Thinking the Unthinkable
by Les May
As the delegates left the Labour conference after the result of the leadership election was announced one of the people the BBC had assigned to cover the event asked an interviewee ‘How will Corbyn’s centrist MPs react’.
Now forgive me for asking but does not the whole history of the party, how it came into existence and where it derives much of its support and funding indicate that if it is anything at all it is a distinctly left of centre party? If it isn’t and does not see its future as being just that, then why does it exist at all?
As I have pointed out before the whole locus of British politics has moved sharply to the Right in the past thirty years. Even Tory politicians like Ted Heath pursued policies which by contemporary standards would be viewed as dangerously left wing. As William Keegan pointed out last year the Tory press attacks Labours policies which are ‘far less radical than those of the Attlee governments’.
One thing that even Corbyn’s fiercest internal critics cannot deny is that he has shifted the debate about what policies the Labour party should pursue sharply to the Left. Both Angela Eagle and Owen Smith realised at once that there were no votes in promoting or advocating the Blairite policies. Apart from Smith’s advocacy of a second referendum on leaving the EU he seems to have set out an agenda very similar to that advocated by Corbyn.
But I would urge a note of caution on both Corbyn supporters like myself and the ‘centrist’ MPs in the parliamentary Labour party.
Re-nationalising the railways is a ‘no brainer’ to many Labour supporters but whether that would improve peoples’ daily experience of train travel depends upon whether you think that ownership is the problem or whether you think that it is more a question of how the railways are run.
Is the prime concern to run an ‘efficient’ service, i.e. an over optimised service being run at the lowest possible cost, or is it to run the railways as a public service. By the latter I mean trains run sufficiently frequently and with sufficient seating to ensure that commuting is not a misery, and that the present over complicated ticketing arrangements will be abandoned and it will once again be possible to walk into any station and book a train to anywhere in the country at any time.
If the choice is for ‘railways as a public service’ re-nationalisation alone will not do the trick. It needs a recognition that there will be costs to the public purse.
The MPs who voted to show that they had ‘no confidence’ in Corbyn seem to think that it his leadership which is the major obstacle to winning the 2020 election. What they fail to recognise is that we no longer live in a predominantly two or sometimes three party political world. Like it or not we can no longer rely on a Scottish Labour vote and in England we now live in a five party world, Labour, Tory, Liberal, Green and UKIP. Dividing the total vote in this way and factoring in the likely effects of the upcoming boundary changes suggests to me that there is a real danger that the Tories will win irrespective of who is Labour leader.
Preventing this may mean that Labour MPs and party members have to ‘think the unthinkable’, and both form a united front against the Tories and abandon uncritical support for the present ‘first past the post’ electoral system which it has been argued favours centrist policies designed to attract ‘swing’ voters in a few key constituencies.
I’d love to think that Labour could get the sort of electoral mandate that Attlee’s 1945 government had, but it’s just not going to happen. Recognising this I can either ‘keep the faith’ or become a dissenter and run the risk of being called a ‘traitor to socialism’. As I live in the real world and not a fantasy world I’ll choose the latter.
One of the claimed advantages of the ‘first past the post system’ is that it keeps the link between the individual MP and the voters, i.e. you vote for an MP first and the party second. But think on this. I’m likely to be moved into the Rochdale constituency under the boundary changes. At present the MP is Simon Danczuk and if Rochdale Labour party endorses him for the 2020 election, pigs will fly before I’ll vote for him. And I’m not alone.