Waking up early for work when you’ve been out late the night before is unpleasant, but grown adults tend to understand forgoing sleep leaves you tired, as actions tend to have consequences. Tony Blair’s former spin doctor Alastair Campbell appears not to understand this fact, feigning shock and dismay that he was expelled from the Labour Party after telling BBC Radio 5 he had voted not for Labour, but the Liberal Democrats in the European elections last week.
The Labour Party disciplinary rules are clear on the matter, stating “a member of the Party who joins and/or supports a political organisation other than an official Labour group … shall automatically be ineligible to be or remain a Party member.” Campbell tweeted he was “sad and disappointed” to receive an email informing him of his expulsion and stated he was seeking legal advice on appealing the decision.
The histrionic response to Campbell’s ejection was swift, those rallying to his defense exhibiting none of the historical memory of his past behavior and how deeply he was despised by the public and many in the party for his role in the build up to the Iraq War and the circumstances surrounding the death of David Kelly.
Campbell was also notorious for bullying during his tenure. One particular controversy: after Campbell sought to defend the party against accusations of antisemitism over a poster the spin doctor dreamt up, depicting a Jewish Tory leader as a flying pig, he sent an email to a BBC journalist admonishing them to “fuck off and cover something important you twats.”
The past few years have seen Campbell seek to rehabilitate his image, first as a mental health campaigner, then as a prominent campaigner with the “People’s Vote” campaign to rerun the European Union membership referendum to block Brexit. Many ardent Remainers have been happy to adopt him as a cause célèbre, overlooking his very damaging past and the repeated damage it inflicted on the party.
His expulsion was leapt upon by centrist journalists and prominent Labour members as an opportunity to relitigate previous disagreements with Corbyn’s leadership and the left of the party.
Campbell himself, and a host of Labour MPs touring TV and radio studios, claimed his treatment differed from that of members accused of antisemitism. The analogy is as cynical as it is illogical: Campbell very openly and publicly admitted to breaking the rules, doing so to both embarrass and provoke the party. Accusations of discrimination by other party members require proper investigation to ascertain wrongdoing, whereas Campbell’s flouting of the rules was an intensely straightforward case.
Leaked emails recently revealed investigations into former London mayor Ken Livingstone’s comments on Hitler and Zionism and many other members were not launched until after staff members hostile to Corbyn’s leadership had left in response to Corbyn ally Jennie Formby being selected as the new general secretary. Attempting to imply the party is far harsher on Campbell than antisemites doesn’t hold any weight.
That Corbyn and John McDonnell had not been expelled by the party for voting against the government while Blair was in power was also put forward by Campbell and his supporters as evidence that New Labour had been a lenient and inclusive outfit before the rebels assumed the leadership. Countless figures claimed his expulsion was “Stalinist” and akin to totalitarian purges.
Firstly, the current leadership have not expelled any MPs from the party for rebelling in votes. Secondly, the fact that when McDonnell and Corbyn did break the parliamentary whip, it was to vote against the war in Iraq, threats to civil liberties, the introduction of higher tuition fees, and many other bills that tarnished Labour’s legacy and bled voters — not to put another party in power.
Thirdly, as well as having their memories seemingly wiped of any slight palimpsest of Campbell’s tainted legacy, his allies seem alarmingly comfortable in flaunting their complete lack of historical knowledge or even linguistic understanding of what Stalinism and purges actually constitute. In 2016, many figures hostile to the Labour left sought to expel or block the votes of thousands of members for former membership of other parties, public mention of historically voting for other parties before joining Labour, and for many people, crimes as minor as liking tweets by Green candidates in the past, in a failed attempt to block Corbyn’s re-election as leader. The outcry then was barely a fraction as loud as the hysteria over one public figure now.
The fever pitch alarmism in response followed the predictable path: swelling outrage amongst centrists on Twitter, hyperbolic demands from members and former Labour politicians that they be expelled from the party, and endless hostile MPs repeating lines almost verbatim throughout the broadcast media, akin to the attempted coup after the EU referendum in 2016. Owen Smith, on the BBC at the same time as me, ran through the exact attack lines above in order, as many other MPs had done, then claimed the Left were confecting a coup against Corbyn to distract from Labour’s polling drop in the European election.
Campbell and others aren’t fighting to reinstate those who have or will be expelled for voting for other parties, but simply to destabilize the party and leadership.
Whenever presenters ask Corbyn’s parliamentary critics on air if the parliamentary Labour Party will mount a leadership challenge since 2016, they all sigh and state they will not. They know any challenger would almost certainly lose, and the Labour left have swelled the ranks.
Instead, their tactic is simply to act as wreckers, causing as much damage as possible while blaming the leadership for the ensuing destruction like a drunk smashing furniture at a party, then demanding to know where the mess had come from. Even during the 2017 election, many people on the Labour right relished the prospect of defeat, as toppling Corbyn was far more desirable to them than gaining power and delivering measurable social change for the people who needed it most.
If Campbell hadn’t been expelled, another deliberate wrecking tactic would have been tried. The problem for the Labour right is their behavior is increasingly transparent to the wider public. The problem for the public is that many of them actually need a Labour government to make a difference in their lives.