Labour’s options? Different degrees of losing

by Rob Marchant

It was always going to be important to wait until the dust settled around Labour’s second leadership election to see what was going to happen next. Now, settled it has and things are a little clearer, but only a little. What remains still looks like a panorama tremendously unhelpful to Labour moderates.

First, we might review the external changes that have happened since September. As the Independent observed yesterday, of Britain, the US, France, Italy and Germany there remains only one leader from just a few months ago, and neither is Merkel safe. Populist right-wingers have either won or are waiting at the gates everywhere. There are still all the signs of a tidal wave of political realignment across the Western world, and it would be reasonable to assume that Labour needs to either decide how to position itself or risk being swept away

Bizarrely, this is good news for Corbyn: it shows that the appetite for easy answers among the public has not diminished, and among the relatively tiny selectorate which has kept him in post, too, there seems little chance of minds changing before 2020.

The final piece of the puzzle is the information we now have about Brexit. A recent survey showed that Britons currently feel more strongly about their Remain or Leave positions than they do about political parties. This means that Labour’s positioning on Brexit is now crucial to its survival: the fudge that it lived with through the referendum campaign is no longer tenable.

So, what are these options?

One. To unequivocally position itself as a pro-Europe party. It would retain its moderate core and hopefully eat into the Lib Dem’s position before they have a chance to regroup, and perhaps one day return in Scotland, where such views are more palatable to the electorate. It might also pick off some one-nation Tories. This is not to say it is a great option: the likelihood is that it would still remain a rump party for many years, possibly never again attaining power. In a first-past-the-post system, rump parties live a perennially frustrating life. It would also lose a swathe of working-class voters to UKIP, especially in the North. But it would likely survive.

Two. To unequivocally position itself as an anti-Europe party. This would lose its moderates and complete its journey to the hard-left. With no centrist ballast, policy would shift further leftwards accordingly, and further away from the mainstream vote. But it is not clear that it would not still lose working-class voters to UKIP, utterly turned off as they are by the London-based, metropolitan leftism of the Corbynites. It would be also competing against the Tories on pro-Brexit ground where they are much stronger. In short, this option would be likely to be suicidal. A membership with a dwindling band of moderates and a wafer-thin slice of potential voters.

Three. Wait and see. Try and get through the next four years as a squabbling rabble, continuing to fudge the burning issue of the day, and see what tomorrow brings. Now, this strategy might be viable in normal times – many parties have lived to fight another day by treading water – but these are not normal times.

The considerable risk now is that there will be nothing left of the moderate centre by 2020 and the remaining Labour MPs will have been tainted with the Corbyn electoral poison. The patent indecision of such a Labour Party would irritate voters on either side of the Brexit divide. Furthermore, the political whirlwind we are currently experiencing will have moved on by then and Labour could easily be left standing unchanged, defenceless, like a dinosaur in the wake of a comet.

The only hope in this scenario is that the hard left burns itself out in the meantime – e.g. that the current Momentum infighting results in meltdown among the Corbynistas, or that chief Corbyn backer Len McCluskey fails to get re-elected as Unite’s General Secretary – but these are long shots. And waiting hopefully for someone else to make the next move is rarely a good survival strategy, especially when things are moving so rapidly.

In a nutshell, with all of the above options the Armageddon scenario is the following: a three-way squeeze between the Lib Dems, UKIP and the SNP, all of whom have coherent platforms and are therefore dangerous to Labour, which currently does not. Labour is facing not a setback, but decimation in the 2020 general election. It is not a time for patient reflection, but action.

There is still a fourth option: a Labour split. Although hugely unpalatable on the face of it, and with a dubious historical record, it may yet turn out to be the only way to preserve a moderate opposition in a way that can effectively challenge the Tories.

Because the other three are not winning options, merely different degrees of losing.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at The Centre Left

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15 Responses to “Labour’s options? Different degrees of losing”

  1. a viable analysis, but please stop thinking about 2020. May could call an election at any time, at which point Labour loses many of its existing seats.

    A split would finally end any chance of there being a party of the centre left. Voters are not interested in parties with no identity.

    The key is to develop a firmly pro EU brand and fight with the LIB Dems and the SNP for the votes that identify with the EU. And for a second referendum. WHat Corbyn does is irrelevant, his attempt to float a constitutional convention accepting the June result is doomed to go into a black hole.

    In this what Owen Smith said is relevant and he should be leading a pro EU labour grouping. COrbyn would then have to come off the fence one way or another.

    Which might lead to a split, but he would precipitate it.

    Trevor Fisher.

  2. Good analysis, Rob. It largely agrees with mine in that the EU referendum has horribly exposed the cultural divide in the Labour party. You can hear about this in this youtube clip I did last month .

    Personally, I think a split is the best outcome and then the new parties seek to merge with another party. I feel that in any election under FPTP, there is really only room for 4 or 5 parties. But what a way for the Labour party to end its days!

  3. Alf says:

    I think the hardline Blairite cultists have already left the party mentally. Those that remain will face deselection. New recruits the PLP between now and 2020 are likely to be socialists rather than Tory-lites. So, I think we should see a PLP at peace with itself in time for the next election.

  4. John Rogan says:

    There’s also a “sceptical Brexit” position that Labour could have taken.

    1. Refuse to back Article 50 invocation until the legal situation regarding unilateral revocation by the UK was known. Labour to take case to Euro Court of Justice. Explain this by saying we should know what Brexit deal is before we leave.

    2. Refuse to back Brexit until we see the final deal. Let the Tories carry the can. If the Govt can show Brexit can work and make people better off, then great, Labour will back it fully. If not, then we will vote against the package as people did not vote to become poorer.

    Pity Owen Smith didn’t become leader.

  5. Matt says:

    Excellent piece, Rob. I’d just like to add something that I think is important – since all the evidence suggests that immigration doesn’t suppress wages (except possibly in very low-skilled cases), then trying to win working class votes on an anti-immigration platform is not a viable long-term strategy. Even if we win enough votes and manage to implement the policy, what do we say when living standards continue to fall? And how then do we counter the far-right who will inevitably start saying that you can’t trust Labour on this, and they’ll do it “properly”?
    This is, obviously, in addition to the moral/liberal arguments.
    The way to win back northern working class voters in surely an honest assessment of the unequal divisions of wealth between London/the south-east and the rest of the country, and measures to address that. Improving infrastructure (especially transport), encouraging companies to invest, greater regional tax-raising powers… we need a better name than “Northern powerhouse”, though!
    We should also remember that the northern working class is no more homogeneous than any other group – the working class who live in the big cities tended to be more pro-European than those who live in depressedpost industrial towns. And there was a strong leave vote in the “posher” Tory areas of the north (Cheshire etc), so it’s not purely a class issue.

  6. paul barker says:

    Split to form a Party that would look very like a less-convincing Libdems ? What is the point ? If you want a Liberal, Centrist, Pro-Remain Party the Libdems already exist. Why not just abandon Labour as a lost cause & join The Libdems ?
    Right now Pro-Remain MPs seem to be a small minority even among The Labour Centrists so what makes anyone think that a Split would have a coherent position ?
    This article is just more time-wasting.

  7. Ex Labour says:

    Rob, you do yourself and other labour supporters a disservice in referring to “populist right wingers”. Millions of Labour supporters voted in favour of Brexit, not because they were populist right wingers it was because they saw that our politicians are powerless to do anything which might bring back some form of decision making and accountability to the UK government and population as a whole. Junker and his colleagues were intransigent beyond belief.

    As you point out many countries are now veering right, and many call this move anti-politics, but in reality a small minority of the socialist European elite are desperate to keep the EU project alive, to a point where the electorates wishes are ignored.

    The EU project is dead, or at least will be in the next few years. Labour should accept that they were part of this failure by ignoring their own voters concerns. Instead of trying to breathe life into a corpse, they should be actively supporting Brexit and even working with the government to mould and shape what the UK position will be pre and post Brexit. Then they just may regain some credibility with the electorate.

  8. Forlornehope says:

    It doesn’t matter what the Labour Party actually decides; the voters have already chosen to split either to the LibDems or to UKIP.

  9. James says:

    The problem with this analysis is that it is focussed on the Labour Party as an end in itself, rather than looking at what policies and choices are the best for the uk. E.g. The eu question solely from the perspective of what is best for the party. Surely this is to get things the wrong way round. Parties are vehicles for political action, a particular political alignment known as a party is not an end in itself.

  10. peter carabine says:

    The triumph of Boris/Gove Farange and the Brexit Express/Mail/Sun & Telegraph have empowered the ‘further’ Right within the UK and it will grow harder and more nasty as we saw with the attack on the judges

    The Centre/Centre Left/Liberal /diversified Remainders are largely ineffectual, too soft, fragmented and lack big hitters and seem unable to combine and combat the media’s distorted Brexit agenda.

    Despite the 48% talent be it in business, professions, UK workers, academia, media creatives, MPs the centre left are failing in any real fightback. Yes it has to be outside the dysfunctional and unpopular Corbyn Labour Party – a progressive alliance but supported by funding from business and centre left individuals and a kind of ‘muscular’ Centre Forward to break the rising tide of UKIP ideology poisoning our political, economic and social debate.

  11. NickT says:

    Corbyn and his cronies have wrecked the Labour brand for good. Time to either leave the party and join the Lib Dems, or, better, split off the sane and competent parts of Labour, form a new party with people of goodwill and let Corbyn’s lunatics crash and burn with their Little Red Death Star That Couldn’t.

  12. tyronen says:

    How does a split help?

    The two split parties would face the same dilemma: for Brexit or against it? If the Labour right went anti-Brexit, it would as you say never gain power. If the left went pro-Brexit, it as you say might still struggle against the Tories and Ukip.

    Moreover, if the Labour right formed another party, how is it different from the Lib Dems, who are partly products of the previous such split? Why not simply join the Lib Dems?

  13. Alf says:

    “Labour MPs will have been tainted with the Corbyn electoral poison”. The same electoral poison which led to Tory-lite losses in 2010, 2015, and throughout Scotland? The one which lost Tory-lite Ed Balls his seat? The Blair cultists are dreaming!

  14. NickT says:

    “The Blair cultists”

    Funny how it works for some people: win three elections, actually do some good things – and then get denounced for life just because a small, deranged slice of the electorate have taken a fancy to an immature, dishonest student politician who serviced the IRA’s propaganda needs, praised Venezuela and thought Fidel Castro was wonderful.

  15. uglyfatbloke says:

    Win three elections under a totally dishonest system, damage civil liberties, lie, bully, join in stupid wars, make the very poorest people even poorer and make yourself incredibly rich….what’s not to like?

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