24th September 2016
-By Steven Duckworth-
A Moderate Proposal
Today Jeremy Corbyn was re-elected as the Labour Party’s leader.
A challenge to his leadership by Owen Smith has allowed the incumbent leader to spend the summer re-energising his significant support base among the party’s membership in a series of rallies and events. Corbyn’s success in the contest has strengthened his position as head of the party and has temporarily weakened the hand of those moderates within the party who oppose his leadership.
It has become clear that the ‘remove Corbyn’ strategy is no strategy at all, rather just a tactic of aiming some poorly aimed jabs at Labour’s leader and those who support him with the outcome that his position has solidified. What is also clear is that while Jeremy Corbyn and his closest allies see the party as expendable in the pursuit of a more ideologically driven goal, most moderates do not want to see the party disappear.
This leads to a standoff where the stakes are uneven, offering a clear advantage to the leader. It is also apparent that any ongoing war of attrition allows Corbyn to dictate the terms of the debate as it becomes a battle over the man himself and at present this is a standoff he can quite easily win.
STRATEGY for Moderates
Centrists within the Labour Party need to lift their heads up and take a longer term view beyond the current maelstrom and to the future. The one goal of a moderate strategy should be to see the centre left forming a government once again. Of course this couldn’t be delivered by a Labour party led by Jeremy Corbyn, but if a credible centre left prospectus was developed that appealed to both members and the public, then an opportunity to successfully challenge the current leader would present itself.
But, I repeat, the strategy should be to return the centre left back to power; deposing Corbyn should not be the sole aim itself, it would cloud thinking and lead to wasted energy. Of course the key to any winning strategy is in the operationalisation of it and in particular being clear about what will be required from the people signed up to delivering it.
So how can moderates get back on the front foot?
Labour’s parliamentary party (PLP) have set themselves out as the strongest block in opposition to the Corbyn leadership witnessed by a unanimous vote of no confidence (80%) following mass shadow cabinet resignation in the fallout from the EU referendum. There is no doubt that the PLP are to the right of the leadership, but it would be a mistake to view them as a homogeneous group in terms of policy etc.
Developing a common approach to doing business will be key in stabilising the parliamentary wing of the party. There is a phenomenal amount of talent on the Labour benches. The battles between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown held back the succession of strong Labour MPs, but the 2010 and 2015 intakes have refreshed the talent pool. It is key that the PLP operate as a tight group despite the lack of leadership from Jeremy Corbyn. It will be down to individuals to weigh up the pros and cons of serving in a shadow cabinet, but all MPs must get on with being active representatives willing to take on the government (Jess Phillips, Caroline Flint and, yes, Angela Rayner have been impressive in this respect in the early days of this parliament) and seek to represent the party through select committees and other parliamentary processes. The impression must be set in the minds of both the general public and party members that these are professional and competent individuals showing real political leadership.
It is highly likely that this will contrast favourably with the party leader’s often shambolic parliamentary performances. MPs should also signal that they will support Jeremy Corbyn where he is on sound footing such as grammar schools, but oppose his more dangerous policy positions on defence and security, for example. What is clear is that the PLP must hold together. Talk of a split and a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) while exciting in theory crashes painfully against the rocks of both MPs’ loyalty to the party and the unforgiving nature of our first-past-the-post system of parliamentary elections. Splitting the vote and losing talented and committed moderate MPs will not help the strategy of delivering a future centre-left government as the Labour still is by some way the most likely vehicle for delivering such a government.
TO STAY OR TO GO?
So much for MPs, but how should moderate members of the party approach this period following Corbyn’s re-election as Labour leader? One major decision will be whether they should remain in the party at all, given the direction of travel under the leader and the general hostility and toxicity that surrounds the party at present. It is critical for people to stay and work for a credible Labour government, but it is difficult to blame anyone for leaving. One only hopes they will fell able to re-join the party in future.
For those who do remain, becoming an engaged and active member of their local party is important as is making common cause with other members on issues that all party members can agree on. While some members of the pro-Corbyn camp are hard left entryists, the vast majority aren’t and working together at a local level is important in keeping a strong community base.
Where Momentum are strong at a local level it will be down to moderate members to oppose them on issues such as deselection, appealing to the wider constituency in support of an MP where necessary. Moderate members must also make clear that they regard Momentum as detrimental to the long term well-being of the party and vocally refusing to canvass and campaign on behalf of Momentum members. Seeking election under a Labour banner will highlight this point.
Most of all moderate members, whether they be MPs, councillors or ordinary members need to network, whether it be on policy or just for mutual support. Politics can be a lonely business and Labour’s centre-left needs to start making connections both within and beyond the party.
I suspect that this call to action will strike some on the moderate wing of the Labour Party as a capitulation and they may argue that there isn’t time for a more gradualist strategy to be allowed time to work, but the centre-left in the country has taken a series of knock-backs and needs time to consolidate and then build. A series of attacks on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership will see him strengthened and will impose a form of democratic centralism by stealth on the party; annual campaigns were Corbyn gets to attend rallies while further strengthening his mandate. Despite talk of the world turning upside down, we still have a right-wing conservative government and an electoral system that doesn’t favour small parties.
The UK political scene has gone through a febrile period over the past eighteen months. Moderates, better than anyone, know that this state of affairs won’t hold and that things will slowly return to a slower, more recognisable pace. Centrists need to stop flapping, get on with business and hold their nerve.
By Steven Duckworth