Who will split the splitters? SDP lessons for “True Labour”

Will Labour split if/when Jeremy Corbyn retains the party leadership? Should it split? And if it does, along what lines? Who would be the target voters for any new centre-left party?

A lot has been written about all this in recent weeks, such as this Economist piece arguing that an anti-Corbyn “True Labour” offshoot could do better than nervous Labour MPs fear. However, Danny Finkelstein contributed a useful perspective in yesterday’s Times, based on his experience on the national executive of the SDP back in the 1980s.

What I hadn’t previously appreciated is that the SDP was, from the start, divided along a faultline that still afflicts Labour: between the regional working class and metropolitan liberals. This division was personified, in the SDP, by the conflicting ambitions of David Owen and Roy Jenkins.

As Finkelstein writes:

Owen’s conception of the SDP, which was formed in 1981, is that it would be a tough-minded, hawkish party of the left. It would appeal to an aspirational working class, particularly in the north, who had tired of bureaucratic socialism and saw the point of Margaret Thatcher, but were not Tories.

When the future Labour foreign secretary was a student working on a building site he had been struck by the reaction of his fellow workers to the Suez crisis. It had been instinctively nationalist, uninterested in political protocol, and robust. It was these people he wanted the SDP to appeal to.

In the metropolitan liberal corner, by contrast, was Roy Jenkins, who had been President of the European Commission immediately before returning to the UK to set up the SDP:

Roy Jenkins, former Labour chancellor but also biographer of the Liberal prime minister HH Asquith, wanted a centre party that reflected his own liberal instinct. This would be a southern party of the middle class, disdainful of Thatcher, fastidious rather than bulldog-like on international issues, avowedly centrist.

As Finkelstein points out, by the end of 1982 Jenkins had won the battle:

The SDP would be a liberal party. It lost almost all its northern and working-class seats, was not able to compete in the south because the Liberal Party took all the best constituencies, and ended up being swallowed up by its partner.

The same quandary that faced the SDP faces Labour now, especially post-Brexit: should it stand up for “the 48%”, even if this costs it votes in the English regions? Or should it tilt towards a more eurosceptic line, opposing unrestricted freedom of movement, for example? Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith are both attempting to square this circle (“get you a party that can do both!”), neither especially convincingly.

It would face a new party of “True Labour” splitters even more acutely. Do they follow the siren calls to form a “progressive alliance” with Greens and Lib Dems, thus doubling down on the middle-class liberal vote, or do they risk alienating liberals by pursuing the traditional Labour base, much of which remains (as Finkelstein describes it):

conservative on constitutional questions, culturally sentimental and nostalgic, cautious on issues of individual freedom, opposed to mass immigration, monarchist, nationalist, patriotic and militaristic.

Of course, the only way Labour (or any new party) can win is the way it has always won: by managing to hold together its uneasy coalition of working class traditionalists and middle class liberals. This coalition has come under so much strain in recent decades that it’s hard to see how Labour can reinvigorate; harder still to see how a new party would rebuild such a coalition from scratch. As Finkelstein concludes:

Neil Sedaka was wrong. Breaking up is not very hard to do. It’s easy to disassemble a political alliance. It’s putting one together that is challenging.

Jeremy Corbyn and his friends

Jeremy CorbynWell, no sooner have I nailed my colours to Jeremy Corbyn’s mast than I began (belatedly) to engage properly with the most serious reason not to vote for him: his choices of friends over the years.

A friend sent me a link to this article by Alan Johnson (note: not the MP of the same name), in which Johnson condemns Corbyn’s support for “the vicious antisemitic Islamist”, Raed Salah. Salah’s quoted comments include the following:

We have never allowed ourselves, and listen well, we have never allowed ourselves to knead the bread for the breaking of the fast during the blessed month of Ramadan with the blood of children. And if someone wants a wider explanation, you should ask what used to happen to some of the children of Europe, whose blood would be mixed in the dough of the holy bread. God Almighty, is this religion? Is this what God wants? God will confront you for what you are doing.

Both the authenticity and interpretation of this quotation have been contested. However, as a UK immigration appeals tribunal put it (albeit while overturning Theresa May’s decision to exclude Salah from the UK), “we do not find this comment could be taken to be anything other than a reference to the blood libel against Jews.” For Jeremy Corbyn to share a platform with a promulgator of the blood libel, of all things, strikes me as a serious error of judgement on his part. I can well understand why Johnson would regard this as a “deal-breaker”.

James Bloodworth sets out similar concerns, and suggests that what he describes as Corbyn’s “indulgence of tyranny” is the result of seeing the US as “the world’s most malevolent power”:

Thus because the US is the beating heart of capitalism, it must always and everywhere be the “root cause” (you will hear that phrase a lot) of the world’s problems; and by deduction, any movement that points a gun in its direction must invariably have something going for it.

All these are serious allegations being made against Corbyn from people on the political left. They deserve a serious response from him, which I hope they’ll get. As I commented on Twitter earlier, had I not been a Labour party member, these allegations would probably have been enough to put me off paying my £3 to vote in the election.

However, I am a Labour party member, and thus I can’t just consider Corbyn in the abstract, but in a context where I either have to vote for one of the other candidates or abstain altogether. And this response to Bloodworth from Sacha Ismail argues that Corbyn’s undoubted failures on this front (such as his “wrong and politically harmful comments about Hamas”) have to be put into the context both of the Labour contest as a whole, and (even more importantly) Corbyn’s more constructive actions during his career.

As Ismail observes:

It is not as if the other three candidates have a good record on international issues. On the contrary, they have all been complicit in New Labour’s appalling record.

And there is an important difference: Corbyn’s view of peace and international human rights is flawed, but he has one. The approaches the others take are decisively shaped by what they judge politically acceptable for a careerist bourgeois politician. […] Elect Burnham, Cooper or Kendall and the crawling to Saudi Arabia will continue!

The anti-war left has been (in many cases rightly) criticised by people such as Nick Cohen for turning its back on the victims of “anti-US” regimes — especially women and trade unionists. Corbyn, however, does have a track record of offering support, as Ismail describes:

Last year, when Workers’ Liberty was collecting signatures for the campaign to free jailed Iranian trade unionists Shahrokh Zamani and Reza Shahabi, there was a week in which I grabbed two Labour MPs at meetings and asked them to sign. One was Alison McGovern (now supporting Liz Kendall), who looked irritated and said she’d have to look into it. The other was Corbyn, who signed without hesitation and told me to contact his office for more help.

Ismail concludes that Corbyn’s failings do not “cancel out the huge possibilities his campaign offers for breaking the Blairite blockade of working-class politics.”

And yes: Sacha Ismail is writing for Workers’ Liberty, a Trotskyite organisation. Caveat lector and all that. But I think he still makes some valid points in Corbyn’s defence (or at least mitigation).

Here’s another post that addresses the main accusations being made against Jeremy Corbyn by his opponents. I’m unpersuaded by the defence offered in respect of Raed Salah (the writer claims that the “blood libel” quotations were “doctored”; I prefer to accept the immigration tribunal’s conclusions on the subject). Also, while the post defends Corbyn from the charge of being himself antisemitic (which I’m quite sure he’s not), the more widespread, credible and serious accusation is that he has been too willing to turn a blind eye to the antisemitism of some of those with whom he allies himself. The post does, however, offers some robust defences to accusations that Corbyn is pro-Putin, pro-IRA and soft on child abuse.

But to return to the accusation of cosying up to antisemites: as I said above, I can well understand why people would turn against Corbyn over his support for Raed Safah. I am deeply dismayed by it myself, and hope that Corbyn can offer a convincing explanation (and dissociation).

In the meantime, given that my choices as they stand are (a) vote for Corbyn; (b) vote for Cooper, Burnham or Kendall; or (c) abstain (and, to be frank, probably resign from the party altogether), for now I remain a wary supporter of Corbyn for the leadership – though I’m probably going to leave it for a week or two before returning my ballot paper, to see how this plays out. But assuming he becomes leader, his approach to “reactionary anti-Western movements and governments” will need to be watched carefully, and opposed vigorously if he slips back into a “diplomatic soft-soaping” of the likes of Hamas, Hezbollah and Raed Salah.

Update (18 Aug): it’s worth watching Jeremy Corbyn’s response to the allegations about Raef Salah and Peter Eisen in this interview with Cathy Newman:

Hilary Wainwright on supporting Jeremy Corbyn

Red Pepper, Aug/Sep 2015I liked Hilary Wainwright’s Red Pepper article on Jeremy Corbyn enough to revive this blog. Wainwright is one of many on the left who have paid their £3 to vote for Corbyn, not as a “knight in shining armour”, but because he is

one of a modest band of Labour MPs, building on the tradition of Tony Benn and Ken Livingstone, who don’t ask to see your party card before joining struggles and debates beyond the walls of Westminster.

Unlike Wainwright, I remain a (somewhat grumpy and disaffected) member of the Labour party. However, I think Wainwright’s analysis of the current political situation has a lot going for it.

The strongest part of her analysis comes when she describes how voting for Corbyn shouldn’t be seen as an attempt to turn the Labour party into “a genuinely socialist party”, but as a response to economic and political changes that have made Labour’s style of social democracy untenable:

The economic and political conditions for social democracy no longer exist. The prevarications of both Ed Miliband and Andy Burnham are indications of this. Their goals are social democratic but the world of a mixed economy, where the profits of a productive capitalist sector could be taxed and redistributed to provide universal welfare, social security and a public infrastructure for the benefit of all, no longer exists.

Instead, we live in a world dominated by a “financialised global capitalism”, in which “social democracy as we have known it is visibly too weak to be an effective champion of social justice.” Hence the declines experienced by European social democratic parties ranging from Pasok in Greece to the German SPD, French Socialists and British Labour party. All these parties depended, during the post-war era, on a Keynesian economic consensus based on

productive capital, the aspiration of full employment, decent wages and social security (hence a strong market for the goods produced), taxable profits and a nationally regulated currency and trade.

All this has been replaced, Wainwright argues, by a neoliberal order in which “making profits out of producing things” has been supplanted by “making money out of money.” In that world, the old tools of parliamentary social democracy are of limited effect:

The levers of national governmental power have either become useless in the face of global financial flows (for example, to tax corporations or combat tax avoidance) or, in the case of the EU, international treaties block state intervention in the market or use debt to prevent radical governments from using the powers they could have (as with Greece).

The only politics that is possible in the face of this is one that “seeks to mobilise all possible sources of counter-power.” Simply aiming to form an elected national government “is simply not sufficient” – though gaining such power can certainly play an importance role in “the full realisation of people’s transformative capacities.”

This then leads Wainwright on to the section of her essay that resonated most strongly with me:

What I would stress is the need to abandon purisms and single perspective politics – whether pure anarchism, pure parliamentarism, pure syndicalism or any one-track approach – and instead to urge a hybrid and experimental politics where collaboration is the guiding method.

I find that my own political views are a shifting mixture of perspectives ranging from quasi-anarchism to social democracy to (whisper it) elements of so-called “Blue Labour” thinking­ – often reflecting the tension between what I’d ideally like to see happen versus the need and chance to make things a bit better right now, even if this falls a long way short of the ideal or even comes with some distasteful accretions. (This is why I continue to maintain that, had the Labour leadership election offered a candidate from the Labour centre or even the Labour right who I believed could win an election, I’d have voted for them over Corbyn).

Hence, for Wainwright, the politics that is needed in a post-Keynesian, post-social democratic world is “less about demands on government, more about grassroots transformation”:

Hence a movement as much about popular education and self-education as about winning elections; that is less about faction fights and more about welcoming diversity and creating space for reflection and debate, treating practice as experimental action from which to learn; an organisation, then, that is less of a central hierarchy and vanguard, more a platform connecting and supporting and interconnecting struggles.

Hence her support for Corbyn, who she sees as “a good kind of leader … for this kind of plural and non-hierarchical organisation.” This is not about rallying behind a “charismatic leader”, but about supporting someone with a track record of “weaving a web of networks”, who can see that “something new is going on, transcending traditional political allegiances.” She concludes:

We are supporting someone who has no desire to be the leader but is willing to offer his energies and legitimacy as an MP as a resource for a movement that can self-consciously create a truly transformative politics, inside and outside the Labour Party and based on principles of self‑governing democracy.

I wonder whether Corbyn, if he becomes Labour leader, will be able to live up to these expectations – given the nature of that role, coupled with the civil war likely to erupt in the party from day one of his leadership. My own reasons for voting for Corbyn are less well-formed and less hopeful: more an angry kick aimed at a defeated and intellectually bankrupt party, in the hope that at least some of the resulting destruction proves to be of the creative variety. However, Wainwright’s article is a reminder that a “best-case scenario” for a Corbyn leadership is, as Seamus McCauley puts it, an escape from the “consensus” and “status quo bias” into which British politics has slipped. In Wainwright’s words:

an opportunity to get out of a political trap into a space for debate and new radical thinking.

All that said: I wonder whether Labour will even allow Wainwright to vote