The Observer has led today with a story that a group of Labour MP’s is looking to start a new “centre” party. It is the latest in a series of persistent rumours, that resurface from time to time as the Labour party lurches between crises.
Granted, the Labour Party isn’t doing its job at the moment – and is looking as dysfunctional as at any time in its history. It is wholly failing to oppose Brexit – an austerian project that is in essence a wealth and power grab by elites, dressed up as a populist reaction against those elites; and its leadership is apparently preparing to help a failing Tory government deliver that project. It is still racked by institutional antisemitism. It talks about anti-racism while demonstrating – before it got found out – that it’s quite prepared to throw EU citizens who have made their home in the UK for decades under the populist bus. Labour councillors seeking to deliver for their communities in the face of unprecedented cuts are demonised by thuggish (and largely privileged) “activists”, some of whom have serially stood against Labour in local elections. And in the face of this members are leaving the Labour Party in their thousands.
But – it needs to be stressed time and again that the people who have had enough of a failing party are not, as the social media warriors would have it, “centrists”. My own experience is that they are decent people who live Labour values – equality, fairness, empowerment – to their fingertips. They are in many cases the backbone of local parties, people who have undertaken the unglamourous legwork of local organisation unstintingly and with passion.
And here is the weakness of the centre party proposal. The people who understand that Labour under Corbyn is leaving its values behind are not instinctive chasers of the Overton window; they are people with convictions and passion, many of whom are heartbroken by what the Party has become. The idea of alliances with “moderate” Tories and Liberal Democrats – architects and enablers of austerity – is absolute anathema to them. What exactly is such a party supposed to unite around? Opposition to Brexit, perhaps, but Brexit is in part the product of domestic policy failures, which have seen large parts of the UK fall behind economically and socially. What could such a coalition have to offer, even if Brexit is defeated? Where is that common way forward?
And the trouble with any proposed Centre Party is that it plays into the hands of the Corbynist narrative. As I demonstrate in my book The Theory and Practice of Corbynism, the current Labour Party leadership broadly follows a Leninist approach to party organisation, in which a vanguard party organisation leads and directs the so-called “rank and file”, which votes through policy decisions that empower and legitimise the leadership without any right to initiate and challenge. And within that structure, the demonisation of groups that do not accept that discipline as seeking to undermine the Party is a routine method of retaining control.
In other words, the idea of a centre party does not so much undermine the Corbynists controlling the Labour Party as empower them – because, ideologically, they can argue that they were right all along; that the Labour Party is better without these people, who dilute its purity and purpose.
And the supreme irony just now is that the issue that is causing the greatest divide in the Labour Party is whether the Leadership should be allowed to get away with enabling – or at least failing to oppose – a Brexit that is an ideological project of the right.
It seems to me that Labour needs to be tough on Brexit and tough on the causes of Brexit. And that means opposing Brexit tooth and nail, challenging a corrupt referendum result based on lies and generalities, and showing the way forward to deal with the economic dislocation that laid the conditions for that Brexit vote. The problem with a centre party is that it lets the Labour leadership off its responsibility to oppose Brexit, but offers nothing to deal with the long-term, fundamental structural problems of the British economy and society. You don’t do that by chasing the Overton window; and a party that challenged those structural problems wouldn’t be a centre party, because it would have to challenge accepted political and economic norms, not accept them.
In other words, what is needed is a Labour Party prepared to work to build a genuinely progressive consensus, based firmly on core Labour values. The genius of the Labour Party is that its breadth, its roots in both the trade union movement and in progressive social democracy, has allowed it at its best to be the finest engine for social change in Britain’s history. And neither the current Labour Party leadership, nor a new centre party, would offer that. The latter would merely legitimise the ideological mindset of the former.
In summary: we on the progressive side of politics need Labour to rediscover its soul.