Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Labour Split: How Worried Should the Left Be?

The launch of a new centrist group of seven ex-Labour MPs was met with much derision online yesterday - especially after one member of the group, Angela Smith, made a racist gaff on live TV and had to release a recorded apology. It was, as they say in centrist circles, ‘just like an episode of the Thick of It’. They have as yet no policies, no clear messaging, and no functioning website. But the prospect of a split has long elicited a sense of foreboding from at least some sections of the left of the Labour Party (markedly more amongst commentators than members, from what I can see).

Some polling has implied that a new party would be quite popular with voters, so how worried should the left and the Corbyn leadership be about this particular nascent split? First of all, as many people have noted in, this is not the SDP: the conditions and personalities are markedly worse. The split could damage Labour’s electoral prospects in the short term and potentially keep the Tories in power, but it is also an opportunity to make the PLP a more progressive body, which is the area of party administration that Corbynism has been weakest on. Getting shot of these deadweights creates the chance to select good socialist and progressive parliamentary candidates to replace them. 

When Corbyn was elected Labour leader, many prominent figures on the left insisted that unity would be the watchword, yet it was always apparent to honest participants in the Corbyn movement that some kind of split would be essential and even healthy - for all factions. Below is why this remains the case.

The splitters are likely to fail in the long term to build a convincing electoral alternative, even if initial polling is favourable. The reasons for this can be seen in the ideological complexion of the current group of seven splitters. Each is either a Blairite or from the far right flank of Brownism. What this means in concrete terms is suggested by the voting records: financial and fiscal orthodoxy; extensive privatisation; unabashed commitment to foreign intervention and war; at best the shakiest of commitments to ‘fair pay’ burnishes their social democratic credentials. Some of these views alienate them from even the soft left and old right of the Labour Party - with whom Corbynism will have to make common cause if it is going to win an election. Not only that, but these are wildly unpopular policy positions with the wider public. Their only card is a commitment to a second referendum on Brexit, which Umunna has flip-flopped dishonestly on over the years. 

Moreover, the social basis of the new group is very weak. Blairism was and is a peculiar product of a very stifled political system, one that was reliant for its success on a certain apolitical disinterest among many voters (what the political scientist Peter Mair called 'cartel politics' as opposed to representational politics). In a more partisan era, it is not clear how it can sustain its appeal. Unlike the old Labour right, with its organic roots in the union movement, it does not clearly represent any particular social constituency apart from the very small number of upper middle class and super rich donors who have historically funded Blairism handsomely. Hence the appeal of the splitters is likely to be thin even if it initially gets some traction. 

The other thing they’ll be given ample space to shout about is antisemtism, which has been shown to be far less prevalent than widely insisted. This can - and has - damaged Corbyn and they’ll continue to use it.

This aside, the left should be exultant. A faction of the party that has few roots in Labour tradition and is abhorred by others wings of the party for its kamikaze wrecking behaviour has excluded itself from further participation. They could of course damage Labour electorally, but we should have a little more faith in our ability to recover votes with a popular socialist platform. 

The left may need a coalition with the liberal sections of the middle class to win power. But the latter is not this lot. With no convincing claim to represent any part of society (one that could only be affirmed if they win by elections - which they won’t), they can be marginalised. The presence of such MPs in in a Labour government- even the twenty or so that might follow them -  would be a disaster for implementing socialist policy. So the splitters may just have given the left the space it needs to get new MPs who can coalesce around a broad, genuinely progressive programme. 

Goodbye and good riddance then.