Some years ago I was at a lecture by a writer whose work I respected. Midway through his talk he looked down for a moment and said, without changing his tone of voice: “What the hell has gone wrong with my marriage?” Then carried on talking about something else.
I feel a bit like that writer as I prepare to ask – and try to answer – the question that seems inescapable right now. What the hell has gone wrong with Labour?
I grew up in the Labour Party. It’s over 20 years since I walked out in disgust, but some of the old attachment remains. My earliest memories include party meetings held in our house. Many of the first adults I remember fondly were Labour councillors. At six I was on first-name terms with a woman who would be a Cabinet minister before I was out of primary school.
Such things leave an emotional mark. But more important are the human values – socialist values – that my parents brought me up with. Unlike some people – unlike, for too many years, the party itself – I have never abandoned those values.
Which is why I still feel a visceral concern at the party’s vicissitudes.
One member I spoke to the other day said Labour was currently in its greatest crisis for 50 years. But that can’t be right. Fifty years ago we had a Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, recently re-elected with a 96-seat majority.
Today Labour is not only out of office, but apparently facing an existential threat. Its leader is a man arguably truer to its founding ideals than Wilson ever was, but a much less astute politician. A decent man who never expected to rise so high in the ranks and now finds himself being shot at from both sides.
Every Labour leader has always come under hostile fire from an antagonistic national press. None before has faced such “friendly fire” as is now directed at Jeremy Corbyn.
Labour has always described itself as “a broad church”. It has always found a way of accommodating, however uncomfortably, views extending from the near-Communist to the crypto-Tory.
The broad church has suffered schism before, notably when the Social Democratic Party split off in 1981. That left us in the grip of Thatcherism. Will another Reformation now lead to a decade of May? That is the fear – on both wings of the party.
Each side is already busily blaming the other for a possible future split. But the truth is, Labour is already a fundamentally split party. Not between left and right – or not just – but between a majority of the Parliamentary party on one side and a majority of members on the other.
It is partly a consequence of the party’s internal structure. Partly the after-effect of the Blair years when the party at Westminster was hauled off so far to the right.
I feel a little sorry for the MPs, or at least some of them. They are in No Man’s Land. They have put themselves there by an act of mutiny.
If there can be any certainties going into any election, there is one here. Jeremy Corbyn will retain the leadership, quite possibly by an even bigger majority than the one that put him there last year.
He may not have boundless charisma – but where is the charismatic alternative on offer?
He may not have shone on the Euro referendum hustings – but an even more underwhelming performance there didn’t too Theresa May noticeable damage.
And the rebels seem to have under-estimated the anger against them in the party at large. And the loyalty that is still felt towards a leader who is straightforward, honest and principled in an age when those qualities appear to be out of fashion.
Corbyn will still be leader when the party goes to Liverpool for its annual conference in September. He will get a warm reception there. But he will still have huge problems.
He still won’t be able to form an effective Opposition without making up with some of the MPs who rebelled against him.
He will still face the awkward fact that no party’s activists are representative of the majority of voters. Especially the floating voters in the marginal constituencies, those uncommitted ditherers who actually determine the outcome of every General Election.
And he will still be up against a national press so biased against him that it undermines the very principle of democracy.
Think I’ve exaggerated that? A study by the London School of Economics found that only 11 per cent of articles about Corbyn presented his views undistorted. That fewer than 10pc were positive, while more than half were openly antagonistic.
If Corbyn is, as they keep saying, unelectable, that’s why. It’s nothing to do with what he actually stands for.
Whatever’s gone wrong with Labour, Corbyn is the victim, not the cause. In the end the party itself, and all of us, could be victims too.