Labour MPs need to give moderates a reason to stay and fight
It’s over. No, not the Labour Party, but its leadership election. Although after Jeremy Corbyn’s victory for many moderate members the latter may be true as well. I’ve written at length about the reasons many believe that to be the case, but in short they fear, with strong evidence, that Jeremy Corbyn’s political project is to turn the Labour Party into one they cannot in all good conscience support.
Since the leadership result there have been two types of response from those who believe Corbyn’s re-election is the second biggest disaster in Labour’s history (the first being his election). They are pictures of cut-up membership cards, or exhortations to stay and fight (two of the best can be found here and here).
Another response has been to call for unity in backing Jeremy Corbyn in taking the fight to the Tories. This neglects two facts. The first, not articulated well enough during the past 18 months and in the recent leadership campaign, is that many Labour “moderates” opposition to Corbyn is not rooted in fears over his electability and competence but in deep moral disgust at some of his political beliefs. The second is that a political party or leader has no divine right to expect the support of its members or those broadly sympathetic to their side of the political spectrum. Those who disagree with its direction are free to leave and more importantly its voters are free to be even more fickle.
Both facts will, if nothing is done, eventually prove fatal to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, as in a General Election no one can hear you scream, “Respect the mandate!” The latter also poses a huge problem for those who’d like the party to one day come to its senses. Corbyn won a crushing victory, 62% to 38% today, but astonishingly the result was reversed among those who were members before 2015. Every day Corbyn has been leader has tilted the membership in his favour, with each action, inaction and appointment that has disgusted more centrist long-term party members and voters harming the party’s electoral prospects but improving his own.
Corbyn’s Labour has been called a “cult” but the apposite comparison is with student politics. Student politicians have long had a clear incentive to tailor their politics to a vocal and politically obsessive minority while ignoring those who’d rather head to the pub after lectures rather than have a three hour debate on their Student Union’s policies on intersectionality and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Not just because it reflects their narrow electorate, but because it narrows it further by deterring those whose political passions are focused elsewhere. It has, to choose an apposite word, its own momentum. By the time you’ve finished you might have “transformed politics” — but only among the small proportion of people who can still stand to listen.
So what can MPs and members do to stop the death spiral? Unity in any traditional sense is not an option due to what it means — accepting a man who thinks Venezuela, Iran, Russia and Cuba are often in the right is fit to lead the country. It is impossible, but would also be a tactical mistake. Agreeing to disagree may not be a strategy for government, but nor if you believe he’s catastrophically wrong on several important issues is telling voters Jeremy Corbyn should be Prime Minister.
We will hear a lot of criticism towards Owen Smith and his campaign in the coming days, some will be fair but most will not. In an excellent dissection of what went wrong, Buzzfeed’s Jim Waterson elicited a quote from a member of Smith’s team saying of their campaign structure:
“It’s the equivalent of having to build a car from scratch. Corbyn steps straight out of the office into a car with the engine running and he’s already halfway around the track before we begin.”
As Waterson’s article shows, the attempt to depose Corbyn was not the highly organised “coup” his leadership Momentum and their fellow travellers were successful in depicting it as — it was outraged MPs’ desperate plea to members to see reason and give them a leader they could work with. Hence why Smith’s campaign offer was an attempt at a unity program under a leader who could actually work with his colleagues. The MPs’ error was not in plotting to depose Corbyn, but in not plotting enough.
By that I do not mean they should have sniped more, or plotted in the old Westminster sense of meeting in bars and leaking, but that the moral case against Corbyn wasn’t made openly and honestly enough. Moderates put too much faith in the old style of Labour politics where it simply wasn’t necessary to stop the party from intellectually self-harming because there were checks and balances in place to prevent it from doing so. In the 1980s, MPs and the unions eventually averted disaster. Now the unions’ leaders are unrepresentative of their membership and their membership are less representative of Britain. In deciding who leads them MPs have been entirely sidelined in favour of a members who, not having to deal with the intricacies of parliamentary procedure and legislation, will be more responsive to internet memes, demagogic ‘journalists’ and bromides than heartfelt pleas about incompetence behind the scenes.
Many members struggled to understand why Labour MPs would talk about opposing the Tories on TV and backing the leader, yet told them they had no confidence in him weeks later. The decision to put principles and moral misgivings about Jeremy Corbyn aside and serve for the sake of party unity was a mistake (although an honourable, and understandable one) because it only lent him legitimacy. It enabled outrage at each objectionable idiocy to be depicted as an attempt to undermine rather than the anguished cries of good principled people. When the time came and the EU Referendum proved one outrage too many, moderates lacked both an alternative program to coalesce and recruit around and the organisation to ensure they were one step ahead of Corbyn and Momentum in pitching it to members.
The same mistake cannot be made again because moderates need a reason to stay and fight. The Micawberish tendency over the last year to “let Jeremy fail on his own terms” was doomed because each failure entrenched his support by driving despairing sceptics away and shoring up his support. If Labour becomes the Corbyn party it cannot be rescued and at that point nor should it be.
In short, Labour needs a moderate movement (Mod-mentum?), to give moderates hope, a reason to stay and an alternative powerbase and organisational structure within the party. Organisations like the Tribune group and Progress of course exist, but are designed for a happier time when there wasn’t an existential battle for the soul of the Labour Party. Saving Labour proved too little too late for Owen Smith, but perhaps forms a foundation to build upon. Labour First, another group has until now been focused mainly on the party’s behind the scenes battles rather than an open attempt to build a new political platform.
Without MPs, the public face of the party, its strongest recruiters and those who are and work with its best minds, any attempt to restore the party is doomed. They need to act and fast to give those members cutting up their membership cards hope that they can channel their belief in Labour values into something productive rather than leaving work each day to discover some fresh nonsense has occurred and sniping on Twitter about it (something your correspondent is guilty of).
They also need to explain in the nicest possible way, why they feel it is a duty not to serve under Jeremy Corbyn and his mandate (a word which has begun to sound like an ITV2 dating show) because Labour has included and was founded on principles that are very different from those of their leader. Owen Smith occasionally stated this in debates, but it’s a relatively obscure point to many people whose politics is defined by the Blair era — until repeated, again and again. Of course they would be accused of “dividing the party”, but there’s no point pretending an active volcano is a ski-resort until the the next eruption.
And such a movement need not be as divisive as it sounds. Even Corbyn’s backers, like Owen Jones, know that he has a major problem reaching out beyond his support base. Those who have the party’s best interests at heart surely also know that the kind of democratic centralism and deselections yearned for by many of Corbyn’s supporters and that would see moderate members walk in an instant, would condemn the party to death. Labour needs a moderate movement because it needs a counter-balance to Corbyn and Momentum. If its focus wasn’t on fighting a factional battle but on principles and putting them into practice — helping committee chairs oppose the Tories, private members’ bills that would, if enacted change lives, campaigning for policy adoption at conference, and as a vehicle for reinventing social democratic ideas for a world that needs them more than ever, then it could show Labour members how politics that makes a difference doesn’t occur at a rally with people who agree with you but in doing the hard thinking about the lives of those who don’t.
There would also be common ground with the soft Corbyn-backing left on the matter of preventing deselections of talented Labour MPs. If Corbyn and Momentum do decide to go down that route it would be clear who had decided to restart hostilities in Labour’s civil war. If there is the right organisation and alternative program, it might even be a Borodino moment — when Corbynistas overstretched their mandate and fought too far into innocent people’s backyard. At the very least it would provide hard working and much abused MPs with much needed grassroots backing.
No doubt many of these discussions are already happening in Liverpool. Ideally those discussions would be about taking the fight a woeful Tory government. But if you believe your generals are sending the Light Brigade into the Valley of Death, then it is impossible.
The only way round this other than leaving for distraught members is to relentlessly make the case for another strategy. This needs to happen, happen publicly and fast, otherwise it will be too late for moderate Labour members to Sellotape their cards together and not be left politically homeless as the left is torn asunder. If it does, those of us who have struggled to keep any enthusiasm will have renewed purpose.