The Arrogance Of Labour’s Centrists

Jeremy Corbyn - Labour Leadership Election - Victory Nears

Accustomed to getting their way for nearly 20 years, Labour’s centrist MPs are having a hard time adjusting to the fact that they may no longer call the shots or dictate policy

Jeremy Corbyn has not yet been crowned as the new leader of the Labour Party and Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, but already the party’s centrists and Blue Labour types are attempting to dictate the terms of their surrender.

And as the Independent points out, at present it is by no means certain that the centrists – who have known nothing but power and influence for nearly two decades – will accept the result with anything like good grace:

The real question, of course, is whether they will accept the verdict of the party’s membership. The vote may well be closer than anyone expects – with a late showing by Yvette Cooper offering the tantalising prospect of a second surprise to overtake the original shock of the Corbyn surge. But, if he wins, Mr Corbyn will have a mandate to lead his party under the rules the party introduced to increase participation.

It also depends on how far figures such as Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall go to try and reconcile their views with his. They have been more or less clear about what they would like to do, but the more that people such as they, and Chuka Umunna and Tristram Hunt boycott the Corbyn leadership, the more he will be able to ignore them. It is their duty to serve their party and their leader, and for them to push for their policies from within. To abstain, to run away, to sulk – this is not only not in Labour’s best interests, but would hardly serve to put Labour back on the road to social democracy.

In fact, there are growing indications that a number of Labour frontbenchers may choose to take their ball and go home rather than support the new leader and risk their own future careers by associating themselves with Jeremy Corbyn’s unabashed socialism.

From ITV News:

Shadow Welsh Secretary Owen Smith has said he’d work with any one of the four candidates that wins. There’s been speculation though that, whoever becomes leader, he’ll move from the job he’s occupied for the last three years.

Whether they’re thinking about engaging or walking away, many say they’d expect Jeremy Corbyn to reach out to critics if he wins and meet them half-way on some of the more controversial issues such as his opposition to Trident.

So let’s get this straight: when the Left of the party are in charge, they have a duty to “reach out” to the centrists, mollifying their hurt feelings and delicate egos by giving in to them on key policy positions. But when the centrists are in charge – as they have been since the days of Kinnock – they get to run the show and take the glory, while either ignoring or attacking their own left flank. They get to implement their centrist agenda in full when they are winning, but they have the right to expect and demand concessions from the Left when they are out of power. Is that what we are to understand?

Dan Hodges said it best back in June, when Jeremy Corbyn secured enough nominations to make it onto the ballot paper with only minutes to spare:

One of the great myths of Labour’s victory in 1997 was that it was secured because Tony Blair constructed a “big tent” that was politically inclusive. In fact, that victory was secured because Blair – and Neil Kinnock before him – made a point of kicking the hard Left out of the tent. And then when they got them out of the tent they kept kicking them.

Yes, they did. And that’s fine. But you can’t advocate kicking the other wing of the party when they are down – even revelling in their defeat – while simultaneously demanding that your own wing be treated with fawning respect and consideration when they suddenly find themselves in the wilderness.

Jeremy Corbyn has stated his intention to build a shadow cabinet drawing from all wings and traditions of the Labour Party if he wins tomorrow, which is not only magnanimous but also much more than his opponents would have done had they succeeded in their hope of crushing Corbyn’s campaign into the dust. Jeremy Corbyn will consider the likes of Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper and Tristram Hunt for his shadow cabinet, but you can bet that there would have been no place for a Corbyn, Diane Abbott or Dennis Skinner in theirs.

Some might argue that although Corbyn looks likely to win a convincing victory in the leadership election, his views do not represent the prevailing opinion of the parliamentary party on most matters. And it’s true: Corbyn will be leading a caucus of 232 MPs, a significant majority of whom would have strongly preferred a different leader. Because of the collegiate nature of Parliament, a degree of mutual respect and give-and-take will be a necessity.

But MPs only serve at the pleasure of their constituents, and are only nominated (short lists and party HQ interference aside) by the permission of their local associations. Labour MPs themselves may not be very enthused by the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn as their leader, but the people who put them in office in many cases are absolutely delighted.

And don’t forget, Jeremy Corbyn won 152 Constituency Labour Party (CLP) nominations, more than any other candidate. Corbyn’s small band of supporters in Parliament belies his grassroots appeal and level of support within the wider party.

Treating Jeremy Corbyn with high-handed contempt because he does not hail from the Chuka Umunna school of thought is all well and good. But what is to say that Corbyn’s many supporters – assuming they remain engaged with politics beyond the adrenaline-fuelled days of the leadership campaign – will not interpret this behaviour as an attack on themselves, and justifiably so?

After all, Labour’s whole electoral problem is borne of the fact that the Westminster party is (correctly) seen to have drifted too far away from the party base, let alone the cares and concerns of ordinary British people. When you are fighting against the perception that you are part of a nonpartisan Westminster political elite who look after their own first and foremost, having the centrists who used to be in charge gang up on the populist new leader would send an absolutely disastrous message. Labour could kiss goodbye to a handful of their Northern UKIP marginals very easily in this way, if they are not extremely careful.

None of which directly concerns me, of course. I am not a member of the Labour Party, nor a £3 supporter – my application and vote having been rejected at the last minute thanks to the party’s vetting process (more about that here). My interest has always been to see genuine ideological and political choice return to the public debate and to Westminster, a hope which will come a step closer if Jeremy Corbyn wins the leadership election tomorrow.

The centrists may well hate the next few years. (I should know, I hail from the libertarian wing of the Conservative Party, and we are used to being marginalised and ignored by the leadership even when our party nominally holds power). But Labour’s disappointed centrists must take that burning anger and bitterness, and squeeze it into a tiny white hot ball of rage, to be suppressed indefinitely and at great cost to their mental health. Because the alternative – refusing to accept the result – is political suicide.

When you are already in danger of being seen as self-entitled sore losers, Labour’s defeated centrists will have nothing to gain by either taking their ball and going home, or plotting a pre-emptive coup against the victorious Corbyn.

Funny. If Jeremy Corbyn wins on Saturday, the centre of the Labour Party will finally know how it has felt to be on the libertarian Right of the Conservative Party every single day since 2010. But somehow I’m not expecting it to foster a new spirit of mutual respect and appreciation – that just isn’t Labour’s style.

Labour Centrists

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