It is difficult to get too excited about today's Labour breakaway, one way or another.
Firstly, I remain rather cynical about these Labour defectors. Why now? Why didn't they jump ship 6 months ago, or 2 years ago? What's changed during that time? Given that in the last few months, most of them have either been effectively deselected by votes of no confidence from their constituency party (Chris Leslie, Angela Smith, Gavin Shuker), or are clearly in the process of moves towards deselection (Luciana Berger, Chuka Umunna), it's hard to see the timing of this as being too principled. Suffering from the deselection tactics of Momentum and the Corbyn leadership, each of them has clearly reached the end of their careers as Labour MPs. They have absolutely nothing to lose by switching to a new party; and while the odds are slim for them to hold their seats under a new banner, they're utterly non-existent for them to carry on as Labour MPs.
But where were these people three years ago? How have they only made the break now? If half of what they say about today's Labour Party is true, then how could they go along for so long with something which they now say is morally odious? What does that say about their backbones? I found Luciana Berger's account of personally being on the receiving end of a barrage of anti-Semitic abuse to be deeply affecting; but I don't think the same could be said for most of the other defectors. I bitterly resent the new-found appropriation and exploitation of "fighting anti-Semitism" by Labour right-wingers (and Conservatives) who have shown precisely zero interest in this for decades; yet have magically restyled themselves as champions of this cause, the minute it provided a convenient stick with which to hit Jeremy Corbyn.
That said, the defectors aren't wrong. The macho, blokeish, bullying culture within the Labour Party is toxic. Having faced off with the Labour Party up-close in Haringey, Camden, Greenwich, Leicester and Cambridge over a span of over 20 years, I know that first-hand, and have the scars to prove it. And anti-Semitism is running rampant within the Labour Party today - and is widely tolerated. The roots of this run deep, and are not just confined to intemperate rhetoric around Israel/Palestine - despite the prominent role played by Jews in the development of early socialism (not least Marx himself), ever since Proudhon there has always been a strain of populist socialism which has sought to conflate rapacious capitalism with the "Jewish puppetmaster" stereotype; and it is a serious failing of much of today's hard-left that far from distancing themselves from this, many seem to revel in it, to a worrying degree.
I write this, slightly disorientated, not as a socialist, but as a liberal. And the irony is that it's usually assumed that as I'm a liberal, I must automatically embrace the more right-of-centre wing of the Labour Party. Actually, I really don't. These are the people who gave us the Iraq War, and failed privatisation on a scale that even Margaret Thatcher never dreamed of, and who stood for so little that they had no moral qualms about violating civil liberties, time and time again. These are the last people I would ever trust in power. On the issues, I'm far closer to the Corbynistas than the Blairites - it's the Corbynistas who are talking about tackling the widening gap between rich and poor, about making capitalism work for ordinary people, about taking on monopolies, about improving citizens' access to health, to education, and to the rule of law. As a liberal, I strongly disagree with almost all of their suggested prescriptions to these problems. But at least they're talking about them as problems, and are putting forward ideas - whereas the Blairites merely offer up a rechauffé of the same banal mudge and fudge that got us into this mess, allowing existing conservative elites to carry on in the same old way, but feel marginally better about themselves while doing so.
I can see what Jo Grimond meant when he discussed the need for "a realignment of the left" in the 1950s, with the Liberals joining with some elements of Labour. Most contemporary commentators naturally assumed that he meant the moderate social democrats on the right of the Labour Party; whereas in fact, he actually had the hard-left of the Labour Party in mind, whom he regarded as the far stronger civil libertarians.
But I can't give the Corbynistas the moral high ground either, because of the sheer horror of their shortcomings - not only the rampant anti-Semitism running deep within the Labour Party on a frightening scale, but the craven nationalistic kamikaze economics of Lexit, and the soft spot for defending any tyrant who self-identifies as "left-wing". Corbyn is a stalwart lifelong champion of human rights and civil rights - unless the perpetrator happens to be "one of our guys", in which case, no boot-licking is too debasing.
Predictably, much knee-jerk analysis has been made comparing the breakaway party to the SDP, and the analogies are obvious, with a further drip-drip of defections expected in the next few days. And like the launch of the SDP, this is clearly premeditated, well-orchestrated, with funding and polling to back it up, and with a group of MPs slowly but surely seeking to build their own organisation in the country.
But there are some key differences here. Although Labour MPs dominated the SDP (28 of their 29 MP defectors in the 1979-83 Parliament were Labour MPs), from the very outset, the SDP's language was aimed at "a gap in the market", and at wooing Conservative as well as Labour voters, in equal measure. And before Corbyn's supporters drag out that old canard that the SDP "split the Labour vote, and gave us Thatcher", it's worth looking at the polling evidence cited by my colleague Richard Huzzey - if we look at the second-choices of SDP/Liberal Alliance voters in 1983 & 1987, we see that there were always far more Conservatives than Labour voters who voted for the Alliance - in other words, the Alliance hit the Tories far more than it hit Labour; and if they'd just packed up and gone home, the likelihood is that Thatcher may well have secured an even bigger majority over Labour in both elections.
Contrast the SDP's "middle way" pitch to today's pitch, clearly aimed at internal Labour Party politics. Apart from Chuka Umunna's bland, Blairite banalities about "21st century politics", everybody else's firepower today was reserved for the state of the Labour Party, with only the briefest acknowledgements of the Conservatives' existence. Today's press conference was marked by self-apology and self-justification, and far from being reminded of the slick SDP launch of 1981, as a piece of rhetoric, I was in fact reminded of Neville Chamberlain's snivelling radio speech of self-apology on declaring war in 1939, when you expected a gung-ho declaration of principles, but instead got a rambling slice of self-pity about how he'd tried absolutely every other possible course of action, but was left doing something he really didn't want to do, and he hoped that you at home would understand and feel sorry for him. This doesn't bode well for a narrative to launch any new movement.
Yet Labour's response to all this is woeful - an appeal to pull together, "because we're family". I can remember the same appeals being repeatedly made within the Liberal Democrats in the early 2010s, by the more partisan supporters of the lamentable Coalition government, who had no other argument left to deploy. Those voices turned out to be on the wrong side of history. Families aren't all happy. If you're locked in an abusive family, then you need to walk out. Appeals to "family" owe more to the politics of the mafia, than to the kind of politics we deserve.
Finally, there is little more nauseating than the desperate, ridiculous sight of Corbynistas trying to strike an analogy between their leader sticking with the Labour Party throughout the Blair years, and their wanting the defectors to stay on. "Jeremy put up with Tony Blair when he was murdering hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, so they should just put up with anti-Semitism."
Today's developments are meant to help resolve a crisis. But we're 39 days away from Brexit - the defining political issue of our times - and I don't see today's ripples in internal Labour politics as delivering us from that crisis. I fear it's merely another manifestation of our political crisis.
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