No, Labour will not survive another split

Picture of Peter Hyman, a clean-shaven white man with dark hair, wearing a grey jacket, white shirt and red tie with dots of dark red, white and two tones of yellow.In today’s Observer, there is a long article by former Labour stragegist (now a London headteacher) Peter Hyman in which he claims that the current Labour party is a party of “pacifism, republicanism and anti-capitalism” which could only appeal to “a mix of metropolitan elites, students and some trade unionists” and many of whose supporters “want to win an argument rather than an election” and is uninterested in education. He calls for the Blair wing of the party to split away, to form a new ‘project’ which “does not try to recreate New Labour, because the world has moved on, but learns from it”, and accuses Blairites who remain and consider staging a coup of “deluding themselves”:

At its heart would be a renewed sense of moral purpose – a commitment to social mobility – breaking down all barriers to people getting on in life. It would believe in a leaner, more agile, empowering state that supports social entrepreneurs in the building of strong, diverse and democratic communities. This would be in sharp relief to the cuts of the Tories and the big state solutions of the traditional left.

This project would tap into the urgent needs of the country and the new aspirations of the public. This project would need to come up with fresh thinking about how to shape a growing, creative, greener economy and schools that prepare young people properly with the knowledge, skills and character to thrive in this economy.

Instead of just attacking the current reforms to welfare, the project would need to champion the overhaul of the welfare state to provide a more modern contributory system and new institutions such as a National Care Service for the elderly to run alongside the NHS. It would be seen as grappling seriously with the big questions of the day: migration, globalisation, terrorism, the environment, welfare, housing, our place in the world.

A news article based on this claims that Hyman had said that “it may even be necessary to form a new party with others, including the Lib Dems”, but nowhere are the Lib Dems mentioned in the article. (It erroneously calls Hyman’s school a comprehensive; it is in fact a free school.)

I’m not a Labour member, haven’t been since 1995 and didn’t get a vote in the last leadership election. But it is obvious that Corbyn won because the other three candidates failed to inspire the membership, which was exasperated by their failure to oppose destructive Tory policies (because, despite it being their reality, they regarded “opposition” as a dirty word) and their insistence on mouthing the Tory orthodoxies and platitudes that have become common in the media, repeating the mantra that Labour needed to “prove its economic competency” because the myth that Labour were spendthrifts while in office had been repeated so often (including on the BBC) that it was assumed to be true. They did not even defend Blair’s own legacy, and despite the reminder of how much better it was under Blair than under Cameron, raised doubts over what, if anything, their Labour government would do differently from Cameron. Some of them seem to regard Blair’s flaws (especially his foreign policy after 2001) as his good points. This is why Corbyn, who had not sought the leadership but rather someone else had suggested him as an outsider candidate for “change”, won an overwhelming victory.

Assuming the comment about the Lib Dems indeed comes from Hyman, the chances of New Labour forming a new party with the Lib Dems are negligible. The Lib Dems have always been an internally democratic party, which was a key selling point when the other parties were dominated by union block votes and stage-managed conferences. New Labour has always been about control: the imposition of candidates centrally on local parties; the muzzling of organisations with connections to Labour such as student unions; the continued use of union block votes where they still exist to make sure candidates acceptable to the leadership are chosen; the PR regime of Alastair Campbell in the early days; the demand for member loyalty, even to right-wing candidates, on pain of expulsion if one dissented openly. New Labour always regarded the membership as the problem; it grudgingly accepted the necessity of volunteers to canvass for its candidates at election time, to operate the phones and the like, but insisted it be the servant, not the master. Such ideas, which played a large part in destroying Labour support in Scotland (which contributed to their loss of the last election) are anathema to Lib Dems.

I agree with Hyman that Gordon Brown should never have been leader. Brown and his obvious sense of frustrated entitlement lingered like a bad smell right through the Blair years, with nobody seriously entertaining the idea that there could be any other successor. He had famously agreed with Blair that the latter be the leader in the 1997 election, and Brown would take over by the election following, but Blair reneged on the agreement. Brown reminded too many people of John Major, an ineffectual prime minister who was the chancellor to his much more charismatic predecessor, with a corruption scandal affecting many of his MPs (expenses), albeit one in which Tories were involved as well, and by the time of the election, a series of PR blunders. The situation in terms of scandals, PR disasters and open division was nowhere near as awful as under John Major by 1997 but the people were not willing to let history repeat itself, while Cameron was putting on the charm.

However, the major problem with his idea is that he believes the career politicians and PR people can break away from Labour and take all the voters with them. They can’t. New Labour was always a strategy based on the assumption that they had the “core” vote in the bag — central Scotland, inner-city England, the northern (former) industrial areas and so on — and all they had to do was with the upwardly-mobile ‘C2’ (lower middle class) voters in the Midlands and outer suburbs that Thatcher had taken in 1987. That assumption no longer holds true in any case, as the northern white working-class vote is being lost to apathy and UKIP and is unlikely to support a breakaway “Lab Dem” party that sounds a lot like a metropolitan elite even if it uses the term as an insult. The new party will have to build an entirely new infrastructure, staff and body of volunteers. It will have to raise money, as it cannot depend on big unions jumping ship; that will mean it will have to rely on wealthy donors. It cannot assume that local Lib Dem party groups will stand aside for them, particularly in constituencies which had Lib Dem MPs for years before 2015 and entertain the idea of them standing again, let alone those that still do.

It is a recipe for a repeat of the SDP disaster, which as Sue Marsh pointed out on Twitter this morning (and many others have), kept Labour out of power until 1997 (she said 18 years; two years were already up by then). They can split the vote, but they cannot win an election. Labour are out of power now because New Labour, while in government, did not fundamentally change the system, either in terms of moving the centre ground such that the other party could only come back on their terms, as both Attlee and Thatcher did, or of changing such things as the electoral system or parliamentary procedures (this is why Tory MPs can talk out private members’ bills that have popular support, for example). The remains of New Labour have not offered a radical alternative, preferring to snipe at and plot against Jeremy Corbyn from the sidelines. I’m pessimistic about whether Corbyn can win an election for Labour, but the bellyaching from the bad losers is as much to blame for any loss of credibility for Labour as Corbyn is.

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