Did I just accidentally blog about the validity of a radical centrist party in the UK?

Simon Wren Lewis is sure that a centre party formed by frustrated right-wing Labour MPs is a terrible idea.  Why?  Because it would split the left of centre vote and make it  more likely that a Conservative government held onto power.

I’m not so sure this is true, or, even if it was, that it justifies rebel MPs staying put come what may.  Why?

  1.  Simon’s forecast seems to rule out any explicit cooperation or participation by disaffected left-wing Tory MPs, and the Lib Dems.  A splinter from the Labour Party, orchestrated or coinciding with, or subsequently triggering a symmetric splinter from the Tories, would split both left and right leaning votes.  An orchestrated double split would be a remarkably good idea, if you are in favour of halting a material Brexit, and roughly the same kind of mixed economy welfare state we have now.  [Added a day later]  Simon commented in discussion after his post went up that centre right votes would go to the Lib Dems, as they always have done in these circumstances.  A few points in response to this.  First, this strikes me as not always true.  The Blair/Brown government were elected because they drew centre right votes to themselves.  [A new centre party would obviously have the same ambition].  Second, the Lib Dems are struggling at the moment, after having their brand tarnished by participating in the Coalition, and uncharismatic leadership after the Clegg years.  They may not be the magnet for centre right voters that they once were.  Third, if they were, all to the good.  If you are in favour of the policy program, one would have to hope that rebel MPs war-gaming breaking away are thinking through how they could include the Lib Dems in the effort to strip the Labour and Tory rumps of as many votes as possible, with a view to joining forces as a coalition at the end of it all. [Inserted segment ends.]
  2. Simon notes that ‘in legislative terms’ Labour’s is a centre-left program.  So what business have right-wing Labour MPs leaving anyway?  There is more to say than this.  Corbyn, McDonnell and those around him, based on their lifetime’s writing, speaking and campaigning, might reasonably be taken to want more than the 2017 manifesto.  And their behaviour regarding securing the rule change on the percentage of Labour MPs required to get on the ballot for the leadership, and other matters, suggests that the intention is to strengthen the hold of the hard left on the party.
  3. Then there is the policy on Brexit, hostage to the leadership’s lifelong Euroscepticism, and the hard Brexit labour MPs from constituencies that voted Leave.  It seems highly likely that Labour’s Brexit policy would end up piloting the UK into the same cul-de-sac as the Tories find themselves in, once it becomes apparent that the ‘exact same benefits’ are not to be had from a Free Trade Agreement with the EU.
  4. And then there is Labour’s foreign policy.  One could dismiss this as a luxury item.  Since the UK is a small and ailing military power, what does it matter to what end our non-influence is put?  The difficulty rebel Labour MPs face is that adhering to Corbyn’s anti-Western, pro-Russian program makes them look unprincipled, and may discredit them as advocates of bits of the domestic program that they might support, or anything really.  Corbyn’s foreign policy is arguably not a separate line item and is a consistent extension of his domestic anti-capitalism.  It would be hard to simply set it aside and retain a coherent and enlightened world view about ‘the rest’.
  5.  Part of the analysis is that Corbyn was responsible for a great performance at the 2017 election, and thereby the right wing of the PLP has to swallow the reality that arguments that he was an electoral liability have been disproven.  I don’t grasp why this is so self-evident.  Equally plausible is that it was May’s special incompetence, and the worries amongst Remainer voters that undid the Tories.  With a centre-left leader heading a centre-left program with a more enlightened approach to Brexit, perhaps Labour would have done even better.
  6. Why not simply fight the corner in the PLP itself?  Rebel MPs might well calculate that they discredit themselves and the program they fight for by not quitting.  They also face long-term warfare from the hard left in the party as a counter-revolutionary force, and worry concretely about being deselected.
  7. Part of the contention is that the most successful splinter in history – the SDP – failed, ultimately.  A new split would surely be less successful than that.  Did the SDP fail?  You could argue that that split was what convinced those just to the left of the gang of four that they had to seize control of the party from the hard left, and that that was what gave birth to New Labour, and that that was what propelled Cameron to drag the Tories leftwards.   The split did not turn out all that well for the new Party and the careers under its umbrella;  but in terms of the metric that matters, policy, perhaps it succeeded, saving the country from 4 Parliaments worth of unrestrained Tory rule.
  8. Antisemitism.  Presumably rebel MPs are charged with failing to properly weigh that evil against the Islamophobic and racist anti-immigrant tendency in the Tory party [leave aside that Labour is constrained by the hard Labour leavers who have  also caved in, for reasons of electoral expediency, to anti-immigrant feeling].  Recalling my argument above, the fight against Islamophobia and other forms of racism is discredited if you are at the same time carrying the flag for an organisation failing to get to grips with, and sequentially dissembling about its own anti-Jewish tendency.
  9.  A follow-up argument made by Simon on Twitter was ‘Labour has moved left before, it can move again [sic]’.  What kind of argument is that?  Would we give the same advice to Tory Remainers to sit back and watch extremists take over their party?  The Tory Party has moved right before, so be patient and one day it will move left again, all of its own accord?  Labour rebels are not fools.  If Labour was likely to seamlessly move back to the centre left [let’s set aside the fact that we are supposed to take it on faith that in ‘legislative terms’ it never vacated that area] the rebels’ own careers would profit from it.  Past shifts rightwards were caused by cohorts of actors following a plan, mustering support, marginalising enemies.  Just because there was a feasible plan before does not mean there is one now.
  10. Part of Simon’s anger is fuelled by what he sees as the disastrous fiscal policy of the Coalition and the Conservative-only government that succeeded it.  I am not totally out of sympathy with Simon’s position.  But, my view is tempered by:  a) seeing the pre-crisis trend line as not something we have not continued to grow along because of bad monetary or fiscal policy.  It is at least as likely, if not far more so, that this trend line moves around for reasons orthogonal to macro stabilisation policy.  b) noting that what is done is done.  c) future Tory party policy, a takeover by extreme nationalists aside, may be somewhat more moderate than before, given the sucess of anti-‘austerity’ political campaigning, and the bad publicity from the ongoing problems of the NHS, local authorities, social care [and now prisons].  d) I put much more weight than he does on the event that Corbyn and his acolytes are bent on a program of continual socialist reform, which would shrink the economy and the tax base and lead to poorer structural fiscal policy [public services policy] not better.
  11. Relatedly, I put significant weight on macro stabilisation policy being bonkers too, viz the report commissioned from Graham Turner on giving the BoE responsibility for hitting a 3% growth target.
  12. Arguing about Simon’s post afterwards, Spinning Hugo and Simon traded blows about the likely consequence for the number of deaths and life expectancy.  Making that calculus explicit does not change anything.  It’s there anyway.  If you think a centre party could stave off a trajectory towards socialism, and preserve the UK’s role in pursuing global liberal social and economic values, then you think this because you associate those policies with better public services, longer and freer and more fulfilling lives.
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2 Responses to Did I just accidentally blog about the validity of a radical centrist party in the UK?

  1. Alexander Gardiner says:

    I think your point 7 is key. The SDP” failed” is used as an argument all the time, but circumstances are different. People forget how close the SP came to an electoral tipping point – a few more percentage points and seats would have tumbled their way, but also the Labour Party was on it’s long march back to the centre under Kinnock. This time Labour is more likely to lurch further to the left in response without the ballast (if they are even that) of the majority of MPs. It would be a party full of Chris Williamsons, which surely makes any alternative more attractive. Also the Conservatives may well split – so we could have a four way set up leading to a coalisiton government where the centre-left either reign in the Corbynistas or ally with the centre-right.

  2. Dipper says:

    “An orchestrated double split would be a remarkably good idea, if you are in favour of halting a material Brexit,”

    Well, this is the heart of it. “Centrist” means, more specifically, “religiously pro-EU technocratic top-down social democratic party”.

    Personally, despite being a Leaver, I think this may have the numbers to work; If the Conservatives elect Johnson or Rees Mogg then It could take the Wollaston/Grieve/Greening/Morgan section of the Tories, a large chunk of Labour, Lib Dems, and could get enough votes to win. However if the Conservatives elect Javid, or even Hunt, and they take a big tent approach, then the pro-EU centrist party may find that a centrist conservative lets-be-friends-with-the-EU-but-not-in-it retains enough of a spectrum of support to win.

    Also, the centrist-technocratic echo-chamber that talks to itself and convinces itself that everyone now wants to stay in the EU consistently underestimate how many people really cannot stand the EU and are intensely suspicious of anyone who promotes it. So just because all your mates in your heavily-selected group like this notion doesn’t mean lots of people outside your group won’t touch this with a barge pole.

    Finally, there is the issue of what happens if this new party wins. Given the thing that defines it is pro-EU, it starts negotiations with the EU. Firstly, is that on the basis of adopting the Euro? Because that’s a split right there. Secondly, when it reaches agreement, does it put the agreement to a referendum? If it does and it is rejected, then where does that leave the party?

    This new party winning is dependent on the UK leaving the EU and having a disaster, and in that case there won’t be one pro-EU party and two anti-EU parties, there will be three pro-EU parties.

    So I’m no convinced that what is effectively a single-issue party will have the staying power to see this through.

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