10 hard truths for Labour moderates

by Samuel Dale

Last summer, Labour Uncut ran a series about telling ten hard truths for the Labour party after an epic election defeat in May 2015.

Those were the days. Remember Andy Burnham giving his opening leadership speech at Ernst & Young and talking about attracting business support? Or Liz Kendall and Yvette Cooper fighting over who could say aspiration the most times in a speech?

For a few heady days in May, we were all Blairites. An incredible 12 months in Labour politics has passed and it is time to tell 10 hard truths to Labour moderates about our role in the party.

1. Jeremy Corbyn won because Labour members backed him. Corbyn currently appears to have the overwhelming support of Labour members, not to mention affiliated and registered supporters. In fact, he is one of the most popular leaders the party has ever had among its membership. The only realistic route to removing Corbyn is persuading these members that there is a better alternative. Telling them they are clowns or morons (as I have done many times) is self-indulgent and clearly unpersuasive.

2. Momentum have out-organised the Labour right. Last summer, the Corbyn campaign signed up 88,449 registered supporters paying £3 each to vote for him. That was a huge effort of organization and political skill. Without those registered supporters then the vote would have gone into a second round and anything could have happened. This year’s election has been an even bigger effort with an estimated 150,000 registered supporters signed up in the last 48 hours. Some will be moderates for Saving Labour but it seems likely that most will be Corbynistas.

3. Corbyn’s successor will be very, very left-wing. The membership revolution in the Labour party means the next leader will be very left wing. More left-wing than Ed Miliband. Corbyn has significantly, and perhaps permanently, dragged the party leftwards and that will be his crowning legacy. The next leadership election will be run by triangulating between the ideas of Corbyn and Miliband, not Miliband and Cameron.

4. Corbyn has inspired hundreds of thousands. The Labour party now has more than 600,000 members, nearly four times as many as the Conservatives. This is a big achievement and clearly Corbyn is partly seen as an inspirational leader and a symbol of a more hopeful politics. Moderates can’t mimic the politics but they must learn to show an inspiring vision to change modern Britain. Blair did it in the late 1990s, not because he was seen as a flaccid centrist but as a radical inspiring liberal leader. In changed circumstances, the same rules apply to winning Labour leadership elections.

5. Labour MPs will likely face re-selection battles. The Conservatives will ram through their boundary changes during this parliament and it will give the hard left the chance they have always wanted. They will be able to fight hundreds of primary campaigns against sitting Labour MPs as well as future candidates. Mandatory re-selections (or primaries) have been a disaster in the US where politicians are forced to fight off any party challengers before turning to the electorate at large. They have fuelled the rise of the Tea Party and far right and added an unpredictable and centrifugal effect to US politics. It is not a process that favours moderate candidates.

6. Creating a new party is seductive but self-destructive. A new SDP would deliver the Conservatives into government for the next 15 years. It would be impossible to build a new party and organization in time for the next election so the Tories would win easily. Under our electoral system then it could even allow Ukip or Tories to come through the middle to win extra seats. The collective seats of left-wing parties would be lower in 2020 than it is today. Labour under Corbyn would win more seats than any new party. A new SDP would become the equivalent of the Lib Dems with a ceiling of 60 to 100 seats even in 2025. The Tories will be the permanent lead party of government until Labour gets its act together. We should be in the party for when it does. Splits are seductive but futile.

7. Anti-establishment politics is the new norm. Immigration was the scapegoat and driving force behind Brexit but wage stagnation, economic disparity and distrust of political elites were the causes. It remains to be seen whether general elections can be won on this basis but Brexit and the rise of the SNP and Ukip suggest it is a important driving force. Any Labour moderate must recognise the anger and try to provide policy solutions through tax and spending solutions and political reform. It cannot be dismissed or ignored.

8. Blair did not do enough to tackle inequality. The Blair and Brown governments were too focused on creating a growing economy and maintaining market and electoral fiscal credibility. There was no mission to drive out inequality of outcomes in all its guises. Changes to welfare were significant and helpful to the cause but did not go far enough. There was no attempt to redistribute on a larger scale through wealth or property taxes, for example. For all its many successes, it was too timid from 1997 and 2010.

9. Blair was far too timid in winning social democratic arguments. Tony Blair transformed the size and nature of the British state through the minimum wage, tax credits and billions in NHS investment. But he never made the full-throated arguments for a larger more active state. Only once – in the 2002 budget – did Labour launch a national debate over a 1% increase in National Insurance to fund NHS spending. And this was small beer. After 2001, Blair and Brown should have been winning arguments and changing Britain’s soul rather than through stealth taxes and silent spending and welfare reforms. It should have welcomed big arguments more often, and won them.

10. It is a long road back to a liberal, centrist Labour government. I have been tempted by the argument that if only we could remove Corbyn then we will immediately have a chance to govern again soon. But that is fantasy. The rise of the SNP shows no sign of dissipating while boundary changes will make the mountain even steeper to climb. Ukip is genuinely challenging the party in its northern heartlands and Wales, and it could be re-invigorated under a new, less bombastic leader. The Lib Dems could win voters back from a more left-wing Labour in their millions. These are structural problems for the next election that will not be immediately undone if we remove Corbyn. It is a long road back for a liberal centrist Labour party in government. Settle down for hard slog.

Sam Dale is a financial and political journalist

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26 Responses to “10 hard truths for Labour moderates”

  1. Mike says:

    May will be very hard to beat. She has had a superb week – PMQs, good meetings with Merkel and Hollande. Topped off by the exposing of the project fear assertion that the Calais border point would go. It is staying.

  2. John P Reid says:

    2 many £3 were Tories voting to destroy labour
    4 yes he’s inspired people a lot of whom now regret it
    6 it won’t be a new sdp that will deliver the Tories into power, it’ll be the hard left, labour will win again when we want to ,when we realise where the centre ground is
    10 well Du’h

  3. Peter Bradshaw says:

    Maybe the days of centre-left parties winning general elections have gone forever, and Labour as we know it will never be able to get its act together and win power again.

  4. anosrep says:

    “Without those registered supporters then the vote would have gone into a second round and anything could have happened.”

    No it wouldn’t and no it couldn’t. Exclude registered supporters and Corbyn still had a majority in the first round among full members and affiliated supporters. Even if you exclude the latter as well, Corbyn was so close to 50% among full members that it’s certain he would have gone on to win.

  5. Richard Gadsden says:

    The only way a split could work is if the leader of the split was immediately the Leader of the Opposition.

    This wouldn’t be driven by trying to win the 2020 election, but the objective would be:

    (a) win many Labour seats
    (b) split the vote enough in seats where Corbynites get more of the Labour vote to hand them to the Tories or UKIP (or, in a handful of cases, the Lib Dems or Greens).

    60 new-SDP MPs is fine in 2020, provided Corbyn’s Labour gets 59 or less. Of course that would hand Theresa May a huge majority of 1983 proportions. But with Corbyn leading Labour, she’s getting that anyway.

    Either approach – this, or trying to regain control of the Labour party – would be a long, hard slog to government.

    But the only way to win as a split is to destroy the Labour party. If you’re not prepared to commit to doing so, then don’t split it.

  6. Bob says:


    ‘Immigration was the scapegoat and driving force behind Brexit but wage stagnation, economic disparity and distrust of political elites were the causes.’

    You sound as if youu live in the North London Westminster bubble, try to get out a little more to places like the Northern towns and I don’t mean Oxford etc but places like Rotherham and Rochdale or Boston in Lincolnshre and the South Wales valleys.

    Immigration in these places was a big factor in Brexit.

  7. Anon E Mouse says:

    In paragraph 10 the threat from UKIP is brought up. That is bang on the money. In Torfaen, South Wales, the Labour Party officials from Councillors to MP’s to a man were telling us we should be voting to Remain. We didn’t and voted by 60:40 to Leave.

    By Labour aligning themselves with big business and bankers and the likes go George Soros instead of working class voters they have lost that vote forever I feel. In Ebbw Vales monetary threats just served to alienate the normal Labour voters. They will go UKIP next time.

    Already Scotland is lost and in Wales Labour has no overall majority in the Assembly which now has several UKIP AM’s. That would have been unthinkable a decade ago.

    I think it is even worse for Labour than this excellent article outlines. It isn’t that Mrs May is better than anything Labour have to offer (although she clearly is) it is that the party will not stop what it’s supporters do not like it doing.

    Sneering about Boris Johnson for example. How is that going to win over any support? If Labour can’t see that then they deserve to be obliterated at a future General Election…

  8. Tafia says:

    “More left-wing than Ed Miliband.”

    That is a joke surely. Ted Heath was more left wing than Ed Miliband nd he was a Tory PM. Ken Clarke is more left wing than Ed Milliband and he was a Tory Chancellor.

    John Major is roughly in the same place as Ed Miliband and he was a Tory PM as well.

  9. paul barker says:

    Lets have some facts, as far as I know Labour Membership is around 300,000. Those figures of 500,000 or 600,000 include people who get to vote for the Leader but arent members & members who had to pay twice, once to join & again to vote.

    UKIP are going nowhere on the ground, go to Britain Elects & look at the 11 Local byelections yesterday for example : UKIP stood in 5 & their vote fell in 4 of those. Thats been a consistent pattern for months now.
    There is a generally accepted story about what happened to The SDP & its mostly wrong. Look at how The SDP/Liberal Alliance were doing before the Falklands War & they were winning seats. The Alliance polling peaked at 50%. It was the War with Argentina that changed all that – a classic Black Swan event coming out of nowhere.
    A Labour split could do much better now, they only need 116 of the 172 Rebel MPs & they can say that they are The Labour Party, subject to The Courts of course. They would become The Official Opposition.
    I am not calling for a Labour split, it makes more sense for Labour Centrists to join The Libdems where you would be welcome but chances of a split succeeding are much better now than in the 1980s.

  10. joh nP Redi says:

    it depends the definition of left wing in relation to being pro the EU,for social reasons rather than economic ones
    Richard Gadsen, yes, very unlikely, but the PLP may form its own opposition of Jez wins, in September and we have a different leader of the opposition to the leader of the labour party, hope this doesn’t happen

    the point of no.10 is how do we appeal to daily mirror Yvette cooper socially liberal middle class and working class blue labour sun readers

  11. Peter Kenny says:

    I’m afraid the ‘moderates’ aren’t listening, Samuel.

  12. Tafia says:

    A Labour split could do much better now, they only need 116 of the 172 Rebel MPs & they can say that they are The Labour Party, subject to The Courts of course.

    That’s rubbish. The Labour Party is membership and the CLPs. If you split, it’s you that leaves. If you split, you resign your party membership.

  13. Tafia says:

    September and we have a different leader of the opposition to the leader of the labour party, hope this doesn’t happen

    The Leader of the Opposition is the leader of the party with the second highest number of seats. ergo if the rebels won’t take the whiup but remain in the Labour Party then Corbyn remains Leader of the Opposition.

    There are some variations to that – such as if the first and second party are in Coalition, in which case the Leader of the third palced party is Leader of the Opposition.

    The rebels would have to leave Labour and either form another party or join another party. And should they do this and Labour be reduced to lower than the SNP, then until they join a party – or form their own and register it with the Electoral Commission etc, then the SNP will become the Opposition.

  14. Tafia says:

    The Speaker can, in dire circumstance recognise another as Leader in extreme circumstance (such as civil unrest, war, disaster etc – not because a group of MPs wish to indulge their egos), but won’t recognise a rebel commander from within the party that is currently HM Opposition (mainly because the Speaker is trapped by convention) – they would have to become or join another party.

  15. Tafia says:

    Ministers of the Crown Act 1937.

    Section 5 states that “There shall be paid to the Leader of the Opposition an annual salary of two thousand pounds”.

    Section 10(1) includes a definition (which codifies the usual situation under the previous custom) -” “Leader of the Opposition” means that member of the House of Commons who is for the time being the leader in that House of the party in opposition to His Majesty’s Government having the greatest numerical strength in that House”.

    The 1937 Act also contains an important provision to decide who is the Leader of the Opposition, if this is in doubt. Under section 10(3) “If any doubt arises as to which is or was at any material time the party in opposition to His Majesty’s Government having the greatest numerical strength in the House of Commons, or as to who is or was at any material time the leader in that House of such a party the question shall be decided for the purposes of this Act by the Speaker of the House of Commons, and his decision, certified in writing under his hand, shall be final and conclusive”.

  16. Sam, didn’t you tell us you were going to vote for Cameron next time? I know he has gone, but won’t May do for now?

  17. @John P Reid

    I would love to see an internal coalition of Corbyn’s left and Blue Labour. That would begin to take us towards the make up of Wilson’s Labour Party. It is the excess of middle-class liberal centrists which is now causing the problems. The Hampstead dinner party set has to go.

  18. Mark Livingston says:

    I don’t want a Tory-lite Labour party. That doesn’t make me “hard left”.

  19. Ultraviolet says:

    Well, having read the above article, it seems to me that the author has more in common with Corbyn and his agenda than with Owen Smith and his approach.

    In particular, the article points out that Blair did not do enough to tackle inequality, and that Blair was far too timid in winning social democratic arguments.

    All the evidence is that the so-called Moderates have not the remotest intention of addressing inequality or promoting democratic socialist policies, and that is why they will continue to alienate traditional Labour voters. Corbyn, on the other hand, is unashamedly making these arguments.

    The membership is not looking at Corbyn and thinking “Oh my God, yes, he is THE ONE”. They are looking at him, looking at the others, and saying to the Moderates, “nah, mate. What he said.”

    And that is not going to change even if Corbyn goes.

  20. John P Reid says:

    Can’t wait for he, what if Boris had won, or Liz Kendall, or in 2010 Diane Abbott
    Or Herbert Morrison…

  21. John P Reid says:

    Mark Livingston,,you calling anyone to the right of Jeremy corbyn ,including Non New labour people like Owen S its and Ed Miliband does make you to the hard left of them

  22. TellthetruthplsManc says:

    This is a very thoughtful piece which I wish we had more of amongst the hysterical nonsense going on around the current state of the Labour Party . I feel what has sadly got us here is
    (A)the whole Blair Brown era and the almost Stalinist control of the party and its reduction to being a n arrogant political, message and brand managing structure which pushed down the growing resentment born of powerlessness members who couldn’t have their say
    (B)The Labour establishment defining themselves based round a feeling that they existed to out manoeuvre the Tories in their own ground
    (C) Having no new idea as to where to go next with this approach when it stopped working . I witness this last year when trying desparately to drum up support for Yvette Cooper but being left with the feeling of a lack of a positive vision and any new ideas .
    (D) no Recognition of how significant 3 key events would be that all happened under their watch namely the lack of any consideration of the consequences for the poorer communities of the U.K. of agreeing to allow unrestricted immigration when the poorer Eastern European countries joined the EU and the banking crisis of 2008 and the expenses scandal of 2009.
    So now as people are so desperate for some hope the Corbyn message of idealism appeals because the endless compromise from 1994 to 2015 has left many feeling we just sounded like the good Cop to the Tories bad cop and it will only change once many Labour members realise that the Corbyn left are more interested in taking control of the party and happily being in the comfort zone of purity of socialist opposition in a capitalist world than having to do the tough stuff like working out how to win over enough people in parts of the country that have stopped voting Labour to get back into power. Then the whole path back to Social Democracy can start but it has to be different , clean sheet of paper time. Owen Smith is making a good start but it needs new credible ideas alongside honestly learning the lessons of how we got ourselves into this mess.

  23. Graham says:

    It remains far from certain that the boundary changes will go through in that quite a few Tory MPs will not support the. The vote to approve them is not scheduled until Autumn 2018 by which time by election reverses may have reduced the Tory majority to half its present size.
    I have always thought that the SDP defectors missed a trick back in 1981 by failing to resign to seek endorsement from their constituents at by elections. Polling at the time strongly suggested that they would have been re-elected – and their chances of retaining their seats in 1983 would have been greatly improved.
    If 150 Labour MPs forced by elections in the same way that Dick Taverne did at Lincoln in March 1973 I suspect that virtually all would be returned with big majorities. Official pro Corbyn Labour cndidates would often poll a pretty derisory vote share. Those MPs would then return to Westminster as the largest opposition group and elect a leader to become Leader of The Opposition.

  24. ad says:

    The PLP has to regain control of the Party, not for the good of the Party, but for the good of the country.

  25. Tafia says:

    It remains far from certain that the boundary changes will go through in that quite a few Tory MPs will not support

    The tories will back it. Any that are going to dip out (which won’t be many because it’s mainly the disparities in the urban seats that are being dealt with as a whole) will be bought off with a cushy number in the House of Lords.

  26. Michael m says:

    I wouldn’t be too sure that Labour Party splitters would win their seats. There’s not a lot of popular regard for most of them. History shows the winners will be from the ‘official’ Labour Party, with a few exceptions where the are solid local MPs.

    Also, the potential splitters don’t exactly have a track record of success do they?

    Probably better for most moderates to scuttle back and make common cause with JC. Owen Smith is a joke and right wingers know this.

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