by Trevor Fisher
For any blog site commenting on current developments, the latest headlines define the agenda. The opening days of April provided many, but if the Livingstone saga is ignored as driven by one person’s private attempt to stay in the headlines, there are two underlying themes that make Labour’s future increasingly grim. The first is the Party leadership abandoning Party policy to appease right wing interests, and the second is the short sighted belief that the battle for Party dominance is what defines party politics. Both major factions, Old Left and Modernised New Labour are paddling these canoes with no sense that the public is moving elsewhere. The first of these two problems is now coming to a head.
The major political issue of our time is Brexit, and the dominant forces in the PLP have abandoned defence of the EU for acceptance of the hard right agenda on splitting from Europe. The party policy passed by the 2016 conference, still holds that while it “noted” the TUC decision to accept the majority vote, it would reserve its position including not triggering Article 50 and stated that “The final settlement should therefore be subject to approval, through parliament and potentially through a general election or referendum”, which remains feasible, most crucially through another referendum.
But the PLP leadership, from Corbyn to Mandleson, abandoned this with classic short term thinking. The principled reasons for defending Europe were abandoned once the vote came in, but it was not only Corbyn who demanded total obedience to Brexit. Miliband’s speech to the Open Labour conference was that a soft Brexit was acceptable and Labour would get this, with no reference to the actual results of this policy. As I have already argued, there is no soft Brexit and to accept the Tory agenda as Corbyn did by putting a three line whip on Article 50 was folly. However the electoral argument is currently top priority. The Corbynistas still claim that they can win the next election, arguing it will take two years to turn the party round.
This has to be measured against the reality of Labour’s actual election results. At both the February by- elections, in Leave constituencies, the vote for Brexit candidates outnumbered the pro-Brexit parties, but by accepting Brexit Labour is said to have held on to Stoke Central, despite losing Copeland. The result was clearly the result of UKIP splitting the Brexit vote. This was a poor outcome in a Leave seat, and there is no answer from the Party leadership on what would happen in pro-Remain constituencies: the threat to Labour’s north English seats was enough to ditch party policy. However the double thrust of losing Remain and Leave seats is now looming. SNP and Lib Dems are as much a threat, in Remain constituencies as UKIP and the resurgent Tories are in Leve seats.
To add a twist of pure stupidity, the Times reported on April 6th that Peter Mandelson is arguing the UK should pay £50billion to release the UK from the EU, at which point negotiations on a trade deal could begin. The idea that paying £50 billion wins votes is a non-starter. The Leave case rested largely on stopping monies being paid to Brussels. Paying large sums to them would trigger a backlash from the Right and is so far from reality that Mandleson has entered the realms of delusion.
The same day the paper reported that internal Tory polling showed the Lib Dems likely to win back seats in South London and the South West they lost in 2015, but due to the strength of their local organisation not the call for a second referendum. This will be put to the test in the vote Farron has called on May 12th, but at least means that a snap election is impossible for the Tories to call, so Labour has time to assess what is to be done about its Brexit favouring leadership.
The grim failure to grasp what accepting Brexit involves was most sharply pointed up by Ed Miliband – of the Speech of Retreat at the Open Labour conference on March 11th – and Hilary Benn, now risking becoming the member for voting with the Tories, jointly writing in the Guardian on 2nd April. What stood out was two experienced politicians arguing that Labour can build national unity but “we don’t do it by appearing to write off the 52%”, a statement not merely political nonsense but hypocritical since they belong to a party elite which ignored the growing alienation of the working class voter as Labour failed from 2001 to hold its core vote. It is dangerously patronising to second referendum supporters. These know they have to pay close attention to people who voted for the Tory hard right and win their support. This is very different from seeking to appease people who Labour now fears will vote against them in the future. The Labour leadership has lost any credibility by flip flopping over Europe and the strategies and tactics needed to hold on to and develop Party policy will not come from the compromised politicians on the front bench.
Inevitably the progressive alliance will come into the debate, but it must be rejected. I argued before Xmas it might be possible in by elections, but the failure of the Lib Dems to make any gestures to the Greens for standing down in Richmond damaged the strategy, and while the Lib Dems and SNP are gaining support, elections will be run on conventional lines. Nevertheless, though the Lib Dems are on a roll, Labour remains central to progressive politics as the Lib Dems cannot achieve enough support to make a difference unless there is a political earthquake. Labour has to build on its existing anti-Brexit policy by marginalising a compromised front bench which is now a much bigger problem than simply removing Corbyn.
Trevor Fisher was a member of the Labour Coordinating Committee executive 1987-90 and secretary of the Labour Reform Group 1995- 2007. He was a member of the Compass Executive 2007-2009