First published 20 August 2020 on Lit.
After the A-Level results fiasco, and the publication of research that finds Facebook is actively promoting Holocaust denial, here’s a word in defence of algorithms: this week these mysterious equations brought me the news that the far-left has gone straight from being an angry garage band to a pining nostalgia act, without having any hit records in between. In an interview with Tribune’s new podcast, A World to Win, hosted by Grace Blakeley, (who you might say makes champagne socialists look common), the great sage Jeremy Corbyn spoke:
“We were involved in meetings with the government throughout the spring of this year and [shadow health secretary] Jon Ashworth and I remember distinctly going to a meeting at the Cabinet Office, where we got a lecture about herd immunity. The last time I discussed herd immunity was when I worked on a pig farm 40 years ago. It was absurd that actually [you] would build up herd immunity by allowing people to die. And so, while the government was going into eugenic formulas and discussing all this stuff, they were not making adequate preparations.”
Given her decision to enter the tradition of David Frost and Jeremy Paxman, I was disappointed to find that Blakeley didn’t ask the obvious and rigorous follow up: “Was it at the pig farm that you decided to stand for parliament?” Left hanging on that one, we might turn to Corbyn’s suggestion that the government spent part of the Spring dabbling in eugenics, and that its bid for herd immunity involved considering a policy of, as he put it, “allowing people to die”. How reliable is the source for this extraordinary claim?
By my count, this is at least the fourth conspiracy theory Mr Corbyn has promoted this calendar year. In February, during Labour’s leadership contest to replace him, Corbyn asserted that the UK government had tried to intervene in Syria on the side of the Al Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.
In June, Corbyn said the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), which is investigating Labour antisemitism under his leadership, was not independent and had been made “part of the government machine”. And earlier this month, in a leaked statement about Labour’s leaked report, The Guardian informed us that Corbyn and his team “have openly accused disgruntled Labour officials of potentially costing the party the chance of victory by sabotaging the 2017 election campaign in a factional dispute”.
In all four of these cases, Corbyn’s remarks are a polite and deniable tip of a conspiracy theory iceberg. Identifying all Syrian opposition to Assad with Bin Laden-style terrorism, and saying that even to lift a finger to help Syrian civilians would involve supporting Al Qaeda, has been the Syrian regime’s propaganda line from the start of that bloody conflict. Corbyn doesn’t quite say the EHRC is a Tory-Zionist plot, but he doesn’t have to — his supporters say it for him. The same goes for his implication that Johnson and Cummings hatched an evil herd immunity plan to cull the population during the pandemic, the mention of eugenics being music to the ears of people who think Tories are all basically Nazis anyway.
It’s hard to decide which is the most contemptible and dangerous of these ideas. But the juiciest for party politics is the ludicrous notion that Labour lost two elections under Corbyn not because of his incompetence and toxic politics, which meant the British public would sooner vote for a giant wasp to be Prime Minister, but because of “sabotage” by a cabal of party officials. This stab-in-the-back myth is tangled up with the endless web of lawsuits and leaks, some to do with the BBC Panorama exposé of Labour antisemitism.
Here’s a snapshot of the convoluted situation: The leaked report alleging election sabotage also purports to detail sexism and anti-black racism by alleged saboteurs. These alleged saboteurs include some of the Panorama whistleblowers – who, having received a financial settlement after being defamed in Labour’s original response to the documentary, are now suing over the leaked report’s contents. Got that? Meanwhile, we learn that the leaked report was criticised internally as deliberately misleading by Thomas Gardiner, Labour’s director of governance and legal affairs under Corbyn, and one of the villains of the Panorama documentary. How do we know about Gardiner’s advice to the party? It was leaked.
This spectacle hardly inspires the confidence of the general public, some of whom Keir Starmer may have had in mind when he wrote an article for the Daily Mail last week about re-opening schools safely. The Corbynite response to his article was to demand his resignation with the Twitter hashtag #StarmerOut. (No doubt they would be furious were the Labour leader to appear on even more right-wing outlets like Russia Today and Press TV…)
The lightning rod for all of this crankiness remains the exiled king, Jeremy Corbyn, as he leads a resistance while playing the role of elder statesman. When asked on A World to Win if he had a message for Starmer, Corbyn loftily replied: “Make sure our party is always proud to be a socialist party.” It’s not much of an epigram, although I expect it will be on “radical” tea towels within the week.
But what is all this if not a ball and chain for the wretched Labour Party? After the last five years and two general elections, Corbyn’s resistance looks more like a suicide squad than a serious political movement. Given that Rebecca Long-Bailey’s sacking was at least partly to do with insubordination, (the article she shared containing an antisemitic yarn was also a sectarian cri de coeur, which she prevaricated about deleting), one has to ask how long Starmer can put up with Corbyn & co.’s antics.
Labour’s general secretary, David Evans, recently wrote to party branches telling them to stop trying to pass motions denouncing the Panorama settlement, as this could get the party sued again. Yet Corbyn’s response to the settlement did just that, and even repeated the libelous claims. Starmer has pledged to co-operate with the EHRC probe that Corbyn darkly implies is bogus. Corbyn’s remarks this week about herd immunity and eugenics could be backed or rebutted by Jonathan Ashworth, who Corbyn said was in the same government meetings. You would think the Labour press office might have something to say about a former party leader seemingly spreading misinformation during a health crisis. At the time of writing, there’s been not a squeak.
After five lousy years, Jeremy Corbyn is still wasting Labour’s time — and the country’s. As I’ve written before, no party can be a church broad enough to contain natural political enemies. Starmer can recognise this now or later and act accordingly, or he can continue to carry this ball and chain in the hope that it will get lighter.