It’s the dilemma facing millions of moderate Labour voters: can they in good conscience support their party this time around without endorsing Jeremy Corbyn? This is no mere academic puzzler. Many are horrified at the transformation of their party from Europe’s most successful social democratic movement into a glorified protest group, and one with more than its fair share of cranks.
Labour’s failure to come to grips with the anti-Semitism now commonplace in its ranks is politically ill-considered, not to say reprehensible. But for those drawn to Labour for its history of fighting racism and discrimination, it is another indication that this is no longer their party.
This is an election of quandaries. Should voters betrayed by the Liberal Democrats over tuition fees back the party as the best chance of heading off a hard Brexit? Do Scotland’s beleaguered Labourites have to rally behind the Tories’ Ruth Davidson to stop the SNP pushing for another divisive independence referendum?
The question of whether to contribute a vote towards taking Mr Corbyn to 10 Downing Street is the most challenging of all. He represents a Labour Party alien to the country and unrecognisable from the upbeat, optimistic insurgency that swept Britain 20 years ago.
But what about those members of the parliamentary party who have made their opposition to Corbyn known? Take John Woodcock, MP for Barrow and Furness. He is asking constituents for their vote on a pledge that “I will not countenance ever voting to make Jeremy Corbyn Britain’s prime minister”. Voters in his seat can plausibly put their cross next to his name with confidence that they are returning a Labour MP and not a Labour PM. The same can be said of any number of parliamentarians, from Leicester West’s Liz Kendall to Edinburgh South’s Ian Murray. These are the centrists who have rejected the far-Left takeover of their party and who surely ought not to be punished for it.
By withholding a vote from Labour, those affronted by its lurch into extremism can take a stand against obnoxious fringe politics. In doing so, however, they hurl themselves into yet another moral equation. Is it enough merely to reject Corbyn, or do those who see his ideology for what it is have an obligation to ensure that he is replaced? Voting for parties other than Labour will certainly achieve the former but arguably will make the latter more difficult to pull off. The more sensible Labour MPs who keep their seats in this election, the greater the chance that their party can oust Corbyn and begin the long, painful return to political relevance.
We will see what the public makes of it all, but we can say this with confidence: tactical voting is far from the only ethical conundrum awaiting electors on June 8.
Mr Corbyn has provided the only note of levity so far in the campaign, after prompting Boris Johnson to assail him as “a mutton-headed old mugwump”|. This sent most of the nation in search of a dictionary but some commentators wondered if the Foreign Secretary had gone too far.
They should have been around in Disraeli’s time. When his heritage was referenced by an Irish nationalist MP, the Tory Prime Minister replied: “Yes, I am a Jew, and when the ancestors of the Right Honourable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the Temple of Solomon.”
True, some digs can be unnecessarily cruel – think of Churchill’s description of Clement Attlee as “a modest man with much to be modest about” – but the best political orators recognise the power of judiciously apportioned invective. When the then chancellor Denis Healey dismissed Margaret Thatcher as “La Pasionaria of privilege”, the Tory leader riposted: “Some chancellors are macro-economic. Other chancellors are fiscal. This one is just plain cheap.”
Some go high: the Australian prime minister Paul Keating branded his successor “a pre-Copernican obscurantist”. Others go low, “lower than vermin”, as Nye Bevan characterised the Tories who objected to the creation of the NHS. There are the swipes of legend (Michael Foot sketching Norman Tebbit as a “semi-house-trained polecat”) and the unjustly forgotten (Lord Macaulay on Socrates: “The more I read him, the less I wonder that they poisoned him”).
Insults can cut through and change the public’s perception of a politician. After Vince Cable quipped that Gordon Brown had gone “from Stalin to Mr Bean”, the beleaguered premier could never recover credibility.
Don’t knock the political barb. They make the whole business so much more bearable and can sometimes be revealing – either of their target or their originator.
Stephen Daisley is a columnist for the Scottish Daily Mail