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The Past Couple Weeks of British Politics: Some Rambling Thoughts

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Dominic Cummings, special adviser to Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain.CreditCreditTolga Akmen/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images, from the NYT article linked below.

This piece ran in the New York Times a couple weeks ago, as an attempt to characterise the brains behind Boris Johnson’s approach to governance as an evil genius:

Mr. Cummings deliberately framed and precipitated the confrontation with Parliament, intending to lose the vote so that Mr. Johnson could instantly call an election as the people’s champion, the deliverer of Brexit, the supporter of no deal. He didn’t expect so many Tories to revolt or the opposition to derail his timetable for an election, but Mr. Cummings, who considers himself a master strategist, sees these as little more than skirmishes before the real fight.

I still do a lot of media, but mostly American politics these days; on 11 September I made a rare appearance about British politics, discussing the legalities of the prorogation of Parliament (thankfully alongside a university colleague of mine from the Law School here). It all kicks off at 8:50 in.

The Labour Party is preparing for a potential general election in its expected utterly incoherent and shambolic manner. Selections for constituencies without a Labour candidate have been halted by the Politburo, yet the so-called trigger balloting for existing MPs continues on. The obviously disingenuous explanation is that with a general election near, we need to concentrate on the trigger ballots for existing MPs at the expense of selecting candidates for open constituencies. But these are, by definition, two entirely different sets of local officials and activists. Those next door to us in the South West Devon Constituency Labour Party are not suddenly going to be able to help out with our trigger ballot procedure for our MP, where on Wednesday we had a special 2.5 hour meeting of the CLP’s Executive Committee then General Committee about the trigger ballot. It was time well spent. But, then, we could have spent that time preparing for the Brexit Party and Conservative challenge in Plymouth Sutton & Devonport (not to mention the resurgent Liberal Democrats), but party leadership considers this significantly more important for its activists and officials.

The clear takeaway there is that the Corbynistas want to deselect as many sitting Labour MPs as possible, while simultaneously parachuting in their own loyalists to safe or competitive open seats — and there are a lot of those, as in 2017 we won 262 MPs, but due to defections and the like, we’re currently sitting on 247. And good for the Corbynistas: they have the power at present, so they should use it. But don’t disrespect the membership by lying so pitifully to us about your motivations.

The two days immediately before the Labour Party Conference (currently being held in Brighton from yesterday) were a whirlwind of power consolidation in the Labour National Executive Committee. Again, while it’s understandable that the hard left wants to consolidate power in the party, at least give the rest of us the respect of trying a little when it comes to the lies. To wit: on Thursday, the NEC formally abolished the student wing of the party, Labour Students (with branches in many universities). This is half power-move, and half one man settling a 40 year-old grudge.

The next evening, news came down that the NEC was considering a motion to eliminate the post of deputy-leader, which the party has had for around 100 years, and is currently held by Tom Watson. Early word yesterday morning was it would pass NEC then easily pass conference, but at the last minute there was a stay of execution. Watson was elected by the membership in 2015, so (unlike Labour Students) satisfies the standard of “one member one vote”.

Jon Lansman, leader of Momentum PLC, was behind both motions to NEC — the disbanding of Labour Students and the attempt to eliminate Watson’s position. Watson’s sin is not being a member of the Cult of Corbyn, but rather being critical of the party’s response to anti-semitism, and coming out clearly in favour of a second referendum on EU membership before a general election, whereas Corbyn’s policy is, of course, mildly incoherent.

Rumours are also rife that Corbyn is on the verge of going, if not now, certainly if Labour should lose the next election, so all these moves, from trigger balloting on is to consolidate the position of the hard left within the party, if not in outright control. There isn’t a clear succession plan to replace Corbyn when he stands down — and they will need this to communicate it to the members come balloting in a leadership race (especially if that is held following a crushing electoral disaster).

Would it be a disaster? Who the hell knows. Polling right now is relatively unstable, especially in the midst of conference season (the Liberals are even ahead of Labour in second place in a couple, following their conference). But the one consistency in all 19 polls in September is that the Tories lead, from 1% to 15%. The last five are a Conservative lead of 7%, 15%, 9%, 9%, 12%. Flavible seat-level projections based on the last ten polls indicate a Conservative working majority in six, Conservative minority government in four; Labour lose seats in all ten, from 11 all the way to a crushing 107, with most projections in the net loss of 80 or so.

A firm second-referendum, remain policy would not hurt our poll standing. Conference is debating this in the coming day, but with Corbyn suggesting this morning that Britain could be better off outside of the EU with the right sort of deal suggests that a clear policy will not now, nor ever, be coming from this Labour Party.

I enjoy helping manage elections, and I do like a challenge. With the national party resolutely planning on fighting the last war, and trying with all its might to will Brexit away as a thing with impressive delusional stubbornness, this one will be a challenge.

UPDATE: I just came across this in The Observer, which does a better job of articulating the narrative that ties together all the recent internal machinations of the Corbynite wing of the Labour Party than the above:

There are also some less obvious dimensions to the anti-Watson plot, the public face of which was Jon Lansman, the chairman of Momentum. I think it is also an expression of a furious frustration that other schemes to eliminate critics, purge dissent and tighten their control of the party have not been going entirely to plan. Non-Corbynite Labour MPs are being exposed to a leadership-sanctioned and Momentum-organised effort to have them deselected and replaced with more compliant candidates for the election. This began at the beginning of September and the results are starting to come through. In much greater numbers than was anticipated, Labour MPs, including astringent critics of Mr Corbyn’s leadership, have been defeating attempts to evict them from their seats. Some have been reconfirmed as candidates by substantial margins, worrying the Corbynites that their control over the party membership is weakening.


If Labour is again rejected by the country, it is almost certain that Mr Corbyn, who will then be a two-time election loser, will have to go. Even some of his most fervent admirers will conclude that he cannot carry on as leader. His departure will trigger a titanic struggle for the soul of the party. So another, and I think correct, way of reading the failed anti-Watson plot is as a sign of how much they fear losing control. When you might expect all the focus to be on winning the election, the Corbynite left are desperate to tighten their grip on the party for fear it will be broken by another election defeat.

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