The problem with Brexit isn’t with the options – it’s with us

In his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books, Douglas Adams once imagined a political system in which anyone genuinely interested in wielding power would be automatically disqualified from holding the highest office. A similar thing now pertains in relation to Brexit. The last people we should be listening to now are those who speak on this issue with great certainty, for they are only able to do so either by ignoring the complexities of Brexit or by ignoring the views of a substantial part of our country (or indeed by doing both).

The challenge we face now with Brexit is not simply with the options available to us, but with our debate about these. The options themselves have been clear for a long while and all involve trade-offs and short-comings which their strongest advocates usually fail honestly to acknowledge. Beyond this, though, public debate has become increasingly entrenched in ways that make a constructive choice between them near impossible.

On the Leave side, nuance is torn up in claims that the 17.4 million people who voted for Brexit did so with a single mind on what this would then entail. This claim does not bear five minutes’ contact with footage from the endless TV debate programmes that took place in the run up to the 2016 vote in which audience members repeatedly said that they struggled to know how to vote because the future implications of their choice were so unclear.

Equally, on the Remain side, there is too much comfort taken in the idea that the 2016 referendum result can easily be discounted or over-turned – for example, if Brexit voters really can be persuaded that they were duped and didn’t know what they were voting for. Or indeed that voters in left behind communities across the UK will be reassured by promises of future help from politicians who are perceived by those voters to be taking away the one clear thing that they have just asked for.

A thought experiment might be helpful for liberal and left-leaning Remainers in relation to this. Imagine another referendum, such as that to repeal the 8th amendment in the Irish constitution which placed strong restrictions on access to abortions. Imagine winning that by a small majority (say 51.9%), and then being told in the wake of this that the result couldn’t be implemented after all because of its legal and political complexities which you, as a voter, hadn’t appreciated at the time. Or that people should be given the chance of another referendum to overturn this vote because politicians couldn’t agree on how to enact it. The outcome to this would not be a recipe for a harmonious, long-term political settlement.

Too often those who speak with great clarity for Leave or Remain do so in ways that suggest Brexit can somehow be resolved by ignoring the views of half of those who voted in the 2016 referendum. Aside from the spurious notion that the 52% who voted for Brexit represent a Borg-like hive mind, it is untenable to imagine that once the decision to leave the EU has been taken politically that the 16.1 million people who voted Remain should not be able to have any say on what Britain’s long-term post-EU membership future should look like. Similarly it is equally unrealistic, with the current state of our debate, to imagine that even if a second referendum were held and a Remain option won (say with a 51.9% majority) that this could be done without considerable damage to our collective life. To write substantial groups out of the script for our national future in this way is achieved – as we have increasingly seen – by marking them variously off as stupid, insane, traitors, or smug liberal Remoaners, and therein lies the road to deep and abiding culture wars that will poison our politics.

None of the Brexit options now available to us will be palatable with the current state of our discussion of them. In this toxic environment we are faced with the bind of merely choosing between different kinds of political and economic harm, with the prospect afterwards of deep and long-lasting grievances towards those held responsible for them. We will not move beyond this bind simply through a People’s Vote or a Citizen’s Jury (which effectively become means for politicians merely to pass the poisonous choice on to other people), but by entering a far more honest debate about Brexit and our national future.

For example, will the vision of sovereignty offered by Leave campaigners make a real difference to voters’ lives or whether it is a fleeting moment of perfection that exists only until it has to be negotiated away again through our new trade deals? Will those who voted Leave genuinely feel more empowered through the process of UK trade talks with the United States than they do with UK negotiations within the EU? Is any form of economic self-harm palatable right now for a country nearly broken by the policy of austerity, and where we urgently need to address the rising costs of health and social care?

Equally, even if there are compelling economic and strategic reasons for remaining in the EU, how do we resolve the feelings of democratic disempowerment that people feel in relation to a major trans-national body which inevitably tends towards technocracy? How can we constructively respond to the continued search for a post-imperial identity and place for Britain in ways that deal realistically with the historical sense of a divide between our country and continental Europe?

It is unfortunate that a referendum on the final Brexit options available – which should have been part of any sensible original plan for this political process – has descended into a new proxy war between Leave and Remain campaigners. If the quality of our debate improves – and we give more space to voices that are tentative and nuanced rather than those who are clear, superficial and polarising – then a second referendum might be the best way forward. Or perhaps another compromise will become clearer. Until we recognise however that our problem lies fundamentally not with politicians, the EU, fanatical Leavers or treacherous Remainers, but the state of our democratic debate about these issues, our national future looks bleak.

 

@gordon_lynch

 

Why a technocratic centre-ground isn’t enough…

As a critically important Parliamentary year approaches, rumours continue to grow about the development of a new centrist political party. The new project, United for Change, is said to have already contacted potential supporters saying that it plans to ‘offer a visions of a prosperous, united and fair Britain… where hard work and contribution are championed and were all in society – government, business and individuals – play their part living up to both their rights and obligations’.

The notion of a values-based, ideologically-averse, pragmatic party, seeking to implement evidence-based policy has clear resonances in both the Limehouse Declaration that set in motion the formation of the SDP and Tony Blair’s underpinning political vision in the early days of the ‘New Labour’ project. The idea of balancing state support and personal contribution in the welfare system, which has attracted renewed interest in recent years, similarly also has a long history of public support which includes and pre-dates the development of the post-war welfare state.

In this sense, a project along the lines of United for Change, appears well-placed to lay claim to a political position that has attracted considerable electoral support since the 1980s. However, it is unlikely to achieve either the success of the SDP at the height of its popularity nor the electoral victories of New Labour if it presents itself primarily as a party of technocratic competence, splitting the difference between the increasingly extreme positions that have gained ground in recent years in both the Conservative and Labour Parties.

To imagine that such a technocratic political agenda could, by itself, appeal to voters fails to recognise the fundamental role that issues of cultural meaning and identity play in contemporary politics – a point most recently demonstrated in the 2016 EU referendum result. Michael Gove’s comment about voters having had enough of experts certainly contributed unhelpfully to the wider emergence of post-truth politics, but also spoke to a growing collapse in deference to expertise and authority across a range of social institutions. If voters assented to the notion of a values-based, technocratic New Labour Government, trusting it to balance both social fairness and economic prosperity, too many found their trust breached by the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 and the near collapse of an under-regulated banking sector four years later.

To overcome such distrust, a project like United for Change needs to create a new story of British society as a collaborative social endeavour with which voters can meaningfully identify. This cannot be done through superficial, ersatz constructions of national identity but through a substantial engagement with our national past. Too much of our current politics operates on the basis of a collective amnesia about the legacies and implications of Britain’s imperial past – exemplified, more generally, in the lack of a national museum dedicated to addressing this history. Without this we cannot understand how the social, political and economic ties of this imperial history have shaped the country we inhabit today, nor the ways in which Britain is perceived in other parts of the world.  Similarly, the contribution made by Commonwealth citizens and citizens of many other countries to our national life – including giving their lives in military service – is too often forgotten and devalued, with these relationships seen instead through the negative tones of policy agendas around immigration and integration. We will also learn little about how British politics sought to move beyond this imperial history in the middle decades of the twentieth-century, and what proved successful and unsuccessful in that venture. Lack of understanding of the history of the religious, cultural and ethnic diversity of Britain creates a space for extremists to claim an ahistorical version of ‘British identity’ structured around a monolithic ethnic, cultural and religious identity, and leaves us at risk of repeating mistakes in how such diversity has been addressed in our national life over many centuries.

There is, clearly, no single version of this history on which our politics can draw. But the process of establishing what should be valued in our collective past, as well as the shadow-sides which must be remembered and owned, is a necessary part of articulating a political vision of what Britain can be in the future. In a wider context of cultural and religious fragmentation in contemporary British society, there is an urgent need for ‘centre-ground’ politics to address the need for a renewed sense of collective meaning and purpose in our national life. Such a sense of shared purpose is needed both to underpin the bold policy interventions that will be needed in areas such as health and social care, and to create a sense of collective purpose to which all social institutions – including corporate interests which fail to contribute sufficiently to this – can be held to account. If there is a failure to do this, and the new ‘centre-ground’ focuses simply on technocratic policy offers, the desire for stories of collective identity risks being met by extremists who are willing to create simplistic, untrue and divisive narratives to secure their own political ends.

In the clash of values over Brexit, everyone stands to be a loser

 

One of the implications of the EU referendum that was perhaps little recognised at the time was the way in which its outcome might dominate British politics for a generation. As the process of establishing the new destination for our relationship with the EU recedes ever further into the future, so we can expect the political divisions of Brexit to persist. When, as seems likely, we eventually reach a form of soft Brexit that will manage to disappoint everyone, we can also expect these divisions to morph into new forms with political populists raging against the ‘establishment’ for failing to deliver the form of Brexit that they claim was demanded by the popular vote.

The seemingly interminable nature of the conflict over Brexit is, in part, a reflection of competing moral visions of the future of Britain. The case for Brexit was never convincingly made on the basis of technical policy arguments about the future of the British economy, something reflected in the fact that a detailed, plausible plan for a ‘hard Brexit’ has never materialised since the EU referendum. Instead, the case for Brexit appealed to broader claims about restoring autonomy to the British people in ways that could stimulate a new era of collective national confidence and innovation. This vision of autonomy was never a substantial policy argument about the nature of political sovereignty in a global society, nor did it recognise that national sovereignty is always given away in different ways through international trade agreements whether within the EU or outside of it. But the moral and emotional appeal of collective self-government goes beyond the specifics of policy, representing a potent expression of political values that have sustained nationalist movements for at least the past two centuries. It is perhaps ironic that the most recent turn in Britain’s post-imperial history is that political discourses of self-governance that motivated independence movements throughout Britain’s former colonies now find fresh expression in the ‘mother country’ herself against the ‘colonising’ influence of the EU.

Such moral meanings fuel the intensity of current public divisions over Brexit. For those convinced by the emotionally-resonant vision of the autonomous British nation, compromises of this freedom with the EU represent a form of betrayal against the nation’s moral destiny. There is no doubt that claims about the unquestionable moral authority of the ‘will of the people’ stifle effective democratic debate. Yet at the same time, if elections and referenda are understood as symbolic ways of managing political conflict that prevent the resort to raw power or political violence, it is not difficult to understand that powerful moral emotions can be generated by what are claimed to be attempts to subvert the outcome of the EU referendum. Both sides of the divide present claims to stand for the moral heart of democracy.

The countervailing moral narrative of those still characterised as ‘Remainers’ is not, for the most part one of a deep investment in political visions of internationalism. One of the striking features of the Remain campaign during the EU referendum was its struggle to generate any widespread emotional connection to the kind of internationalist political project represented by the EU. Instead, the Remain campaign relied more on pragmatic arguments of national self-interest which were all too easily dismissed by the more compelling political vision of a free Britain as ‘Project Fear’ and a talking down of the innate potential of the British people. Whilst those arguing for closer on-going ties with the EU continue to do so on the basis of economic interests, it is also possible to see within this an ethics of care in which politicians and campaigners feel genuine anxiety about the effects of a ‘hard’ Brexit on people’s everyday lives, not least through rising unemployment, loss of government revenue to pay for already over-stretched public services or signs of growing intolerance towards ethnic and national diversity. In the absence of harmful economic effects of Brexit yet taking place, however, these moral concerns have not yet evoked strong emotional support amongst a substantial number of voters.

One of the tragedies of the EU referendum was that none of the outcomes on offer combined emotionally compelling visions of the future of Britain with achievable political ends. The notion that Britain might still end up overturning the outcome of the EU referendum through a People’s Vote fails to address, for example, the longer-term problem of the lack of emotional identification that most of the British electorate feel towards the moral vision underpinning EU integration. A return to the EU might have economic benefits for Britain, but will not address the problem that political structures with which people do not identify will always lack a sense of political legitimacy. Equally, a Leave campaign which offered an emotionally compelling vision of Britain’s future for many voters, whilst lacking any effective policy plan for how it could be delivered in practice, was inevitably going to end in disappointment and recrimination.

As a consequence, Brexit seems most likely to evolve into an extended period of negotiation with the EU leading to close ties that will involve some compromises over Britain’s autonomy in areas such as trade and immigration. It was, on reflection, inevitable that the moral vision of the autonomous British nation that inspired many Leave voters would be wrecked on the hard realities of complex Brexit negotiations. What remains to be seen are the political consequences of a narrative of ‘the Brexit that was stolen from us’ amongst former Leave voters and whether this fuels a new phase of destructive populist politics, in which the ‘establishment’ becomes the new colonising force to be resisted. If that proves to be the case, the clash of values that have emerged over Brexit may dominate political life in Britain for many years to come, at a time when some overseas influences are also seeking to encourage our culture wars for ideological and pragmatic reasons. If our public life becomes dominated by conflict between mainstream politicians and populist insurgents, at a time when national party politics is itself fragmented in a myriad of different ways, we are less likely to see effective efforts to address the genuine national crises that we face in areas such as health and social care. If that proves to be the case, we will all be much the poorer.

The sacred will of the people

 

It has felt, of late, as if British society stands on the edge of a precipice. The current divisions running through our country seem more profound than anything I have known in my adult life. What is most frightening is the way in which basic elements of our democracy – Parliament, the judiciary and open debate – are seen no longer as anchors for a decent shared life but contingent on their support for a particular kind of Brexit. Anything is in jeopardy if it does not bend to ‘the will of the people’.

I have written before about how deeply-charged conflicts arise over that which people take to be sacred. The notion of the ‘will of the people’ has come to take on such a sacred significance for many, an unquestionable moral demand that no person or institution should resist. Anything that stands against this popular will, and its vision of a free, proud and autonomous nation, becomes, by definition, a moral threat. MPs who raise searching questions, or judges who make inconvenient rulings, come to be seen as lacking in any moral legitimacy. They are stains to be cleansed for the sake of the public good.

In such emotionally-charged times, it is important to understand both the good and the dangerous. At its best, this deep moral investment in the ‘will of the people’ represents a fundamental yearning for a society in which people feel some connection with a greater story and community for their lives. We live at a time in which such connections have become significantly weakened. Old patterns of belonging, whether to communities, political parties, trade unions or churches have become the experience of a minority. Mobility, insecurity, isolation and change have taken their place. The proportion of single-person households has grown. Even the haven of belonging found in supporting a football team feels increasingly compromised by the commercialisation of the game, with the young millionaires performing on the Premiership stage seeming ever more remote from the lives of the fans who watch them.

It is hardly surprising, then, that people would be drawn to an idea of society that offers a sense of belonging too rarely found elsewhere, or that the EU (for which few even on the Remain side appeared to have any real love) had come to symbolise a fundamental sense of alienation. An awareness of these deep disconnections, and the struggle of daily life, may be dulled for those who enjoy the pleasures of a comfortable and cosmopolitan life. But for those who do not, the moment of Brexit has become a talisman for a renewed sense of power and belonging.

This desire for a society in which people feel part of their communities and more in control of their lives is not something to be feared but welcomed. The powerful emotions released by this need not be destructive but can, like other periods of sacred ferment, lead to a renewing of a sense of our social bonds.

There is danger here as well, though. This energy can stimulate new ways of thinking about what it means to be a purposeful society and to work together for a shared good. But its powerful emotional current can equally be manipulated by demagogues who have no apparent vision beyond exploiting it for their own power. To this end, they will lie and distort, stoke up anger at imagined enemies and set themselves up as protectors of a popular will which is at threat of being snuffed out by the dark forces working against it. This is the rhetoric of Nigel Farage, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express. It offers no hope, just an endless tearing down.

We need to find ways of speaking to this powerful sentiment for belonging, for meaning and for purpose, to offer ideas of a collective future that are realistic about the challenges we face but optimistic about our ability to work together in facing them. If we cannot do that, and if that articulation is left to the demogogues, racists and xenophobes, then our political life may be entering one of its darkest times for many decades.

 

Gordon Lynch

Beyond 52-48 politics

One of the most depressing features of the current US Presidential election is its demonstration of how deeply that country’s long-running culture wars have eroded the quality of its political life. When public life becomes so deeply polarised, the possibilities for constructive political debate and shared vision of national identity and goals become vanishingly small.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, Britain now stands on the brink of such corrosive division between the ideas of the ‘52’ (aka ‘the will of the people’) and the ‘48’ (aka ‘the progressive resistance’). Whilst there are doubtless deep political differences across our country, the mythologies now being created around these two separate groupings threaten to shape our collective life in a way that will ultimately benefit none of us.

One of the damaging features of such polarised identities is the way that they cast people into simple ‘types’, obscuring the ambiguities and uncertainties on which creative discussion of our national future will need to be based. The Leave vote, however, did not constitute a monolithic set of opinions about what post-Brexit Britain should look like, nor was it fundamentally an expression of mindless xenophobia. Principles such as ending the free movement of labour and transfer of sovereignty from Brussels to Westminster were doubtless central for many Leave voters – although the relative importance of varied amongst them. Similarly Remain voters cannot simply be depicted as ‘fifth columnists’, seeking to undermine the popular vote, or as liberal metropolitans itching to pour yet more scorn on those who already feel alienated by our current political system. If we allow our views of those who disagree with us on Brexit to be shaped by such cartoon-ish representations of them, our urgent need for inclusive and thoughtful political debate will be undermined.

We need a new political framework for our country that takes us beyond such images of the ‘52’ and the ‘48’. At its heart should be the principles that:

  • we recognise ourselves as members of a shared national community facing a radically new future in which we all do, and should, have a role to play in shaping for the good.
  • although our country has made many mistakes in the past, our national history and culture has more than enough examples of openness and generosity for us not to fear a society based on renewed interest about what it means to be English or British.
  • our society must be built on safe, vibrant and diverse local communities in which no part of the country feels left behind.
  • our society must be built on openness and generosity towards people of all faith, colour and nationality, recognising that contributing to our national good is not dependent on where you born. It will be a fundamental given that racism and intolerance has no part in a true pride in building our collective life.
  • a recognition that compassion can be resourced, but not imposed, by top-down policy, and that care and altruism need also to emerge organically from local communities.
  • our commitment to building the common good will involve fundamental re-thinking about the ways in which we support and provide education, health, welfare and social care, so that these are sustainable, respect human dignity and meet our national needs. This will involve a willingness to think boldly about all possible options and for those who have benefited most from globalisation to be willing to contribute more.
  • as we consider the different post-Brexit options available to us, we must try to think carefully with everyone who shares in good faith in this national project, understanding that underlying passionate disagreements can be a shared desire for the best for our country, and trying to find a resolution of these with which we can move forward with some sense of common purpose.

These are, of course, aspirations, but our ability to move forward in this spirit, or the divisions of the spirit of the 52-48, will shape the quality of our national life for many years to come.

Why I am resigning as a Labour Party member

The Labour Party has reached a watershed. The re-election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader has decisively confirmed the Party’s shift towards becoming an introverted social movement focused on protest and away from the hard work of policy-formation and bridge-building with the wider electorate. Whilst Jeremy Corbyn has made noises about reconciling the Party, his re-election campaign has never been about serious reflection about the failings in his leadership that led most Labour MPs’ confidence in him to collapse. For the wider Corbynite movement, it is about the re-assertion of a mandate which, as we have seen over the past year, is used to rebuff any criticisms of him, however reasonable they might be.

One of the striking things about his re-election is how robust support remains for him amongst the wider Labour membership despite the deep flaws that have been exposed in his leadership. To re-cap, over the past year, we have had very detailed accounts from previously supportive Shadow Cabinet Ministers about how chaotic planning and poor communication from the leadership has undermined their work. The panel of star economic advisors, paraded as a central element in restoring Labour’s economic credibility by John McDonnell, has collapsed, with the man originally credited for ‘Corbynomics’ now openly despairing about the leadership’s lack of coherence. MPs from across the political spectrum in the Party who tried to support his leadership have given up hope in him. And Jeremy Corbyn’s personal approval ratings amongst voters are the worst of any opposition leader since Michael Foot, with a majority of Labour voters from the 2015 General Election now believing Theresa May can make a better Prime Minister than him.

For a politician not to resign his leadership given such an overwhelming vote of no confidence from his MPs as Corbyn received was unprecedented. For him to be re-elected with such clear evidence of his failings is extraordinary. This has been possible only in the context of a culture in the Party in which Corbyn has become a totem, with his political competence and credibility less important for many than his ability to symbolise their values.

It is in the face of this now pervasive culture that I resign my membership of the Party. Many MPs have argued that the right response is to remain in the Party and fight for its future. But to suggest that it is possible to re-gain control of Labour by winning the battle of ideas assumes that the Party is still a functioning political environment for deliberative debate. Increasingly, though, being heard in the Party is dependent of proof of devotion to the Corbynite project, not the quality of one’s argument. To critique any aspect of the Corbyn leadership’s position is to become, by definition, a traitor in the eyes of many of his supporters. This culture will grow worse following his re-election as the loyalty expected to his mandate becomes ever more binding.

Labour MPs dismayed by this turn in the Party appear to be retreating to the backbenches to plan alternative Labour futures. But as their grip over the Party grows weaker, they have no strategy for re-gaining power beyond the hope that a catastrophic defeat in the next general election might make the Party membership more receptive to their arguments. The experience of the past year, however, gives little grounds for hope in this regard. If support for the Corbyn project could be weakened by such set-backs then there would already be much greater criticism of him amongst his supporters given his performance since last autumn. Instead, any evidence that Corbyn is leading Labour towards electoral disaster is blamed by them on disloyal MPs and a hostile ‘mainstream media’. One only needs to see the responses of many Corbyn supporters to Owen Jones’ sympathetic and moderate critique of the Corbyn leadership so far to understand that the culture of support around Corbyn does not encourage dissent.

Labour MPs are said to be virtually unanimous in their opposition to a split in the Party. But the Party is already split, irrevocably, between those who believe in Labour’s traditional model of seeking Parliamentary power and those who want to re-cast Labour as a radically democratic social movement whose primarily role is to articulate the sentiments of its core supporters. There are already two parties within Labour, which are now merely co-habiting under a single organisational structure and name.

There are many sitting Labour MPs whom I deeply respect and to whom I would give my time and money to ensure their continued influence in Parliament. But I also want to see them operating in a political environment in which they are free to develop a social democratic message that can reach across the country without fear or intimidation. For them to try to operate within a Labour Party under threat of de-selection or inevitable media interest in on-going battles within the Party will do nothing to help their ability to communicate with voters. There are so many urgent issues to which a social democratic response is needed, including Brexit, Syria and our growing crisis in health and social care. To devote more time and energy into internal battles with Labour, particularly in the absence of a credible strategy for victory in those, feels increasingly like an indulgence.

The electoral failure of the SDP is held up as an object lesson from history to prove the dangers of any overt split in Labour. But the first lesson one should learn from history is that no two sets of historical circumstances are the same. The formation of a new social democratic party would not be an easy project, but its fate cannot be assumed to be the same as the SDP mark I. The original SDP soon came up against a Labour Party, led by Neil Kinnock, which was aware of the need to modernise to appeal more broadly across the electorate. A better historical analogy for a new party formed out of Labour today would be if the original SDP had been competing against a Labour Party that Michael Foot continued to lead after 1983, and whose leadership then passed on to Tony Benn.

I cannot continue to give my support to what Labour has become under Jeremy Corbyn. I believe that social democratic politics and politicians deserve better than the Corbynite Labour Party. I wait in hope for that better alternative to emerge, as it surely will, as the chasm between the two parties within Labour grows ever wider.

Gordon Lynch

Corbyn and the new political Puritans

Last night, the local branch of my CLP gave overwhelming support to a motion in support of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Compared to some accounts of recent CLP meetings, the discussion of the motion avoided the degree of hostility that has occurred elsewhere, but the manner of the support given to it clearly demonstrated the current plight of the Party.

For his supporters, Corbyn is the symbol and architect of the true socialist party for which they have yearned for so long. Years of alienation from mainstream party politics, and resenting the sharp edge of right-wing media, poured out in the fervent applause for declarations of loyalty to their leader.

Their support for him was also impervious to any critical reflection. The current conflict of the Party was presented as a simple Right/Left split. ‘Is he ‘Corbynite or Blairite?’, asked a confused member at one point, unable to place another speaker in the simple binaries of this narrative. Criticisms of Corbyn’s failure to work constructively with the PLP, to appoint a strong team around him or project a clear message to the country were met with dismissive groans. A speaker who had joined the party in 1951 and campaigned for it for decades since was initially heard with respectful silence until it became clear that his point was that Corybn was not electable, at which point others simply began to talk over him.

‘I’m fed up with a Party that’s just concerned with winning’, said one person. ‘Maybe Corbyn didn’t have a great Brexit campaign,’ said another, ‘but you have to say he’s got resilience.’ The point about his honourable struggle against a hostile right-wing Party and media was repeatedly made regardless of the fact that unhappiness against him stretches deep into the Soft Left and that Corbyn is now facing sustained criticism from the Daily Mirror. When I argued that it seemed unreasonable to accuse someone like Seema Malhotra of treachery when she had worked so hard to support John McDonnell and commissioned research that was instrumental in defeating proposed Conservative tax credit cuts, I was met with stony silence. Appeals made by me and some others to attempt to find some common ground were met with resounding indifference.

I am, in my day job, a sociologist of religion. I have never experienced an atmosphere like that Party meeting anywhere before outside of conservative religious groups who are deeply convinced of the truth of their way of seeing the world. The fact of the growing Party membership was, as in any committed Evangelical group, taken as confirmation of the moral rectitude of the movement, with no interest shown in whether connections with the wider electorate were being made.

Whilst there are individual supporters of Corbyn who remain courteous and thoughtful, the movement forming around him is, at its heart, a form of political puritanism, for which Corbyn is a model puritan leader. It is a movement of moral certainty, largely devoid of policy, fuelled by symbolic struggles against evil, treachery and compromise.

If we recognise this, the current leadership contest increasingly looks like another dead end. One of the characteristics of a puritan movement is that its sense of moral mission trumps all. Corbynist puritans will not allow their sense of purpose to be thwarted by a leadership election defeat – even if that were to happen. They will continue to organise, try to take over the running of CLPs, de-select ‘disloyal’ MPs where they can, and carry forward the fight which is never ultimately about forming a government but overcoming their opponents. Trying to fight with puritans is ultimately self-defeating as it merely re-energises their sense of being engaged in a grand moral drama, struggling against forces of darkness within and beyond their movement.

Whilst Neil Kinnock’s battle against the Militant Tendency in the 1980s should be remembered with great respect, his recent compelling call to the PLP to fight for control of the Party is arguably a mis-recognition of where we are now. His victory in the 1980s was made possible by the support of unions and a majority of the Party membership. Neither of those conditions hold true now. If the majority of the PLP and their supporters attempt to fight the Corbyn puritans for the Party, a protracted struggle will ensue in which our energy will be diverted from articulating a clear social democratic response to our current national crisis.

It is not defeatism but common sense now to initiate a clear split within the Party, even if this might mean letting go of the ‘Labour’ name. This is not a re-run of the 1980s, for what we are seeing is now not the equivalent of a split between an SDP and a gradually reforming Labour Party, but a split between the SDP and the Militant Tendency. We should not fear a significant division on the Left, because the Corbynist movement will, in time, turn in on itself as it finds new ‘traitors’ to blame for the electoral failures that will inevitably face them. There is a deep current in English cultural life that is antipathetic to puritan movements, with good historical reasons. We should trust those deep pragmatic sentiments in our national life, believe that a Corbynist movement left to itself will be banished to electoral obscurity, and take on the deeper challenge of ensuring that the one nation aspirations that Theresa May sought to lay claim to yesterday are genuinely realised as we enter this crucial period of national reconstruction.

Gordon Lynch