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Playing the long game: what do Labour’s moderates do?

March 31st, 2018

The danger is that the options might be complicity, futility and suicide

Keiran Pedley posed a good question on Twitter yesterday, when he asked “I keep seeing people say that Labour moderates should now ‘act’. What does that actually mean?”. The problem is that those demanding action are often demanding the impossible – namely that they remove Corbyn and return Labour to a centre-left social democratic party.

The truth that those demanding action won’t face up to is that Corbyn cannot be removed and the moderates in the Party and particularly those in parliament know it. They tried doing so in 2016, when Corbyn had just had (from the point of view of Labour Remainers – and that’s most Labour members), a shocking EU Referendum. Around four-fifths of MPs no confidence him; virtually his entire front bench resigned; the critics sponsored a leadership challenge. Apart from putting up a better candidate, it’s not clear what more they could have done. Yet it wasn’t close to being enough: Corbyn won with a majority of nearly 120,000 – or more than 23%. And that was before the 2017 general election hugely bolstered his position among the membership (of which the majority have joined since 2015, we should remember).

So if Corbyn is secure in post for the foreseeable future – meaning that he and his supporters will, almost inevitably, consolidate control over the Party’s machinery in that time – what options do those who are appalled at the direction of travel of their party have? There are only really three:

1. Wait

This is the simplest, easiest, safest and most likely option. Partly that’s because it’s the default. Doing nothing – or restricting criticism to words and gestures only – is not ideal but is the right option if the critics believe the situation is retrievable at some point. And it might well be. For all that the left now has control of the membership, the leadership and the Party’s central organisation, these things are not set in stone. The far left is notorious for falling out over perceived ideological impurities and while Corbyn’s supporters are unusually focussed on the man, he shouldn’t be thought immune. The many new members might drift off disillusioned if he ultimately trims – which is probably only likely if Labour find themselves in government. Other than that, the moderates must hope that the faddists simply get bored with the Corbyn project and move on, leaving enough scope to act when the opportunity arises.

There are two main problems with doing very little. The first is that it means being largely complicit in the policies, actions and inactions of the leadership. For all the criticism of Corbyn’s reaction to the Salisbury attack or the calls for more drastic action to drive out the anti-Semitic fringe, unless something changes, the MPs and candidates will again ask voters to put Corbyn in No 10 and MacDonnell in No 11. Perhaps that’s a price worth paying and the least-worst option (particularly if they think that they’ll lose anyway – though last June should temper any certainty on that score), but it will leave a legacy on their political history all the same.

The other problem is that the longer they wait, the harder it will be to reverse what’s already been done. Not impossible – only eight years separate Blair from Corbyn, after all – but harder all the same.

2. All-out attack

If waiting for an improvement in the political weather risks letting events drift out of control, one alternative is to relaunch the kind of operation carried out in the last parliament. There might be any number of jumping off points to do so, from the missed opportunities over Russia, to Corbyn’s continuing absence from the Brexit debate, to his double-standards on internal discipline (not that he’d be unique as a leader on that score).

The problem is that if it was hard in 2016, it’s much harder now. Not only has the membership moved in Corbyn’s favour since then but Labour continues to poll around 40% and at worst, within a few points of the Tories; perhaps several points ahead, depending on which pollster you use. Also, the mass-resignations can’t be repeated because one consequence of that action is that Corbyn’s front bench is now much more from his own wing. The local election results should be adequate and the London-based media coverage, favourable. Short of a catastrophic error by the leadership, the almost inevitable result of another challenge would be to strengthen Corbyn’s position. Less certain would be the consequences but it’s surely likely that were members of the PLP seen by Corbyn-supporters to be an existential threat to him, that wouldn’t do anything for their reselection chances.

3. Defect

We have of course been here before. The inevitable talk of an SDP2 is one ‘action’ that moderates could take. The centre is crying out for an effective political party and the Lib Dems are not it. Cable is all but invisible and the Lib Dems’ poll ratings haven’t recovered from the general election (they had been polling around 10% through 2017 prior to the election campaign). That said, when SDP1 launched, the Liberals were only polling in the low-teens; within a year, the Alliance hit 40%.

However, that brings its own question. Would an SDP2 seek an alliance with the Lib Dems, or even move straight to some new party? If not, wouldn’t FPTP see them off? If so, wouldn’t a risk be that the first, crucial, year would be spent navel-gazing on the merger?

But those are only two problems of a whole host that confront any new party – even one with a substantial parliamentary presence. Where does its money come from, shorn of the union link and Short money? How quickly can it build up a campaign database of canvass information given that defectors couldn’t take that with them? Who would lead the party, and where? What would be its attitude to Brexit?

Leave aside that any defectors would be instantly labelled splitters and traitors by those remaining in Labour: by leaving, they would certainly be entrenching the left’s control within Labour even more, meaning that their new party was the only chance social democracy would have in Britain for decades. It is a move to contemplate only when all other options are exhausted, with little prospect of success, either personally for those contemplating it or for their ideas.

We might label these options complicity, futility and suicide: not an attractive set of options – which is why those who’ve been calling for ‘action’ are invariably those who wouldn’t have to take it. For the time being, waiting on events remains the best bet: something might turn up. For all that things look difficult, Labour’s underlying strength remains good – much more so that it was in 1983 or the Tories’ was in 1997 and both those parties came back both to the centre and to government (though neither was truly captured by its extreme wing, as Labour has been now).

I still don’t expect a split – not soon anyway. All sorts of history and culture runs against it. Nor do I expect a new formal challenge that’s doomed to fail, which means that the only option for now is for them to wait for better political weather.

David Herdson