Labour centrists should not abandon ship on account of the captain

by Gareth Williams

Probably the greatest hour in modern television history is the magisterial finale of the second season of the West Wing: Two Cathedrals. In it, President Bartlet, facing a tough reelection challenge and recently exposed as suffering from MS, is chastised by the figure of his deceased secretary over his indecision regarding whether or not to seek a second term. She issues him with the rhetorical ultimatum “if you don’t want to run again, I respect that. But if you don’t run cause you think it will be too hard or you think you’re going to lose…I don’t even want to know you”.

Harsh words and different stakes, perhaps, but Labour’s centrists face a similar quandary.

Is it worth fighting for a party which seems uninterested in fighting for itself? Should they go out on the doorstep for leaders who, themselves, do not see the merit in gaining office? Is there any point in putting up with voluminous and vituperative abuse day in day out?

My answer to all three would be a considered “yes”.

I did not support Jeremy Corbyn. I still don’t. I think many of his policies are both morally bankrupt and strategically nonsensical  – in addition to being electorally fatal. They will, if permitted, lead us to corporeal irrelevance and political extinction. I am not alone. While hard figures remain hard to come by, anecdotal estimates of membership outflows put the figure at 25 members leaving for every 75 who join.

As the denominator of the membership shifts further leftward, so do the parameters of the debate, control over internal party structures and, with these, the possibility of the party’s mainstream ever regaining control slips ever further out of reach.

You can support the party without supporting the leader. You can help dedicated MPs, MSPs, AMs and councillors working day in day out to serve those which no other party will from the threats of deselection and expulsion.

Leaving Labour may decisively demonstrate one’s utter exasperation with the party’s electoral self-immolation, but it does nothing to help the remaining band of Labour centrists trying to reclaim the party which, for its many flaws, represents the only genuine and viable force for social justice in British politics today.

Very simply, where else will you go? The party which was the population of the Shetland Islands away from ceasing to exist at Westminster and for whom, it appears, that the only way is even further downhill? The “worker’s party” which is trying its level best to make working families more than £1,000 a year worse off? If not Labour, where?

Labour’s centrists have laboured for the party for years, with little recognition. They are fiercely loyal to it, in spite of the frequent barrage of criticism which asserts otherwise. They made the decision to run with a party which has been out of office for most of its existence. With a party derided by the upwardly mobile for its antiquated approaches when any social climber would have opted straight for the Tories. They do not join the Labour Party for social advancement – they do it out of social conscience.

They knock on doors, are nearly savaged by illegally owned dogs, are called every obscenity under the sun, get ripped knuckles from forcing leaflets through reinforced letterboxes, get sunburnt, contract pneumonia and tear calf muscles in two for it all because they saw – and see – something at its core worth fighting for.

The “light on the hill”, as the leader of its antipodean counterpart put it. The “betterment of mankind”. Fear replaced, where possible, by hope.

These are worthwhile objectives and a party which stands for them more so than any other is itself worth fighting for.

There is a historic. but time-limited opportunity to steer the party away from its autopiloted collision course in to the already visible iceberg of 2020. Do not desert us, brothers in arms.

Gareth Williams is a Labour member from Cardiff

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33 Responses to “Labour centrists should not abandon ship on account of the captain”

  1. Robert says:

    Thankfully for you centrists, you have a party in power now, the Tories of course, they see themselves as moderates as well.

  2. Tafia says:

    While hard figures remain hard to come by, anecdotal estimates of membership outflows put the figure at 25 members leaving for every 75 who join.

    Gaining three members fro every member you lose is the wet dream of virtually every political party in the UK.

  3. And yet when I look at many in the PLP I see people to whom Labour is just a brand. When they look at the fortunes of the Gang of Four and the SDP they worry if they don’t have the brand they will disappear into the Liberals or Tories. We have people who no longer consider they even need a working class core vote. We have a generation of careerists who are looking for the ultimate safe seat. At long last the electorate is beginning to see there is difference between the parties and that they are not all heirs to Blair. I suspect the election of Corbyn has saved the party from its eventual obscurity.

  4. Michael Worcester says:

    thoughtful article but what about the Labour voters who when they see Corbyns vision do not see the “light on the hill” but a cross between Venezuela (economic incompetence) and Babel (a multicultural hell). Should they support Labour now in the hope that there will be a change of direction? If anything the future being mapped out by a Labour government looks bleaker with every new appointment of the tired swivel-eyed revolutionaries and the side lining (mostly due to sulking though) of the MPs that would be fit to run the country. Some will go to other parties but most will just sit on their hands at election time again.

  5. Mike Stallard says:

    Gareth, you are very much behind the times. Labour no longer represents the workers at all.
    Heavy industry is closing down just as fast as it was under Mrs Thatcher because of the climate change bill of Mr Miliband pushing prices of electricity through the roof. Renewables do not provide electricity in winter or when the wind blows wrong. Trying to blame it all on the Tories fools nobody. Our electricity targets are impossible, not being met and they hurt the very people you say Labour is there to protect.
    In the Private Sector, jobs are increasing fast – and being largely taken by immigrants of one sort or another. Lots and lots of native born English people are on the dole. And they are content to stay there too. Mr Brown did a lot to make that happen. Immigrants (I meet lots) think that English people are lazy. Our working class is often not working and the old family/party/chapel system went ages ago.
    In the Public Sector, the people at the bottom – Doctors, Teachers, Lawyers, Classroom Assistants, Cleaners, Social Workers, Nurses – are increasingly annoyed and controlled by an uncaring, out of touch bureaucracy. The Directors and Managers and all the other people who run the system are, frankly, swindling the taxpayer and being paid in hundreds of thousands of pounds for abominable management. They never visit the workers. They never dirty their hands. They are not doing their job and being paid far too much. And the same goes for the people at the top of the Unions too. We are light years away from the Labour movement that I once respected.
    Major Attlee, Major Denis Healey, Nye Bevan…

    That is why the Labour movement is dying out. It is no longer fighting for the people you think it is fighting for. Instead it is fighting for Number One. And that has absolutely nothing Social about it.

  6. Bob Crossly says:

    Anyone around in the 80s knows that leaving isn’t a useful option. But what is the route plan if we’re staying? I don’t see any method of deposing Corbyn under the current rule book, unless it’s by persuading several hundred thousand people to pay £3 to vote for someone else (who?) in a leadership challenge. And it’s wishful thinking that a poor showing in May, or even in Oldham, could shame him into resignation – he knows, and his supporters in the PLP know, that they will not get another chance at leadership if he resigns, given the 15% barrier. That leaves us with the slim chance of him popping his clogs before the election.

    Of course he is a cyclist.

  7. John P Reid says:

    Good article,but doing all the ground work will it be worth it,if in a few years we lose a,election and the new Corbynistas who havent done any canvasing replace him with McDonnell

  8. steve says:

    “policies are both morally bankrupt and strategically nonsensical – in addition to being electorally fatal”

    How well did Jim Murphy do when he presented the Blairite alternative to the people of Scotland?

    The Blairites are unwilling to countenance the reality that is staring them in face: they’ve lost Labour the last two elections and, during the period of government, lost the LP nearly 5 million votes.

    Even Kinnock managed to win more votes in ’92 than Blair did in 2001.

    Instead of pointing the finger the Blairites must analyse and explain their electoral decline. Even their leadership candidate was only able to accrue a shockingly meagre 4.5% of the vote.

  9. Mr Akira Origami says:


    Do not fear Mad Cap’n Corbyn, who is down below in his cabin reading the latest copy of “Drainspotting Monthly”.

    It’s the 3 doubloon bloodthirsty pirates who have taken control of the ship. They have taken the booty and will make the centrists walk the plank.

    The Country of Scotland do not want you and Welsh Labour in the Country of Wales just want as much English tax-payers pieces of eight as they can get their hands on.

    Have some dignity and take to the long boat lads!

  10. Madasafish says:

    Anyone who recalls Militant – as I do – will see Mr Corbyn does not care if he loses in 2020.

    His aim is to turn the Labour Party to the left – and keep it there – so his successor can carry on and possibly win a GE whenever the Tories screw up as they will.(the fact that Labour is useless as an Opposition means a Tory crash will come sooner rather than later – as the Government will grow careless with no real opposition)..

    As I see it, the Labour Party of the past is now dead and the corpse is already being buried.. The NEC is going to support Corbyn, the new members support him and they don’t care about winning elections..- yet.

    This is not a 2 year strategy but a decade long one…Corbyn will win.

  11. Tony says:

    I like Corbyn and broadly support what he stands for.

    In Paris, the police killed two people and captured, I think, eight. Clearly, that is not a shoot to kill policy. This is the kind of policy that Corbyn supports.

    I am truly sickened at how some Labour MPs have deliberately misrepresented what he said.

  12. Tony says:

    like Corbyn and broadly support what he stands for.

    In Paris, the police killed two people and captured, I think, eight. Clearly, that is not a shoot to kill policy. This is the kind of policy that Corbyn supports.

    I am truly sickened at how some Labour MPs have deliberately misrepresented what he said.

  13. AnneJGP says:

    Quite a dilemma for Labour centrists and I sympathise. Do they keep working away on behalf of the party in hopes of something turning up, or not?

    Are you seriously intending to dedicate your lives to supporting what you don’t believe in? More than that, are you going to go out on the doorstep trying to win support for something you can’t support yourself?

    Suppose you have influence with people; people who trust you. Are you going to abuse that trust by getting them to vote for a party which currently has an ethos you don’t believe in yourselves?

    Maybe centrist activists need to embrace a principled inactivity: being active when there’s something to support that they do support, and simply being inactive when asked to support what they don’t support. You don’t have to campaign against it, unless you feel it absolutely necessary.

    You may be able to preserve centrist MPs etc against deselection, but – if the hoped-for something doesn’t turn up – what will you do when it comes to a GE with a manifesto neither you nor your PPC can support?

    Sometimes the only way forward is to let the driver discover for himself he’s on the wrong track, and you won’t do that by disguising the signals & signposts telling him it is the wrong road.

    And bear in mind that it was the centrist MPs themselves who started the party down this road. The safeguard was there and they chose to ignore it. Maybe you’d do better to be looking for fresh representatives with more common sense.

  14. Rallan says:

    “Labour centrists should not abandon ship on account of the captain”

    The ships officers (the Labour PLP) are unhappy. So what?

    Who owns the ship, and keeps it afloat? The Unions.
    Who crews the ship, and does the donkey work? The members.
    Who was elected as Captain by the Unions & members? Jeremy Corbyn.

  15. Janice says:

    I’m on strike, I am not voting Labour again until corbyn has gone. But then the question is how are you going to get rid of him, and his followers, and if you do get the party back will it still be alive, and how long will it take?

    I know the speed with which this has happened is so fast that its a shock, but sometimes we have to come to terms with the reality of a situation quickly otherwise the alternative options close down too quickly, before we have a chance to take them.

    Labour for a long time has been to slow and unwieldy in the way it operates, but to use a well known cliche “he who hesitates is lost”.

    Loyalty and sentimentality are fine things, however fighting over a dead party is a pointless activity, and I fear corbyn and his momentum friends and kicking poor little labour to death.

    You may have to bury it sooner than you think. I know its incredibly sad but are you involved in politics because you care about the country or are you in politics because you care about the labour party? If its because you care about the country then you might have to leave the poor little labour party to be beaten abused and cruelly decapitated by the nasty thugs have have taken it hostage.

    Someone pass me a tissue, I think I’m going to cry………but reality is a bit like that.

  16. I know how dispiriting it can be, to be subject to a constant stream of low level abuse. And I imagine it’s pretty dispiriting for moderate progressives in Labour at the moment.

    I hope they can take comfort from the fact that, away from the twittersphere, their values are what most people want in a British government.

    The UK people, primarily, want two things in a government:
    (1) a willingness to face up to difficult choices, in particular when it comes to the economy.
    (2) and compassion for those in the country who lack opportunity.

    They voted for this when they elected Labour from 1997. They thought they were voting for this when they elected the Tories this May.

    It’ll take a while, but they’ll come to realise that Compassionate Conservatism is as much a chimera as it was when the Americans elected George W Bush. That the GoodRight may be made up of a few good Tories, but the nature of their party is such that they’ll never be more than a figleaf.

    I don’t know if you can retake control of your party. But, one way or the other a moderate progressive political force will re-emerge. The imperative now is to find the fastest way of achieving that. Even better, if we can make that force one which will remain progressive and moderate in the long term.

  17. Rallan says:

    Wow. I just read more about the democratic revolution Jeremy Corbyn is going to implement within the Labour party. He’s got the legitimacy, backers and supporters to irreversibly change the party, and the boundary changes will let him seal the deal. He already has everything he needs to get the job done, and as far as I can see the “moderates” have no ammunition at all.

    Labour is not coming back from this.

  18. NickT says:

    I find it hilarious that the centrists see themselves as somehow unique victims of things which all of us have experienced at some point. Is it too much to ask centrists to stop playing the victim and sabotaging the party just to make themselves feel good? Voters have made it very clear that warmed over Blairism is as appealing as a cup of cold vomit. Centrists should think about why they keep trying to force it down the electorate’s throat.

  19. Murrayzz1 says:

    25 leave for every 75 who join? Excellent! At that rate, all the Tory-lite Blarites will be gone for good (may I suggest the Tory party as being more aligned with your views?)

    With the influx of disaffected ex-Labour voters returning to the fold, because they see that the party is finally presenting a realistic alternative to the market-driven far-right corporate-led ideology that has gripped UK politics for the past 3 decades, Labour might finally become a party that actually opposes the Tory hegemony, rather than limply proposing a watered down variation of the same failed ideas.

    Far from condemning Labour to electoral defeat, he has saved the party from extinction.

  20. Forlornehope says:

    Here’s a thought on how the PLP could get rid of Corbyn. All they have to do is to leave the party en masse and reconstitute themselves as, say, “The Parliamentary Labour Party”. If they took the majority of MPs with them they would then be the official opposition! Of course the next election could be a complete blood bath for the Left with Labour and PLP candidates up against each other. Whether Labour or PLP would come out on top would be anybody’s guess. The Tories would be delighted. It could be very interesting – to watch!

  21. John P Reid says:

    Robert,surely we have the tories in power now due to Ed Miliband, who wasn’t a centrist , he won’t his five years denouncing new labour, and even if he was a centrist, the Tories win a majority of 12′ unlike the majorities they win in the 89’s ,but that of course was the SDPs fault, for having different opinions than the Tories and Labour,and then some of the electorate decided they didn’t like labour policies so they voted for them

    danny speight, the people who feel we don’t need the working class vote were the Stufent politics of Ed Miliband fans, who now make up,half of… Jeremy Corbyns supporters, the people who will get back the working class vote in England are Blue labour and the Co-op, who are hardly Corbynistas,

    Steve ,the Blairites didn’t lose the last election, Ed Miliband spent the last 5 years denouncing Blair
    Yes Blir/Brown did lose 4.85m votes between 1997-2010
    With Kinnock, Blair increased labours vote by 5.2m votes from 1987-1997
    Attlee and Wilson and Foot also decreased labours vote by 5.6m votes between 1995-1983

  22. John P Reid says:

    Steve, blaming Jim Murphy for labours defeat in Scotland is daft he was in the job 6 months,the decline of the Scots vote had been going on for decades, I take it if Labour lose Glasgow council in 2016 you’ll accept it was Jeremy Corbyns fault, no of course not,

  23. Diane says:

    Time for the Blairites to leave and join the Tories if they so wish.

  24. steve says:

    John P Reid: “blaming Jim Murphy for labours defeat in Scotland”

    When Jim Murphy became leader of Scottish Labour the Progress website declared the revival of Scottish Labour had begun.

    Of course, if Murphy had achieved a landslide victory, or even a meagre victory, the Blairites/Progress would have claimed all credit.

    But instead of hitting the ground running Murphy ran the Labour Party into the ground and was deservedly humiliated by the electorate.

  25. John P Reid says:

    Steve of course,same as if labour do well in Scotland next year I’ll credit Corbyn, but won’t blame him,if we do bad

    Diane will you moan if these Blairites take 2million votes with them

    Tony, the police killed two ,is not a shoot to kill policy?

    Rallan is the Labour Party ship afloat, current prediction,labours 24% in the polls

    Madasafish, problem with the idea of labour winning when the Tories screw up,is to Quote Portillo, the Tories had done enough to lose in 199′ but the public wouldn’t vote for labour if,they still felt the unions would tell Kinnock what to do,if he refused to bring back, their union laws

  26. paul barker says:

    I would argue that Centrist Labour MPs should defect to The Libdems. We were badly hit in May but we are no means dead. Yes, we only have 60,000 members compared to Labours 370,000 but wouldnt you rather belong to a small Party that you agree with rather than a large one with which you have less & less in common ? In the long run the only real choices are defection, form a new Party that would say all the same things as The Libdems anyway; or leave Politics altogether.

  27. TCO says:

    I have a lot of sympathy with the author, being a right-leaning (economically) social justice Lib Dem.

    He has correctly identified the problem for Labour, a leftwards creep in the membership. Unfortunately because of the democratic changes to the party, this creep has turned into a tide, and is irreversible. So centrists are faced with an impossible choice – leave the party they love, or stay and fight the tide, with as much likelihood of success as King Cnut.

    I recognise that it’s probably too soon for Labour’s Liberals to join another party, but please acknowledge that there are many of us in the Lib Dems who share your philosophy and aims, and are willing to make common cause.

    Liberalism was bruised in May 2015 and in the Corbyn aftermath, but it hasn’t died. And a strong voice for it is needed more than ever.

  28. steve says:

    paul barker: “I would argue that Centrist Labour MPs should defect to The Libdems.”

    It makes perfect sense but they won’t defect – why jump onto a sinking ship?

    They’ll only jump ship if career opportunities are available.

  29. Mike Homfray says:

    I wonder why Liberals chose to jin the Labour party in the first place, though?

  30. paul barker says:

    Several comments have referred to The Libdems as a “sinking ship” but what little evidence we have now doesnt support that assertion. Libdem membership has risen by around 50% since May & in Local byelections gains have outnumbered losses by around 3 to 1. I am very much an armchair member but judging from the contacts I have had morale seems high.

  31. John P Reid says:

    Mike homfray good point, but remember from 1997-2010 the libdems stood on a manifesto, to the left of labour, in terms of tax,and defence, and equality, plus, the centre ground may have changed on other things labour having give from eu sceptic in 1990 to very pro Eu, to having gradually gone away from being pro Eu since 2007

    And people don’t belong to a party unless they agree key every policy,middle class Fabians may have different views on immigration than working class labour members of the co-op,blue labour on a council estates,

  32. Darren Cran says:

    Steve, you’re right. The Libdemjs is the obvious choice. I think that’s where I’m going. It’s clear the membership has changed so significantly that moderates are habitually called Tories and told to go and join them. But pathetic as that sounds to any outsider, that’s similar to the Corbynista’s being told to leave and join the communist party or SWP. What is clear is that there is no place for us here and I came to that conclusion around 4 weeks ago. There will be no reasonable discourse. I admire the ones who want to fight on but to what end? The party has changed – who wants to be a member (and, more importantly, vote for) a party that no longer represents your values and who’s members don’t want you? You don’t support a party like a football team – you support it for it’s values. After 40 years it’s sadly time for a change (leaves to cries of good riddance from stage hard left…)

  33. Hi Darren,

    If you do join us, know you’ll get a warm wekcome.

    Someone else who has recently moved from Labour has helped me set up a group in the Lib Dems called Social Democrat Group. If you’re on Facebook, do give us a visit.

    Our aim is to build on the party’s social democrat heritage, and to build better relations with social democrats in other parties. So if anyone who is going to stay in Labour wants to come over and say hello, that’d be great.

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