Centrists must learn that it’s not 1997 anymore

A picture of Jeremy Corbyn, a white man with thinning white hair and a short white beard, with his hand up to his chin, wearing a light blue shirt and no tie. The date (June 2017) is barely visible at the top. The NME logo is in the top left and at the bottom is written "We offer HOPE": Jeremy Corbyn on the election that will define our futures.According to a report in today’s Observer (effectively the Guardian on Sunday), a group of “entrepreneurs, philanthropists and donors” have been developing plans for a new centrist party for about a year. The foundation, Project One Movement for the UK, which has attracted former Labour and Tory donors and has plans to run candidates in the next election, due in 2022 (unless something happens before then, which is thought likely), was set up by Simon Franks, founder of LoveFilm, and its policies are supposed to appeal to a “liberal, centre-left audience”:

Potential policy proposals include asking the rich to pay a fairer share of tax, better funding for the NHS and improved social mobility. However, it also backs centre-right ideas on wealth creation and entrepreneurship, and is keen to explore tighter immigration controls. A source said some Brexit supporters are involved.

The article compares the “new party” with both Emmanuel Macron, who won the French presidential election on a centrist ticket last year, and the former SDP, founded as a breakaway party by former Labour cabinet ministers but which, even in an alliance with the Liberal Party, won only 23 seats. Needless to say, Macron did not have to contend with the same electoral system the SDP did; the French presidential election uses run-offs so that a candidate needs an actual majority to win. In this country, any new party runs the risk of dividing a sympathetic vote as they cannot force existing parties out of the race and the established parties will not withdraw. Labour, in particular, will usually not withdraw from constituencies in general elections for this reason and they will need to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats if they are not to split anti-Brexit votes; if they field a candidate against Edward Davey in this area, for example, they will lose, and it is likely that a Conservative will win.

The biggest contributor to any such breakaway party is likely to be ‘centrist’ Labour MPs disenchanted with the current direction of the party under Jeremy Corbyn. Their list of complaints are very familiar: acquiescence to Brexit, weak leadership over Brexit, tolerance of anti-Semitism among his supporters, weakness towards Russia, past associations with various people that would put off older voters, policies that did not win elections in the 1980s and will not now. In my opinion a lot of these centrist Labour MPs have contempt for the party’s left and its supporters and believe that they have a divine right to run the party because it was they who delivered the 1997 and 2001 election victories. Many of them believe that it was a disastrous mistake to both open up the membership and give it more power, and to nominate Corbyn in 2015. They forget how mediocre and uninspiring the other choices for that year’s leadership election were.

They also forget that 1997 was 21 years ago and that the strategy that victory was based on would not work now: it was a strategy of appealing to middle-class voters in the suburbs and Shires rather than the “core vote” which was assumed to be “in the bag”. This strategy was taught in politics classes in the 1990s; any party which expects to win power must appeal to the so-called C2s or lower-middle class, particularly in the Midlands, as classes above that (A, B and C1) will overwhelmingly vote Tory and classes below (D and E) will overwhelmingly vote Labour. This, the story goes, is how both Thatcher and Blair won overwhelming majorities. However, the 2008 economic crash and the 2016 Brexit referendum result make this strategy not one worth repeating in the 2010s or 2020s, especially for a new rival to the Labour party. Labour voters from the provincial white working class and ethnic minorities who voted for Brexit will not vote for any “no Brexit, business as usual” centrist party, even if the candidate is a former Labour cabinet minister who has jumped ship. They will need radical new policies which will answer the grievances which led to the Brexit vote. Opposing Brexit is a viable policy — 48% is the kind of figure that wins elections in this country when its opponents are divided, after all — but in this case it will not win on its own because it faces two major blocs which generally support Brexit.

And as John McDonnell, the arch-Corbynite MP for Hayes and Harlington in west London, tweeted this morning:

While not a member of the Labour Party myself, I am very much supportive of their links to the trade unions and of that important financial connection. Without it, the party would have to appeal for donations from the wealthy, as does the US Democratic Party, which would oblige it to adjust its policies to support them. We see the effects where the same monied interests bankroll both Republican and Democratic candidates and some policies barely change (on Israel, for example) regardless of who is in the White House or even in Congress. The Labour Party is funded by large-scale public subscription which can be opted out of but still enables them a certain amount of independence from the demands of wealthy donors whose personal interests are often diametrically opposed to social justice. It would be a tragedy to see British politics reduced to a battle between two parties bankrolled by the same wealthy men.

And one more thing: like a lot of people who aren’t ‘centrists’ or old Blairites nor full-on Corbynites, I’ve found the attitudes of some of the latter just as frustrating as some of the former, in particular the attitude that Corbyn can do no wrong and that everything is a conspiracy against him. I’ve heard them accused of being obsessive about such things as the “Russian hat affair” and preoccupied by media bias, and there’s no dispute that they have a preference for partisan ‘news’ sites (e.g. the Canary) with a loose connection to fact. However, Labour supporters have always been aware of media bias; it was a major reason for why Labour leaders from Kinnock onwards sought to distance themselves from the politics of the 1980s and any vaguely radical policy (e.g. withdrawing charitable status from private schools, a policy suggested in the mid-90s and quickly withdrawn after condemnation from the Tory press). What is different now is that there is a Labour leadership which is not offering soft Toryism with a change of decor (and policies that a future Tory government can easily reverse, as seen in the 2010-15 Parliament) but real, radical policies and hope for change which, say, Ed Miliband did not and none of the other 2015 leadership candidates did. They did not even defend Blair’s own legacy.

When the people attacking Corbyn are a mixture of old New Labourites who favour a clapped-out strategy and Tories who want Labour to fail anyway, it is no surprise that many of them plug their ears when they read familiar criticisms of their leader. Even in the event that Corbyn’s position becomes untenable, his replacement will not be one of them; they will have to learn to live with the membership and its candidate and any new rival will have to answer the needs of those let down by the Blair strategy and who voted to leave the EU. Contempt will not win either group an election.

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