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that centrism, “neo-liberalism” and pretty much anything associated with the past thirty years of Labour has now been superceded, replaced by the new Left.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.”