Will the legacy of moderate Labour be a country where only the hard right or the hard left can govern?

by George Kendall

On most issues, I agree with social democrats and I disagree with the hard left who now control the Labour party. But not on all.

Paul Wheeler recently warned of Tory moves to entrench their political position by manipulating the political system. He called it “boiling a frog”, a great analogy. The Tories are indeed putting party interest before democracy.

But are Labour moderates much better?

At the last election, the two largest parties received 82% of the vote. If they genuinely represent the preferences of all but 18% of the electorate, that might justify a political system that stops new choices emerging. However, this is clearly not true.

In 2015, the two big parties received only 67%; in 2010 it was only 60%; and many who currently vote Labour or Conservative do so for tactical reasons. This is easy to confirm. Just go on social media and suggest to someone who opposes Brexit that they vote Lib Dem or Green. You will almost certainly be told that would “let the Tories in”, and that the only way to beat the Tories is to vote Labour.

Squeezing the third party vote has been a long-standing feature of British politics. Occasionally, if a third party builds up a bandwagon, they can use it against the Conservatives or Labour. Most of the famous Lib Dem by-election victories were built on persuading supporters of one party to vote tactically, to get the other party out. However, when it matters, in general elections, the squeeze favours the big two.

With the hard left takeover of the Labour party, some moderates must now be thinking the unthinkable, that if they are deselected by Labour, their only hope of staying in Westminster would be to stand as an independent or for another party. Yet they know that the electoral system would then crucify them in a general election.

Even if Labour moderates plan to retire from politics, surely, in their dark night of the soul, they must fear what legacy they are leaving the next generation. Imagine if the country is faced with the choice of a hard right Tory party or a hard left Labour party.  Under the present system, the chances of future moderates putting up a viable alternative are bleak. If the extremists take over, I fear the damage to both the economy and the social fabric of our country. Don’t they share that fear?

In the last two years, I’ve made a big effort to get to know moderates in the Labour party. Broadly, I like them, but this one big issue frustrates me. When they had the chance to change our electoral system, far too many resolutely opposed it.

I have no doubt that, if Labour one day splits, most moderates currently in Labour will support reform. How I wish they had the consistency to support electoral reform now, rather than only when it’s in their interests, yet when they lack the power to bring about change.

If they wait till later, it may be too late.

George Kendall is Chair of the Social Democrat Group – http://www.ldsdgroup.co.uk – a Liberal Democrat organisation to build links with social democrats outside the party. He writes in a personal capacity

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25 Responses to “Will the legacy of moderate Labour be a country where only the hard right or the hard left can govern?”

  1. George, when Clegg took the Liberals into coalition with Cameron didn’t it cross your mind that it could be a death warrant for your party? When Clegg then reneged on the pledge over student fees didn’t that look like the beginning of the end? I’m afraid there is no SDP answer to New Labour’s problems, either as a new party or as part of the Liberals. The high hopes of some after Macron’s victory are diminishing quickly as realty bites in France.

  2. John P reid says:

    No, it was a massive by election, all the campaigns were fought at a local level, many moderate, and by that it could mean everything from a Peter shore EU skeptic, not intrested in Womens rights style constituency like Dagenhan right though to Kate Hoey’s or Frank fields or Massivelyy Pro the EU candidates like Peter Kyle or Wes streeting ,having very EU skeptic supporters canvass for them
    just so labour didn’t have another 1983 result

    if we’d had deselections and Corbynistas had replaced those candidates, they would have lost those seats

  3. David L says:

    My MP is a hard Tory Brexiteer whose daily blog gets responses mainly from fellow travellers who use a mix of arrogance and abuse to criticise anyone of an opposing view. Yesterday I had a look at Labour List and found similar extreme attitudes from some posters. I’d like to find a blog of the centre left where conversations are conducted in a more civilised manner. Hopefully your site is worth an occasional perusal when I’m in the mood for political debate. But this underlines your opening essay, it’s too easy to take extreme positions on anything these days, especially when protected by an alias. And, no, I haven’t used my real name, I reserve the right to be a hypocrite!

  4. John Wall says:

    This has been pretty much the refrain of the LDs – and other minority parties – for a long time, Proportional Representation.

    Let’s not forget that there was a referendum – rejected – on the Alternative Vote only a few years ago.

    Things like PR sound fine, but the devil is always in the detail.

    The first is what system do you have? A truly proportional system would have to be nationwide so that the seats are divided out exactly in accordance with the vote – and this would inevitably break the link between geographical area and MP. Any other system inevitably has the possibility of anomalies – New Labour tried to “fix” the Scottish system to prevent the SNP getting a majority but when both Labour and the Conservatives declined that failed.

    The second is that it puts a disproportionate amount of influence in the hands of minorities – we’ve seen how the DUP nearly derailed May’s Phase 1 Brexit deal but look at Israel where what could easily be described as extremists have to be bought off. In this country it might result in a BNP MP.

    The third is that it can prevent change, look elsewhere and it can be seen how parties can stay in power by just changing their coalition partners.

    What we’ve got is far from perfect but it provides a link between geographical area and representative, generally gives governments that can get legislation through and also ensures that the government is periodically changed.

  5. Ex-Labour says:

    If George Kendall thinks this Conservative government is hard right, then he has a very strange view of things.

  6. Harry says:

    Surely the real questions what these “moderates” actually stand for.
    Given that labour’s apparently hard left ran on a manifesto full of what would be considered fairly standard “moderate” social democratic policies it’s hard to see what the labour right actually would do if in government. Would they be taking carillon into public ownership or would they try to farm out the contracts to other private sector
    providers? Would they be pushing for a second brexit ref or what?

    Basically what do labour’s right or the Lib Dem’s for that matter have to offer the public in terms of fixing the country after a decade of austerity. Becuase if it’s basically
    promising to go back to new labour or the coalition then they will wither and fi and they will deserve to.

  7. @Harry

    I see the hard left as a mind-set, rather than a set of policies. Driven more by anger and what they are against, rather than compassion and a clear open statement of what they are for. If only they were completely open about what they are for, we’d never be in this mess in the first place.

    Corbyn has a softly spoken “kinder and gentler” manner: compassionate, and not angry. But the reality behind him is different.

    The people that Corbyn has appointed to senior positions in the party are completely at odds with his image. The most striking is John McDonnell, as man who has been videoed praising a riot in 2010 where a fire extinguisher was thrown from the top of a building at some police.

    Most who voted for Corbyn are not hard left at all, but compassionate and idealistic. I know one or two previous supporters Corbyn, who then saw some of the true face of the hard left. But I fear most will only see the reality if there is a Labour government.

    The numbers of hard left are small, but they are very well organised. Generally, they hide their true nature, but there is plenty of evidence from the years before Corbyn came to power of how those in the leadership think, and that nature is being felt in the ways some of them have behaved. Such as the rise in antisemitism and the abuse of individuals, some of whom I’ve spoken to.

  8. @Harry

    I wouldn’t call Corbyn’s manifesto hard left or moderate. It was a strange mixture of the populist and the unrealistic. Two of the ways it would raise revenue wouldn’t work as claimed:

    – it contained unrealistic populist tax policies (as the IFS point out, if you raise so much tax from the rich, then they avoid it, so they amount raised would be less than claimed)
    – it continued Tory policies of £7bn/yr of future welfare cuts. Even if McDonnell planned to do this if he won office, there is no way the Labour membership would allow it. So that would have meant another £7bn/yr hole in their budget

    The spending promises included £11bn/yr to remove tuition fees, but nothing equivalent for the majority who don’t have the grades to go to university, and who’ll probably end up with lower paying jobs.

    The substantial cost of nationalisation was not properly costed, but, if it went ahead, and I think Corbym would want this, it would use up far too much of the freedom of the government to borrow from the markets. That’d mean the far higher priority of building enough houses to reduce homelessness would be underfunded.

    Corbyn has acquired a reputation for straight-speaking, but the reality is totally different. He is extraordinarily slippery on Brexit. Is he in favour of membership of the single market like Norway has, or not? He contradicts himself within seconds on this. He was similarly contradictory on whether Labour would end the benefits freeze.

    If he won’t give a consistent answer on either question, how can we really know with any certainly what his manifesto would mean in practice?

  9. @David L
    It’d be great to engage in discussion. If you use twitter, my handle is @georgetsk.
    Thanks for the comment. I know what you mean. Some of the Brexit ultras, who have such great influence over the Tory leadership, share many of the characteristics of the hard left.

    @Danny Speight
    Thanks for the comment, Danny, but I think you’ve responded to the wrong article. This one is about electoral reform. If you want an answer on those points, you’d be better off reading some of my other pieces.

    I didn’t state that the current Tory party are hard right, I asked a question.
    But if your comment is a question, I’ll give an attempt at a answer. I don’t think Theresa May is hard right, however to a degree she is a prisoner of the hard right. Just the decision to leave the single market could cost the government £39 billion in lost tax revenues. Just imagine the extra cuts that are doing to be necessary as a result.

    The most important point you make is the lack of an alternative social democrat vision for the country. I think this is a fair criticism.
    I think that’s a little bizarre, in that social democracy has shaped the countries in the world where most people want to live. It should be possible to present an attractive, idealistic but realistic vision of how we can improve the UK.
    It’s something I want to write on in the future in other pieces.

  10. Mike Homfray says:

    I’m on the left of the party, not the right, but in my experience the most fervent opponents of PR are right wingers within Labour, rather than the left. Despite having voews which might chime with yours, they heartily loathe the LibDems in a very tribal sense.

  11. John P Reid says:

    Denis skinner Emily thornberry, Len Mcklusky were all against PR at the referendum, Mike himfray

  12. Thanks for the comment, Mike. I think you may have been right, but my hope is that this will change.

    In a very small way, this article is to challenge that opposition to PR, and prompt a few moderate social democrats in the Labour party who have opposed PR, to change their position now, when they may have more influence and credibility doing so.

    That said, there are a number of excellent moderates in the Labour party who have long supported PR.

  13. Mike Homfray says:

    What referendum on PR John?
    I recall a referendum on AV. That’s not PR. I voted against it. It’s a worse system than FPTP

  14. Mike Homfray says:

    George : there are also left wingers in favour of PR

  15. Tafia says:

    PR? Last few elections would have seen a Tory/UKIP coalition.

    For the last few elections, the majority of UK voters have voted Tory, UKIP & DUP by quite a margin combined.

    The only way PR would be fair is if it were regionalised so that England got a share based on it’s population and then those seats allocated in line with the English vote, Scotland, Wales and NI likewise. Possibly even breaking the England vote into it’s regions.

    Apart from which, people like having a clearly identifiable representative in tune with local issues and representing local interests – a constituency MP in other words, and not some anonymous ‘list’ flunky.

    Perhaps the answer is to bin the Lords, and replace it with a 500 seat regional-based PR Chamber.

  16. John P Reid says:

    They were all against PR. at the AV referendum .mike

  17. @Mike Homfrey
    I know there are leftwingers who have, long-term, been in favour of PR, and all credit to them.
    One even assured me that a left-wing Labour government would actually deliver PR (unlike Blair’s government).
    I’m afraid I’m very sceptical.

    While I agree that AV isn’t PR, it’s a pity you voted against AV. That lost vote has made it much harder to achieve PR.

    You’re overestimating the UKIP vote. In 2017, Labour plus the LibDems plus the SNP is over 50% of the vote. In 2010, it would have been substantially more. The only election in recent decades where rightwing parties have had the majority was in 2015.

  18. John Preid says:

    they were against PR at the AV referendum ,mike I never said there was A PR referendum

  19. Mike Homfray says:

    I can’t see what point you are making John. There are people on both sides of the party who oppose PR, there are people on both sides who support it.
    The point I made was that in my experience the most hostile of all are the old Right.

  20. ad says:

    If I was a cynic, I would say that the two main parties have each responded to the LibDem collapse by putting the lunatic fringe in charge. I do not look forward to the future of this country.

  21. John P Reid says:

    And my point mike is it’s 50/50

    On another point

    I look at the Establishment from theresa May,to Diane Abbott saying the police are racist,then when Ukip got votes they were invited on BBC anyQuestions the audience were appalled at their view,showing they were part of the metropolitan elite,and that thre we’re people outbtheir with different views ro them, but they were shocked they voted in numbers,then the public voted a Brexit and the establishment were shocked they could do something against the cincensus,I look at these doggoders who think they know best,they’re going to be shocked again,if they vote again for views the establishment doesn’t like

  22. John P Reid says:

    George Kendall the libdems aren’t a right wing party?, lead by Vince Cable who introduced the privatization of Royal Mail,who like Tim Faron would be happy for anther Tory Libdem coalition, the orange brokers, who support the neo liberal EU and the banks,

  23. @John P Reid

    Sorry for the delayed reply. I hadn’t noticed your comment.

    No. When the Lib Dems in 2017 prioritised protecting welfare, it showed it is a left of centre party. Astonishingly, Corbyn didn’t do this, which must raise questions about how progressive a Corbyn government would be in practice.

    See https://www.ifs.org.uk/uploads/Table%20for%20income%20tax%20obs%2017%20May.JPG

    As for the Royal Mail, I’m no expert, but think the focus of that policy was to save post offices.

    Personally, I don’t think whether something is state-owned or not is what defines whether a country is left-wing. In North Korea, effectively, everything is owned by the state, just as was the case in some despotic regimes in history. But both North Korea and bronze age dictatorships are rightwing regimes, which give the power and wealth to the privileged.

    I think “leftwing” is about looking out for the weak, both in the UK, and worldwide.

    For that reason, in terms of outcome, some “so-called” leftwing countries, like Venezuela, aren’t leftwing at all. They are corrupt regimes which sometimes get plaudits from idealists in other countries, who don’t understand the reality.

  24. Jose says:

    Please stop calling them moderates. Would moderates be looking to make deals with private companies so to turf out people like what happened in Southwark and would be in Haringey like Kober’s HDV and would moderates abstained on the welfare reform bill and setting up WCA.

    I am not hard left, I am disabled and on benefits living in a council property and I support Corbyn because I am sick of politicians putting corporations, privatisations and money first. Go to show they haven’t learn a damn thing. For the first time in ages we actually got a chance to be heard. Look at Grenfell, treated like shit and I live in Broadwater Farm and treated like shit by Kober’s HDV.

  25. Jose,

    I’m genuinely puzzled by your post.

    You object to my talking of moderates in the Labour party because, among other things, they abstained on the post-election welfare cuts in 2015. I was appalled by those cuts, and astonished that the Labour leadership abstained. So on that we have some common ground.

    But then you say you support Jeremy Corbyn, a man who did worse on welfare.

    His shadow Chancellor had promised to reverse those cuts. Instead, in 2017, Corbyn’s team put forward a costed manifesto which didn’t just fail to reverse the cuts, but involved implementing £7bn/yr of cuts which haven’t yet taken effect.

    If you are so outraged by the ‘moderates’, why are you supporting Corbyn?

    See the following two articles for details:

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