Since the Labour conference in Brighton, I've been trying precisely to pin down why I found John McDonnell's "come home to Labour" riff so irritating. Alex Massie captures some of the reasons in his stinging Spectator blog. My article in the latest edition of the Drouth harps on a similar string. But the sense of Labour entitlement implicit in the phrase "come home" has always been vexing. It was, after all, common enough currency among Scottish Labour's old guard. Celebrating the party's stonking 2010 general election win, Douglas Alexander gushed:
"Right across Scotland, people have come home to Labour. We've never taken Scotland for granted, we've worked for every vote this evening and we've enjoyed success as a consequence of a great deal of hard work."
And in pursuit of victory in that election, Gordon Brown repeated, again and again:
"At this moment of risk to our economy, at this moment of decision for our country, I ask you to come home to Labour."
A quick search on LexisNexis turns up a mighty 196 news articles which use some variation of the phrase. Entertainingly, one of the earliest instances emanated from one Anthony Charles Lynton Blair. In his keynote address to 1996's October conference in Blackpool, the Labour leader told party delegates:
"I don’t care where you are coming from; it is where your country is going that matters. If you believe in what I believe, then join our team. Labour has come home to you, so come home to us. Labour’s coming home! Seventeen years of hurt never stopped us dreaming. Labour’s coming home! (Applause) As we did in 1945 and 1964, I know that was then, but it could be again – Labour’s coming home. (Applause) Labour’s coming home. The people are coming home."
And a mere nineteen years later, one of Blairism's most inveterate foes in the parliamentary Labour Party is giving it precisely the same "come home" patter? How's that for eternal recurrence? As seems increasingly to be the case with his efforts, the speech did the job for Blair in 1996, but today is nigh unreadable. This political message has been brought to you by the Simpsons' Nelson Muntz and the phenomenon of AWOL daddies who've just nipped out for a pint of milk and a packet of fags. Come home, papa. Come home. *sniffle*
I'm conscious that gags about flipping political real estate may be regarded as being in poor taste at the moment - but we can only assume that the Labour party has moved neighbourhood in the intervening period. That said, it seems apt - or at least divertingly ironic - that both the inception and the death of the Blairite project in the Labour Party are being announced and celebrated in precisely the same terms. Labour is coming home. Come home to Labour. Any number of wise clichés suggest themselves here: in my end is my beginning; and "history repeats first as tragedy then as farce."
But it isn't even this which really irked about McDonnell's presumptious, previous declaration that "Labour is now the only anti-austerity party" and that the Plain People of Scotland should biddably "come home". I couldn't quite put my finger on the real source of my disgruntlement, until I read Iain MacWhiter's bit in the Sunday Herald, and the thought suddenly crystallised.
Labour's new left leadership are running two distinct and incompatible strategies which together conspire to make McDonnell's "come home" schtick simply unendurable. Across the UK, the new party leadership are currently all honey and amelioration and consultation. Shadow cabinet members have been unshackled by anything approaching collective responsibilty. To describe Labour Party policy as incoherent at present would be charitable: it is motley. I appreciate honest policy disgreement as much as the next fellow - more than most, in fact - but there is simply no coherent political expression to be plucked from this mangled policy haystack. You name it. Trident renewal, tuition fees, budget discipline, railways, energy, "people's quantitative easing": it is a boorach.
And worse, the leadership seems isolated and listless rather than fighting its corner within the fractuous and divided ranks of the parliamentary party. Whatever calculations the Corbyn-McDonnell axis are making behind the scenery, on policy, the spirit of left capitulation seems general, sacrificed on the altar of party unity. Consultation is the watchword of the day. And Jeremy seems more preoccupied with facilitating party democracy than he does with securing the victory for his own viewpoint.
The impression may be unfair and mistaken -- but Mr Corbyn seems prepared biddably to assent to whatever policy compromise his party is prepared to yield up to him. As a saintly democrat - this all may be perfectly commendable - but if you wanted an invertebrate to lead the UK Labour Party, Andy Burham was already on the ballot paper.
But in Scotland? In Scotland we are invited to conclude that only the views of the party's new leadership are in any sense consequential, however few followers Mr Corbyn and his vicar on earth actually command on their own Commons benches. We are invited to forget awkward memories of recent votes on the Welfare Reform Bill, which propelled Corbyn to the front line in the leadership contest. "Labour is now the only anti-austerity party".
In every other context, we are encouraged to believe that the new leader has a frail and self-depracating democratic voice - one among many, many of whom disagree with him. But in Scotland? In Scotland, only the sentiments of this isolated and embattled leadership matters. Come home to Labour. I'm reminded of King Richard the II's melancholy reflections on a Welsh beach, in Shakespeare's play of the same name. "For God's sake," said King Richard:
"... let us sit upon the ground And tell sad stories of the death of kings. How some have been deposed; some slain in war, Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed; Some poison'd by their wives: some sleeping kill'd; All murder'd: for within the hollow crown That rounds the mortal temples of a king Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits, Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp, Allowing him a breath, a little scene, To monarchize, be fear'd and kill with looks, Infusing him with self and vain conceit, As if this flesh which walls about our life, Were brass impregnable, and humour'd thus Comes at the last and with a little pin Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!"
There will be no monarchizing from Jeremy. No fear. No killing looks. As Iain MacWhirter lays out, it is difficult to find the policy issue where Corbyn hasn't tacked and trimmed, compromising and accommodating himself to his many deprecators in his own party. But in Scotland? In Scotland, we must think on the increasingly hollow crown Jeremy wears, enjoy its glitter, and "come home" to Labour like good bairns. And so farewell, king.