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.