Who will lead democratic renewal from the left?

By Martin Vogel

Labour was founded as a party when its first MPs were elected in 1906.
Labour was founded as a party when its first MPs were elected in 1906.

Opposition politics in the UK are in a sorry state. The Labour Party is in the grip of a far-left cult which is not much interested in parliamentary democracy. Since the General Election, those in the Labour Party who don’t favour Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership have gone quiet – perhaps buying into the myth that by not losing the election as disastrously as everyone expected, he somehow won it instead. Because the moderates expressed their lack of confidence in Corbyn on the grounds of his unelectability, they are now shouted down by those who crow about Corbyn’s apparent popularity. What has been lacking is a principled critique of what he stands for.

That might be changing. As Rachel Sylvester has reported, some on the centre-left are beginning to acknowledge the contradiction (£):

“On Brexit, national security and the economy, the centrists have profound political disagreements with Mr Corbyn. One MP admits there is a ‘massive problem’ looming for moderates such as him. ‘At the last election we could quite reasonably say to people “don’t worry, you can safely vote for me because there’s no chance of Jeremy Corbyn becoming prime minister”. I won’t be able to say that any more. That creates an electoral difficulty but also a moral dilemma because for me the issue is not whether he can win but whether he should win.‘”

Her colleague, Alice Thomson, notes that efforts to launch a new centrist party are being closely watched by Tony Blair and George Osborne. But she pours cold water on its prospects (£):

“For moderate politics to make a comeback, either the Tories or Labour need to decide that they will stop feuding, get their act together and convince the electorate that they can govern rationally and sensibly. Blair and Osborne, and others feeling exasperated and excluded by the new tribal extremism, must realise this too.”

There was a time when this was political common sense. But for Labour, at least, the prospect of the party getting its act together is unlikely. Moderates have comprehensively ceded control of the party to the far left. In fact, Labour no longer functions as a parliamentary party in that the view of its MPs carries no weight.

The (Liberal Democrat) writer, Nick Tyrone, explains why this matters:

“More than any other political party in Britain, the parliamentary Labour Party is the party in a very real sense. The party was set up to create a group of MPs who would represent the needs and desires of the wider movement, preferably in order to form a Labour government. Yes, they needed to not lose touch with that movement, but Labour MPs also have to respond to the wants of their whole constituency, keeping them rooted in the electorate.”

I think his argument applies to other parties too. But the Tories showed themselves capable of stepping back from the brink when there was a risk their membership might give us Andrea Leadsom as prime minister. That Jeremy Corbyn remains Labour leader even after MPs expressed no confidence in him shows that the party is uninterested parliamentary considerations.

The left out-organised the moderates to win the leadership and is now fixing the rules so that it cannot be displaced. Momentum is busy ousting Labour councillors who do not fit its ideological profile. Organisationally, it is doubtful whether Labour can ever again be a vehicle for moderate, social democratic leadership. So a new party might be the only way forward for centrists, however unlikely that seems.

Nick Cohen suspects the hard-left leadership of Labour is cemented in because Jeremy Corbyn’s idealistic supporters are not much interested in concerns about authoritarianism:

“The kindest explanation is that Labour members don’t know who they are following. Most have read enough of the history of Nazism to grasp what Donald Trump’s flirtations with Britain First and the Ku Klux Klan portend. They do not shudder when they see Corbyn surrounding himself with aides from the Communist Party of Britain and the fragments of the Socialist Workers Party because they know little or nothing of communism.”

Patronising as his analysis sounds, it resonates with my conversations with twenty-something Corbynistas. They’re are drawn to the radicalism of Corbyn’s alternative to crony capitalism, but look blank if you mention the precedents of the Soviet Union or Venezuela. But Nick Cohen goes on to recognise some deeper similarities between the Labour leadership and its supporters:

“In substance, they could not be less interested in the class conflicts that animated the old Marxists and social democrats. The first concerns of their hyper-liberal politics are the fights against sexism, racism, homophobia and transphobia. Compare their tactics instead and you find few differences worth mentioning between old leaders and young followers. The willingness to mount heresy hunts against traitors has found a new home on Twitter. The determination not just to refute opposing arguments but to ban them and destroy their proponents is everywhere. The worst of the young left is just as humourless as its forebears and just as suspicious of irony and complexity.”

If Nick Cohen is right, Labour is a lost cause for moderation. At present, it is journalists like him rather than politicians who are undertaking the hard graft of intellectual combat with the ideas of the hard left. The question for those whose hopes for radicalism lie in democratic values and tolerance is: if not Labour, then who?

Image: public domain via Wikimedia.

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