The formation of The Independent Group (TIG) by breakaway Labour and Tory MPs is a sign of the extent to which the two-party system is buckling under the pressures of Brexit. Two weeks ago I predicted that Tories were unlikely to join with Chuka Umunna and his Blairite chums. I was soon proved wrong.
Still, I’m going to hazard another prediction. The main influence that TIG will have is not to create a new force in British politics but in the effect it is having on the main parties.
The handful of backbenches that have broken are strengthening the hand of those who agree with them but who stayed behind in their respective ex-parties.
The departure of the three Tories is merely one of a number of pressures pushing Theresa May to renounce the option of a no-deal Brexit. In the end this may help her wear down right wing opposition to her deal. But we see the effect of TIG much more clearly in the Labour Party.
The threat of an avalanche of further resignations by right wing MPs has pushed Jeremy Corbyn off the fence and forced him to support a second referendum on Brexit.
Moreover, it has transformed Tom Watson into a witchfinder-general sniffing out cases of “left antisemitism”.
It’s crystal clear that the campaign against “left antisemitism” is intended not simply to destroy Corbyn himself but to smash and marginalise the radical left.
Solidarity with the Palestinians on an internationalist basis has been one of the main banners of the movements of the past 20 years. Watson and his allies want to turn it into the equivalent of wearing a swastika.
This is a mortal danger to the entire radical left, in and out of the Labour Party. But how can those of us outside Labour influence the inner-party struggle? If the right can shape it by leaving, are there ways we can do the same?
The broad answer is—yes, of course we can. Someone like Corbyn has himself been influenced by participating in movements against war and fascism that were initiated by revolutionary socialists.
In the absence, alas, of large-scale workers’ struggles, movements like these have provided the soil in which new generations of socialists have been nurtured.
Nevertheless, this influence operates within certain limits. It’s a cliche that Labour is a “broad church”. What this means is that it is a coalition of parliamentarians, trade unionists, and activists that seeks to win general elections.
Throughout the history of the Labour Party electoral logic has triumphed over the effects of social forces and of ideologies.
The main reason why Corbyn has survived as long as this is that, in defiance of the conventional wisdom, he has delivered according to this logic. In June 2017 he fought May to a standstill, producing Labour’s best election result since 2001 and depriving the Tories of a majority.
But Labour right wingers have increasingly been pursuing scorched-earth tactics. They are willing to see another Tory election victory to prevent the left consolidating its grip over Labour. Umunna and Co have made this intention visible.
The rush of opinion polls immediately after TIG’s formation, rather absurdly trying to test its appeal as a national party, did underline that it might take enough votes away from Labour to keep the Tories in office.
The concessions from Corbyn, often amplified by his shadow chancellor of the exchequer John McDonnell, are an attempt to neutralise this threat.
The problem is that they both demoralise Corbyn’s and McDonnell’s supporters, and begin to undermine Corbyn’s claims to represent something different from the Labour mainstream.
We see the logic of electoralism very clearly with Momentum—supposed Corbyn loyalists who have embraced the witchhunt against “antisemitism”.
Its leadership has given priority to canvassing and the inner-party struggle over building broader movements, for example against racism. Now we see the consequence.
This doesn’t mean, as some despairing Corbyn supporters are starting to say, that all is lost. But he may be beginning to bump up against the limits imposed by Labour’s nature as an electoral project.