The soft left made Corbyn leader. They’re Labour’s swing vote and need to be won back for the centre

by Atul Hatwal

Jeremy Corbyn’s been in post for 13 days. It still doesn’t seem real. On Tuesday he will give his inaugural conference address as Labour leader against a backdrop of splits on unilateralism and talk of mandatory reselections for MPs.

The party has been bundled into a DeLorean and now we’re back in the 1980s.

During the leadership campaign I wrote a couple of pieces predicting doom for Corbyn’s candidacy. When YouGov published their first poll I was pretty disparaging. Surely the majority didn’t want to go back to 1980s Labour?

Clearly I was wrong, wrong as it’s possible to be. YouGov were right, the Corbynistas were right, the earthquake happened and everything came crashing down. The Tories are jubilant and privately looking at a majority in 2020 that could tip over into three figures.

In the past fortnight, since Labour’s election results I’ve spent time speaking to members, registered supporters, CLP office-holders, MPs and candidates to understand the answer to two questions: who switched to Corbyn – because this level of support for the hard left in the party is unprecedented – and why.

Back in August, Mike Harris articulated the scale of change at a local level in this excellent post. As Mike says, it’s like an entirely different party has been created.

However, this new party isn’t an entirely unfamiliar party.

CLP chairs and secretaries are uniformly clear that most new members and supporters have been involved with the party before.

The defining characteristic of the majority in this group is that they are from the soft left. Not the hard left from where Corbyn hails, nor Trotskyite entryists or Stalinist tankies from fringe groups outside the party (the far left in the declension of the British left).

One of the candidates told me that based on their experience of umpteen CLP visits and hustings, the people who’ve joined, “are the people at the back of the GC (General Committee) who just want it all to be better and feel more right on.”

This is the soft left.

In a sense, the political persuasion of Labour’s new recruits shouldn’t be surprising. For decades, the soft left has played the central role in deciding the leader and political direction of the party.

In the early 90s, following the trauma of the 1980s and the desolation of the defeat in 1992, the backing of soft left members and MPs, helped give Tony Blair, a member of the rarefied revisionist tradition, his big majority in 1994’s leadership election.

In 2010, the soft left candidate was Ed Miliband and despite some critical flaws, including obvious and insurmountable short-comings as a PM-in-waiting, he won. Diane Abbot, flying the flag for the hard left, got less than 10% of members support.

In 2015, despite the huge influx of members and supporters, very little actually changed. The soft left was once again the swing vote. This time they rowed in behind Corbyn’s platform boosting the hard left vote from Abbot’s miserable showing in 2010 to 60% this year.

Many, myself included, expected the excoriating nature of May’s general election defeat to ultimately tip sufficient numbers of the soft left back towards a mainstream option at the last minute.

Jeremy Corbyn would still have done well but not have won.

So what happened?

Two factors are key: memories of the last Labour government and Ed Miliband’s failure.

It’s become a trope that Labour’s centrists are exclusively focused on achieving power as an end in itself.

This caricatures the centrist position and doesn’t capture the true failure of our argument.

Virtually every time centrists make the case that electability matters, it’s illustrated with the example of what the last Labour government did for schools and hospitals.

The lesson from the leadership election is that this doesn’t work with the soft left.

It’s not fair or right but the memory of government for soft left members is sufficiently alienating that using any aspect of it as a rationale for support – even one as compelling as the rebuilding of virtually every school and hospital in this country – is discounted.

When Tony Blair became leader in 1994, the party had been out of office for 15 years. The soft left had seen and experienced crushing failure. The bitter memories of division and betrayal within Wilson and Callaghan’s governments had been replaced by bitter memories of Mrs.Thatcher and the impotence of opposition.

In contrast, today, it is a little over five years since the final dog days of Gordon Brown’s premiership. Many remember them, few look back with affection.

The second reason the soft left fell in with the hard left is Ed Miliband, specifically, their experience of his leadership and the subsequent election result.

From day one, Ed Miliband’s Labour utterly failed to work out how to deal with the Tories’ cuts. He was trapped in a double bind: reluctant to promise to reverse them because of the electoral poison of higher borrowing and taxation, but then unable to fund new policies that might paint a picture of a brighter tomorrow.

The entire political conversation was conducted on the Tories’ terrain.

Miliband’s was an unhappy compromise largely accepted by soft left members in the hope of power. This settlement was blown apart by the devastating nature of Labour’s loss in May.

As one avowedly soft left member said to me when talking about swing voters, “What’s the point of trying to appeal to them anyway?”

The tragedy is of course that Ed Miliband didn’t try to appeal to swing voters. He spent five years triangulating between the left and right of the Labour party, leaving himself zero chance of attracting sufficient numbers of marginal voters.

Political compromise only works when underpinned by electoral success. Ed Miliband didn’t just lose the election, he turned compromise into a dirty word.

Andy Burnham tried to run as this year’s Ed Miliband. He got 19% of the vote for his trouble.

Faced with candidates either promising a return to an unloved, grinding Labour government or Miliband redux, soft left members pushed the nuclear button and voted Corbyn.

His was the only path which hadn’t led to failure in the past five years and his easy solutions and faithful following enabled doubts to be set aside.

The one ray of light for centrists from this dismal situation is that the soft left’s choice was driven by a deep aversion to the alternatives, not a conversion to hard left dogma. They backed Corbyn out of despair, not hope.

The Mayoral selection in London – a choice that was distinct and untainted by the disappointments of national politics – saw soft left Sadiq Khan convincingly triumph over centrist Tessa Jowell with hard left Diane Abbot trailing far behind.

The reality is that the soft left, Labour’s critical internal constituency, is exasperated, emotionally exhausted and ideologically disorientated.

Three implications flow from this analysis if the soft left are to be won back for the centre.

First, time will demonstrate the criticism of Corbyn’s electability to be correct. Every day Jeremy Corbyn is leader, the reality of Labour’s predicament will become clearer to the soft left.

Councillors will lose their seats with Lib Dems, Tories and Ukip all making gains at Labour’s expense; MSPs will be swept aside at the Scottish election and the national polls will prophesy a huge Tory majority.

The claims that Jeremy Corbyn can inspire a revival in Scotland and mobilise non-voters will be exposed and the prospect of decades of uninterrupted Tory rule will loom. This won’t sway the hard left but the soft left will be alarmed.

The necessity of attracting Tory voters into Labour’s column and appealing to the centre-ground of politics will be back on the agenda.

Second, centrists need to engage constructively with the soft left.

This requires us to take some of our own medicine.

Centrists and modernisers rail against the manner in which hard left Twittervists harangue anyone deviating from their line as morally wrong Tories but too often we can react sharply towards soft left activists and politicians on policies that compromise electability.

Bridges need to be built not burnt. Where possible common cause should be made.

This doesn’t mean going easy on Corbyn or his hard left agenda, but understanding that many in the soft left who currently publicly back Corbyn also harbour serious reservations and are persuadable.

Shouting at them won’t help the centrist cause.

Third, when electoral gravity takes hold and Corbyn falls, as likely he will before 2020, centrists’ view of the best should not be the enemy of the good.

The leap from Corbyn, and where he will take the party politically, mean it’s unlikely a thorough-going, modernising candidate will be viable.

Labour’s direction of travel needs to be reversed which means uniting around the candidate most acceptable to the soft left, who will move Labour back into the realms of electability.

The 2020 election was lost the moment Corbyn became leader. What matters now is 2025.

Atul Hatwal is editor of Uncut

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27 Responses to “The soft left made Corbyn leader. They’re Labour’s swing vote and need to be won back for the centre”

  1. Robert says:

    This must have been difficult for Atul to write but it is a welcome dose of reality from a “centrist”. The soft left and other moderates were alienated during the New Labour era by issues such as Iraq, attacks on civil liberties, worship of the City and bringing the market into public services. Quite frankly, 2002 to 2007 replaced the 1980s as the era to which we do not want to return. Centrists need to realise this and, as Atul says, stop acting like Trots when anybody dares to disagree with them.

  2. Rallan says:

    Deep in denial, I’m afraid.

    Labour activism has become more like a religion than a political movement, and now it’s taken over the party. It will ensure that it’s revolution is protected. Anyone in Labour who questions the faith will be persecuted for not upholding Labour Values.

    Corbyn isn’t going anywhere. It’s a matter of faith.

  3. Daniel Sutton says:

    If you actually look at JCs policies not personality you’ll see that they are infact soft left. Tony Blair’s manifesto of 1997 advocated nationalisation of the railways for example. I think people presenting themselves as centrists such as yourself fail to understand that everybody has shifted right, including the hard left. Government intervention for the common good was a feature of Tony Blair’s time in office both domestically and internationally.

  4. John P Reid says:

    Robert, when you say the 1980’s the era we don’t want to return too, do you mean the Tories policies, or the Labour Party nearly being destroyed?

  5. paul barker says:

    Labour Centrists are still to accept the scale of their defeat, to the extent of trying to rewrite history. Burnham stood as a Soft Left candidate & it did him no good.
    The argument has shifted from how to win Elections to how to build a mass movement, The Hard Left has its arguments ready for when Elections are lost, defeats will be spun as a neccesary & temporary loss.
    Even now the make-up The Labour grss roots is continuing to change as people previously to Labours Left join & moderates drift away. The Hard Left has learned from its defeat in the 1980s, they wont let go of your Party now they have it.

  6. David Walker says:

    It seems that yo still can’t help yourself making more predictions, though.

    Maybe it’s best to talk about the past, rather than the future, as it least you can stick to just facts.

    You are making predictions based on an event that happened over 30 years ago. Your sample-size is 1.

  7. Madasafish says:

    “Jeremy Corbyn is regarded as more honest than David Cameron but just a third of the public sees him as a “capable leader”, an exclusive poll reveals today.

    As Labour’s new chief and his Tory rival square up for their party conferences, Ipsos MORI research reveals that Mr Cameron is twice as likely to be chosen in a crisis — but is deemed “out of touch” by six out of 10 people.

    The poll also reveals just how badly Labour’s image has been damaged in the past five months of election defeat and leadership bickering. Since April, when the same questions were asked, the proportion of people who see Labour as “divided” has soared from 43 to 75 per cent.”

    Voters HATE divided parties.

  8. Madasafish says:


    Corbyn becomes LAB leader EVER to record negative ratings in his opening Ipsos MORI satisfaction ratings

  9. John P Reid says:

    The far left always have a view that if they eventually accept it is their fault labour lose elections due to them, rather than everyone else,it’s better to lose on a pure far left manifesto,as it’s a moral victory, but while they’re enjoying the good life, think of all those who suffer under the Tories, what do the far left care about them if they’re the ones making the Tories win.

    It’s not only the far left who elected Jeremy,when the moderates some of whom are councillors all lose their seats, then they’ll realize what they’ve done electing him, they’ll soon change their minds then, plus they’ll see the state of the party ,that needs rescuing,

  10. TB says:

    Just join the Liberals, mate. Or the Real Tories. Please.

  11. Mike says:

    Daniel Sutton – JC’s views and policies are not soft left – nationalizing the power grid, banks, railways, pulling out of NATO, abolishing the monarchy, making all schools LEA controlled, raising income taxes etc

    He may have temporarily back tracked on some like NATO, the EU and the Monarchy but people know where he stands. Outside the mainstream and unpatriotic.

  12. 07052015 says:

    Send for the fatman -he will sort it out.

  13. Robert says:

    The 1980s was not a great era but at least I could say that I had not voted for the Government.

  14. Tafia says:

    think of all those who suffer under the Tories, what do the far left care about them if they’re the ones making the Tories win.

    It wasn’t the far-Left who made the tories win. It was Gordon Brown in 2010 – because he just wasn’t credible, people didn’t like him and too many of the people around him carried the mark of Blair, and Ed Miliband in 2015 because he was a dweeb and his front bench team were woefully low quality.

  15. Historyintime says:

    ‘The 2020 election was lost the moment Corbyn became leader. What matters now is 2025.’

    This is the type of pathetic defeatist thinking that has got the Labour Right into such trouble. Who in their right mind is going to sign on to a 10 year rebuilding project? In the modern speeded up world? 2020 is five years away and that is plenty of time for the fantasy of JC to fade and for him to be replaced. Indeed its plenty of time for a further steep recession, an EU breakup whatever.

  16. Atul making predictions again. He didn’t learn much from last time obviously.

  17. John.P Reid says:

    Taffia, just to point out that as the centre ground has swung to the right, Ed miliband was seen as far left,and the Tories didn’t actually win,in 2010 under labour having agordin as our leader.

  18. Simon Clark says:

    I agree – far too early to say 2020 election lost, especially as you also say that you think it’s unlikely that Jeremy will lead us into 2020 election.
    So leader could be maybe (in your terms) softer left candidate such as maybe Lisa Nandy or Dan Jarvis.
    Like yourself, I didn’t vote for Jeremy, but neither am I prepared to declare the 2020 election already lost!

  19. Rob F says:

    **Clearly I was wrong, wrong as it’s possible to be. YouGov were right, the Corbynistas were right, the earthquake happened and everything came crashing down.**

    The only thing that came crashing down was Atul’s reputation as a political pundit. It is in tatters – he clearly has zero insight into the party he purports to support – and this website clearly needs a new editor and a new direction.

  20. Malcolm Knott says:

    Jeremy Corbyn now has to do something he has avoided all his political life, namely make decisions. Not decisions about which demo to attend next week-end but real decisions such as formulating coherent policies which the PLP will support and on which the whips can deliver the votes. The Tories will be getting out the popcorn.

  21. Blair says:

    John P Reid the Tories didn’t actually win,in 2010 under labour having agordin as our leader.

    The winners of a General Election are the party that forms the sole part of Government or is the dominant party in a Coalition.

    The tories won in 2010.

  22. Are you volunteering?

  23. @ Michael

    Volunteering for the job of Labor Uncut? What’s the salary?

    @ RobF,

    You’re absolutely right. Atul’s reputation is totally shot. How can anyone be so stupid as to go into print with a comment that an odds-on favourite was set to finish last? It was like tipping Chelsea or Manchester City for relegation!

    To be honest, I didn’t even bother reading Atul’s posting beyond the first couple of paragraphs. I can read someone with whom I disagree but I just can’t be bothered with someone who clearly is so out of touch.

  24. Tafia says:

    petermartin2001, you are taking things far to seriously and totally out of context. Atul is the warm-up comedy act.

    Or at least I hope he is.

  25. john P Reid says:

    Blair, did the Tories dominate the Government in 2010, don’t think so considering what they’re doing now, they’ve got their own mandate compared to what they did in last 5 years

  26. Blair says:

    Blair, did the Tories dominate the Government in 2010, don’t think so

    Were you asleep? Are you some form of denier? During the Coalition government the Tories dominated it. They held the key posts in Cabinet and formulated the bulk of the policies. All the Lib Dems did is prop them up for a few scraps from the top table and some token Cabinet posts. Political Uncle Toms.

    Having said that, the Lib Dems wielded far more influence than the entire Labour Opposition did who, as most Oppositions are, were irrelevant.

    The Conservatives won the 2010 General Election. You might not like the fact, but electoral convention says so.

  27. John p reid says:

    Blair,as Jeremy pointed out, the days of chancellor, home sectretary foreign secretary being recognized as the top jobs are over,and Norman baker was a thorn in the side of May, Danny Alexander thorn in the side of Osbourne, and labour vote went up more in 2015 than the Tory one, and them winning in 2015 isn’t relevant to theft they didn’t win in 2010

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