by John Slinger
At Labour’s ruling body last week, deputy leader Tom Watson described his reforms as “putting the band back together”. As someone who’s played in rock bands for as long as I’ve been a Labour member, I know that there comes a time when most bands split, usually over ‘artistic differences’ or arguments how to get a record deal. For me that time has come.
Having worked with Jeremy Corbyn in parliament in 2003, I know he’s a principled and decent man. But he’s the wrong frontman for a band that at its best is capable appealing to the masses, Oasis or Blur-style (I’m showing my age). Like all bands with ropey songs but genuinely held delusions of grandeur, Jeremy and his managers have found a niche market of devoted fans who cheer him to the rafters as a rock god. Everyone knows the euphoric feeling of seeing ‘your’ band, singing songs for you amidst a crowd of like-minded people. After the gig you return to the real world and discover that not everyone shares your musical tastes. I suspect that Labour members will experience this when they knock on the doors of ordinary voters in the coming weeks.
This isn’t about bands or even principally the future of the once great Labour Party, but about British democracy. It’s vital that any government faces a strong opposition, capable of holding them to account and which is a credible alternative for the time when the people choose to kick out the incumbents. The public doesn’t regard Corbyn and his underperforming front bench as anywhere near up to the task. They hear about the Corbyn-supporting Momentum organisation and they remember how Militant infiltrated Labour in the 80s.
I don’t blame Jeremy Corbyn: he won fair and square. Labour moderates weren’t as well organised and didn’t put up good enough candidates against him. Moderate MPs took some action by resigning from the shadow cabinet and passing a no confidence motion. But ‘their’ Labour Party is now well and truly in the hands of Jeremy and his groupies. No matter how many times we shout out for the old classic winning songs or some new hits, Jeremy has the microphone and no-one can wrestle it from his grip.
Many moderates now say “Stay In Labour” wanting to square a circle by remaining loyal to the party, accepting Jeremy’s increased mandate, yet fighting from within for moderate policies. Since leadership challenges have failed twice, they now demand shadow cabinet elections, presumably to surround Jeremy with moderates who disagree with him on policy direction. This is surely futile given that he wants to “democratise” policy-making by boosting the power of a membership which overwhelmingly backs him. The unpalatable dilemma is to show unity by agreeing with a leader you disagree with, or disagree with him and perpetuate a battle that you cannot win. All the while, the lack of a credible leader or policies brings electoral decimation ever nearer.
Moderate members like me aren’t prepared to allow Corbyn the luxury of leading Labour into the electoral abyss in the vain hope that this dose of real democracy will banish the hard left forever. Increasing numbers of us are concluding that unless Labour MPs take a lead within Parliament, a new centre-left party should be formed outside Parliament that reflects the pragmatism and decency of the British public by rejecting the old divides of left and right. Hopefully it would attract some Labour MPs and peers, but also those from other parties. More importantly it could be an exciting new home for the millions of voters in the centre of politics on whose support electoral victory depends. They haven’t gone anywhere, but they have nowhere to go.
A new party must be strong in the places that ‘hard left Labour’ and the Conservatives are weak: for example out-manoeuvring the Tories on public sector reform by being more compassionate and attracting support away from hard-left Labour by showing strength on law and order and defence. Crucially, it must have true proportional representation as a central policy aim to help end fissures within the major parties and heal voters’ sense of alienation by better reflecting their views.
John Prescott once said “the tectonic appear to be moving”, yet sensible Labour members and MPs seem paralysed by their loyalty to a fading brand, belief that they can wear Corbyn and co down and that there is a way back for moderation. Labour has no right to electoral support: under Corbyn it can only lose the respect of the public. It’s time to get ahead of the curve and give voters a credible alternative to the Tories. If Labour cannot fulfil this role then Britain needs a new band in the centre that listens to what a majority of the public care about, sings better songs, plays gigs that are attended by more than just the die-hard fans of the hard left and starts winning again.
John Slinger was a member of the Labour Party from 1991 until September 2016, was previously a member of the party’s National Parliamentary Panel, Vice-Chair of a Constituency Labour Party, a local election candidate and researcher to Labour MPs in the House of Commons between 2003-2006. He chairs Pragmatic Radicalism (http://pragrad.org)