The Daily Toast: Hugo Rifkind On The Dilemma Of Labour Party Centrists

Labour Centrists

Why don’t those members and activists who hate the new direction of the Labour Party simply leave?

It’s hard to bring yourself to leave an organisation when you have convinced yourself that everyone outside of it is hateful, immoral and evil. That’s the point Hugo Rifkind makes in his latest piece for the Spectator, a reflection on why there has been no hint of a centrist exodus from the Labour Party in the Age of Corbyn, despite much grumbling and plotting.

Rifkind wonders out loud:

What is wrong with these people? It’s like they’re children. Part of the madness comes, I suppose, from social media, whereby every utterance is ‘campaigning’, even if you’re just doing it in the office, on the loo. The bulk of it, though, is the idea that Labour people have to be Labour forever, even if they completely disagree with Labour, or else they’re not Labour. It’s weird and it’s needy and it’s anti–intellectual, and it makes no sense at all. They went big on this during the leadership election, when a host of people with politics virtually indistinguishable from Jeremy Corbyn’s were kicked out on the basis of prior support for the Greens or the Scots Nats. Because, of course, if they were true Labour they’d support Labour even while disagreeing with Labour, because that’s what Labour does.

Why does it? Nobody else behaves like this. Nobody else turns party into a tribe, not just putting loyalty over policy, but feigning a virtue with it, too. In any other party, anyone who disagreed with the party line as often as Corbyn has might have been expected to resign at least once, if only out of embarrassed deference to the voters who had blithely ticked the ‘Labour’ box. Perhaps due to its history, though, Labour is not merely a jumble of policies in the manner of other parties. Labour is a ‘movement’ and if you aren’t with it, you’re against it. No matter which direction it currently happens to be moving in.

An interesting argument, but it’s hardly as if the other main political parties are chock full of people who resign in fits of pique and then come crawling meekly back in rhythm with party policy. The only really noteworthy defections of the past few years are those of Mark Reckless and Douglas Carswell – both from the Tories to UKIP.

So while the gulf between the Corbyn left and the Blairite centre of the Labour Party may be particularly large, right-wing Tory MPs such as John Redwood and Bill Cash – with no frontbench career aspirations of their own to worry about – are just as unlikely to leave the Conservative party in disgust at David Cameron as Chuka Umunna or Andy Burnham are about to forsake Labour out of despair with Corbyn.

Rifkind closes by admonishing the centrists:

This is what happens when you brainwash yourself into believing that your lot are the only good guys; when you forget that it’s not the club that matters, but what the club does. This is what happens when you grow so used to feeling superior to everybody outside Labour that you can no longer properly believe such people are proper, moral humans at all. It’s not a church. It’s not a sin to go somewhere else for a bit if you need to. Not when the nuts do it, and not when you do either. Pull yourselves together. People are laughing.

This part is very true, and speaks to a sickness at the heart of the Labour Party – and the British Left in general – which this blog was one of the first to report on, and the most consistent in highlighting.

There are many reasons why Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party is not yet provoking an exodus. First, there is the hope that Corbynism may yet prove to be a passing phase, and that a couple of years of underperformance or a 2020 general election defeat will shock the Left back to its senses. Second, there is the self-protective instinct most Labour MPs have over their political careers – breaking away to start a new political party rarely leads to career advancement and power. But thirdly, there is what Hugo Rifkind calls the “tribal” instinct – that same stubborn unwillingness to leave which kept Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour Party for all his long wilderness years, and which now keeps the centrists grimly hanging on.

Would it be so hard for the centrists to step away from the Labour Party had they not grown up telling themselves that the Evil Tories represent everything bad about Britain, that Britain’s greatness can be summed up by the output of our public services alone, and that Labour have a monopoly on both wisdom and compassion? Probably not. But they did, and they still do.

Back when the Labour leadership contest was still raging, this blog argued:

If Jeremy Corbyn is not the answer to Labour’s irrelevance, whoever ends up taking the party forward will need to explicitly make peace with capitalism, and undo the bad blood created by Gordon Brown’s brooding statism and the hand-wringing “predators vs producers” equivocation of Ed Miliband. And this will require explicitly praising the virtues of capitalism, and potentially letting the Jeremy Corbyn-led wing of the party split off and float away back to the 1970s.

This does not mean that the remaining rump of the Labour Party should then cast itself as just another centrist alternative to the Tories – British politics desperately needs real ideological variety and choice. But the future ideological lines will be drawn over how to make capitalism work for all the people, with laissez-faire small government types on one side, and bigger government interventionists on the other.

[..] Sniping at capitalism while conspicuously enjoying the fruits of all that it provides has proven to be a deeply unconvincing platform. And it won’t become any more convincing, or win Labour any new voters, by the time of the next election.

So can a Labour Party at peace with the free market still stand for anything, and be a party of clear principle and ideological coherence? Absolutely. But it won’t happen by chance, it will require careful and determined consideration.

But Jeremy Corbyn did win the contest, and it is clear that the Labour Party will not “make peace” with capitalism so long as he remains leader. And in some ways that’s fine – I supported Jeremy Corbyn’s candidacy precisely because I wanted to end the stale centrist consensus which currently grips British politics.

However, it does leave those centrists in a bind: disagreeing with nearly everything their leader says, used to attacking capitalism themselves in their lazy campaign rhetoric, but increasingly coming to appreciate capitalism the more they look at Corbyn’s alternative.

If Corbyn looks as though he will stay in power up to the 2020 general election, at some point the centrists will have to jump. And when they do, they will be ruthlessly attacked and vilified by precisely those voices who currently believe that virtue and salvation can only be found within the Labour Party.

But if the centrists wish to stay in politics and be taken seriously, what other choice will they have?

Jeremy Corbyn - Labour Leadership Election - Victory Nears

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