Despite deep division within Labour, Hilary Benn’s excellent speech in the Syria debate made David Cameron look very small indeed. But it changes nothing in terms of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership
Is Hilary Benn the saviour of the Labour Party, the chosen one sent to lead the party out of the Corbynite darkness?
People are starting to say so – first as a result of Benn’s determined stance in the crunch shadow cabinet meeting yesterday, and especially now, after that electrifying speech in the Syria debate.
The speech was undoubtedly a good one. Here’s a key excerpt:
So the question for each of us – and for our national security – is this: given that we know what they are doing, can we really stand aside and refuse to act fully in our self-defence against those who are planning these attacks? Can we really leave to others the responsibility for defending our national security when it is our responsibility? And if we do not act, what message would that send about our solidarity with those countries that have suffered so much – including Iraq and our ally, France.
And the stirring peroration:
Now Mr Speaker, I hope the house will bear with me if I direct my closing remarks to my Labour friends and colleagues on this side of the House. As a party we have always been defined by our internationalism. We believe we have a responsibility one to another. We never have – and we never should – walk by on the other side of the road.
And we are here faced by fascists. Not just their calculated brutality, but their belief that they are superior to every single one of us in this chamber tonight, and all of the people that we represent. They hold us in contempt. They hold our values in contempt. They hold our belief in tolerance and decency in contempt. They hold our democracy, the means by which we will make our decision tonight, in contempt.
And what we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated. And it is why, as we have heard tonight, socialists and trade unionists and others joined the International Brigade in the 1930s to fight against Franco. It’s why this entire House stood up against Hitler and Mussolini. It is why our party has always stood up against the denial of human rights and for justice. And my view, Mr Speaker, is that we must now confront this evil. It is now time for us to do our bit in Syria. And that is why I ask my colleagues to vote for the motion tonight.
The House erupted into rare and sustained applause (which is apparently okay these days, so long as it is not SNP Members of Parliament doing the clapping), while social media and the blogosphere lit up with praise for Benn and hopeful talk that this speech might represent the reassertion of the centrist Left and the high water mark for the Corbynite flood.
Here’s Dan Hodges, waxing lyrical:
Hilary Benn’s speech. It is about to become the House of Commons “where were you when Kennedy was shot” moment. Where were you sitting. Who were you with. What were you thinking.
It was a truly incredible moment. He did not just captivate the House, he inverted the House. Hilary Benn did not look like the Shadow Foreign Secretary. He did not look like the leader of the opposition. He looked like the prime minister. And by extension, his party, which for the past few days has appeared broken and beaten, looked like the government.
Most amazing of all was the effect on the real Leader of the Opposition. Though we may as well now refer to him as the former leader of the opposition. Jeremy Corbyn started by looking agitated. Then he appeared uncomfortable. Then he began to shrink. It was like watching the witch from the Wizard of Oz who has just had a bucket of water thrown over her. All the talk of his “mandate”. All the talk of his legions of new activists. They were destroyed in an instant. Crushed by Hilary Benn and 100 years of the Labour party’s accumulated moral authority.
If only that were so.
Of course Hodges would talk up Hilary Benn, or anyone else from the Labour front bench who managed to sound eloquent while undermining Jeremy Corbyn – and fair enough. The praise is deserved, if somewhat excessive. People will not long remember this speech, and only people within the Westminster bubble and the highly politically engaged will have paid it any note at all. We should not allow ourselves to get carried away by the adrenaline of the moment.
While Hilary Benn’s speech may have been extraordinarily cathartic for centrist Labour types who have had little cause for hope since Jeremy Corbyn (or even Ed Miliband) won the leadership of their party, there is little reason to believe that one speech will dramatically change the fortunes of the Labour Party.
Most people do not watch parliamentary debates, even moderately iconic ones (and this one has certainly been hyped out of all proportion, with politicians and the media talking up the extension of existing airstrikes as some kind of paradigm-shifting declaration of war). Few people will have actually seen Hilary Benn grow in stature, or Jeremy Corbyn shrink a little next to him on the green benches last night.
Martin Kettle acknowledged as much in his own piece praising Benn’s speech:
Wednesday was certainly a reminder that speeches can still make a difference in politics. It was, though, a Victorian political event in a digital age. Benn’s speech was electrifying in the chamber. It triggered an instant Twitter storm among what may have been several hundred BBC Parliament watchers. But most people watch other things. Most people still don’t know who Hilary Benn is, let alone that he made a well regarded speech. And the sleepless digital news caravan has already moved on.
While it’s great that the dignified, sober part of the Labour Party briefly asserted itself – by thwarting Corbyn’s desire to whip the Syria vote, and in Hilary Benn’s speech – it does little to change the cold, hard calculus facing the Labour Party.
Jeremy Corbyn is still not going anywhere – he smilingly said as much on the Andrew Marr show last weekend. His supporters are still growing in influence within the Labour Party, and their memories are long – the current talk of deselections will not have been forgotten by the time the 2020 general election rolls around. And while Benn’s speech was excellent, it only further highlighted the division within the shadow cabinet. That’s the message that most people will take away – that on an important decision about committing British armed forces to action, the Labour Party is no longer able to come to a common position.
Hilary Benn may have displayed his leadership credentials last night, but there is no escaping the fact that Jeremy Corbyn retains firm control of the party, and that any effort to remove Corbyn will produce a nuclear backlash from the activist party base.
The Labour Party needs more than one man with a good speech in his pocket and centrism in his heart. If the goal is to recapture the centre ground of British politics, Labour needs a new wave of members to dilute and counteract the thousands of left-wing activists attracted by Corbyn. And while Hilary Benn gave a good speech on foreign policy, there is no evidence that he is beloved by the public or capable of attracting legions of centre-left supporters back to the party.
Labour Party centrists are desperate for a saviour, and that is understandable. But Hilary Benn is not the answer – not even if ten of his clones sat in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet.
To change course, the centrists don’t need one Hilary Benn. They need one hundred thousand new people to be inspired enough by Benn’s words to pick up the phone and join the Labour Party. And that’s simply not going to happen.
The Labour Party needs a new membership before it can even begin to think about choosing a new leader.
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