Labour needs its centre-left more than ever

This piece is cross-posted from an August article on LabourList.

I’ve decided who I am voting for, but for a lot of this campaign I’ve wanted to abstain, or go on holiday. It has been a pretty difficult time to be on the centre-left of the Labour Party. The quality has been low, and nobody fully reflects people on what we might call ‘the soft left’.

Lots of people I respect, generally from the left of the party in some shape or form, have been hugely inspired during the Corbyn campaign.

Many others have had a series of uncomfortable misgivings about Corbyn’s success, and see a type of left on the rise which is intolerant of the rest of the Labour Party and which is not realistic about how much support the public will give its views at this point in time.

The centre-left has been without cohesion or leadership for several years, and those from this part of the party are scattered all over the place on the question of the leadership. Accordingly, despite being the ‘sweet spot’ when it comes to internal elections, its impact has been highly limited.

Many new members will be familiar with the party left, but given the recent weakness of this ‘centre-left’, many may lack an idea of how diverse the party left as a whole has been.

So where does Labour’s ‘soft left’ tradition come from, and does it have a future?

This strand of Labour’s tradition runs from Nye Bevan to Michael Foot, and through the likes of Kinnock and Robin Cook thereafter. Unlike the ‘hard’ left which many are more used to, it includes figures who happily joined governments led by the right of the party – good examples include such as Estelle Morris and in earlier days Margaret Beckett.

Today it broadly includes MPs like Lisa Nandy and perhaps at a push, Ed Miliband, certainly when at his boldest and during his own campaign for the leadership. It also includes a great many Labour activists and Councillors who are not centrally coordinated and don’t see themselves as particularly factional, which is probably more of a strength than a weakness.

Unlike much of the right of the party, it is committed to questioning political consensus, and to demonstrably dragging the centre ground leftwards.

Unlike other parts of the left, it tries to be realistic and evidence driven about what that centre-ground is, and to employ effective strategies for engaging and shifting it which move beyond the placard and megaphone.

This part of the left prides itself on an open and tolerant approach to other political traditions and new thinking – though this is not always what comes back. This is well reflected in its history through the board left Tribune Group, and its modern expression in publications such as Renewal.

It has been weak indeed. But the Labour Party needs it back in business.

The three ‘ABC’ candidates have studiously kept away from courting it in their rush not to be labelled ‘continuity Miliband’, and followed the strategy of leaving the space completely open for Jeremy Corbyn. As a result, Corbyn has made a serious effort to capture the centre left vote, and has clearly done pretty well in doing so. He has some good ideas and has run an excellent campaign.

But this isn’t being done without some discomfort and some shock that the other candidates aren’t doing better. Corbyn’s own political back story is that of Labour’s ‘hard’ left, rooted in the politics which emerged from Bennism. Many on the more moderate flank of the party left believe this tradition has often been marginal in the wider party and the PLP.

However large the rallies, it is even more marginal in the country – and with this comes an unwillingness to openly confront or debate basic facts, if they don’t fit the narrative. At the moment, the most obvious of these is that winning an election will be very difficult without winning over more centrists as well as bringing out left wingers and non-voters. Some don’t accept that winning elections should be a priority at all, but if political power remains with government, it is difficult to see why they will feel threatened into concessions or otherwise defeated by a movement which cannot threaten their continued election.

As well as having to deal with this kind of obvious strategic blind spot from at least some of its proponents, the Bennite ‘hard’ left has often had a fractious relationship with the rest of the party and has often taken solace in an unwillingness to compromise, as well as clinging to traditions which many now regard as old fashioned, such as outright hostility to the EU.

The right is hardly in a better position. Like a mirror image of its hard left counterpart, the right flank of the party have inconvenient facts to avoid. It seems currently to pretend that Scotland doesn’t exist and that we will need a 12 point lead to avoid a coalition with the SNP as the best scenario. It is hard at work developing an equally fractious and minority bound relationship with members in the rest of the party; patronising them on their viewpoints, and taking hard and uncompromising positions. A good example of this is the outright hostility with which many greeted Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham, issuing them coded warnings not to agree with the left, and resisting a strategy of transferring to them that anyone in their right mind could see was good common sense if they did not want Jeremy to win.

This all gives the two ‘flanking’ factions within the party a common aspect in their behaviour. Pigheadedness and inflexibility. Their various social media foot soldiers seem to spend a lot of the time calling each other Tories or Trots, much to the bemusement of the rest of us. The centre has not held, particularly on its left flank, where there is a candidate shaped hole.

This polarisation and intolerance is a risk for Labour’s unity and cohesion. Alongside this it threatens various parts of Labour’s broad internal coalition.

It is clear that the left of the party lack partners to persuade its right to accept leadership. So it lacks long term viability and is needlessly vulnerable.

The right lack partners to get the Corbynites to take the views of the electorate seriously, and is now also faced with a victorious strand of the left it feels it shares virtually nothing with.

This would not have happened with a centre-left candidate, or even if this part of the party had a recognised and organised grassroots voice.

But as Neal Lawson has recently pointed out, the Labour centre left has been notable by its division and silence as a whole, especially after playing a decisive role in the 2010 leadership election and the removal of Blair as leader of the party in the years before. To this day, it probably covers the largest bulk of rank and file members, who usually see themselves as on the left but not as factionally political.

The soft left has not had a good point of coordination for Labour Party work since some years before the last leadership election, and was probably at its height in the early days of Gordon Brown. In those days it was organised around Compass, but this organisation now fulfils a role which focuses much more on movement politics and cross-party campaigning.

This leaves a gap, and it is crucial that the gap is filled. A Corbyn led Labour Party will need people who are capable of turning a movement into a programme which can in some way appeal to the people Labour needs to win – and as well as SNP voters and non-voters, a good number of those will have to be former Labour voters who now for various reasons feel safer and better looked after with a Tory government. It is doubtful that Corbyn can do this alone, or that many of those behind him will make this a priority, despite overwhelming evidence from psephology and polling. However, this needs to be done to change consensus, let alone election results.

Likewise, the right of the party is likely to take a Corbyn victory very badly indeed (despite having driven for this election system). They will need a stake in what he does and the core of what he is about – again, changing consensus rather than consolidating it. At the moment that stake does not exist, yet the majority of MPs selected by members are in the centre or the right of the party.

Without anything between these strands, the circumstances are bad for the party as well as the left. We risk being left with only the internal traditions which believe in ‘sticking to your guns’ above the benefit of an open mind, which will leave us inflexible and out of date.

And for the reasons above, we are probably in some way heading for a factional war instead of a party with traditions who compete for support but tolerate each other. I don’t need to explain why this is terrible.

And yet the moderate left is not coordinated in who it will vote for or how it will influence the race.

It is near dead in Scotland and lacks any shape in Wales. It is not reaching out to members, supporters, councillors in local government. It is not well connected to the media or other sources of cultural influence. And it is as messy in Parliament as it is outside it.

It is clear that the intellectual work is there. Economists like Krugman and Stiglitz offer a credible and popular anti-austerity approach. Organisations and campaigning groups can tell us a tremendous amount about campaigning, polling and framing our issues. There continue to be journals and news publications like Renewal, Tribune and Chartist, which can give us great insight into political situations, and radical think tanks such as NEF which can help us build the policy prescriptions we need. All of can be done with support and involvement from aligned trade unionists. There are grassroots members, Councillors, MPs, journalists, university professors. The lot.

We can have a left whose values and policies are inspired by principle but which has strategies informed by data and the real world. We can strike a tone which is hopeful and realistic, and build a left with Labour which is not obsessed with fighting old battles.

It all seems to be in place, but yet we are not organised in the Labour Party. For years I have complained about this, and I am sick of not doing anything about it. A more positive approach is needed, not just by Labour’s ‘soft left’, but also the wider party for whom it functions as an anchor and a rallying point.

Any good campaign needs three elements: solid ideas, well organised hard work, and good data. I say we start with the data, and I and a number of others have started a mailing list . For the time being this will be an informal network of people aimed at starting a conversation about getting our act together.

We hope to build into something which is large enough to become a proper organisation, particularly one which is internally diverse, open spirited, and not obsessed with London. We are also very keen to have a grassroots based and well organised approach. But there is no fixed path, and we are very keen to work with others who might be thinking things which are similar. If you identify with any of what I have written and would like to see it change, please sign up – we would be very keen to have as many people involved as we can.

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