Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Friday 22 February 2019

The new party: lessons the Labour leadership and its supporters failed to learn

I know it is a cliché but too many supporters of the Labour leadership, and perhaps the leadership itself, seem to have forgotten it. Labour is a broad church. It has to be a broad church if it is to be successful. It has to be a broad church when led from the right because otherwise the leadership drifts too easily into the centre or worse. Labour needs its left to stay honest to its principles. If Labour is led from the left it needs to be a broad church to win elections and avoid policies based on ideology rather than evidence. 

In other times Labour led from the left would need to be a broad church because otherwise the Conservatives would go for the centre ground and deprive Labour of the votes to win. Labour today does not face that problem, because the Conservative party is more right wing than at any time since WWII. Labour also had the great advantage that the only centre party around, the Liberal Democrats, are still struggling to shake off the damage their period in power did to their appeal. So the position Labour had was extremely favourable to a left led Labour party, and it has to be favourable because the media will always be hostile to it.

It is also essential that Labour win the next election on a radical economic and societal programme of the type the leadership have put forward. If we continue with a deficit obsessed politics we will see standards of living in the UK continue to fall behind other countries, and we will not see the radical industrial policy that is required to revitalise some of the poorest regions in Western Europe. Nor will we see a genuine Green New Deal that will help us mitigate climate change if Labour do not form the next government. And without an outright Labour victory we will continue with a right wing press and a cowed BBC that has already given us Brexit and will continue to have a pernicious influence on the UK.

The one threat to the advantageous position Labour had is the formation of a new centre party made up in most part of defections by Labour MPs. But even that would not be fatal to a Labour election victory if this new party appealed more to disgruntled Tory than Labour voters. So the task the Labour leadership had was to ensure that the appeal of any new party to Labour voters was minimised.

With its Brexit policy the leadership, and more particularly the cabal around Corbyn himself, failed to do this job. What defines the new Independent group is their position on Brexit. I am fed up with supporters of the Labour leadership telling me that Remainers cannot be a strong political force because the LibDem vote is so low, when the same people take every opportunity to remind the LibDems of their record in government. The LibDems are still toxic for that reason, but a new anti-Brexit party is not, which is a big problem for Labour when the majority of the population now favour Remain to Leave.

As I have written before, Labour’s stance on Brexit is a gift to the new party. It gives them a large pool of Remainers, many of whom were Labour voters in 2017, to fish in for support. This is but one of the many reasons why looking at the SDP for lessons is misleading. As Brexit is going to be a defining issue over the next four years, the new party could become a home for those who see Remaining or rejoining as their most important political priority. That is why the new party is a serious threat to Labour.

For Corbyn to pledge that members will make party policy, and then ignore the view of the overwhelming majority on the most critical issue of the day, just reeks of hypocrisy. From the day the referendum was lost the signals he has sent have been clear. Owen Smith was sacked for suggesting a People’s Vote, yet nothing happens to those who vote against extending the Article 50 deadline. The final paragraph of a letter to the PM drafted by Starmer mentioning a People’s Vote gets left off ‘by mistake’. If Corbyn did not want to send out the message that he does not want a People’s Vote then he and his team are extraordinarily inept, and I do not think they are. *** The triangulation strategy, which was smart before the election of 2017, has now become an existential threat to Labour winning the next election. 

The Labour leadership have also failed to kill the issue of antisemitism within Labour. Much of this is because the media is hopelessly biased on the issue, and remain almost silent on the at least as important problem of Islamophobia in the Tory party. However given that this was always going to be the case, the leadership have not done enough to shake the charge of institutional antisemitism. Not adopting the IHRA definition in full was a huge tactical mistake. The party has done a lot to improve how it works, but disciplinary procedures seem to remain mired in controversy and delay, and there is more that the leadership could do. 

Which brings me inevitably to the attitude of too many supporters of the leadership. Because, for obvious reasons, Labour are so vulnerable on the issue of antisemitism, you do not attack those making accusations. It makes it appear you have something to hide. Unfortunately 30% of the membership cannot see that antisemitism is a real issue for the party and think it is entirely a media scam, which means they fail to tread carefully. At its worst this can amount to institutional antisemitism.

Being a broad church means you have different opinions within that church, and those differences are respected. Yet too many leadership supporters regard criticism as treachery, and find it too easy to tell critics they should not be in the party. Indeed some are right now encouraging good Labour MPs to leave. They seem obsessed by criticising the previous Labour government, using Blairite as the ultimate form of abuse, and trying to purify the party in their own image.

Just as the leadership were always going to be vulnerable to charges of antisemitism, they were also going to be charged with being a hangover from the early 80s Labour left. Yet rather than do all they can to distance themselves with this political failure, they seem to regard it with a kind of romantic attitude. How else can you explain letting Derek Hatton back into the party. It sometimes seems as if the party’s distaste for spin means they do not think about how the party appears to those outside it’s band of loyalists at all.

Who knows what will happen in UK politics now. The new group could gradually fade away as voters get tired of Brexit or if there is a quick election, or it could completely change the shape of UK politics. The most likely single outcome, once you factor in media bias as you have to, is that they stop Labour forming the next government. If you think this post sounds unusually angry that is why. 

It is crucial that winners as well as losers learn the lessons of past conflicts, and the Labour leadership and its supporters did not learn the lessons of the vote of no confidence. Corbyn is not a natural manager of a large team, and that makes it all the more important that Labour policies keep the majority of MPs and members on board. The current Brexit strategy fails to do that. The smartest move that Corbyn could make right now would be to give Keir Starmer back the driving seat on Brexit, but I fear Corbyn is just too keen on Brexit happening to do that. As a result, Labour have given the new party the opportunity to eat into Labour's support. It is almost certainly Corbyn's biggest mistake since he became Labour leader.

*** Postscript (23/02/19) I have had a lot of responses saying that he is just following conference policy. It is the perception of voters that matter here, but on that particular issue see this letter from the party members who helped draft that policy.   


  1. It is hard to make out what impact these moves will have until the vote on May's deal next week. If there is an extension of article 50 and the parliamentary stalemate continues we may need to revive the Addled Parliament tag from the James I era.

    As for the antisemitism, the Channel four news article 'Beware cherry-picked stats on Labour and antisemitism' by Georgina Lee 25 Apr 2018 is the best I know of for a good level of information on the issue.

  2. Your usage of "institutional anti-semitism" above isn't correct, in my opinion.

    The Macphearson report defined institutional racism as

    "The collective failure of an organization to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin."

    It is an institutional failure, not a few people within that organisation hurling abuse.

    So, for example, commissioning an independent report on the problem, and then immediately afterwards giving its author a peerage and a place in the shadow cabinet is a serious institutional failure, although not itself anti-semitic in any way.

  3. Other examples of the *institutional* problems include the attempts to discipline Ian Austin MP and Margaret Hodge MP for making complaints about antisemitism. The former quitting today, ending his political career (as have the members of the Independent Group.)

    Of course the leadership are not responsible for morons on twitter. They are responsible for the institutional failings of the organisation.

  4. Institutional anti-semitism isn't something that emanates from the anti-semitism of party members, still less (to paraphrase your more cautious formulation) from the worst manifestations of a pattern of ignorance and insensitivity found among a large minority of party members. An institutionally anti-semitic party is (surely) one where it's considered normal for Jews to be belittled, abused, passed over for promotion, etc.

    The Labour Party is on its way to becoming an institutionally anti-Zionist party - one where it's considered normal to favour the Palestinian cause and belittle Zionism and Zionists - which is certainly going to give it problems in appealing to a large majority of Jewish voters. But the case for institutional anti-semitism really hasn't been made out.

    As for Brexit, I share your concern about Starmer being sidelined, but not your implicit optimism about a second referendum - once Leave.EU and their friends got going, I think it could be a close-run thing (or worse, lose altogether) and leave us in a very bad position. I think Corbyn is still working on the assumption that we can get another election and kick the Brexit issue down the road for a couple of years. (I don't believe he's a Lexiter; I think he genuinely doesn't care about Brexit either way. He's wrong, of course.)

    I also fail to see that TIG is the embryo of a Remain party as such - they're very coy on the subject in their 'Values' statement ("We believe in maintaining strong alliances with our closest European and international allies", which could mean anything or nothing). In an election campaign, voters will be reminded that they also stand for austerity and an aggressive foreign policy, among other things.

  5. How much of the Corbyn dysfunction is due to Corbyn, and how much to Milne, the man behind the curtain?

  6. Right. So what Labour should be worried about is a scenario in which TIG launch themselves as something like "The European Party" and play it both ways. So on the one hand they stand for being in the EU, with all that appeal to Remainers. And on the other hand, they articulate a vision of Britain that is more European – that is, more social democratic. That's vague enough to hold the current MPs together but clear enough to cut into Labour's support in a large number of constituencies. Maybe not everywhere, but even if it is only London, university towns and Scotland - that's enough to be catastrophic.

    In a way, it's worse than UKIP was for the Tories. At least there, it was always a form of negotiation with the offer to return to the Conservative fold if and when the leadership bowed to its demands. As eventually happened. In the case of TIG there is no sense (on either side) of any idea of negotiation that might lead to a reconciliation.

  7. Alternatively, one lesson to learn from the 1983 defeat would be that we should accept referendum results...

  8. I share your anger, as, I am sure, do many others. As the late Richard Neville of OZ fame put it when referring to the governance of his native land: "There is perhaps an inch of difference between an Australia governed by the Labour party and an Australia governed by the right. But, believe me, it is an inch worth living in."

    One can subsitute any of the advanced economies with an electable centre-left party for Australia.

    But the need is now greatest in Britain.

  9. From the time that Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader, you chose to abandon your role as adviser to Labour. Also, you failed to support Corbyn against the repeated false and horrid claims that Corbyn is anti-Semitic, allowing the ideas of Corbyn to be increasingly undermined. Corbyn is of course just the sort of leader Labour and Britain needs, but you are evidently too self-interested to care.


  10. Economics as a cover for agenda pushing
    Comment on Simon Wren-Lewis on ‘The new party: lessons the Labour leadership and its supporters failed to learn’

    “In order to tell the politicians and practitioners something about causes and best means, the economist needs the true theory or else he has not much more to offer than educated common sense or his personal opinion.” (Stigum)

    We know since the Ancient Greeks what the criteria of scientific truth are: “Research is, in fact, a continuous discussion of the consistency of theories: formal consistency insofar as the discussion relates to the logical cohesion of what is asserted in joint theories; material consistency insofar as the agreement of observations with theories is concerned.” (Klant)

    Economists lack the true theory to this day. The major approaches ― Walrasianism, Keynesianism, Marxianism, Austrianism ― are mutually contradictory, axiomatically false, materially/formally inconsistent and all got the foundational concept of the subject matter ― profit ― wrong.

    Because they lack the true theory, economists have nothing to offer but educated common sense and their personal opinion. Economic policy guidance NEVER had sound scientific foundations.#1

    However, who is not fit for science may still find employment in the political Circus Maximus as op-eder, propagandist, entertainer, agenda pusher, and useful idiot. This would not be a problem at all, of course, if economists would not claim to do science. They don’t, they just put their square academic cap on and sell their right- or left-wing stuff in the bluff package of science. Fact is that political economics has zero scientific content.#2

    Simon Wren-Lewis is a case in point. He has not realized to this day that both orthodox and heterodox economics is proto-scientific garbage but exhausts himself (i) with telling his audience that the BBC and the mainstream press deceive the people about Brexit, and (ii), with undermining the current Labour leadership.

    These are Simon Wren-Lewis’ lessons.

    “With its Brexit policy the leadership, and more particularly the cabal around Corbyn himself, failed to do this job.”

    “For Corbyn to pledge that members will make party policy, and then ignore the view of the overwhelming majority on the most critical issue of the day, just reeks of hypocrisy.”

    “Corbyn is not a natural manager of a large team, and that makes it all the more important that Labour policies keep the majority of MPs and members on board.”

    “It is almost certainly Corbyn’s biggest mistake since he became Labour leader.”

    Obviously, the lessons Simon Wren-Lewis teaches have zero scientific content. But then, had Oxford economics ever any? Fact is that economists have messed up Profit Theory for 200+ years, Microfoundations for 140+ years, Macrofoundations for 80+ years, and the application of elementary logic/mathematics since the founding fathers.

    Egmont Kakarot-Handtke

    #1 Opinion, conversation, interpretation, blather: the economist’s major immunizing stratagems

    #2 For details of the big picture see cross-references Political Economics/Stupidity/Corruption

    1. EK-H, from your frequent comments on blogs I see you want to convert people to your theories. Good. I want to know what you're trying to explain. However ppl ignore you because you won't use plain English and you add plenty of sneering and pomposity to boot. Improve.

  11. “It is also essential that Labour win the next election on a radical economic and societal programme of the type the leadership have put forward.”

    Yes let’s have a radical economic policy, but one based on a laissez faire approach to European immigration where the Government abdicates all responsibility for the size and composition of the work force and defers to the whims of big business. You have to say one thing in favour of Corbyn, at least his approach has more coherence than this.

    At the Labour party conference Corbyn promised a programme of clean energy that would create 400,000 skilled jobs. I think the intention was that the current workforce should benefit from this initiative not that we should attract an additional 400,000 European workers to live in this country.

  12. “Who knows what will happen in UK politics now. The new group could gradually fade away as voters get tired of Brexit or if there is a quick election”

    Yes the last thing, the new group needs is a quick election. It was kind of them to offer Mrs May conditional support, but when it comes to a vote of confidence in the next few months, they have little choice but to give unconditional support unless they wish to relinquish their positions as MPs sooner rather than later. It only needs a few more defections from Labour and Mrs May can put her deal to a vote ‘seeking the confidence of the house’ and push it through just as Major pushed through the Maastricht treaty before her. The Wikipedia entry on ‘Maastricht Rebels’ makes interesting reading in light of today’s situation.

    One of the cries of the Remain side is that the UK should remain in the EU but try to reform it from within. The members of the new group have seemingly given up on this flawed strategy.

  13. there is a real risk that labour's gains in recent years in london will be reversed if there is the option of voting for a party that supports remaining. that party does not need to win, just to erode the labour vote so the conservatives regain seats thay have lost.

  14. Yes, I agree about perception. There is an article in the New Scientist this week (that I have not read yet), "The stupidity trap" saying the high IQ & expert knowledge does not protect you from flawed thinking. I think that I am on the same ground as you on Brexit, Labour, economics (though I don't have academic grasp of that) and many other issues, but I guess sometimes I want to find a reason something will come out right. I accept that we get it to come out right by being realistic.

  15. I was warming to the Labour policies. I thought if Labour was in government it would not be long before JC's incompetence becomes obvious and a new leader would be sort. But recent aggression towards anyone questioning the leadership or the party has turned me right off.
    I feel both main parties are now far too extreme and compromise is no longer possible.
    We really need a new younger generation of leaders and politicians who are not so stuck in ideology.



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