Tuesday, July 05, 2016
This is not 1981, and an SDP Mark II will not work.
Now, as we see elements of the Labour Right tacitly threatening a split, the spectre of the 1980s looms over us once more. The threat is that, once more, they can force a change in the electoral landscape, hand several victories to the Conservatives, and wait for the demoralised Labour Party to come to heel. I think the Labour Right are delusional in this pursuit of a 1980s re-enactment. I think it's a bad miscalculation on their part. And if the Labour Left doesn't lose its head, and start panicking, it can call their bluff. Here are a number of reasons why.
1.) Corbynism is not Bennism, and everyone can see this. While Jeremy Corbyn, the bearded socialist, is a Bennite in ideology, Corbynism as a political formation steers toward the historic centre of Labourism. Nothing that Corbyn proposes, bar his opposition to Trident, should in principle be disagreeable to old right-wing social democrats. For all that Labour MPs and pundits think they're staring at the abyss of Marxist-Leninism, or crypto-Trotskyism, anyone not trapped in those self-serving illusions can see that Corbyn is taking Labour gently and moderately toward a form of retooled social democracy. His support base, moreover, while including networks of the radical Left, is largely built upon a coalition of people for whom those old struggles are completely opaque.
2.) There isn't a generalised anti-socialist climate in the UK at the moment. There are plenty of morbid symptoms, and many trajectories toward reaction, but there is no 'winter of discontent' upon which a New Right can build a founding myth, no overweening union strength against which to define a reactionary agenda, and no recent history of left-wing militancy. The urgency of the Labour Right, in the early Eighties, and its ability to draw allies toward itself from the soft Left, owed itself to the perception that these truculent forces were destroying Labour, and that their backward cultural and political habits had to be broken. Today, all their urgency is about a presumed right to rule Labour, regardless of the outcome of elections conducted under a system that they actually fought for. Given this, the tendency has been for the soft Left to support Corbyn (with some fraying now, to be sure, but mostly not in a way that leads to a fusion with the party's right-wing).
3.) As several columnists favourable to the Labour Right have pointed out, there simply isn't the public appetite for a new centre party today. This is John Rentoul, The Independent's resident Blairite polemicist, on the subject: "The conditions for a new centre-left party are less favourable than they were when the Social Democratic Party was launched in 1981 - then, the Conservatives had moved to the right while the London liberal middle class and the media were all for a new party." I don't see much of that today. So who is actually going to split? Who has the appetite for that? They can't even bring themselves to challenge Corbyn in a democratic election contest. According to the magazine, Labour Insider, Corbynites estimate that the total number of MPs currently favouring a split, is about twenty. Twenty is not a small number of MPs, and we could allow for any prospective split being larger than that. Nonetheless, two dozen seems to be in the right ball park. How many trade unions would go with them? Probably none - why should they leave their party, the party they founded? How many councillors? Maybe a proportion of the hundreds who want Corbyn to resign. How many members? Rather few, I suspect. And how many Labour voters would be grateful to such a split? How many would cheerfully defect, just because these people couldn't put up with the members imposing a leadership they didn't like?
4.) The Tories are not on the ascendancy, hovering somewhere around the low Thirties at the moment. They have been undergoing their own secular decline, partly pivoted on the issue of Europe, but more basically having to do with a schism between a centre-seeking, pro-business establishment and the traditionally hard-right base. The irony is that with Ukip on the rise, the Right has been doing quite well overall, but it is electorally split in such a way that a first-past-the-post system will work against it. It is frankly absurd, given that even the SDP Mark I didn't have this effect, to claim that a split by the Labour Right today would result in "decades" of Tory rule. I'm not even terribly confident that the Conservatives will exist in their current form for decades. The reality is that "under this electoral system," the Tories don't have an advantage because their side is on the decline. As such, a right-wing split could not bank on cultural and politically regnant Toryism to terrorise the Labour Party into submission.
None of this means that a split, should it come, is something anyone in the Labour Party should welcome. It would be unspeakably selfish and venal, conducted for the most narrow, short-sighted and base of motives. And the mere fact that it would be intended to trash Labour, to hurt it so badly that it returns to obedience, should inspire rage and contempt. But it does mean that those who are making the prospect of a split their red line, as it were, are entirely wrong in their focus. The coup plotters have started this process, in a pre-meditated way, and don't have a roadmap out of the situation they have created. The responsibility is on them to negotiate their retreat, to make peace with their defeat, and to work with whichever leadership the party members wish to elect. If a small number of those MPs, having gained careers and power on the back of the labour movement, and on the back of the Labour Party, are prepared to try to wreck it when they don't get their way - well, then, to hell with them. Let them go, and see how far they get. They will lose.