by Michael Ford
Jeremy Cliffe, the Economist’s “Bagehot” political columnist and blogger, has been running a stentorian campaign for a split in the Labour Party. Here MICHAEL FORD dissects in detail the wishful thinking behind the arguments
THE Economist has always mixed advocacy with analysis in its columns. The advocacy has, of course, been for a new world order of globalised capitalism resting on liberal values and the unfettered use of US military power.
Recently, however, its advocacy role has gone into overdrive in relation to the Labour Party.
Jeremy Cliffe, the magazine’s “Bagehot” political columnist and blogger, has been running a stentorian campaign for a split in the Labour Party — specifically, for the right wing of the party to break away and set up a new organisation, which he dubs “True Labour” in the assumed likelihood of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election as party leader.
He is always full of advice for the left, Mr Cliffe. A few months ago, he urged Labour neocons to re-establish the Euston Manifesto, a flopped project launched by liberal supporters of the Iraq war.
Now his ambitions have grown — he wants a full-blown division in the labour movement. A post on the Bagehot blog on August 12 is the most comprehensive exposition of the case so far.
The underlying principle of his analysis is the unquestioned supremacy of parliamentarians within the party. They, and effectively they alone, should determine its fate, notwithstanding that all of them owe their place to their selection by party members as the Labour candidate for their respective constituencies.
Labour MPs, Cliffe writes, in the first but by no means last questionable assertion in the piece, “with their surgeries and door-knocking have a much better grip on political reality than the leader and his well-heeled team.”
The assumption that Corbyn does not knock on doors or hold surgeries is the least odd aspect of this thesis.
Stranger still is the notion that it is only Labour MPs (most of them better-heeled than Corbyn’s support), and not the ordinary Labour members, who knock on people’s doors and tune in to their concerns.
Cliffe, like many journalists who work in the House of Commons, is almost entirely absorbed in the inflated sense of self-regard which besets many MPs.
Of course MPs have a vested interest in their own re-election and are to that extent likely to attune to public opinion, but the membership are just as invested in the desirability of victory and are less prone to delusions about their own indispensability.
Promoting the idea of a split, Cliffe, like other pundits, has to grapple with the failure of the last such venture — the Social Democratic Party breakaway led by Roy Jenkins, David Owen and Shirley Williams in 1981.
He strives to discern then-and-now differences to avoid the parallel appearing fatal to his project.
Some of his points simply display a superficial knowledge of the history. To say that unions were “moderate” in the early 1980s, and “are in the hands of the left” now, is a considerable over-simplification at both ends of the chronology.
How would he characterise the party’s biggest affiliate in 1981 — the T&GWU — or the third and fourth largest today — the GMB and Usdaw?
More curious is his view that the contemporary availability of social media is a development which can only favour the left and which is not also accessible by the cause he champions as well.
To describe the left campaigning organisation Momentum as “Militant with a Facebook account” is a slur on Momentum, which has almost nothing in common either politically or operationally with the futile far left of yore.
The right wing of the party, through the obscurely funded vehicle Saving Labour, has equally made use of social media to press the anti-Corbyn cause.
Yet on the slender basis of access to Facebook and the existence of a couple of pro-Corbyn websites like the Canary, Cliffe announces that Corbyn’s supporters exist in a “sympathetic media eco-system.”
True, if one ignores the influence of the Murdoch media, the Telegraph, the Mail newspapers, the shamefully biased BBC lobby team, most of the Guardian commentariat … and the Economist. To suggest that the media has given the Labour left an easy ride is almost beyond absurd.
It is the message that counts more than the medium in any case. Momentum prospers because of the enthusiasm of its supporters, something the PLP majority singularly lacks.
Curiously, Cliffe does not mention the one factor which determined above all the SDP’s failure in 1983 — perhaps because it is still a fully operational element in all calculations today. That is the first-past-the-post electoral system. Without it — and assuming that people still expressed the same preferences — the SDP-Liberal Alliance would have won nearly as many MPs in 1983 as Labour. As it was, they secured more than 180 fewer (the SDP itself won just six constituencies).
The electoral system in place, and it will certainly still be there come the next general election, is the elephant in the room of any “breakaway” plan, an elephant Cliffe obstinately refuses to see. We can be sure that the Labour MPs he is urging his strategy on are not so blind.
At any event, having disposed of 1983 to his own satisfaction, “Bagehot” turns his gaze to the near future, with no more persuasive results.
A bold breakaway by Labour MPs would, he asserts, take with it the party’s “pragmatic, social democratic heritage,” its national voice, some of its branches and, judges willing, its brand. It would take “almost all of the party’s political talent” and would not lack “funding potential.”
The last point is undoubtedly true — already the Labour Tomorrow group established by David Blunkett and Baroness Brenda Dean has secured £250,000 from a hedge fund boss and a property developer.
The party’s right-wing deputy leader Tom Watson has been gifted £200,000 by Formula One supremo Max Mosley.
And, as noted, Saving Labour is running a very visible anti-Corbyn campaign with money from who-knows-where but probably not collected in tins at trade union branch meetings.
So, as ever, an endeavour to break the Labour Party, like any right-wing political initiative, will not falter for lack of readies.
The rest of Cliffe’s judgements are at best disputable and at worst flat-out wrong. For example, he identifies the party’s “political talent” as being on the right.
Did he miss last year’s leadership election in which the three candidates from what was then dubbed the “mainstream” all — how can one put this politely? — failed to catch fire? Some of the most storied “talent” — Chuka Umunna and Tristram Hunt — did not even pass “go,” announcing and then withdrawing their candidacies.
The sadder truth, from the perspective of the Economist, is that the New Labour project is now almost denuded of talent, with most of the front-rank figures of the Blair-Brown years having fled to the private sector long since.
Those who remain have very obviously not risen to the challenge of setting out a social democratic prospectus for the post-2008 era of a crashed neoliberal outlook.
The Financial Times has its feet more on the ground than Cliffe here. In an editorial on August 15 headed: “Labour moderates must think before they split,” the newspaper drew attention to a fact which, like the nature of the voting system, Cliffe does not so much as allude to.
A breakaway Labour Party, the FT writes, “requires much more intellectual preparation than anyone is doing … Labour moderates have lost themselves in the technical process of defeating Mr Corbyn before deciding on what is to replace Corbynism. They pay lip-service to the limitations of Blairism without pursuing the thought further.”
Leaving aside the loaded use of the term “moderate” — there was nothing moderate about waging aggressive war, deregulating the financial sector and ignoring widening inequality — that seems about right.
Cliffe does not so much neglect to pursue the meaning of a 2016 “pragmatic social democracy” further as neglect to even raise the need for such a hunt at all.
There is no “True Labour” answer to the challenges of our times, and goodness knows its protagonists have had time and funding enough to work one up.
Should “True Labour” favour privatisation of public services? Should it back wars without United Nations authority? Where would it stand on the regulation of the financial sector? What would it do to tackle inequality? Should it give greater support to trade unionism? Would it back TTIP-style trade deals?
The answer is nobody knows, leaving us to assume the worst. Intellectually, the inheritors of New Labour are a busted flush and that is in large part why Corbyn is where he is to begin with.
Cliffe is on no firmer ground when he addresses what might be called the political logistics of his proposal. He assumes the law will favour the splitters. It is unwise to make any assumptions about the behaviour of judges, but it is hard to see how the law would favour a majority of the party’s MPs, a group with no overriding standing in Labour’s rulebook, over its national executive, membership and properly elected leader.
He urges Labour staff to “formally disregard” a re-elected Jeremy Corbyn. There would be a practical difficulty there, in that the staff are ultimately accountable to Labour’s national executive and work to the latter’s instructions, but the stronger argument is surely an ethical one. Labour staff are paid by the party’s members, and why they should be allowed to take the money but ignore the opinions of the membership is a moral conundrum that does not apparently occur to Mr Cliffe.
And would, in the event, a split even account for most Labour MPs? One hundred and seventy-two, it is true, expressed no confidence in Corbyn. Many of those will, however, accept the democratic decision of the membership in the leadership vote — some already regret voting as they did. Many more will see the prospects for their own political demise in a split.
For this is the scenario Cliffe does not confront. In the event of a breakaway, one can assume that at the next general election “True Labour” and Labour would confront each other in most constituencies.
The consequence of splitting the Labour vote would be mutual annihilation, and would see other parties — Ukip? Tories? Plaid? Even the near-moribund Liberal Democrats? — winning historic Labour seats.
Neither side of such a split would be in a position to deliver a knock-out electoral blow to the other in the short-term. So the result would actually be the likely destruction of Labour at the polls.
Cliffe assumes that his right-wing dissenters would gain a premium from the voters, yet no polling evidence or electoral study sustains that position.
In fact, a survey by Electoral Calculus reported in the Daily Telegraph came to a clear conclusion: “In almost all the scenarios, the combined Labour parties win fewer seats than they did at the last general election.”
Even with a combined total vote 10 per cent up than on the May 2015 result, the two rival parties would barely reach 200 MPs. On other, arguably more realistic, projections they are left with just 120.
While I do not wish to impugn the purity of Cliffe’s intentions, he is in fact urging the right-wing Labour turkeys to sign up for Christmas.
Similarly, Cliffe assumes that local Labour parties are desperate to divide into hostile factions on the ground.
In fact, most ordinary members are not looking for a punch-up with their colleagues and fellow campaigners.
If they are desperate for anything, it is for the PLP to get its act together.
The poison in the Labour Party is, like Jeremy Cliffe, overwhelmingly within the Westminster bubble.
Naturally, in this Economist fairy-tale, new “True Labour” branches are flooded by new members inspired by the revived social democratic offer of the bursting-with-talent new front bench put together by the splitters.
Of course, in a world where Leicester City can win the Premier League it would be rash to exclude any possibility absolutely, but this does seem at the further edges of political fantasy.
None of this realism dampens the ardour of Cliffe — he sees a rump Labour Party sinking into irrelevance, “with few locally active door-knockers.”
Again, this seems likely to be the reverse of the actual situation and anyway, given Corbynism’s apparent domination of social media, why would it be a concern?
Nevertheless, the courage of Cliffe’s putative splitters is unlikely to be screwed to the required sticking point, as he reluctantly acknowledges. And who can wonder? His proposal offers the prospect of a party with no clear policies, few footsoldiers and little by way of roots, reliant on the funding of a few millionaires, all marching to certain electoral oblivion.
The only winners from such a prospect would be the Tory Party. And who knows? Maybe that has been the Economist’s cunning plan all along.
This article also appears in the Morning Star