Now that a few weeks have gone by since the dramatic defection of eleven MPs to the new Independent Group and the dust has settled slightly on the initial recriminations, many MPs and ordinary members of both main parties will be left surveying the new political landscape reshaping before their eyes, and wrestling with their consciences.
As someone who sits on the left, I cannot really criticise Conservatives for leaving to join any party which is more liberal or further to the left than their former home. Whether it helps or hinders them in building the kind of society they want to see is something they and like-minded Tories will have to discuss among themselves. But I do disagree with Labour MPs and members who have decided to leave and involve themselves in this rival project.
Of course, anybody outside the hardened core of Corbynites should have enough perspective to see that there were some very good reasons for a breakaway. Labour Party policy has swung hard to the left in several areas since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. There are frustrations over Brexit, the biggest issue our politicians have to grapple with right now. First, Corbyn was rumoured to have been only a reluctant remainer, and now we have endured two and a half years of limbo-like purgatory, while all the time the danger of no deal moves closer. Finally, there is the bullying, the factional mentality of far too many members who support the leader. This has created a dynamic which has formed a toxic mixture with arguments about anti-semitism in Labour’s ranks.
For many, that is the number one reason to leave and if they are correct that the party has become irredeemably racist then it is more than enough reason on its own. I have not reached that conclusion myself, but I think those of us who have been trying to point out the complexities and nuances involved in judging these allegations probably have not acknowledged clearly enough the anecdotal evidence of serious open-and-shut cases of anti-semitism in the party. We ought to think about how distressing it must be to have not only been on the receiving end of this abuse but to have then also fallen victim to a lethargic complaints process that has failed to offer swift redress.
Luciana Berger has come to epitomise this, and I could well understand how she and many other victims of anti-semitic abuse have felt personally unable to remain within the Labour Party regardless of any of the other arguments for doing so.
There are such arguments, and I believe they are compelling.
You do not have to conclude that Corbyn deserves to be Labour leader, or that his handling of the anti-semitism scandal has been even remotely adequate in order to stay. It may very well be the case that Corbyn has only allowed the suspensions of Derek Hatton and Chris Williamson because of his fear of an exodus of MPs. The same reason may be behind the appointment of Charlie Falconer (a figure identifiably on the right of the party) to scrutinise Labour’s complaints process. But the Labour Party is bigger than one individual and the necessity of a left-wing government doesn’t go away just because the man who would lead it hasn’t always acted as he should.
Whether Corbyn has freely chosen the path of allowing Falconer to scrutinise how anti-semitism complaints are dealt with or merely done so out of panic is irrelevant. Falconer should be left to get on with his new job, and we should listen carefully to his discoveries and his recommendations. If he makes reasonable suggestions and they are ignored without good reason, it will be entirely fair to conclude that the Labour Party is beyond salvage. But if his recommendations are implemented, and we end up with a robust complaints process that deals swiftly but fairly with all allegations then the reasons for quitting Labour over its handling of anti-semitism will hopefully become a thing of the past.
It is sad that a handful of high-profile resignations carrying the threat of a new party may have been required to clean up this mess, but if that is how things turn out then so be it. The remaining Labour party may be saved and strengthened by it.
On the surface, it might look as if something similar has happened over Brexit. Since the formation of TIG, Labour has tested support for its version of a deal in parliament, been defeated and now officially moved on to campaigning for a new referendum which includes the option to remain in the EU. It’s highly likely that the timing of all this is no coincidence, but Labour spokespeople have been right to point out that this was the party’s Brexit policy since conference last year. In any case, many potential defectors have got what they were asking for, however belatedly. MPs won’t gain any extra influence over the way Brexit is resolved by changing their party label, and if we do leave the EU, the arguments that matter over the country’s direction will change. Defecting to an “I told you so” party will do nothing to mitigate the damage Brexit will cause to peoples’ jobs and living standards, especially if it splits the Labour vote and lets the Tories back in for another five years.
I realise of course that the defection of Conservatives to TIG raises the prospect that any new party may take Tory votes too. However, Brexit divisions control a good deal of current voter behaviour, and TIG have chosen to take a staunch Remain position. Many more Labour voters opted for Remain in 2016 than Tory voters, and this will make any new, Remain party much more attractive to the former than the latter.
I don’t think it is any accident that most of the MPs who have quit so far are Blairites in the true sense of that label. This probably means that for them a Corbyn government is just as unpalatable (or more so) than a May government on policy alone. Thus they are fairly relaxed about the prospect of damaging Labour’s election prospects and keeping the Tories in power. But their analysis should be rejected by the larger Brownite and soft left wings of the party.
Many Labour MPs still do not understand why Jeremy Corbyn was elected as their leader. The Thatcherite consensus over a relatively small state, where rights at work are kept to a minimum and the interests of businesses are mistaken for the interests of citizens has turned stale. It has delivered us the economic illiteracy of austerity, chronic underfunding of vital public services, done serious damage to our climate and worsened our mental health by subordinating our needs to those of large corporations. By 2015, the Parliamentary Labour Party had become hopelessly out of touch with this reality. They firmly believed that the Conservatives could only be beaten with a diluted version of this consensus, and were not prepared to challenge it outright.
Voters in that leadership election were presented with Corbyn as the only candidate who would reject austerity, corporate control and a punitive welfare system. It should not have surprised us that he won.
We will see what policies the new party comes up with, but all the signs indicate that they still do not get what needs to change. We desperately need a new government with a radically different domestic agenda, and if potential Labour defectors are worried about its stance on defence and foreign policy, then they should keep wearing their red rosettes. If they remove them, they are likely to be defeated either by Corbynite Labour candidates who want to do away with Trident and go soft on Putin and Hamas, or by Conservatives who will continue their ruinous domestic policies.
I understand the frustrations many MPs and members feel towards Corbyn, but for the moment a government led by him is the only credible available option to deliver the sea change in our politics which we desperately need. That government will be far from perfect with Corbyn at its head, but I would urge those who share this view to stay and strive to improve it rather than accept the damage being done to our society by the Conservatives.
A party which appoints one of its leader’s natural critics to investigate its handling of complaints of racism is not yet an institutionally racist party, nor is it a party committed to delivering a Brexit, regardless of a deal. If any of this changes, by all means quit. I would probably join you. But it just does not make sense right now to give up on our best chance of fixing much of what is wrong with contemporary Britain. This country needs Labour, and in order to remain a broad church that can win elections and deliver in government for the many, Labour needs people like you.