Labour has never in its history been a socialist party. It was founded for the instrumental reason of representing workers’ interests in Parliament (hence the “Labour” Party, rather than the “Socialist” Party). For all its failings and idiosyncrasies, it’s accomplished important and even noble things in government, as a party of social reform and liberal-democratic internationalism. It is now under the control, even dominance, of people whose ideology and values are far removed from the party’s traditions.
That poses a dilemma for conscientious MPs who see the shift in the party’s ethos and can’t subscribe to it. Some who are at risk of being deselected by their constituency parties have told The Times that, in such an event, they’ll sit as independents rather than take the Labour whip for the remainder of this parliament. The intention of drawing a line between themselves and Corbyn’s Labour is admirable but I hope they’ll think again. Instead of a symbolic protest against Corbyn’s leadership they should do their utmost to undermine and sabotage it. The Times urges that moderate MPs declare publicly and in advance that, if deselected, they will fight a by-election as an independent. And I support that call.
Would such a declaration stem the surge of the hard Left through the party? Almost certainly not: it would be taken instead as an act of provocation by these very people. But there are no good options for embattled centrist MPs and this course has merits. First, the MPs face the certainty of demoralisation as they see the capture of the party by forces who are not in sympathy with it. If they wait till they’re deselected to make a protest, this will be blunted by the perception that it’s motivated by the forthcoming loss of office rather than by matters of principle. Second, they are more likely to retain their seats if they fight a by-election than if they mount an independent candidature at the general election.
The chances of success are slim but not negligible. Dick Taverne, a pro-European Labour MP, forced and overwhelmingly won a by-election in Lincoln in 1973 after being repudiated by his local party. He clung on to the seat in the February 1974 election, only to lose it (to Margaret Beckett, for Labour) in the October 1974 election. Other MPs have successfully retained their seat at a general election even while standing as independents or having switched their party allegiance. They include Eddie Milne, standing as an independent Labour candidate in February 1974 after his deselection, and Douglas Carswell, who retained his seat in a by-election and the 2015 general election after his defection from the Tories to Ukip. Whether an independent candidature in a Labour seat can be successful is a matter of contingent circumstance and luck. It probably won’t work but the chances of success would be enhanced if several MPs take the same course at the same time. It all depends on circumstances that are inherently unpredictable.
The third reason why moderate Labour MPs should take this course is the most basic. Labour as it now stands is an appalling party. Go back to those historic achievements. They include the NHS, which is an equitable and broadly efficient deliverer of healthcare; a determined attack on poverty and inequality under the administrations of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown; the great social reforms of the 1960s that Roy Jenkins aided as Home Secretary (on abortion, divorce, censorship and the decriminalisation of homosexuality); and anchoring Britain’s defence in the collective security ensured by the Nato alliance.
Labour under Jeremy Corbyn is thought of as left-wing but is actually a reactionary, nativist and thuggish organisation. It’s barely distinguishable from the Tories in its support for Brexit and for new barriers to immigration. Corbyn himself has presented these policies in tasteless, ignorant and inflammatory ways. Of immigration policy after Brexit, he says: “What there wouldn’t be is whole-scale importation of underpaid workers from Central Europe in order to destroy conditions, particularly in the construction industries.” Nigel Farage himself would applaud Corbyn’s sentiment that foreigners are coming over here and taking native-born workers’ jobs and should be stopped.
Labour’s Shadow Chancellor infamously “jokes” about violence against women, and the tenor of the Momentum organisation – with its talk of “absolute boys”, “absolute babes” [sic] and “melts” – evinces attitudes to sexual politics that would have been considered antediluvian even in the 1970s. Labour policies on tuition fees and rail nationalisation are highly regressive policies in their distributional effects. And, of course, there is the anti-Semitism of Momentum activists, Corbyn’s outright denial of the war crimes of Slobodan Milosevic, the visceral anti-Americanism and much else.
Labour voters like me who can’t stomach this stuff look to the Parliamentary Party not just to make up the ranks but to stand by the values of the centre-Left. Labour is now no longer the natural conduit for these ideals but an enemy of them. Perhaps the cause of the constitutional Left is irretrievably lost, but there is a moral case against meekly giving in and giving up. Our side needs to fight, fight and fight again, if only to hold on to our dignity and political inheritance.