As a piece of political theatre, it was inspired. Labour MPs had mostly vacated their seats in the House of Commons on Tuesday after their disastrous abstention on the Welfare Bill. So the 56 SNP MPs occupied them claiming that they were the true opposition now.
There was much teeth sucking and head shaking at this unseemly parliamentary behaviour. But the SNP action was part of a long tradition of parliamentary attentions seeking: Michael Heseltine waving the Commons Mace in 1976 over Labour nationalisation; Tom Clarke leading a mass walk out of Scottish Labour MPs in 1989 over Tory cuts.
It was a publicity stunt of course and in a way an expression of powerlessness. But the SNP’s occupy protest vividly made the point that Labour appears to have abdicated its constitutional responsibility to oppose.
This has been Labour’s worst week since the general election. Abstention on the Tory bill was supposed to indicate to the voters that Labour were no longer the party of “skivers” and benefit claimants. But all it did was make Labour appear pusillanimous, unprincipled and confused.
Figures like leadership candidates Andy Burnham,Yvette Cooper and even the sole Scottish Labour MP, Ian Murray, tried to argue later that they had actually opposed the Conservative benefit cap and the withdrawal of tax credits even though they abstained. A curious logistic contortion this which left them at the mercy of BBC interviewers and ridicule on social media.
The only politician in the Labour leadership race who did oppose the Welfare Bill was of course, left-winger Jeremy Corbyn which goes a long way to explaining why he appears to be leading the contest for the most poisoned chalice in British politics. Well, good luck to him.
I would never have thought of the Bennite MP for Islington, with his Lenin cap and beard, as a likely Labour leader, but I’m changing my mind. Like many Labour members I find that the more he is attacked by the likes of Tony Blair, Liz Kendall and snooty newspaper columnists the more I warm to Jeremy Corbyn.
The 66-year old’s charisma rating may be close to zero, and his leadership skills questionable, but Corbyn has that magic ingredient: principle. He actually seems to believe in something. He will not be bought off, turned into an establishment clone like most senior Labour politicians have been.
Corbyn doesn’t care what the media say about him either. He has grasped the essential truth of post-modern political campaigning that support from the establishment has turned into a negative. The grip of the mass media on public consciousness has been slipping over the last decade as the internet disrupts its monopoly of information and opinion.
But more important than that, cynical voters today look increasingly for authenticity in their politics. Popular mistrust of the ‘men in suits’ and even now the ‘women in suits’ has become so great that merely to be feted – as Liz Kendall has been by the press– is becoming a turn off.
As I have argued before, there are some very interesting parallels here with what happened in Scotland before the SNP tsunami. Nicola Sturgeon shares many of Corbyn’s supposedly “toxic” policies on nuclear disarmament, immigration, welfare, tuition fees, public spending and taxation.
The SNP leader was similarly demonised in the press as “the most dangerous woman in politics” a “marxist wrecker” and her supporters as cybernat fanatics incapable of reason. But the more she was attacked by the Labour establishment and the media the more popular she became.
Even the IFS expert demolition job on the SNP’s policy of Full Fiscal Autonomy simply bounced off Sturgeon’s campaign. Voters love her because she is a charismatic politician but also because she believes in something and offers hope for a better society.
The SNP landslide in Scotland demonstrated that social democratic politics can be still be popular. Her victory defied the conventional wisdom that voters hate immigrants and benefit claimants and are only motivated by appeals to self interest and low taxation.
Now Project Fear has moved south in the attempt to halt the Corbyn bandwagon. Even some of the personalities are the same. The Blairite spin doctor, Johm McTernan one of Jim Murphy’s henchmen, popped up last week on BBC attacking the supporters of Corbyn as “morons”.
Tony Blair has come out of his lair to condemn Corbynites as in need of a “heart transplant”. There have even been warnings that if Corbyn wins, the Right will stage another breakaway, like the SDP Gang of Four in 1981, which could wreck Labour’s chances of winning an election for a generation.
The Labour establishmet are pressing all the old buttons, and calling in favours from across the media – even left wingers like the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee are refusing to support Corbyn. But somehow, it isn’t working. Corbyn just seems only to become more popular – at least with Labour constituency members.
The polling organisation YouGov confirmed this in a poll of Labour members last week that gave Corbyn an astonishing 17% lead over his nearest rival. Corbyn is running at 43% against Andy Burnham on 26% Yvette Cooper on 20% and with the media favourite, Liz Kendall on 11%. On these numbers, only if the also rans drop out, and leave Burnham a clear run, can Corbyn be stopped.
It is a remarkable and unexpected development. Commentators are saying Labour members have now, like the Scots lost their reason. But perhaps they are only making the best of a bad bunch. For it is, in truth, hard to generate any enthusiasm for the Cooper, Burnham or Kendall when their platform is so defensive and negative.
All the “responsible” candidates seem to be saying is that Labour has to compromise its principles in order to get elected. Be “realistic”, in the “real world”’ stop being a “protest” party and accept the “discipline of government”. This is not, to put it mildly, an inspirational message. Harold Wilson said that “the Labour Party is a moral crusade or it is nothing”. Right now, it’s nothing
That is, I think, why Labour Party members are saying: enough. We’ve played this game and all we get is compromise and disillusion. Tony Blair had charisma, and promised to modernise Labour values. But in office he swooned into the arms establishment and has ended up earning millions working for US banks like JP Morgan and consulting Saudi Arabian oil companies.
Nicola Sturgeon appears to have maintained her integrity, and her commitment to social democatic politics, even though she has been in office for eight years as health minister and first minister. People have noticed this. I said during the election campaign that she had become “the most articulate and forceful voice of BRITISH social democracy”.
Labour voters are saying that if the SNP can do it, why can’t Labour? They hear these “cavemen” as Tony Blair described the SNP, deliver some of the most intelligent and passionate maiden speeches in Commons history. Tommy Sheppard and Mhairi Black’s remarks have literally been viewed millions of times on the internet.
There is a paradox here of course. The SNP have indeed become the most visible opposition in the UK parliament, but they are members of a party that wants nothing to do with Westminster. They are able to speak their minds because they know they don’t have to stand for election in Conservative areas of the South of England.
But it is worth remembering that, half a century ago, Scotland was very much a Tory heartland. Things can change. Many of Corbyn’s policies, on top tax, tuition fees and rail denationalisation are actually quite popular in England. But it takes real leadership to challenge the status quo, to combat the dead weight of conservative thinking.
And leadership is what Labour lacks. In the absence of a charismatic left wing leader like the First Minister of Scotland, Labour members seem to be saying that they won’t settle for another suit. They’re thinking: Stuff it. We might as well give Jez a chance.