Trouble in Remainia
If Labour splits, the soft left will be the losers
Consider three interventions from UK journalists yesterday:
“Pro-Europeanism became a proxy for the fusion of economic and social liberalism that had been a dominant philosophy of the political mainstream for a generation, although its proponents were scattered across partisan boundaries. These centrists were the ruling class of an unrecognised state — call it Remainia.”
Raphael Behr, The Guardian
“The plot against Mr Corbyn is not just creeping along pathetically, then, it is creeping along pathetically towards a mediocre destination. If the only victim were Labour itself, there would no pity in this…But if the mission fails, political logic and the national interest both argue for a breakaway…”
Janan Ganesh, The Financial Times
“One MP says it’s a question of supply and demand: ‘There is clearly a market for a new party of the centre left because there are so many people who feel they have no one to vote for. Labour is veering to the left and the Tories to the right so that leaves a gap’.”
Rachel Sylvester, The Times
Suddenly, many people at once have had the same idea: Labour should split, with its right wing fusing with the LibDems to form a pro-European centrist party around the shared values discovered in the Remain campaign.
Rachel Sylvester, in the Times, believes that if Corbyn is challenged and wins a split is the logical outcome. For Janan Ganesh the candidacy of Angela Eagle is not enough: Labour needs to become a full blown party of the neoliberal elite, and since it cannot it needs to split. Raphael Behr — in an excellent and revealing long-read about the catastrophe of the official Remain campaign — explains how the fusion of parties within the campaign created a kind of “ruling elite of Remainia”.
As I write, talks are planned to try and head off a Labour leadership challenge. But if it happens, and Labour splits, it will signal the end of two party politics.
There is a much better chance today, compared to the early 1980s, of a pro-Europe liberal centrist party flourishing. That is, first, because it now has a project: either to stay in the EU or to negotiate so hard with the EU27 that a second referendum is called and Britain reverts to the status quo. And secondly because there’s a much greater chance of getting proportional representation.
And that, in turn, is because on the progressive left, there is also a growing acceptance of the need for an overt electoral pact between the Greens, Labour, Plaid and if possible the SNP. The purpose of this would be to keep out a right wing Tory government, prevent the sabotage of a second referendum, and fight for social justice in the Brexit process. But the price for it would be, and should be PR.
This was the gist of Labour shadow defence secretary Clive Lewis’ intervention last night, at a 1000 strong meeting to discuss the progressive alliance idea.
So this could be the week where the post-Brexit political fragmentation begins.
As a Labour member, and Corbyn supporter, I think we should make one last attempt to avoid contributing to the emergence of a centrist party. Not by giving in to the PLP coup but by explaining to the non-Blairite soft left how shit life is going to be for them inside a new centre party sanctioned by Mandelson, the FT and Murdoch.
The PLP majority is centre-left, not Blairite. Its problem is more than tactical: it is a black hole of political ideas and strategy. It has produced no account of its own failures: no critique of Gordon Brown; no political account of the Ed Miliband years; no self-criticism over the way it destroyed Scottish Labour; not much yet about why its tactics in the Remain campaign failed (though Behr’s article is a must read).
Blairism, on the other hand, has coherence. The logic of Peter Mandelson’s original “project” in the 1990s was to reunite the centre, losing the union link, committing to neoliberal capitalism, privatisation and fiscal “discipline”. The reason this never happened was (a) because the Tories destroyed themselves, allowing Labour effectively to become the embodiment of the project; and (b) in 1999 the Libdems ditched Paddy Ashdown, moving to the right.
Implicit in everything Progress has promoted since its candidate, Liz Kendall, bombed in the Labour leadership election has been to prepare for a split and centrist political realignment. Otherwise, why has so much rich-folks’ money has gone into the private offices of certain Labour MPs, not the party?
In their initial response to Brexit the two right-leaning tendencies inside Labour have been more coherent than the centre left. Tristram Hunt’s thoughtful 25 June Guardian article attacking Corbyn signalled a new preparedness among the Labour right to ditch free movement. The small but significant Labour pro-Brexit group had long ago accepted this.
If, as seems likely, the Labour right adopts an aggressive “ditch free movement” line, that would sit very uneasily with the idea of a pro-EU centrist party. But that’s their problem.
The problem for the centre left of Labour is: where does it go? Any party of Remainia with the Libdems as the framework, Blair’s money, Mandelson as strategist and the geniuses of the Stronger In headquarters as the “ruling elite” is going to be very inhospitable to people like Angela Eagle and Yvette Cooper, let alone the people who simply resigned because though they liked Corbyn’s policies they disliked his leadership style.
The publication of Chilcot today will most likely freeze the Labour internal battle for a couple of days. If it does not, and the Labour right come out swinging punches in defence of Blair, Straw and other architects of the illegal war, you can take that as a sign that the right’s intention to split is serious. (Exactly how the pro-war Blairites would then unite with the Libdem's is, again, not our problem).
By Friday however we will know whether private Eagle is to be pushed over the top of the trench by general Mandelson. At the Durham Miner’s Gala on Saturday, where Corbyn will headline, the rebels would then get a sense of the political machine gun fire they are running into.
If the challenge happens, the next move would be to set up a rebel PLP — but it cannot be recognised by the Speaker as HM Opposition unless its MPs set up a new party, registered with the Electoral Commission, separate from Labour. At this point there would be no point to a leadership contest, as there would be two separate parties.
After that the prospects for the Labour centre left become very bleak. You can launch into a factional maelstrom of political realignment with confidence if you have intellectual ballast, an analysis of the world, a project and a lot of cash.
Angela Eagle et al do not seem to possess these things, and nor do the special advisers and journalists egging them on. They will be hostages to Mandelson, Ashdown, Polly Toynbee, Janan Ganesh and the rest in a kind of SDP re-enactment society.
That is why, even at this stage, it is important for the unions, Corbyn — and the membership that has rallied to Corbyn — to leave a route back to a negotiated de-escalation of the Labour revolt.
Some Labour MPs are probably reconciled to oblivion: there was a strong theme of Gotterdammerung in some of the letters they wrote to Corbyn — as if saying goodbye to a whole political era (and career) based on false illusions. Others are clearly not. They need to decide what their baseline request is, short of Corbyn stepping down, and ask for it.
The outcome might be – as I argued in March when the Tory crisis started – a left-led Labour Party, structured to give the soft-left control of certain policy areas and briefs, and to allow the possibility that “Jez 2.0” leadership structure emerges. Corbyn had already hired former senior civil service boss Bob Kerslake to create a more professional leadership team. That effort would have to go on performance enhancing drugs.
The Labour Party would immediately have to begin negotiations with the other progressive parties to form an electoral pact to keep the Tories out — and indeed to force an early election.
The baseline for that alliance cannot be to sabotage the popular mandate of the referendum. However it could be a confident and insistent request for single market membership, combined with a variation on free movement that gives still sees high inward migration, and gives nothing to the xenophobes, plus firm rejection of austerity.
As I write, Mark Carney is scrambling £150bn of bank lending to try and stave off a slump; and Stephen Crabb is extolling the virtues of deficit spending. The elite can borrow and spend to the hilt when it suits them. The defining politics of the coalition we need to build are: borrow, spend, redistribute, promote democracy, defend migrants against racism — and fight to stay in the single market.
As for the Blairites, I am certain they would be happier in their skins if they could join a centrist party. But centrism would still have to confront its basic crisis: neoliberalism is broken, and — from the Third Way to the Big Society — all of centrism’s projects are shaped around neoliberalism.
The massive upsurge of activity in support of Corbyn — hundreds at street rallies, tens of thousands joining the party — raises different challenges for Labour’s rival factions. For the centre left it is: how to reinvent non-radical socialism in an age of populism and national crisis. It can be done.
For the Blairites, it is much harder. Blair himself admitted he has no understanding of why the radical left is on the rise. The old method of “triangulating” between social justice and the policies of liberal conservatism does not work either, because an entire tradition from Major/Heseltine to Cameron/Osborne has run out of road.
Maybe they should just study Justin Trudeau and — after the Chilcot storm that breaks today — reflect.