s quite another to abolish your own deputy leader for wanting to do the same. The party leadership attempted to oust Watson for committing the crime of arguing that Labour should be unequivocally making the case for the UK to remain in the EU. Corbyn, a longtime Brexiteer, disagrees, and so Watson must go. All quite extraordinary.

To top it all off, Fisher, who since I was an activist with him in Streatham Labour had risen up the far left ranks to become Corbyn’s head of policy, resigned after the Watson debacle. In a memo leaked to The Sunday Times, he blamed the “lack of professionalism, competence and human decency” at the top of the party. If even a true believer such as Fisher has reached this conclusion, it speaks volumes.

The truth is it that it doesn’t have to be this way. That’s why so many people are flocking to the Liberal Democrats, the home for social democrats with liberal values, and others besides. The most visible illustration of this was last week at our conference. I bumped into numerous activists whom I’d previously seen at Labour’s gatherings who are now happy members of the Lib Dems. My friend and fellow traveller Luciana Berger needed police protection when she attended the Labour Party’s annual conference last year; there was absolutely no need for this at the Lib Dem conference in Bournemouth last week. Luciana was walking around with a big smile on her face, and all of us new joiners could not have asked for a warmer welcome.

I have huge respect and affection for those good social democratic people in the Labour Party who have chosen to stay and fight. But my judgement, of course, is that the old Labour Party is gone, and that another route for social democracy and liberalism is required. Fortunately, the Lib Dems offer just that.