This afternoon five years of Labour minority control in Brighton and Hove comes to an end, with the return of the Greens to power after three Labour councillors, all elected on a Momentum slate, were suspended or resigned following antisemitic social media posts. Two other Momentum-backed candidates didn’t even make it to polling day last year, several others lost Labour-won seats back to the Greens (see previous blog post).
It took eight years of hard work to return Labour to office in Brighton and Hove, and less than three for Momentum to throw it away with petty factionalism and vendettas.
They still control the CLPs and LCF, with at least one officer a former TUSC candidate in 2015 who lost a seat in 2019.
They still enjoy the tacit support of the Kemptown MP.
They still make up the majority of Labour opposition spokespersons on the now Green-led committees than run the council in the absence of a Cabinet.
They still fill the online space around Brighton Labour with bile and betrayal.
No humility, shame or contrition, despite the departure of councillors, despite the multiple suspensions, despite the loss of office, despite yesterday’s events in the High Court.
In the past Labour HQ had had to intervene in Brighton when entryism and the Left brought the Party into disrepute. Momentum believed this couldn’t happen all the time they were protected by Corbynite control at the top of the Party.
Now Labour is, as Sir Keir Starmer said yesterday, “under new management”, they are no longer immune, and action should surely go further than individual suspensions if Labour is ever to return to a leadership role in our city.
In 2015 Labour doubled its number of seats on Brighton and Hove City Council and formed a minority administration for the first time in eight years. We set about building and buying back council houses, building a thousand truly affordable homes, tackling rough sleeping and homelessness, building a stronger economy and stronger communities, despite being outnumbered by the Conservative and Green opposition. In the face of massive Government reductions in the council budget, and increases in our responsibilities as a local authority, we put Labour values into action.
This was not enough for Momentum, who viewed most of those on the Council as Blairites. They set about, under the leadership of Greg Hadfield, replacing sitting councillors with Momentum backed candidates in pursuit of a “Socialist Majority”of 26 or more councillors.
16 of the 24 Labour councillors elected in 2015 are no longer on the Council, many of us forced to quit, deselected or left to campaign alone in the elections. Many very able and talented councillors were lost. The citywide Party organisation that had helped us win in 2015 was broken up into Momentum-controlled CLPs. I was forced out for speaking up on antisemitism during Party Conference.
In the 2019 local elections, Labour lost five of the seats we had gained from the Greens back to them in the two Brighton constituencies. Labour’s citywide vote share fell by nearly 5%. Some gains from the Conservatives in Hove by Peter Kyle’s campaign team meant a net loss of 3 seats overall. The attempt to win a “Socialist Majority” failed. Even some of those elected have since been embroiled in controversy and evidence of antisemitic social media posts. One didn’t even make polling day before being expelled, another quit, both over antisemitism.
Here is what happened to the slate of candidates Momentum promoted:
- East Brighton ward
Cllr Nancy Platts: re-elected, made Leader. Shared a platform with Chris Williamson at a meeting addressed by expelled member Tony Greenstein
Gill Williams: elected
- Goldsmid ward
Debbie Taylor: lost
John Allcock: elected
- Hollingdean and Stanmer ward
Phil Clarke: was a 2015 TUSC candidate, lost a Labour held seat
Theresa Fowler: elected
- Moulsecoomb and Bevendean ward
Kate Knight: elected. Resigned from Labour after investigation into antisemitic posts on social media.
- Preston Park ward
Denise Friend: lost a Labour held seat
Juan Baeza: lost a Labour held seat
- Queen’s Park ward
Colin Piper: stood in 2015 for TUSC, lost a Labour held seat, now CLP Chair
Amanda Evans: elected
Nick Childs: elected, resigned as Education Chair following revelation he sends his daughter to Roedean private school
- North Portslade ward
Anne Pissaridou: elected, suspended from the Group for antisemitism
- Hanover and Elm Grove ward
Danielle Spencer: lost
- Wish ward
Alex Braithwaite: suspended whilst still a candidate for antisemitism, lost
Adam Imanpour: lost
- Rottingdean Coastal ward
Robert McIntosh: lost
- Central Hove ward
Gary Wilkinson: elected
- Patcham ward
Adam Scott: lost
Jerry Gould: withdrew after making antisemitic commentshttps://metro.co.uk/2018/09/25/brighton-labour-council-candidate-sent-deeply-offensive-anti-semitic-letter-7977460/
- Withdean ward
Claire Wadey: lost
Ian McIsaac: lost
James Thompson: lost
- Woodingdean ward
David Wilson: lost
- Hangleton and Knoll ward
John Hewitt: lost
Labour has now squandered its position as the largest group on the city council after a disastrous series of electoral losses, expulsions, suspensions and resignations over antisemitic posts.
Without root and branch change in the Momentum-led local parties (Kemptown, for example, is chaired by one of the former TUSC candidates) then a Green-dominated Council seems likely for the foreseeable future, with 2023 a Green-Tory battle for control, unless Labour can “clean house”.
Had we in the 2015-19 Labour Group not been fighting a daily battle against people supposedly on the same side, then we might well have secured that majority which had eluded all parties in Brighton and Hove for the past twenty years, and we could now be leading the effort to lead the city’s recovery post Brexit and post Covid19. Just as Corbyn’s leadership failed the country, Momentum failed Labour and failed the city we aspired to make a better place for all who live here. Just as change came to Labour nationally, soon I hope change will come to Labour here.
I’m no expert on viruses, pandemics and health. I’ve a limited understanding of civil contingencies, emergency planning and resilience from my time with the police and from leading the city council (or as I remember it, the stuff of nightmares). You may have read enough on Covid 19 by now, or quite sensibly are choosing not to dwell on it. If so, scroll on.
I’m no expert on viruses, pandemics and health. I’ve a limited understanding of civil contingencies, emergency planning and resilience from my time with Sussex police and from leading the city council (or as I remember it, the stuff of nightmares). You may have read enough on Covid 19 by now, or quite sensibly are choosing not to dwell on it. If so, scroll on.
As much for my own benefit as anyone else’s, I’ve tried to think through where we are now, and balance the risks of what are clearly differing approaches to the pandemic.
Doing nothing is not an option. Left unchecked the virus will spike, health and public services will be overwhelmed, people in high risk groups will die in significant numbers and the economy and infrastructure will suffer critical damage with supplies of essential goods threatened. Consequences would be dire.
Most countries have, in varying degrees and via different measures, imposed restrictions on travel, gatherings and even going to work, the aim being to slow or stop the spread of the virus as far as possible. Even where infection rates are currently low, like Canada and New Zealand, measures have been tough and quick.
The argument against this is that with pandemics there is a risk of a second wave of infections, when lockdown measures can’t be sustained, with even greater levels of infection. People can’t work from home, have their kids home from school, avoid socialising and public events for more than 2 or 3 months, and even that is unprecedented and untested on a large scale. What will that level of isolation and inactivity do to people’s mental health and family relationships?
Here the strategy seems to be to allow a controlled spread of the disease, with widespread infection over an extended period whilst protecting vulnerable groups. Any “lockdown” measures are restricted to the peak of the epidemic. This allows the economy and “normal life” to continue as far as possible, and the theory goes that the population will develop a “herd immunity” to prevent a disastrous second wave in the winter.
Of course, with testing limited to those hospitalised, we will never know for sure if we’ve had it and therefore have developed an immunity. We won’t know the extent of infection and therefore the mortality rate will seem higher than it is in reality. As was said at the No 10 press conference this week, there may be ten thousand or more people infected in the UK at the current time. It’s a strategy replete with risks.
This is based on expert advice but doesn’t seem to match the global consensus amongst experts, or indeed World Health Organisation advice. To be fair this is the first global pandemic of this scale in living memory, well beyond SARS or Ebola. It’s been modelled and mapped, but every virus is different and mortality rates – the number of those infected who go on to die – seems to vary from 1-3% of those infected overall, to 15% of high risk groups infected. There may be no right answers, and every approach is still going to lead to hugely difficult choices on where to focus limited resources, bluntly who lives and who dies.
What seems clear to me is that by limiting the spike of infections now we buy time. Time to manufacture more respirators, create more hospital capacity, allow for scientific research into the genome of Covid 19, more time for the pharmaceutical industry to develop treatments and ultimately a vaccine. And most importantly time for our health services to cope.
Ultimately, the best advice I’ve seen is to behave as if you have the virus, and try not to spread it.
It’s not just the Covid 19 patients, but those who needed hospital treatment ordinarily, who will place pressure on a system where NHS staff are as likely if not more to get ill. Like all of us, they have no immunity to this new virus. I support the mandatory use of capacity in the private health sector, at cost to the government, as a way of growing overall capacity quickly in this national emergency.
Most people infected, particularly those under 60 with no underlying health conditions, will experience a mild illness and recover. What causes me most concern is the secondary effect of the pandemic. How resilient are we to deal with this? A decade of underfunding public services and local government, alongside the departure of many EU workers due to Brexit, has stripped out any “slack” in the system. What will happen if 20-30% of police officers, NHS staff, bin crews, care workers, food supply chain staff and others are ill at the same time? Coping with that may be possible for a month, maybe two, but how sustainable is it in the longer term?
People here are still out, doing the “keep calm and carry on” routine, eschewing the masks worn by many elsewhere, dismissing it as “just another flu” and talking about overreaction. Surveys show that alarmingly, many have not altered their handwashing habits at all. Sometimes British exceptionalism is dangerous not just foolish.
However, we’ve seen from the panic buying of the past week just how far the “Blitz spirit” is likely to turn out to be illusory. It’s really a wartime propaganda myth that masked some pretty lawless behaviour, if crime stats from the 1940s are to be believed. For a population used to supply on demand, shortages and privation may bite hard. There are people who phone 999 when their pizza is late and lose it entirely when KFC runs out of chicken. For others this will bring out the best in our community spirit.
Behind the headlines on the virus, the hit to the markets in the past week has been up there alongside the 1987 crash and the 2008 crisis. That won’t just matter to traders in Canary Wharf, it will hit jobs and families already suffering from a decade of austerity. Its likely foodbanks will see longer queues and fewer supplies to hand out.
Politicians don’t normally say things that people don’t want to hear. This week they have, most shockingly Boris Johnson’s stark warning about “losing loved ones”. There are trying to prepare people for something bad, possibly worse than they are saying now.
This isn’t a pandemic that will bring about some apocalyptic end to society as we know it, but it will combine with other pressures to have a significant impact. Once we get to the other side, things are probably not going to be exactly as they were before this virus emerged. We will probably see thousands of people die from this, and another recession, and maybe some consequences no one has really understood or foreseen yet. It’s going to be very tough, collectively and individually our resilience is going to be tested, but we will get through it.
In the Spring of 2014, I sat in Committee Room 1 of Brighton Town Hall opposite the organiser of the “March For England”, an EDL-linked event that had previously caused violence in the city. I looked him in the eye and told him that he and his followers were not welcome in Brighton and Hove.
Representatives of the city’s Muslim community had made it clear to me and other councillors that the march would cause fear and distress amongst residents, effectively confining them to their homes for the duration. It went against every policy on equalities the council had, and morally it was right for elected councillors in leadership positions to make a stand. I did.
Three years later I sat in the BBC studios a few hundred metres from the town hall, listening to the recorded testimony of people who had faced abuse inside a council-owned venue because they were identifiably Jewish. I’d heard statements recorded at a meeting saying it was fine to question whether the Holocaust had ever taken place. Representatives of the city’s Jewish community quite rightly and understandably contacted me asking what I, as Leader of the Council, would do.
It was, I believed and I still believe, incumbent on me to again speak out. I wrote to the head of the organisation of the event saying that steps had to be taken to prevent any reoccurrence before the event returned to the city, and I published my letter on my official Facebook page.
That the organisation in question was the Labour Party, which I had been a member of for a quarter of a century and in whose name I was an elected councillor and local authority leader, made no difference.
Perhaps I was naïve but very clear statements by the Labour leadership during the event made me feel that I was joining their effort to counter antisemitism in and around the Party. As an elected Labour politician, speaking out against racism is in my DNA: had I failed to do so in any other circumstance the Party would have rightly condemned my silence.
But condemnation of my stance was immediate and sustained. The charge from members and officers of the local party and Momentum was that I’d always opposed Corbyn, and this was a chance for me to ‘weaponize’ the allegedly ‘fabricated smears’ of antisemitism against him. They claimed I had brought the Party into disrepute insisting I should have raised any concerns “in house”.
I can only imagine the response of my local Party Chair had I, three years earlier, said: “I’ve sent a strongly-worded letter to the National Secretary of the EDL, best leave it to them to sort and not make any fuss in public, eh?”
I’m not comparing Labour to the EDL, though some might argue that with the EHRC investigating institutional antisemitism in Labour the comparison could be a valid one. Only the BNP have faced such an enquiry previously.
They are investigating institutionalised antisemitism and it is true that for speaking out against antisemitism I was penalised. Months of emails, motions and pressure from the local Labour Party followed, demanding apologies, retractions and for me to step down. This is all from the local party where now-suspended members labelled Jews “Zios”, depicted councillors including me and one whose husband is Jewish as dancing Rabbis, and called for people to march on the local synagogue in response to the suspension by Labour of a council candidate for tweeting about the “Israeli bloodline”.
A vote within weeks in my branch calling for me to resign as a result of my stand on antisemitism, passed by some forty votes to two, was moved by the person later suspended after calling for a march on a local synagogue. By February I’d been forced to quit. At the urging of the Jewish Labour Movement I remained a member until Luciana Berger resigned in February.
At a recent fringe event called Stand With Jeremy Corbyn during the TUC Conference in Brighton, many of those suspended and expelled members sat in the front row alongside at least one current senior local Labour councillor. Fringe events at the Labour Conference this week are set to be addressed by suspended or expelled members of the party including Jackie Walker, Ken Livingstone and Chris Williamson.
Since the 2017 Conference there have been ever more revelations about Jeremy Corbyn’s own questionable attitudes towards Jews, including the row over antisemitic mural which led to a demonstration by the Jewish community against Labour, the shameful spectacle of Livingstone and Williamson failing to be suitably punished, the revelations of Leadership interference in antisemitism cases unveiled by Panorama and the resignations of Luciana Berger, Ian Austin and others from the PLP.
Despite the promises of action two years ago, and the small number of suspensions and expulsions, those pushing the same “anti-Israel” messages have not gone away. In the online forums and outrider blogs, lists of hostile Jewish or Jewish friendly “opponents” are still being drawn up. Perhaps the most damning message came when Labour Friends of Israel pulled out of this week’s Conference, saying their staff could no longer be subjected to the antisemitic abuse faced in previous years.
Some of those disciplined have been quietly readmitted, or their suspensions taken no further. Those, like me, who have spoken out on antisemitism, however, have been pushed to the point of resignation, or deselected while the Party has stood by. While the focus remains on Brexit, Labour continues to pursue trigger ballots against MPs, is set to debate changes on antisemitism rules on the Jewish Shabbat when many can’t take part, and to continue efforts to depose Tom Watson as Deputy Leader. Labour Students, long an ally of the Jewish community in Labour, has been “excommunicated” by the Party’s NEC.
It seems clear that for so many people who joined Labour in 2015, the perceived role of Jewish people in the global capitalist economy, and the actions of the Netanyahu government in the occupied territories, are something that every Jewish person is held accountable for. That is racism. I will continue to speak out against that just as I did when hate crimes spiked in the wake of the Referendum, or when I stood with the Muslim community after the Westminster and Borough Market attacks provoked an Islamophobic backlash.
If a family member speaks and acts in a racist way, do you speak up or keep quiet so as to not rock the boat and end up an outcast? If you are elected to a position of authority, do you put the people you are accountable to ahead of the Party that got you elected? For me the answer was and always will be yes. You don’t get to pick and choose the racism you stand up against; and being a member of a political party gives you a greater responsibility to challenge it, not a free pass to stay silent. In these dangerous times, silence serves no good at all.
Dear Mr Farage,
It looks like we may not get to debate with each other as candidates in the European elections here in the South East, so I just wanted to send you some thoughts I’ve had on our different views about being British and what our shared British values are.
I think British people are some of the most kind, welcoming and hospitable in the world. Britain became great through centuries of people coming here, making it their home and working hard to make it better. Your rhetoric really doesn’t reflect those values; at times you seem to be openly hostile to people coming here. That’s surely not the decent and fair approach most Britons would have. Most British people value getting on with their neighbours, yet you seem to want to promote argument and division more than over-the-fence friendship.
We are much the same age, and our grandfathers generations fought against fascism to protect our British values of freedom, democracy and the rule of law. So many of today’s leaders around the world don’t share those values, yet you seem to be happy to associate with them – Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Victor Orban and Matteo Salvini to name a few. Why is that?
In that war Britain didn’t stand alone, we forged alliances with other nations, and fought alongside people from across what is now the Commonwealth, people from Poland and France and across occupied Europe. The EU, alongside NATO, has preserved peace for an unprecedented seventy years in Europe, don’t you think we owe future generations the same thing?
Mr Farage the British are sticklers for accuracy, clarity and fairness. We all like to know the details of what we are getting, and make sure we aren’t on the wrong end of a deal. You famously said that a 48-52 result would be “unfinished business by a long way”, yet now you oppose the British people having their fair say on the actual Brexit deal being proposed. Do you not trust the British people to make an informed decision?
I believe British people value a good days pay for a hard days work. You have been an MEP for twenty years now and have very little to show for it. In fact you have one of the worst records for attending your place of work and doing the tasks expected, like voting. Most British people would think it isn’t fair for you to keep that job if you consistently fail to do it. If elected I’d do the job I was paid for, and I believe most people whether Leavers or Remainers would think that’s the right thing to do. Don’t you?
We seem to agree on one thing, agreement is a very British thing in my view, and that is that our politics is broken. We and our respective political parties, Brexit in your case and Change UK in mine, have very different views on the solutions though. One is to make Britain closed off from the world, to run away from the global challenges we face and hide behind a nostalgia that is as appealing as it is false.
Mine is a more open, positive and realistic view of the world, where Britain leads and has its voice heard in the great international issues of our time, like climate change. Britain isn’t great if it has no influence abroad, wouldn’t you agree?
We are both patriots but I fear we have very different views of what that means. I’m proud to be from Sussex, proud to be English and British, and I’m a proud European too. My patriotism is inclusive of anyone who wants to make this country their home, accepting its rights and responsibilities as much as anyone born here does.
I look out of my window across the Channel to Europe, somewhere I can live and work and retire to if I want to and am able to, something my grandparents could never have imagined, and something future generations should have the right to do as well. I don’t understand why you want to take that right away from young people now and in the future.
Our young people are taught that British values are democracy, individual liberty, the rule of law, mutual respect, and tolerance of those with different faiths or beliefs. Because of the things you have said, and those you associate with, I fear for those values if you and your party succeed.
It causes me pain and anguish to think what will happen to this great country if your vision for it becomes a reality. We will be poorer, more insular, more vulnerable to global crises, less secure, more fearful and xenophobic, less happy. You might dismiss that, but I’d rather be better safe than sorry by staying in the EU. How British is that?
My vision, and that of Change UK, is one of a positive future where opportunity is opened up not closed off, where decent journalists and independent courts keep us all in check and protect our rights, where alliances and partnerships, strength in our diversity as people but strength too in values we have stood and fought for over generations, mean we are safer and more secure than if we retreat into isolation. It’s a view Mr Churchill, that greatest of all Britons, seemed to have after he led us during the war, and I think we should respect that.
I know we Brits don’t like to make a fuss but I’m sorry, I’m not going to take this lying down. I’m tired of hearing people say “someone should do something”. Well we in Change UK are. We’re saying, “hang on, this isn’t right.” We won’t be bullied any more, we are standing up for real British values.
Yours in the most respectful British disagreement,
Change UK candidate for the European Elections, South East England.
I’m a bit of a poll geek. I quote them a lot. People are often sceptical.
So here are some questions answered and some myths busted.
- “They didn’t ask me, or any of the people I know.” There are 60 million of us in the UK, so the chances of being surveyed are pretty low. I’ve been interviewed twice by polling companies in 30 years. Neither time was I asked my voting intention. Most polls are of around one to two thousand people, with as much of a representative sample across age, income group, gender, region and so on as possible.
- “That’s a ridiculously small number, no wonder they are wrong.” Polls have a margin of error of plus or minus 3%. Polling more people does not change that margin of error. Some polls do cover up to 20,000 people (a very costly exercise) but are no more representative. Anthony Wells of UK Polling Report explains it better, using a soup analogy from George Gallup, here: http://ukpollingreport.co.uk/faq-sampling
- “But the polls have been wrong. Look at some recent elections.” Actually some pollsters have been bang on in recent General Elections, some have been out by around 3% – the margin of error. Polls were out in 1992 and 2015, and each time pollsters have adjusted for specific factors that contributed to that error. For example in 1992 it was found that many people were not keen to admit they voted Tory, so that was subsequently taken into account: http://ukpollingreport.co.uk/faq-dont-knows
- “Oh come on, we all know the pollsters are biased, and owned/founded by/run by Tories.” No. Political opinion polling is the most high profile thing pollsters do, but it is only a relatively small part of their business. Most of their work is market research and opinion polling on consumer habits for major companies. If pollsters deliberately got political polling wrong, their main customers would not trust them or pay them to find out where and how to advertise their products. Reputation is the main reason the pollsters have to try their utmost to get it right.
- “But that poll last week said something completely different.” Remember the margin of error, plus or minus 3% either way. So if Party X is at 37%, they could be as high as 40% or as low as 34%. And different pollsters have different methods of surveying people, either online, on the phone or sometimes in person, which can produce slightly different results. What you need to do is look at trends over time, and across the nine or ten main pollsters. And look behind the headline voting figures, at how the Leaders and their policies on the economy and other key issues are viewed.
- “I did a poll on Twitter/Facebook, and fifteen thousand people voted, and that proves the pollsters are wrong.” The people you are connected to on social media, much like your friends down the pub, are far more likely to share your views than the general population, so it’s not a representative sample. And if anyone can pile in and vote, the results can be skewed massively by a campaign group or political party getting their supporters to vote.
In summary, polls are not perfect, but they are scientifically-conducted representative surveys of the views of the population as a whole. They are the best guide we have. Any one poll is a snapshot in time, a series of polls will show a trend. Events happen and views change.
There’s a similar article from The Independent on polling here, if you don’t believe me: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/opinion-polls-should-we-believe-them-trust-truth-real-fake-news-a7704116.html
Today Brighton and Hove City Council votes on adopting the IHRA definition of antisemitism. There will be no debate from the floor. Had members been given the opportunity to speak, this is what I would have said:
Seventy years ago, Anne Frank wrote: “What is done cannot be undone, but one can prevent it from happening again.”
The mission of the International Holocaust Memorial Alliance is to prevent that genocide from happening again; it should be our mission too.
No form of racism is acceptable, can be acceptable. An anti-racist cannot pick and choose what kind of racism they speak out against, or who they hold to account.
Too often in recent times have we heard those tropes, thought consigned to history, voiced again. From Moscow to Washington to Budapest and here. Tropes like “the Jewish lobby control the media, the Jewish financiers run global capitalism, our politicians are in the pay of Israel” and more. And once more the Jewish people are held as scapegoats and a distraction by those who seek to impose their will and influence at home and internationally.
As Leader of this council Madam Mayor I spoke out against racism towards Muslims, towards asylum seekers, towards our BAME communities. A year ago I spoke out against the insidious, racist and anti-Semitic act of Holocaust denial when it took place in this city. I knew, because of the context of where and when those remarks were made, what the likely consequences would be. I’d do it again, without hesitation. I would have no choice.
History teaches us that if we allow the racism, the pernicious evil of antisemitism to pass unchallenged, the Jewish community stands at risk. But they are not alone. All of us are infected by this poison. Our democracy, our humanity and our fundamental values are in danger if we do not stand by them, if we do not speak up.
Now, more than at any time since Anne Frank wrote those words, here and around the world, anti-Semitism is a clear and present danger to the Jewish community and to us all, which is why we must unite today behind this definition, as dozens of other councils have, and send the clearest possible message that we, as the elected representatives of Brighton and Hove, of our city’s Jewish community, stand behind the values and principles we hold to across party divides, principles fundamental to the rights we share.
May the memories of all who were murdered in the Holocaust be a blessing, may their voices speak to us now, saying;
Remember us. Stand together. Say as one, never again. Never again.
Britain’s politics, and not just its political parties, is coming apart. Divides have opened, positions have polarised, gaps have opened up. The consensus underpinning our debate and our institutions is under immense strain. Antisemitism, and the elections to Labour’s ruling National Executive, have brought that into sharp relief.
Neither the Labour Party nor the Conservative Party have any unquestionable, absolute right to exist in their current form and as one half of the political duopoly. That the SDP and the Lib Dems failed to break the hold of these two parties over the last thirty years is no definitive guide to the next thirty years, or indeed the next thirty months.
In late 1981, at a time when party loyalty was far greater than it is now, the SDP commanded the support of between 40 and 50% in polls. The SDP/Liberal Alliance came within 1% of Michael Foot’s Labour at the 1983 General Election. The electoral system prevented an Alliance breakthrough in seats, but Labour itself demonstrated in the 1920s that the duopoly could be challenged, not by adding a third party but by replacing one already there. Ultimately the SDP failed because Labour under Kinnock and his successors moved Labour back to the territory they had ceded almost a decade earlier, and away from the Militant left wing groupings he famously and passionately denounced in Bornemouth.
With current polls showing the Tories on around 40%, Labour a few percent behind, and the Lib Dems in the low teens, a potential new party could in theory shave 10% from the Tories, 10 to 15% from Labour and the majority of Lib Dem support, to put it on around 30%, level pegging with the two established parties. That in itself would probably not be enough to win enough safe Tory or Labour seats to challenge for power at a General Election. It would certainly be enough to secure a parliamentary presence significant enough to be a likely coalition partner.
What may be harder to quantify or predict, but which may be crucial to the success of any potential new party, would be the degree of support from those currently choosing none of the options presently on offer. 36% currently give “don’t know” as their choice for preferred Prime Minister. How many voters are expressing a reluctant choice, hoping for something different? Of course they are unlikely to be a homogenous group looking for the same thing in a political party. We saw that with the appeal of UKIP.
Sceptics of a new party say it is doomed to fail without a distinct and positive offer; I would agree up to a point. However thirty years of knocking on doors has taught me that many voters make a “negative choice”, often placing their cross in the box not because they are devotees of that party’s ideology or platform, but to “keep the other lot out”. The 1987 General Election question posed by the SDP/Liberal Alliance on leaflets was “caught between the (red) devil and the deep blue C?”, and there is little doubt many voters feel the choice is at present one between the lesser of two evils.
Most voters are not political devotees, statistically few are party members. They may agree on priorities though not necessarily solutions. They are likely to shy away from ideology, and are unlikely to identify as “working class” in a way the Morning Star might like. They want their kids educated and given better opportunities than they were, they want their parents cared for and the health and social care system to deliver when needed. They want bins collected, streets kept clean and the transport systems to function at least adequately. They want to get on with their lives in the knowledge that somebody relatively trustworthy, reliable and competent is keeping things going and, where possible, to make things better. The utopian ideal is not in our national psyche.
With Labour now firmly in the grip of the Left and essentially now a narrow Socialist Party, and the Tories increasingly in thrall to the hard-Brexit right of Johnson, Rees-Mogg and the UKIP entryists, a significant gap in British politics is opening up. It is wrong to describe it in terms of left wing, right wing and centrist. This is a battle between populists and pragmatists, between closed and open politics, between ideological prescriptions and a belief in “what works”.
To illustrate the gap in terms of politicians you could say it is a space occupied elsewhere by Macron and Merkel, or in the past by Blair and Obama. Popular but not populist, principled but not dogmatic. A Trudeau not a Trump. You don’t have to support every policy of these leaders or their parties to see the political space they occupy, not in the left/right spectrum but the progressive/pragmatic/popular versus reactionary/ideological/populist one.
There is now a clear space in British politics for a party offering opportunity for all regardless of background, fairness in our society and our economy, with taxes funding the services and infrastructure that both individuals and businesses rely on to exist and prosper. One that can deliver practical solutions on challenges like social care and local government finance, and clear but fair rules on migration. It would be open to European and global relationships, not fearful of them.
It would support intervention and investment by the state in health, education, transport and more with a clear vision on why and how that investment benefits all. Markets would be supported and encouraged to allow maximum opportunity and fair competition, with a vibrant community, co-operative, mutual sector. It would be robustly anti-racist with a foundation in British values of respect and again a clearly communicated message on how different communities add value to the nation and are an essential part of it. It will need a clear position on Brexit, but not be defined by it.
Managerial? Perhaps, but don’t underestimate the appeal of “what works”. Ideologically rootless? Not necessarily, there are many traditions other than hard-boiled capitalism and doctrinaire socialism to draw from. It wouldn’t capture the UKIP vote, or inspire the devotion of Corbynism. Like En Marche it may succeed because it was neither the status quo nor the unplatable alternative on offer. Whether Macron’s movement survives is another matter.
There’s no doubt that the global crash ten years ago has given rise to populism. That said, the argument that Corbyn’s Socialist Labour is the only party of the left doing well in Europe, because it has taken a more radical shift, is not borne out by the evidence. Similar left wing parties in France under Melenchon and Germany’s Die Linke poll at around Lib Dem levels of support. More social democratic-style parties hold power in Spain and Portugal.
I joined the Labour Party and have devoted half my life to it because I was persuaded it offered these things, could deliver on fairness, equality of opportunity, and social justice. It occupied that progressive, not centrist space. It’s clear now it no longer does. Labour now defines itself as Corbynites or Tories, Socialists or “neoliberals”, anti-imperialists or “globalists”, pro-Palestinian or pro-Israel. Binary choices rather than a broad church. Faced with these absolutes, I can no longer actively support Labour in its current form.
I wish Labour were again able to offer broad appeal. The people who need a progressive, pragmatic, popular government can’t afford to wait ten or twenty years for Labour “sensibles” to regain control of the party, if they ever can. Challenges and crises, domestic and foreign, none more so than the impact of Brexit, are urgent and immediate.
If these things were once again on offer from Labour, a new party, or by some grouping from within the Labour Party (and possibly others) in Parliament, then it would have my support, for what its worth. I think the potential for much broader support is very real. People want answers relevant to the challenges of the modern world, not a return to old solutions, be it renationalisation or “taking back control”. Some hope for a forward-looking, progressive politics; is that too much to hope for?
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In response to a slew of articles over the summer speculating on a split in Labour or some realignment of the centre ground in British politics, most recently and with authority by Stephen Bush in the New Statesman, Corbynite cheerleader Paul Mason tweets that there is “plenty of room in Corbyn’s Labour for centrist social democrats and Remain die-hards”.
This will come as a bit of a shock to those of us who have been told over the past three years or so that we are not truly Labour, that centrism, “neo-liberalism” and pretty much anything associated with the past thirty years of Labour has now been superceded, replaced by the new Left. We are all “Blairites” and have no place in the Party. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told, mostly online but occasionally in meetings and elsewhere, to “**** off and join the Tories”. In the binary world of the alt Left, if you are not backing Jeremy then you are by default a Tory.
Now I’m not about to join the speculation on whether some new Party, breakaway group or mass defection is about to happen, and if so what its prospects are. I think anyone who says it will be a disastrous repeat of the SDP, or a British En Marche sweeping all before it, is forgetting the fate of pundits who predicted the outcome of the EU Referendum or the last US Presidential election. Normal rules don’t apply any more. The electoral system here counts against third parties, up until the point where their support is broad enough, large enough and evenly spread, in which case it counts in their favour. Then again, who knows what the offer of a new party, beyond not being the Boris or Jeremy fan clubs, would be.
My point here is that the entire Corbyn project has been based on the assumption that the British public, despite telling pollsters that they identify with the centre ground, have been waiting for a full-blooded Socialist alternative in place of the anaemic version Labour offered in 2010 and 2015, and certainly the “neo-liberal” Blairite New Labour project the Corbynites despise so much. Thats the one that delivered three terms in power, massive redistribution, a huge alleviation in poverty, a near total elimination of rough sleeping and so on, but I digress.
Corbynites believed Labour was diluting it’s appeal by being a broad church, and that voters would get behind a much more ideologically based, clearly socialist manifesto.
The stated belief has been that the popular, left wing platform put forward by Corbyn (lets skip over the fact that his 2015 manifesto somehow left in the planned Tory welfare cuts) would sweep all before it. What Corbynism has been presented as is a revolution under the Labour banner, not an evolution of what went before.
Thousands of new members, an end to Blairism, spin and neo-liberal policy. Anyone associated with New Labour can do one. Blairites, they have argued, are responsible for losing millions of votes built up under Kinnock, Smith and, er Blair. After of course Militant was seen off in the 80s, though veterans of that battle of blame the SDP for the defeats of that decade, not the rejection of Bennite policies.
Yet it is strange how fragile and vulnerable this movement apparently is. That it has failed to build any kind of consistent lead in the polls or indeed win an election against the weakest Tory government in living memory, despite having significant advantages in terms of finances and activists, is blamed on a wide range of factors. The Tory press and the biased mainstream media. The “enemies within” failing to get behind the Leader (who himself has an unparallelled three decade record of not getting behind the leader), and most hilariously people like me with a few thousand followers on Twitter somehow fatally undermining the whole thing. More worryingly, some Corbyn extremists, in the cesspits of the Corbynista Facebook groups with tens of thousands of members, point the finger at shadowy Jewish conspiracies. Ironically, few recognise their own antisemitism or the toxic effect it has on Labour support.
Suddenly, faced with this media speculation of MPs actually leaving after years of being told to go and that they face deselection if they don’t, Corbyn’s media tribunes are starting to panic, talking about “splitting the vote” as if it is some monolithic slab (Ed Stone anyone?) rather than a fluid and unpredictable pool. These are the same people, in many cases, who in 2015 were “splitting the vote” by running as Green or TUSC candidates against Labour.
Voters are not a set of homogenous groups. Fewer and fewer have the kinds of tribal loyalties that held fast in the post-war years. They treat politics like they treat much else, as consumers making a choice between what’s on offer. That might be a positive choice in favour of the Socialist Corbynite offer, it might be a negative choice in terms of not being a huge fan of either but backing the lesser of two evils. The regular “preferred Prime Minister” polls that show a healthy lead for Don’t Know ahead of May and, in third place Corbyn, are perhaps an indicator of the public really not seeing anything they much like on offer.
Whether this translates into an opportunity for a new party to fill a vacuum I will leave to others to discuss. This is about the strength of the Corbynite offer, and whether Labour is now a closed and narrow Socialist party or an open, progressive broad church on the left/centre left of British politics. Whether they form a new party, or just leave, if the Corbyn offer is so strong, just let them go without the cries of “traitor”.
After three years seizing control of the Party at every level, and vicious hostility to those not seen as part of their faction, what Corbyn’s supporters cannot now say is “don’t go, we didn’t mean it, we can’t do it without you.”