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

Summary:
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

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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 pledgethat 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 biasedon 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 miredin 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 cannotsee 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 encouraginggood 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 lettingDerek 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.  







Simon Wren-lewis
Professor of Economic Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University, and a fellow of Merton College. This blog is written for both economists and non-economists.

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