The biggest cancer in British politics has been the takeover of once moderate major parties by extremists. The Corbynite triumph in Labour was open, bizarre, serendipitous and fatal. Overnight people you had never heard of (and were on the fringes of the Party) were on its front bench or, like the barely credible Seamus Milne, pulling strings. The consequences of this madness don’t need repeating here.
One consequence of handing Labour over to the fruitcakes was handing the governance of Britain over to the Hard Right and this, of course, led to Brexit. Corbyn did not campaign for “Remain” in 2016 with even a modicum of conviction despite the fact that in the 2015 General Election Labour’s Manifesto was unequivocally pro EU. This was a gift to the Tory Eurosceptics , Arron Banks, Nigel Farage and the rest of the gruesome “Leave” brigade.
The Referendum result, though it clobbered David Cameron, didn’t over bother the Hard Left – now firmly in charge of Labour. The Tory Right couldn’t believe it’s luck. All it needed to do, as it had long planned, was to get Boris Johnson into Number 10. But a breakout of internecine strife clobbered that. Johnson walked away from the leadership contest in 2016 and the Right, much to their discomfort, had to suffer Theresa May – very much not one of them.
Despite winning a General Election against Corbyn (no surprise there) May couldn’t hold on. She was too centrist , even rumoured still to be a closet Remainer, so she had to go. The “ERG” Tories treated her with disdain and plotted openly to displace her. This time Johnson didn’t blow it, got to Number 10, won an election and purged what remained of the One Nation Conservatives.
So over a number of years we’ve had the unelectable Corbyn leading Labour from the Hard Left and now the all too electable Johnson leading the Tories from the Hard Right. The Centre hasn’t held and, until recently, seemed to have been vanquished.
It is important to distinguish the extremism of Corbyn from the extremism of Johnson. Jeremy really believed in Socialism of the Bevanite kind. He hadn’t liked Blair’s removal of Clause 4 nor of what he saw as the Blair/Brown neoliberalism. Of course Labour had always had its red flag waving socialist purists but in the past Social Democratic Leaders, from Gaitskell to Blair/Brown, had managed to keep them on the noisy margins of the Party. Under Corbyn they took over.
Johnson is different because unlike Corbyn he has no personal political ideology at all. He is the archetypical Groucho Mark politician with instantly changeable principles. The Tory Right didn’t like him because he was “One of Us” – he was clearly one of nobody, except himself. They liked him because of his electability and because they could tell him what to pretend to believe.
If the Conservatives for the foreseeable future have been captured by the Hard Right Labour is quietly moving towards being the sensible Party, which means moving into the gaping void which is the centre ground. Keir Starmer is undeniably in the Social Democratic tradition of Gaitskell, Wilson, Callaghan, Blair and Brown. This is the only positive trend in British politics, and it a very important one.
With eyes mainly on the challenges of managing the COVID-19 pandemic other issues, even Brexit, have taken a lower priority. This has allowed Johnson, pushed of course by his Tory Right sponsors, to move towards what looks like a No Deal Brexit. It is possible that at the last minute some magic formula will be found to avert disaster. But this looks unlikely and there are only six months to go.
How Sir Keir Starmer positions Labour will be determined by what happens in early 2021. If it’s chaos (quite likely) then he has only to look mature and credible whilst Boris blunders around in the mess. Sir Keir can afford to be reactive in response to events and try to be constructive. The Government will blame everyone but themselves. Sir Keir will need to avoid a shouting match and position himself and Labour to take charge if the Government completely implodes. This is far from impossible.