Labour moderates’ naivety lost them control

The text below is a letter from me to the Financial Times, published on 17 August 2016 .

Jeremy Corbyn, Tolpuddle 2016, 1 cropSir, Henry Mance, in “Labour’s leadership battle exposes civil war for soul of party” (August 12) observes that moderate Labour MPs can take heart from the example of the 1980s — when, supported by rightwing trade union leaders, they fought and won an internal battle with the hard Left for control of the party. That “history lesson” is misguided because it assumes too much overlap between conditions then and now.

First, the 1980s fightback was led by moderate and rightwing trade unionists who “fixed” key party committees. Today Labour has few affiliated unions, they have less internal influence, only four of them really matter, and of those the two largest are less anchored in the private sector and dominated by the Left. Second, the hard Left did not lead the party in the 1980s. Now it does. And the court ruling that Jeremy Corbyn must automatically be on the ballot means he is not going away.

Third, the means by which the leader is elected is utterly changed. In the 1980s the membership had only 30 per cent of the vote. Now power lies almost entirely with members and supporters. Fourth, this is not a membership divided between “extremist” activists and passive moderates. Revolutionary socialists have plainly joined the party, they are active, and they make life unpleasant for their opponents. But Labour’s median member has plainly moved Left.

In short, “moderate” MPs need to take a cooler look at the possibilities. Through their naivety they opened up the party to whoever was prepared to pay to change it and then voted for Christmas by lending nominations to a candidate of the hard Left. Thereby they lost control, probably irrevocably. Mr Corbyn will probably win again, and Labour’s journey to the Left will then continue.

Moderates have only two realistic options: surrender, or fight on by forming a new official opposition in parliament.

Dr Hugh Pemberton
Reader in Contemporary British History, University of Bristol, UK

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