Centrists need new ideas and purpose, not a new party

by Jonathan Todd

Phil Collins comments in the Times on speculation within Labour of an SDP type breakaway. Those favouring this move believe that, “the volatility of politics makes 2016 a more propitious moment for novelty than 1981.” Collins, who remains a Labour member, is unconvinced. “The only reason to stay (in Labour),” he wrote a few weeks earlier, “is that it (the Corbyn leadership) can’t last.”

“Corbynism for a decade?” asks Stephen Bush in the New Statesman. “It no longer sounds ridiculous”. In the sense that it was until very recently a widely unanticipated outcome, which would leave many, not least the likes of Collins, distraught, it still sounds pretty ridiculous. But what Bush means is clear.

“Many more than the 66 (Labour) MPs who did vote for airstrikes were convinced on the case for extending British bombing against Isis from Iraq into Syria,” reports Bush, “but pulled back due to pressure from their constituency parties”. CLPs, which MPs need to support them if they are to remain so, are increasingly under the grip of Corbynism.

If MPs are prepared to place political self-preservation before voting with their consciences on Isis, there’s probably nothing – no indignity, daftness, or nastiness – that they wouldn’t endure to extend their political careers. If in the dark nights of their souls, they affirm that this makes them happy, we can only wonder about their souls.

They might read how Tom Harris is happier as an ex-MP than he was as an MP. And Harris got out before Corbyn began. You get the sense that he doesn’t envy Ian Murray, Labour’s only Scottish MP.

“The key to being happier,” writes Professor Paul Dolan, an academic expert, “is to pay more attention to what makes you happy and less attention to what does not.” Paying less attention to Labour is making Harris, like those who have recently left the party, happier. Others hang on in Labour, not exactly happily, resisting the SDP route. Because they believe, as per Collins, things can only get better.

If the Corbynism for a decade thesis holds, however, fortified by CLPs becoming more Corbynite, as more moderate members make themselves happier by reallocating their attention elsewhere, and MPs seek to survive, perhaps sacrificing their own happiness, by pacifying these CLPs, then things may just keep getting worse.

In which case, Collins might sensibly find other focuses for his attention. He could, say, write more books. As Roy Jenkins – a distinguished biographer of Asquith and Churchill, among others – might have done after a long and successful ministerial career in Labour and a stint as President of the European Commission. One of the extraordinary things about the SDP is that, after such an exacting career, Jenkins preferred the associated confrontation and vitriol to putting on his slippers.

The slippers may have brought more pleasure, while the SDP brought greater purpose, and Dolan’s work on happiness is about finding the optimal mix of pleasure and purpose. Non-Corbynite MPs contorting themselves for Corbynite CLPs cannot have great reserves of either.

What may assist them is a contemporary version of Jenkins’ Dimbleby Lecture. “In retrospect,” argues Jenkins in his autobiography, “there is a tendency to telescope events and to see Dimbleby as having touched a lucky button of public response after which the great early days of the SDP smoothly and inevitably followed. This was not so.”

The 1981 launch of the SDP was not a certainty when Jenkins delivered Dimbleby in 1979. In March 1980, Shirley Williams visited President Jenkins in Brussels. “At lunch she bore me a warm message from Denis Healey, who was confidently expecting to become leader of the Labour Party in the autumn, and who proposed with surprising graciousness that I should come back into the House of Commons on return with a view to becoming Foreign Secretary under his premiership.”

Healey wouldn’t have been making Jenkins such offers if he was by then irredeemably lost to Labour, while Williams, like David Owen, was even slower than Jenkins to conclude that the SDP had become their best course. What Dimbleby provided, however, was a coherent centrist way of thinking about British politics. These ideas later came to animate the SDP, having what would even later be discerned as a New Labour flavour, but it is not impossible – though, admittedly, unlikely – that events may have played out such that they were more central to 1980s Labour.

The key point is that Dimbleby provided centrists with a new frame of reference. It is not the 1981 moment that Collins and similar should now be looking for but the 1979 moment: the new thinking, not the new party. Something must have gone array with centrist thinking for Corbynism to be ascendant. Having this corrected in the Dimbleby Lecture 2016 would be welcome, whether or not the 1981 moment ever arrives.

Perhaps drafting this lecture would provide Collins with renewed purpose, which would make him, as well as despondent Labour MPs and members, happier. Even if most political animals are, I fear, shorter, in Dolan’s calculus, of pleasure than purpose – or at least what we tell ourselves is purpose.

Jonathan Todd is Deputy Editor of Labour Uncut

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26 Responses to “Centrists need new ideas and purpose, not a new party”

  1. Robert says:

    I read a biography of Jenkins recently and he was clearly on the centre-left. He was to the left of Callaghan let alone Blair.

  2. Anne says:

    I am sorry but I do not get this popularity of Corbyn – I just do not understand it – I try and look at it from different points but still don’t get it. I don’t see that he had any great new ideas, indeed, what I see is someone entrenched in old ideas and very inflexible. John Prescott is correct in saying he has got to start to lead the party but how long do we wait for him to do this – hopefully not 10 years. Any football team or business would not keep a failing leader. We should perhaps be looking to the younger Labour MPs, after all the future of the party is in their hands. Jess Phillips (won her seat in Birmingham from the LibDems) has said in an interview with Owen Jones that if Corbyn harms Labour she will stab him in the front. There are many who support this action – that would make a lot of us very happy – then perhaps we can move the party forward with new ideas and become an electable party again.

  3. paul barker says:

    Its certainly true that Britain already has one Centre-Left/Liberal/Social Democratic Party, its hard to see why it needs two. Rather than wait for some critical mass of Labour MPs/activistd to recognise that they have no place in Labour, then start planning a New Party; it makes more sense for individuals to simply join The Libdems.

  4. Tafia says:

    Anne –I am sorry but I do not get this popularity of Corbyn

    If you don’t get it then you are in the wrong game. His popularity is his ordinary-ness. His humility, and his not being ‘establishment’.

    People have had enough of middle class technocrat wankers with no passion who think they are important in some way. Plumbers are important. MPs are easily replaceable overpaid rubbish.

  5. historyintime says:

    Corbyn is decrepit and anybody who seriously believes he could become Prime Minister, let alone be a capable leader of an advanced western democracy, is mad. The Labour party doesn’t belong to him or his clique it belongs to the UKs working people and poor. Leaving the party to Corbyn would be an appalling act of moral cowardice and selfishness. And yes Jenkins etc should also have stayed in.

  6. Tafia says:

    The Labour party doesn’t belong to him or his clique it belongs to the UKs working people and poor.

    It doesn’t actually. It legally belongs to the membership. And morally it belongs to the people who fund it – the Trades Unions, who grew it to be what it s supposed to be – the political wing of the TUC.

  7. Anne says:

    No Tafia it is not me who is in the wrong game but Corbyn who is most certainly in the wrong game. Of course plumbers, social workers, teachers and landscape gardeners are important and it these people who should be voting Labour. I don’t think that Corbyn has the slightest idea about working life – I was wondering if he had visited the postal service this week to perhaps get some work experience – I am sure they will be all hands on deck delivering the Chrstmas Mail. As far as I am aware Corbyn has never had what could be termed a proper job in his life – unless of course you count attending protest marches as work.
    It is not just this but it is also his abilities in leadership which are sadly lacking.
    Perhaps he could write us an article on how he sees the Labour Party in 10 years or perhaps ’10 easy steps to becoming PM’ but then again he doesn’t give he impression of being shall we say the ‘sharpest knife in the box.’

  8. E says:

    Having recently left the Labour Party in despair at the leftward turn that it’s taken I long for the opportunity to once again belong to a sensible, moderate, centre left party. Sadly for a variety of reasons I remain unconvinced that the Lib Dems are that party. I would be of the opinion that an SDP style split would actually garner a reasonable level of support in this day and age, particularly if it was well financed and could attract a sizeable number of existing Labour MPs to it’s ranks. Lets face it, the moderates are likely to be marginalised and ultimately deselected anyway as the Corbynistas gradually seize control, so they’d have very little to lose by jumping ship. Judging from the influx of hard left types in the CLP that I’ve recently left there’s really very little chance of the moderate wing of the party regaining control anytime soon, so staying put would be a futile gesture and arguably a betrayal of the electorate at large, who deserve better than the pitiful shambles that Labour has become.

  9. TCO says:

    The game is up.

    The Labour Party belongs to it’s (largely Left Wing) members. If Corbyn goes, he will be replaced like for like.

    Liberal moderates have two choices: persuade more people to join than the 500,000 left wingers who currently control things, or leave. And let’s face it, that’s one of the more improbable outcomes ahead.

    What they do next is a different question. As Paul suggests, they’d probably be better off joining the only Liberal party in the game. But we’ll see.

  10. John. P Reid says:

    A SDP style split, wouldn’t be possible, although resembling the situation of 1981′ there had been centre, Labour Party members who had supported Gaitskells battles with Bevan, there are as people in the right of the party who backed Kinnocks battles with Livingstone and benn, but there’s no militant tendency, despite the myth about Momentum, and when labour lost in 1983 the led were blaming the SDP for splitting the anti Thatcher vote, despite, the fact both the liberal party had been around longer than a Labour,so if anything the formation of the lsbour party split the anti Tory vote,and the fact the only way those Ex labour voters who voted SDP were going to vote lsbour,is if lsbour had a similar manifesto to the SDP and healed as leader,and as most of the far left,would have voted for A SDP manifesto,then the Labour Party would have had to have accepted,seveL million ex labour voters wouldn’t have voted for the 1983 manifesto

    If Corbyn leads labour to catastrophic defeat in 2020″ with ,no break away new SDP, the left won’t have any one to blame the way they blamed the SDP in 1983

  11. Tafia says:

    As far as I am aware Corbyn has never had what could be termed a proper job in his life

    Bit like most of the Labour hierarchy then.

    And he’s a sharper knife than you or you’d be doing better than him – which you very obviously aren’t.

  12. Anne says:

    Wrong again Tafia. I can assure you Tafia I have had the privilege to have had an extremely rewarding and responsible job.

  13. leslie48 says:

    Until recently I thought the ‘SDP option’ was probably dead in the water. What did it for me was JC’s weak responses to the ISIS in Syria /terrorism, the ‘stop the war’ SWP Trot like defence policy and his anti-Trident , return of Ken Livingstone and how this stuff alone would lose him middle England etc., Moreover 30,000 leaving the party is a lot of funding/experience.

    So yes a new SDP would be welcome and many of us would put funds and enthusiasm into a centre-left organisation. The voters in May were reluctant Tory voters a name like New Labour would go down well with most voters except the loony left and £3 SWP types now running some constituencies. . Labour is utterly divided because of Corbyn and we can not have Militant Union leaders like McClusky keep choosing unpopular/unelectable leaders who will never improve the lot of their own members anyway.

  14. They might read how Tom Harris is happier as an ex-MP…

    I must admit I am far happier Tom is an ex-MP also, and not just because of his expenses record, but I would still much prefer to have a Labour MP in that constituency.

  15. Anne says:

    Jonathan is right here what is required is new ideas.
    What now seems to be happening is the MPs are being selected by their localities on local issues – most MPs are good people and do a resonablejob – they become in many ways a bit like social workers – working to improve and solve problems in their localities – as in many jobs there are some ‘bad apples’ some hard workers and some who could do better. However most will be described as average or OK. There are few who become exceptional. Perhaps the time when ideas were plentiful was post Second World War but this was also a period of rebuilding and also there were some very talented politicians about with good ideas.
    It is thought that Corbyn was complete the 5 years until the next election and history will become the judge of his leadership.

  16. Tafis says:

    Wrong again Tafia. I can assure you Tafia I have had the privilege to have had an extremely rewarding and responsible job.

    No it’s you that’s wrong. You haven’t been leader of Her Majesties Opposition and the only jobs higher than that are the inner Cabinet of Government. So to do better than hoim you would have to have been one of the first division Cabinet Mionisters – which you haven’t and from the way you write you are incapable of.

  17. John P Reid says:

    I retract my view that momentum isn’t militant, they’re now clearly trying to use militant twctics to oust others and infiltrate http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/momentum-controversial-left-wing-group-to-debate-joining-labour-in-boost-to-jeremy-corbyn-a6779916.html

  18. Bob Crossley says:

    Optimistic to expect anyone to read this so late, but here goes…. TCO is wrong. If Corbyn went he wouldn’t automatically be replaced by another Corbster, because the PLP will not nominate one. JC and Co know this, so he’ll hang on for grim death. Don’t expect him to stand down just because the polls or local elections are a disaster, or the EU elections a rout, or even after losing an election. He will only go if he is certain that a suitable replacement will be nominated (obviously the actual election is a fait accompli). Which means that sooner or later the Corbsters will want to change the rulebook so that the Great Leader Mark 2 can get nominated. If that happened, then 10 years is probably the minimum tenure of Corbynism in the Labour Party, not the maximum.

    Of course “deselection” could boost Corbster representation in the PLP, but that’s for post-2020. Either way, the game for the Right is not over until the Corbsters have the succession fixed. If JC had,say, an accident on his bike before 2020, there would be an opportunity to begin a fight back. On this slender, and rather distasteful, hope the future of the party depends.

  19. neilh says:

    The political arithmetic is against a new SDP style party: it would be competing for centrist votes, without having any ‘core’ vote to fall back on. Its main function in our FPTP system would be to split the labour vote, and reduce the amount of votes the tories need to secure a majority in marginal constituencies. I’m reminded of David Milibands warning of a multiparty democracy where only one party can win majorities.

  20. Anne says:

    Tafia- I was not claiming to have held any high office nor to be in any way clever – I will leave that to those who have the ability. It also depends on what you call worthwhile jobs. I am sorry you don’t like my writing and contributions but I am saying what a lot of working people are thinking.
    Bye the way I do like your contributions regarding the conflict in Syria – you have obvious knowledge and understanding in this area – these are a lot more informative than those you can read in the media.
    Sorry if I have offended you in any way.

  21. TCO says:

    “I’m reminded of David Milibands warning of a multiparty democracy where only one party can win majorities.”

    Labour sealed it’s own fate with its refusal to enact it’s manifesto promises on electoral reform.

  22. Feodor says:

    “If JC had,say, an accident on his bike before 2020, there would be an opportunity to begin a fight back. On this slender, and rather distasteful, hope the future of the party depends.”

    So having tried all else and failed, the new strategy favoured by Labour’s ‘moderates’ is to hope Corbyn gets into a traffic accident? And this is the serious politics of power and government that we’re all supposed to all tip our hats to?

  23. Anne says:

    I have read the article by Peter Hyman in which he states that Labour can not survive in its present form – I think it is a fair assessment. Steve Richards from the i newspaper yesterday commented on the article and his recommendation was to try and work together as the only winners would be the Conservatives. Although I agree with the general thrust of his article there was one point in which I disagreed. Steve stated that there was not yet a leader identified to take on the role of leading a new party. I think there is a person emerging from all of this that is showing the qualities of leadership – that person is Angela Eagles.

  24. Tafia says:

    I have read the article by Peter Hyman in which he states that Labour can not survive in its present form

    It wasn’t surviving in it’s Blairist/Newe Labour form either – it was slowly dying. So anyone who wants to return to that is actually persuing a policy of destruction.

    Angela Eagles She’s not even half the politician Corbyn is.

  25. Anne says:

    It is not about going back but about the here and now – as Jonathan has said finding purpose – new ideas to manage today’s situations.
    For example, as I am from the north – half of my neighbours are underwater – Corbyn has made one short visit to Cockermouth. His brother, a meteorologist does not believe that global warming is contributing to climate change. I doubt if we can expect very much support from him. Our local MPs are making noises about increased funding.
    There is a north south divide – our roads and infrastructure are inferior – we often say this would not be tolerated in the south. The I M F had clearly stated that we should be investing in infrastructure developments.

  26. Peter Kenny says:

    I imagine that Jeremy Corbyn will do what any leader winning on the first ballot with 60% would do – strengthen his position through changes to policy and personnel. He was clearly elected as the “change” candidate so you should expect change. It’s not so mysterious really.

    However there has been a pretty persistent attempt by the losers to paint this obvious process as illegitimate. It’s not, it’s what he was elected to do.

    So, that’s what he’s doing. The question is what are you doing? Hoping for traffic accidents?

    If you want to split, get in with it. If you don’t then you need to develop a better political position than hoping to be rescued.

    What do you want, what do you stand for, what are your principles, what are your policies? Perhaps a good place to start would be to think about why you failed (and include yourselves in the analysis)

    It is miserable to see intelligent people in the state you’re in.

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