Finally, all the rumours of a new centre party have given birth to—a mouse. Seven Labour backbenchers have quit.
They include some of the usual Blairite suspects—Chuka Umunna, Angela Smith, Luciana Berger, Chris Leslie. They are using the false accusations of antisemitism against Jeremy Corbyn that Labour right-wingers and the corporate media are constantly peddling to give their breakaway the appearance of moral legitimacy.
But probably the biggest factor pushing them to leave is their strident support for the European Union.
They are furious with Corbyn for failing to support restaging the 2016 referendum—even though there is little or no prospect of this policy passing the House of Commons.
Indeed, other Labour right-wingers have veered in the opposite direction towards backing Theresa May’s exit treaty with the EU. This divergence points to the interesting fact that many other Blairite backbenchers share much the same hostility to Labour’s current direction under Corbyn. So why are so few prepared to break?
The splitters may preen themselves with the example of the Gang of Four—Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, David Owen, and Bill Rodgers. In March 1981 they broke away from Labour to form the Social Democratic Party.
They pledged to “break the mould of British politics” by forming a centre-party that was pro-market, pro-European, pro-Nato, and anti-union.
But the SDP isn’t exactly a good precedent. The British first-past-the-post electoral system favours two big parties.
If one splits, the other can win landslide victories on a minority of the popular vote. This is exactly what Margaret Thatcher was able to do thanks to the SDP in the 1983 and 1987 general elections. The SDP never won more than a handful of seats and was eventually absorbed by the Liberals.
The world since the crash is very different from the era of the “third way” trumpeted by the likes of Blair. Amid the anxieties created by the failure of neoliberalism, centre-left parties have suffered a succession of electoral disasters.
This electoral logic helps to keep many Blairites grudgingly in Labour. It is also an important factor in containing the bitter divisions among the Tories over Brexit. May is quite consciously trying to hold the party together as a broad church stretching from the far right fringe to pro?Europeans such as Ken Clarke. The Labour splitters apparently hope to attract Tory Remainers, but that won’t be easy.
In any case, a centre party is unlikely to work. It’s been tried already, under New Labour. Back in the late 1980s the left-wing Labour MP Eric Heffer complained that the party was becoming an “SDP Mark II”.
This shift was consolidated under Tony Blair, who presided over a neoliberal imperialist government.
The coup de grace to New Labour was delivered under Blair’s successor, Gordon Brown. He steered the British economy into the great financial crash of 2007-8.
Blair and Brown had prepared the way for this disaster by offering City speculators “light-touch” regulation.
The world since the crash is very different from the era of the “third way” trumpeted by the likes of Blair. Amid the anxieties created by the failure of neoliberalism, centre-left parties have suffered a succession of electoral disasters. It has been the far right—Donald Trump, Matteo Salvini, Jair Bolsonaro—who have been on the front foot.
Leslie—who was briefly an unusually stupid shadow chancellor of the exchequer—has accused Corbyn of having an “outdated ideology”. Actually, it’s he and his pals who are out of date. Their pro-market and pro-imperialist politics may have worked electorally in the era before the Iraq War and the crash. They don’t work now.
Corbyn has been able to attract hundreds of thousands of people to join the Labour Party and to deliver in 2017 the best Labour vote since 2001 because he speaks to the concerns that people have now.
He has something to say to the people whose lives have been ravaged by austerity. And he can claim to have been vindicated in his consistent opposition to the disastrous foreign policy record of successive British governments simply trailing along behind the United States.
But there is a sting in the tail of this analysis. The right wing MPs who haven’t broken with Labour will now try to blackmail Corbyn into bending in their direction.
It’s vital he doesn’t give way.