This was the week when the British establishment, from right to centre, effectively conceded they would prefer a Boris Johnson premiership to a Jeremy Corbyn one. This includes the Labour establishment, of course, the highlight being an advert in the Guardian taken out by 64 Labour Lords criticising the party’s leadership.
It must be a new low for the Guardian when, in a manner resembling that of the Evening Standard, its commercial arm is indistinguishable from its editorial line. Rather than irritation or anger, the advert left me with a sense of befuddlement: why did Labour Lords pay £18K for negative coverage in a paper so willing to perform the service for free? Unelected legislators paying for newspaper inches in a ‘progressive’ outlet to attack a socialist leader of the opposition – just when you thought you’d seen it all, something else comes along.
The political hue of the signatories was predictable. One was Margaret McDonagh, the party’s general secretary from 1998 to 2001. It was during her tenure that Labour accepted a donation of £100K from Richard Desmond, then proprietor of the Daily Express and Daily Star. Not long after that contribution, which was known of only by McDonagh and the person who banked the cheque, the former general secretary joined Desmond’s operation as general manager of Express newspapers. Such largesse by the media lothario – whose Daily Star would champion the English Defence League in 2011 – would be significantly outdone, however, when he later donated more than £1m to Ukip.
Another signatory was John Reid, home secretary during the New Labour years and arguably the most authoritarian figure to hold an office tailor-made for such a disposition. While the advert claims the Corbyn leadership has failed “to defend our party’s anti-racist values”, it was Reid who once announced he would target “foreigners [who] come to this country illegitimately and steal our benefits”. He also once boasted he was “throwing out more asylum seekers – failed asylum seekers – than ever before.” As ‘anti-racist’ rhetoric goes, it’s certainly original.
Indeed Reid’s ‘woke’ credentials go so far that he even once took a holiday with Radovan Karadzic – the man responsible for Europe’s most recent mass genocide at Srebrenica. Perhaps unsurprisingly for someone who wanted special prisons for refugees run by G4S, he proceeded to join the company after leaving government. Like McDonagh, Reid’s trajectory is that of the classic Blairite: unscrupulous bureaucrat to unsavoury lobbyist.
Then there is Baroness Morgan of Huyton – Sally Morgan to you and I. Morgan was once a trusted advisor to Tony Blair himself. So much so that – along with her then boss – she allegedly blocked the attorney-general from explaining to cabinet the small matter of the legality of the Iraq war. After leaving Downing Street in 2005, she became a non-executive director at Southern Cross Healthcare, leaving a year before the company went bust in 2012. She proceeded to become a senior non-executive director at Carillion, the outsourcing company, which also went into liquidation in early 2018 and is subject to an ongoing investigation by the Financial Reporting Council.
In short, many of the Lords associated with the Guardian advert represent the very worst elements of the Blair era. They are cronies who enabled a racist agenda on immigration; bag-carriers who misled a nation into an illegal war. Their reward is plum peerages with no scrutiny and plenty of perks.
Only days before the advert was published, five members of Labour’s national executive committee, including deputy leader Tom Watson, submitted a motion calling for rule changes to be enacted within the party. This included the demand that racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia are dealt with by “automatic exclusion” from Labour where there is “irrefutable evidence”. In an opportunistic ploy, typically bereft of considering actual implementation, it’s unclear what “irrefutable evidence” is on Planet Watson. Would Watson himself, for instance, have faced such a measure after running a racist campaign in the 2004 Hodge Hill by-election? After all, one of the leaflets in that very campaign claimed the Lib Dems “want to keep giving welfare benefits to failed asylum seekers. They voted for this in parliament on 1 March 2004. They want your money, and mine, to go to failed asylum seekers.”
What wasn’t mentioned in this campaign was that the policy in question was Labour’s plan to take asylum seekers’ children away from them and forcibly place them in care. For defending such a brutal, racist policy – and deploying the most audible of dog whistles while doing so – what does Mr Watson think should be his comeuppance?
And what would Watson suggest for his various colleagues, both past and present? Take David Blunkett, who was home secretary from 2001 to 2004. He once claimed asylum seekers’ children were “swamping” British schools. And then there’s Jack Straw – should he have been automatically expelled for overseeing the introduction of discriminatory visa policies for Roma people of Slovakian and Czech heritage in 2001? Or perhaps he could offer input regarding Phil Woolas? Ahead of the 2010 general election, the former MP’s team spoke internally of needing to get “the white vote angry”. Such an impulse was the basis for a campaign so ridden with racially inflammatory lies that shortly after winning, two high court judges determined Woolas had acted unlawfully and called for a fresh election. His punishment in the intervening period? A promotion. Watson’s response, rather than to decry his colleague’s lack of a moral compass, was to declare that the judges’ decision was one “we will all regret” and that he had “lost sleep thinking about poor old Phil Woolas”.
Remarkably Woolas’s son, Josh Woolas, was one of the 200 “current and former Labour staff and supporters” who condemned Labour’s handling of last week’s Panorama documentary in a recent letter. Did he pen anything when his own father’s campaign explicitly aimed at getting the ‘white vote’ angry? I suspect you know the answer to that. Interestingly, he participated in his own smear campaign in 2016. Like father, like son.
But even more absurd than the Guardian advert and Watson’s motion is the fact we now know it was former general secretary Iain McNicol who made the former party staffers on Panorama sign their non-disclosure agreements. This means the ‘whistle-blowers’ appeared on the same programme, saying the same thing, as the man who had allegedly curtailed their ability to speak the truth. Of course John Ware, who produced the programme, didn’t deem that detail important enough to mention.
Confronted with an increasingly deranged Labour right and their allies in parts of the media, it’s important to grasp what all of this represents: a last ditch effort to stifle any chance of a Corbyn-led Labour government. This now has an added urgency given that a general election looks increasingly imminent. The default approach of the Labour leadership so far, not unwisely, has been to ride such provocations while getting on with the slow business of transforming the party. But the reality is without mandatory re-selection it’s difficult to see how the leadership can maintain a semblance of party cohesion, especially in government.
Every single Labour MP now needs to face a trigger ballot as soon as the opportunity arises. Why? Because there is absolutely no chance of a successful political programme aiming to deal with Britain’s biggest problems – from rising racism to falling wages – with many of these people as Labour MPs. The last ten days have proven that beyond all reasonable doubt.