Labour at the crossroads

by Rob Marchant

After the earthquake, it is surely time to stand back a little and take stock. After one of the most extraordinary months ever in British politics, the pieces have been thoroughly shaken and are now returned to earth.

The landscape is entirely different from the seeming certainties of just a month ago, the old guard largely cleaned out and most of the players new.

For Labour, it has shown one thing in particular: the spectacular house of cards on which the whole current leadership had been built.

It has now become a laughing stock, a leadership of zero credibility outside, and even for the vast majority of its own parliamentary party. The only place where the leadership is still respected, paradoxically, is within the party membership itself, where a level of denial exists which in years to come group psychologists will surely write books about.

From Jeremy Corbyn’s election last September, there has been an emperor’s-new-clothes pretence that it is business as usual. That said, the rot arguably set in with the creeping groupthink of the Miliband years, during which time the necessity of reaching out to swing voters was arrogantly negated and the slow recovery of the far left was treated with the utmost complacence.

This groupthink had certainly developed an iron grip by the aftermath of the general election wipeout of May last year.

Indeed, by the time the now-celebrated, thirty-five “moron” MPs lent their nominations to Corbyn – mostly convinced, remember, that his was a token candidacy! – it was clear that the entire PLP had been caught off-guard, by both the extent of hard-left infiltration already and the ease with which the new associate member system accelerated the process.

All the Corbynites, mind, are not traditional hard-lefties. Many are young and idealistic; others older and tin-eared, happier to hear some slogans and platitudes than recognise the electoral mountain to climb. But they are manipulated (and often outright lied to) by those hard-lefties. They do not want to hear the mountain of hard data on the often doubtful and occasionally abhorrent things Jeremy Corbyn did in the years up to 2015.

And all are united in one thing; that winning control of a party is more important than being in government and actually, you know, doing stuff.

And so to the present day: Angela Eagle’s brave challenge and graceful pullout, leaving Owen Smith, a talented but relatively unknown MP, as sole challenger to a Corbyn still commanding strong support within the rank and file, despite the continuing car-crash of his leadership.

However, these honest, end-of-tether and incredibly damaging pieces by Lilian Greenwood MP and Thangham Debonaire MP show how Corbyn has alienated almost everyone within the PLP, including soft-left supporters. Self-evidently, there never were 172 “Blairites” voting against Corbyn and there surely never will be. They were from all sections of the party and to claim anything else is clearly nonsense.

Sometimes the future is hard to predict: for example, many of us did not believe Miliband’s rule changes would have helped bring us here. But right now, at the crossroads, the two visions for the future lying ahead are crystal clear.

The first is pulling back from the brink: somehow Owen Smith manages to pull together enough support, and Corbyn manages to lose enough (even enough to compensate for the £25 additional members hurriedly being signed up by Momentum activists as we speak) for a slender victory at this year’s conference.

There would still be a strong rearguard action to fight – the Corbynites, as with the Militant Tendency before them, would not give up without a fight – but the fight would be won by a Smith, likely pulling in expert advice from his fellow Welshman, Neil Kinnock on how to cleanse an infected party.

While it would be a moment of utter euphoria to be proven wrong, the brutal truth is that Smith almost certainly cannot win in 2020. He is too inexperienced, probably not centrist enough to convince an increasingly right-leaning electorate and the next four years would be spent in in-fighting and cleanup anyway. But he is decent, and pulling off the party’s reconstruction might still allow him a crack in 2025. He might even win.

The second vision is clear as day. Corbyn rises again, vindicated and the party collapses. It is clearly unsustainable for a PLP to be in open revolt against its leader, which means more than just four years of damaging chaos in Parliament and one long Christmas for the Tories.

It means, self-evidently, a split in which the leadership would likely retain all the party infrastructure and most of the cash. A breakaway party which would struggle to raise funds from unions, although there are interesting possibilities to explore about retaining government subsidies, if indeed it boasted 172 or more MPs. Staying put would likely not be an option for most MPs, because the threatened deselection programme will come, you can count on it.

In short, the party as we know it is at a crossroads with two signs on it. One path going up a very steep mountain, on the other side of which is a second mountain before it reaches the lowlands again. It is hard, but just about navigable.

The other path appears, to the people on it, to be full of beautiful flowers and comforting animal sounds. Just before it goes off a cliff.

Oh yes, in this case there will surely be a political realignment, and the centre-left will one day rise again. But it will not be within the Labour party, that hundred-year old monolith towards which we all still feel perhaps far too much affection. Our sentimentality will not improve the lives of poor Britons.

No, in that case the party, to coin a phrase, is over. It really is that simple. You choose.

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

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13 Responses to “Labour at the crossroads”

  1. @Rob Marchant

    Hi Rob, I think you are right about the likelihood of a realignment of the centre left.

    It’s four months since Labour-Uncut were kind enough to allow me to publish a piece. As a Lib Dem, some might expect me to feel pleasure about the prospect of a realignment, but I don’t. I feel a deep sense of sadness for the decent social democrats within the Labour party, to whom this catastrophe is happening.

    As you say, there are decent, well-meaning followers of Jeremy Corbyn. In my opinion, they are profoundly mistaken about the reality of the team that Corbyn now has running his leadership. But we’ve all been mistaken in the past, so who are we to judge.

    While many of his followers are well-meaning, I fear a number close to him are anything but. They believe their ideology, of course, but they are not open and honest about their end goals, and are ruthless in the damage they might cause to reach them.

    That one of the great parties of this country might be about to be irretrievably lost to such people is a terrible tragedy.

    If this does happen, I hope my new friends in the Labour party know they have future friends who are in the Liberal Democrats. And, I believe we can, together, provide the alternative that this country will soon be yearning for.

    Theresa May’s rhetoric of compassionate conservatism will prove to be as hollow and hypocritical as that of David Cameron. The assurances that her ministers made about a golden future under Brexit will be shown to be folly, if not deliberate downright lies.

    If you cannot prevail in this contest, know that there are still options. And we should take them up, because this country deserves better.

  2. Mike says:

    Oily Owen is not going to be leader. He changes his views to suit the times and it should have been someone like Benn to stand. Owen is just ambitious and trying his luck. Even if he wins I think May will be around for 10 reads after a very successful start. She neutralises the old Labour attack on posh Dave. Plus as she said what has Labour done for women.

  3. Mark Livingston says:

    A lot of our current PLP would be more at home ideologically in the Tory party. The game’s up and they should now do the honest thing.

  4. Disenfranchised says:

    Mr Marchant accuses the old of having a “tin ear”, but I would say that it is the other way around.

    I am not a Corbyn supporter, but I can not only see the attraction for the young and idealistic, but also for the older ‘Old Labour’ supporter.

    When will Mr Marchant understand that people like Kinnock, Mandelson, Blair, Miliband etc. are toxic beyond measure now; Owen Smith is of similar material, and will not improve the lot of Labour.

    I’m convinced that the party is now over for Labour – their only source of support comes from select parts of the electorate, of which the group they should most be supporting, now having nothing in common with Labour’s pet projects.

    Pro-EU and pro-mass immigration is not helping those people, and they will never vote Labour again – no matter who is in charge.

  5. NickT says:

    I see that the Cult of Corbychev continue to be deluded about their prospects. Corbyn will never be prime minister and he will enable Theresa May to spend a decade in power laughing at the pathetic little man who turned Labour into a cut-price personality cult for himself and John McDonnell. If Corbyn wins the leadership contest, the only sensible thing is to leave the party and join the Lib Dems, who are at least capable of sounding competent on occasion. Wasting money and time on Corbychev’s destruction of his own personal Soviet Union is the path to futility.

  6. james says:

    Why go to the Lib Dems – seems like May has a more progressive and effective agenda. Can see a lot of Labour skipping over the Lib Dems and voting Tory next time.

  7. john P Reid says:

    Disnefranchised, toxic material its not as if people don’t know about Corbyns past support of extremists, Blair excluding Iraq, and his business interests in the last few years at least, has an understanding of how government works, and Kinnock for all his money in The EU,is a statesman, Ed miliband, was out of his depth, but at least he was prepared to accept how unpopular labour were/are, Jez seriously thinks he can win!

  8. efc says:

    Didn’t Smith proclaim himself to be just as “radical” as Corbyn? Hasn’t May announced what was essentially Milliband’s 2010 economic platform?

    You are going to have to face the facts that the turn of the century “centerist” consensus is gone. It didn’t work. The promise of widely shared prosperity if we just allow the market to do this or that is not convincing anyone anymore. Well, maybe a few people in London or Washington DC. People don’t want Third Way right wing economics combined with a liberal social policy. Centerism today is left wing economics and right wing social policies. Maybe they will accept right wing economics with right wing social policies so at least the other still gets nothing. What they don’t want is right wing economics with left wing social policies especially vis a vis immigration. For the non-rich it’s the worst of both worlds. Bad for their living standards and they see “others” seemingly getting stuff they believe they should get.

    How the Labour party wins in this environment is a hard to say. Labour economic policy and a harder line on social issues like immigration might be very successful. The pro-remain pledges makes that difficult though.

  9. efc said: “Hasn’t May announced what was essentially Milliband’s 2010 economic platform?”
    James says “seems like May has a more progressive and effective agenda”

    Are people’s memories so short? Theresa May’s speech was just like Cameron’s at last autumn’s Tory conference. Then, he sounded compassionate, a few days after he had pledged to continue with a massive assault on the standard of living of millions of working families. The only reason that was delayed was because the Lord’s defeated him, and he lacked a big majority in the Commons to force it through.

    Now, May sounds similarly compassionate, while promoting some of the most rightwing politicians in her party.

    Will May stop the planned cuts to universal benefit? Will she really deliver on her compassionate sounding sound-bites? Or will those sound-bites just be pretty packaging for another helping of regressive policies?

    I think we know the answer to that.

  10. John Reid says:

    Well said EFC

  11. Peter Kenny says:

    You’re looking at the death of your political world. It’s all over.

    The heir to Blair got 4.5% of the vote. That politics is not returning to rude health any time soon.

    Perhaps if you moved beyond the classic 5 stages of grief (is it anger at the moment or depression?) you might start thinking about the truly astonishing political changes in the party – how are ‘Momentum activists’ managing to recruit hundreds of thousands of people? Why couldn’t you do that? What is happening – the earth is shaking, the sky is falling – try thinking about it instead of spluttering.

    Many of your certainties are dust – why do you keep trying to put it back into the shape of a living thing and saying prayers over it?

    Split, stay whatever – but how about some analysis rather than these howls.

  12. It’s not often that I agree with George Kendall, but the liberals do seem the natural place for those in the PLP and those like Rob to migrate to. The liberals are not exactly looking in tiptop shape so those migrating couldn’t be accused total opportunism. It would also be learning from the SDP demise by not taking the provisional route of starting a new party and then merging it with the existing centrist liberal party. The Liberals would then become the official opposition and those MPs with the courage could follow Douglas Carswell’s example of going to the electorate. Those without that courage could wait for the next general election. You never know, they may be able to form a coalition with the Tories and get a few ministerial limos as well.

  13. Peter Kenny says:

    Very good, Danny – they’ll first have to have a coup against Tim Farron for being unelectable!

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