There’s a great big hole where the centre of the Labour Party should be. By the centre, I mean the stretch of political territory where the majority of members would find themselves in ordinary times. These are, of course, not ordinary times, but I retain the belief that the vast majority of Labour members remain good-hearted, well-intentioned people. The problem is that they have nothing substantive to unite around.
Much of this space has been left vacant because the internal debate within Labour is seen to be polarised. The Labour leadership is intent taking the Party off in an overtly hard-left direction. The hardcore supporters of the leadership, including Momentum, view anyone to their right (i.e. 99.9% of the British public) as ideologically impure. Their most prominent Labour critics in the press, however, are hamstrung by the fact that they do not have a meaningful alternative vision, except to call for a return to the halcyon days of New Labour politics. And that is simply not enough.
In the aftershock following the Corbyn earthquake just under two years ago, some parts of the hollowed-out centre of the Labour Party began to cluster around particular factions. Labour First, the old right faction with which I identify most closely, had kept a low profile for many years, but it soon saw a surge in membership. Many members also flocked to Progress, standard-bearers of the new, or Blairite, right. Most intriguingly of all, the soft left found itself championed by a new organisation, originally called ‘The Centre-Left Network’, and then remoulded as ‘Open Labour.’
These factions are never going to agree on precisely the best way to take the Labour Party forward, and nor should we expect them to do so. In isolation, however, they do not have the numbers or the support to wrest control of the Labour Party back from the hard left. Perhaps frustratingly, while there is currently a burgeoning alliance between Labour First and Progress, the prospect of such an alliance extending in any meaningful way to Open Labour does not seem plausible.
This leaves those members in the middle with a choice about which direction they want the Labour Party to take. Despite all the dramatic changes the Labour Party has undergone in the last two years, the centre of gravity of the Labour membership still lies somewhere between the soft left and the old right. At this point, the number of zealots who believe that Jeremy Corbyn is on course for victory is significantly smaller than the broad mixture of outright critics, general sceptics and lukewarm admirers.
There are, I think, two options open to this broad, diverse group of people. On the basis that an alliance between the ‘soft’ left and the right of the Labour Party is simply not in the offing at this point – or any likely point in the near future – Labour members need to make a considered choice about which way to tip as they stand on the Meridian Line in the middle of the Labour Party. Put crudely, these members can tip towards the hard left and Corbyn, or they can tip towards the British people and electability.
Tip towards the left and you will find among your bedfellows many members who embrace a whole range of policies which are either anathema to the British public or simply fringe, including: opposition to Trident renewal, republicanism, notions of a ‘progressive alliance’ with the Greens and Liberals, an unwillingness to address concerns about immigration, and a voter-eluding preoccupation with aloof metropolitan liberalism and abstract sociological whataboutery.
Tip the other way, however, and you will find among your companions many members who are willing to compromise on crucial areas in order to make the greater goal of Labour governance possible. You will not be alongside anyone who still retains some kind of warped faith in the Corbyn project, or anyone who thinks that their own idealism is more important than the everyday concerns of the British people. You will be around people who realise that, before we can take a new Labour Vision to the people, we need to dump the kind of policy baggage mentioned above. The choice, as I wrote recently, is between realism and idealism.
The time to make this choice is fast approaching. The grip of the hard left on the Labour Party is loosening. Whether the hard left destroys the Labour Party in the process is still a matter of conjecture, but some kind of centre-left party will emerge from the rubble eventually. The question reasonable Labour members have to ask themselves if whether they want to go forward or back. To make that choice, they will need to pick a side.