In his FT column today, Janan Ganesh doffs his hat to reality:
Today, lots of people will end a romance, or stop fighting a terminal illness, or let an argumentative colleague have the last word, or fold a bad hand at the poker table. “Nobody likes a quitter” but prudent capitulation is a part of life. Junior doctors in England have saved their dignity and perhaps some lives by backing down from strike action. Would we rather they showed valour for its own sake?
Because our culture accords no honour to the act of giving up, the remaining moderates in Britain’s Labour party cannot be seen to entertain it. Jeremy Corbyn renewed his leadership over the weekend. The left is rampant. A reverse McCarthyism, with socialists doing the interrogation, is the daily lot of critical MPs. And still they will not resign the Labour whip to form a new party.
That is their decision. It is easy for commentators to will a formal breakaway that others would have to perform. But the least they could do is spare us another round of their fighting talk. They will “never surrender”, you see. The comeback “starts now”, apparently. The people who brought you Owen Smith, pallid flatterer of Mr Corbyn’s worldview and unwanted alternative to him, demand to be reckoned with.
Their plan, such as it exists, is to outnumber the left by recruiting hundreds of thousands of pragmatic voters to the party while refreshing themselves intellectually. The first of these projects seems fanciful, the second unnecessary.
The people they want tend not to join political parties. Their participation in real life gets in the way. An entirely fresh movement founded on the pro-European centre-left could, perhaps, attract those who feel dispossessed by Mr Corbyn and what is shaping up to be a hard exit from the EU. An invitation into an old, tainted party to fight ideologues who know the difference between Leninism and anarcho-syndicalism for mastery of things called the National Executive Committee is, for many people, a refusable offer.
If that is really their best idea – and Janan Ganesh is well connected, so he would know – then Labour’s centrist MPs deserve neither respect nor sympathy at this point. They already tried to pack the membership with an influx of moderates who would rise up against Jeremy Corbyn, and it didn’t work, Corbyn was re-elected by an even greater majority. And their new cunning plan is to try the same trick again?
If this reads like a counsel of despair, it should. There is a reasonable chance, and it becomes stronger by the day, that Gordon Brown will turn out to have been the last Labour prime minister. Even if the rebels dislodge Mr Corbyn and install one of their own, the public will remember their party as one that voted for the hard left twice in as many years. There are such things as lost causes. There is something to be said for giving up and starting again.
They will do no such thing, of course. They will insult our intelligence by talking up a mass harvest of new centrist members and fall back on the wheezing old line they always quote when their steadfastness is in doubt. In 1960, during another struggle with the left, Hugh Gaitskell, the Labour leader at the time, said he would “fight, fight and fight again to save the party we love”.
So much of Labour’s internal culture is contained in that magnificent and deranged line. In the normal world, you are not meant to love a political party. It is not your family. It is a machine with a function: in Labour’s case, the material improvement of working people’s lives through parliamentary means. If it is broken, fix it. If it cannot be fixed, build a new one.
Sentimentality made Labour moderates stick with leaders they should have culled. It made them open their party to the wider left. And it keeps them in a fight they cannot win.
Gradually they come to realise what this blog has been saying for months – that New Labour is irreversibly dead and buried, and that this is Jeremy Corbyn’s party now. The centrists are not merely taking a break – they have been turfed out, just as the old-school socialists were once marginalised and frozen out by Neil Kinnock, John Smith and Tony Blair.
The options are to accept that it is Jeremy Corbyn’s turn for the next four years, or do the decent thing and split from the Labour Party to form their own new party of the centre-left (while watching nervously to see what percentage of the Labour grassroots membership follows them out the door in solidarity).
Honour can be found in either submission or divorce – but please, spare us from another year of overwrought, teenage drama and soap opera shenanigans.
UPDATE: Read Submission Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 here.
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Good article, Samuel, but it surprises me that you’re not more critical of the Ganesh article. Two points particularly deserved skewering. Firstly, Ganesh dismisses as “unnecessary” the suggestion that the Blairite/Brownites need to start “refreshing themselves intellectually”.
Really? The Social Democratic elite has been swept aside across Europe and many of its fundamental beliefs shown to be wholly out of touch with public opinion, and yet it’s not in need of a refresh? The point here, surely, is that the FT clings stubbornly to many of those core beliefs – it, too, is in need of a fairly drastic refresh.
Secondly, the suggestion that a pro-EU centre-left party would be an attractive proposition. Perhaps it would, but only to the FT-reading Social Democrats I describe above. If a ‘New New Labour’ is to be a success, it will need to bring with it the 1/3 of Labour voters who voted to Leave, and their traditional heartlands, with them; being pro-EU will kill that stone dead before they’ve started.
The complication here is that a lot of the Remainer/Guardian-types actually quite like Corbyn. People seem to confuse this new hard Left with the hard Left of the 80s. That was founded in the militant North, Wales, essentially the deindustrialised parts of Britain; Corbyn’s was born in Islington. His most newsworthy beliefs are to be anti-nuclear, anti-Royal Family and pro-immigration – all anthaema to the old British working class.
I therefore disagree that Labour needs to split – the right of it wouldn’t be nearly strong enough on its own. Instead, do what they didn’t do last time – let Corbyn get on with it. No rebellions, no couples, just give the man enough rope to hang himself – and then, when the time comes, have the guts to put up a decent candidate who’ll fight for Social Democratic beliefs, rather than a scar on copy. Two years of unadulterated Corbynism would be enough to put all but the most deluded off.