Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Saturday, 18 August 2018

Why an anti-Corbyn party is a terrible idea


Within a few months of Corbyn’s election, I wrote about what I called the anti-Corbynistas: a smallish group of Labour MPs and many in the media who were happy to attack Corbyn for the sole purpose of bringing him down. I wanted to make the simple point that their efforts were counterproductive. If, as they kept insisting, Corbyn’s chances of winning any election were zero, it was better that members find that out without their efforts. If they carried on, most members would put down any negative performance to the activities of the anti-Corbynistas.

In fact I understated my case. When Labour MPs voted no confidence in Corbyn after the 2016 referendum, most members read it as part of a plot not only to defeat Corbyn but also to take power away from themselves. And they didn’t want power for powers sake, but just to stop the steady drift to the right among their party leaders with no apparent electoral benefit. I tried as hard as I could to suggest that many MPs had voted no confidence out of frustration at Corbyn’s administrative incompetence and the failure of his pro-Remain campaign, but I have no doubt that that the activities of the anti-Corbynistas meant many members just didn’t get beyond the idea of a power grab by MPs. To put it bluntly, the anti-Corbynistas helped ensure Corbyn’s victory against Owen Smith.

After that the anti-Corbynistas went quiet. Labour fought a campaign where divisions within Labour were not the number one topic, and they produced a spectacular swing to Labour in the three weeks before the election. The argument that Corbyn would always be hopeless at the polls died in those three weeks.

A year later, and it seems that Labour’s real difficulties with antisemitic members has led to the return of the anti-Corbynistas. Here is Chuka Umunna in The Independent. The aim it seems is no longer to persuade Labour party members to give up on Corbyn because he cannot win. Instead the anti-Corbynistas have given up on Labour party members. In the short term that is surely right. Most of the membership do not care that much who he has been ‘linked to’ in the past: the MSM has cried wolf too many times. They know that Corbyn has always stood up for Palestinians and they respect him for it. The more he is attacked in the MSM the more it seems he provides a genuine challenge to the establishment, and that is exactly what members want.

However the leap the anti-Corbynistas then make is far more tenuous. Because they give up on Labour party members now, they may give up on the Labour party forever, and form a new political party. The best time to do that is now, so the argument might go, because Corbyn is under pressure over his Brexit stance and because of the antisemitism row. That logic is no better, and is probably far worse, than their logic after Corbyn was elected. It only makes sense if you think a Corbyn led government of centre left MPs is worse than a government that gave us austerity and Brexit.

Of course it is possible that a new centre party could sweep all before it. But our FPTP system makes it very difficult for new parties to break through in terms of winning seats. UKIP is an obvious example. The most successful new party of recent times is the SDP, and it ultimately failed. If a new party is to succeed, it has to win between 30% and 40% of the popular vote. Yet in our most recent general election in 2017 the third party vote was squeezed, and the two main parties won over 82% of the popular vote between them. Everyone points to Macron, but he won 24% of votes in the first round. That is not enough.

Where will the votes for a new centre party come from? Thinking in simple left right terms, the steady move to the right in the Conservative party, particularly over Brexit, has left a gap which a more right wing version of Miliband’s Labour could fill, although policies like a Mansion tax or higher corporation tax would probably have to go. Equally those voting for Miliband’s Labour who thought it was a tad left wing could be attracted to a new centre party, as could those Remainers who will not forgive Corbyn for accepting the referendum vote.

However if we think in two dimensional terms, with a social conservative/liberal axis, the position looks less favourable. Right wing social conservatives will stick to the Conservatives. Left wing liberals will mostly stick with Labour. So the new party needs to be in the centre on the second social conservative/liberal axis as well as the left/right axis. There are some basic problems with trying to capture both these groups. Most importantly, it is not very clear how being tough on immigration squares with arguing for the softest of Brexits.

So a new party will almost surely fail in breaking through, but I’m not sure that is the only objective. The other objective is to stop Labour winning the next election. There is a strange irony here. A group of people who were arguing with absolute conviction that Corbyn could not possibly win are now arguing that there is a real danger that he will win and therefore must be stopped, which means more Tory government Even if that is not an objective it could well be the effect.

This fills me with anger and dread. Anger that people can convince themselves that what would be in legislative terms a centre-left government can be worse that a party that had inflicted more damage on the UK in the last eight years than any since WWII. And dread at a Conservative victory in 2022 because a new party takes away crucial Labour votes. Nothing suggests the Conservative party has stopped moving in a rightward direction. Alleged Brexit betrayal and a resurgence of UKIP will help ensure that it continues in that direction. If current betting is right, the next Tory party leaders will either be someone whose inspiration is Ayn Rand, or someone who wants to take us back to the 18th century, or a clown who is happy to encourage Islamophobia..

I understand why some within Labour dislike Corbyn, and why they write lists of all the inexcusable (in their mind) things he had done in the past. I know some imagine that he alone is keeping Brexit going. I can see why, because of the rhetoric of some on the left, they can imagine that most of the 500,000 members have become cult followers who will never listen to reason. But is there evidence for that last assumption? Many Corbyn supporters and Momentum members are trying to get the party to change its policy in favour of a referendum on the final deal. This is not a party that will support Corbyn whatever he does: Labour has never been like that and never will be.

To me the anti-Corbynistas look much like those on the left in US general elections who didn’t vote, or voted for a third party, because they thought both candidates were equally bad. They focus so much on why the Democratic candidate is not ideal, they fail to see that they are much closer to their own position that the Republican. Corbyn may well do some things as PM that you do not like, but he will not stoke immigrant antagonism which fuels racism of all kinds. He will not talk about looking up at the closed blinds of their next-door neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits. He will not be content to see foodbank use explode after people get sanctioned because, for example, they have a heart attack. If you are content for those things to continue to happen, then creating a new party is a good way of ensuring they do.



21 comments:

  1. joke. Corbyn is a terrorist groupie. His bleating about peace whilst meeting with people who openly commit murder and other terrorist acts is stomach-churningly sick. To equate this with Johnson supporting the right to wear a burqa in public is just ridiculous.

    And on Islamophobia, to repeat, anyone can choose to follow islam, and anyone can choose not to follow islam (unless those followers of Islam who believe in death for apostates get to them first). To equate dislike of radical islam with being anti-semitic is a clear and obvious disingenuous nonsense.

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    1. somehow when British politicians meet with the leaders of one of the most reactionary nation on Earth, Saudi Arabia, with its horrific bombing campaign or with Israeli leaders breaking international law with its occupation and military operations in Syria, that is considered acceptable whereas those who resist the seizure of their country like Palestinians are just terrorists. If we are to get anywhere, we have to talk with people whose adherents have done some pretty nasty things. The alternative is yet more bombing.

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    2. Every politician bleats about peace whilst meeting with people who openly commit murder and other terrorist acts. People such as the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia or the Prime Minister of Israel, for instance. Or the President of the United States.

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  2. A centre party created out of those in Labour who voted for the Iraq War and those in the Liberal Party who supported expansionary austerity is not much of a tempter.

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  3. "Corbyn may well do some things as PM that you do not like,... He will not talk about looking up at the closed blinds of their next-door neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits. He will not be content to see foodbank use explode after people get sanctioned because, for example, they have a heart attack. If you are content for those things to continue to happen, then creating a new party is a good way of ensuring they do. "

    But that's the point. Those who are talking up a new party with the specific (though usually unstated, in public anyway) goal of pulling enough votes from Labour to prevent a Corbyn lead government are "content for those things to continue to happen." They are against "those things" in as much as it is required for them to win an election. But it's not obvious they actually care about those things enough that they would be unwilling to parrot the tory language if it seemed to be more politically popular and a vote winning strategy.

    I really don't know what Labour members should do anymore. Everything the Corbyn critics do and say is so clearly done in bad faith that it seems impossible to have a reasonable discussion about possible changes which might be legitimately desirable regardless of Corbyn.

    The people or (worse) MP who would be wiling to harm Labour, and by extension the people/groups in society who rely on a Labour government to look put for their needs, in order to bring down Corbyn must be defeated. More than defeated, they need to be politically destroyed so they are never able to hold any office ever again.

    But the Corbyn critics have created a devious catch 22 we saw during the last GE and the previous attempts to take down Corbyn. Any action taken against them is portrayed as "cultish" and evidence of the desire for Labour to be some sort of intellectual monolith that purges dissenting voices. It is also portrayed as evidence of Corbyn's leadership "troubles" or that Labour is a party "in shambles". You just can't win. Let them stay and they do everything they can to bring Corbyn down. Try and prevent them being in a position to take Corbyn down and suddenly it's evidence of Corbyn engaging in Stalinist purges on one hand or shambolic inability to keep order in the party making him unfit to be PM.

    It's all just so frustrating and dispiriting. I mean, you know intellectually that capital will do anything to protect its privilege. But to see it happen right in your face, so openly. And how intellectual arguments mean nothing. These people will say something about voting for the best option even if it doesn't do 100% of what you want. Then they'll ignore that "rule" entirely when it might force them to make the hard, unpleasant choice about how "you can't always get what you want".

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    1. Spot on and exactly how I feel. I voted for Corbyn twice but am no fan of his - certainly not a cultist. But given so much hyperbole, crying wolf and bad faith from those criticising him, it becomes almost impossible to hold genuine discussions about him and the party in general because you know it'll get derailed. So we end up in tribes shouting at each other until one group decide they've had enough and cut off all our noses in spite...

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  4. correct. These anti corbyn MPs are amazingly self indulgent. Self pitying. on £77,000 a year. Poor dears.

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  5. With respect to Labour party members, you're spot on. The young Labour supporters who elected Corbyn as leader are predominantly against Brexit. I guess what is hoped for is that Corbyn will, 'reluctantly', be forced to agree to a second ballot on Brexit. Again, I suspect MSM have Corbyn in an awkward position, that is if he leads too soon on a second referendum they will through everything at him: from anti-democratic to pro-immigrant, etc.
    For myself, it's difficult for this Labour member to remain objective, as to what's best for the UK, when Chukka and co. place not getting a centrist to left government ahead of the national interest.
    This appears to a 'gang of four' policy to split the Labour vote, as the UK turns its back on austerity and social nihilism. The MSM, probably have promised the new, New Lib-Dems lots of positive coverage; I suspect the main reason Farage did so well initially was down to MSM, and for the same reason.

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  6. Surely the fear of the anti-Corbynistas is that a Corbyn led Government,particulary with a small majority, will be such a disaster that an extreme right wing Tory Government will sweep in in the subsequent election and destroy everything those on the centre left hold dear.

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    1. Actually, I think the fear of the anti-Corbynistas is that a Corbyn led government might succeed. If genuinely left-of-centre policies implemented for the benefit of the poor and middle class turned out to in fact help the poor and middle class, what need would there be for Blairite politicians to tell everyone how they have to accept quasi-conservative policies for their own good?

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  7. If you could kindly explain how Jeremy Corbin's not supporting another referendum on Brexit gets Jeremy Corbin into power?

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  8. For once I can only say: Well Said.

    This reads like a dose of common sense against the fevered agitation of the political 'experts'. I will bet the half million Labour members - the great majority of them 'new' - are far more pro-Eu than Corbyn, but that does NOT mean they want more Blair-Brown or even Milliband. They want change just as much as the famous 'left-behind' but they don't want it by leaving the EU.

    Where Umunna and the other antis get it wrong is, as you say, thinking that being more pro-EU will lead them to vote for a 'Tory-lite' party, which is what seems to be on offer - and has been on offer since 2010 if not longer - from the anti-Corbyn faction. Not quite so austere, not quite so anti-immigrant, not quite so ... I'm sorry but you don't win elections by being 'not quite so bad'.

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    1. There speaks someone who believes only in two party politics.

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  9. Spot on. I rejoined the labour party this year (I'm 65) having despaired of politics since new labour started up and (as Thatcher said) pushed thru the neo liberal agenda further than the tories had ever thought possible. I've been taken aback by the impermeable-to-reason opposition of "centrists" to Corbyn. I've just unfollowed Ian Dunt because of this (I bought his brexit book, followed his brexit podcast). he is excellent on Brexit). Mr Dunt never develops any kind of argument to support his utter contempt for Corbyn - its all just personalised abuse. Taking him as an examplar, I'm bewildered by this.

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  10. I wonder how many of the commentators so far are either Labour Party members or even supporters??

    Firstly please listen to this American professor that understands what is at stake here instead of the opinions of people that don't even have the first clue what Labour's politics are yet sanctimoniously talk about Brexit as though it were the holy grail of politics.

    http://www.tikkit.co.uk/post/301_here-it-is-as-if-by-magic-the-full-norman-finkelstein-interview-with-our-profess.html

    The other small point is look at what is really happening in Europe instead your blinkered views of an economic paradise that just doesn't exist.

    https://www.ineteconomics.org/perspectives/blog/macroeconomics-and-the-italian-vote

    I absolutely hate this rag but the map of those countries in Europe that show preferences for extreme right wing governments should be a cause for concern.

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-3604805/KATIE-HOPKINS-Left-t-stand-Europe-America-politicians-rise-countries-culture-Britain-first.html

    This should open anyone's eyes as to the actual situation in Europe, rather than what some want to believe is the case: Der Spiegel report:

    https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/nov/06/the-germans-are-making-contingency-plans-for-the-collapse-of-europe-lets-hope-we-are-too

    In my view those that support Europe are just as bad as those types in UKIP, only they think they are better.

    I voted remain not because I thought Europe was a good thing, quite the opposite, but I didn't want this futile debate in the first place, because it is a pure distraction from what is happen right under our noses here in Britain.

    Neo-Liberal politicians, like those in Europe, are dismantling the state as we speak and most have got their heads in the clouds pontificating about absolute irrelevances.

    Unless you are yourself part of the Neo-Liberal agenda and agree with the direction of travel. The Labour Party are not wedded to Europe like the one trick pony LIBDEMS who were the enablers for all the Tory policies that's destroying our public services and economy. I could understand concerns over Europe if it was instrumental in creating a society that I would be proud to be part of, instead we have the example of Greece to go by and the fact that people are dying on our streets, in our hospital corridors on trollies, and only recently a person so desperate set fire to themselves in an employment office, which in fact has been ignored by the mass media, where other such incidents have also occurred, but how money here has heard about that. We in the Labour Party see the wider picture, which some choose not to.


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  11. "but he will not stoke immigrant antagonism which fuels racism of all kinds"

    Corbyn's Labour has been doing this for the past two years. Nor does his obvious indulgence of the anti-semites in Labour suggest much reason for hope. Simon thinks the Tories are bad - and yes, they are - but there's a decent chance that Corbyn's rabble of economically illiterate and hate-driven fanatics would be worse.

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  12. "To me the anti-Corbynistas look much like those on the left in US general elections who didn’t vote, or voted for a third party, because they thought both candidates were equally bad. They focus so much on why the Democratic candidate is not ideal, they fail to see that they are much closer to their own position that the Republican. "

    This feeling of being stuck between two bad options and being forced to pick either or else your vote doesn't count is a feature of FPTP. And FPTP will always be in place if people don't vote for "third parties", since the 2 bipartisan parties will always be in favor of keeping the system that keeps them in power. Be the change you want to see.

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  13. "Corbyn may well do some things as PM that you do not like, but he will not stoke immigrant antagonism which fuels racism of all kinds."

    He will lie about immigrants taking your jobs and driving down your wages though, as cover for his prejudice against single market membership.

    I'm not a Labour voter, but I could see myself voting for the party if it were led by someone competent and modern who could handle the media, while delivering the policies that Corbyn has laid out (minus Brexit and his bizarre government-run social media platform idea). Someone like Umunna or Starmer, perhaps.

    According to the latest YouGov poll, only 24% of voters think Corbyn would make the best PM, way behind May and even further behind "Don't know"! For whatever reason, Corbyn is anathema to most voters. He is holding your party back and you need to chuck him pronto if you want to get into power.

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  14. I always drop in on your blog for a good laugh. You've outdone yourself. The most full-of-lies, full-of-elisions load of rubbish you've written all year. You suppose that a lot of the Labour right must prefer a Tory govt to a Corbyn one. And in that, if nothing else, you are right.

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  15. Of course the Labour right MPs would, in effect, prefer a Tory govt to a Corbyn one. If they allow Corbyn to become PM, he will wreck the country within weeks, damaging Labour forever and also Britain for years. Otherwise, this is the biggest load of fact-free rubbish youve written this year.

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  16. A group of people who were arguing with absolute conviction that Corbyn could not possibly win are now arguing that there is a real danger that he will win and therefore must be stopped

    You could call it ironic, or you could say that they can't possibly have been arguing in good faith both times...

    I think a lot of people outside the party have underestimated - and continue to underestimate - the extent to which support for Corbyn and support for a democratised, membership-led party* overlap. I feel I can speak with some authority here; I voted for Corbyn in 2015 as a 'supporter' and joined the party when (and because) he won. People like me don't support Corbyn because we think he's got some unique charismatic properties; we support him because he's one of us, and because his election meant that we, on the Left, had won fair and square. When Corbyn's attacked by somebody like Umunna - willing to pose as a potential leader but not to put his support to the test - it comes across as both an attack on us as a group and, more importantly, an attack on party democracy.

    *Some irony here, as "one member one vote" was one of the key right-wing demands which led the Gang of Four to leave Labour. Times change!

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