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.