A new centrist party is anathema to our values, but Labour must change course on Brexit to prevent electoral oblivion, writes Callum Tipple
To leave, or to remain and campaign for reform – that was the question dominating British policy towards the European Union in the years leading up to the 2016 referendum. In 2018, progressives face a question of similar magnitude. Must we leave the Labour party to articulate our values and position on Brexit? Or instead, should we remain and campaign for a stronger stance from the Labour leadership that offers meaningful opposition to a disastrous Brexit deal?
Discussions over the formation of a new party are reportedly underway, and the attraction of such a party for centre-left figures is clear. The militant and hostile environment in sections of the party has left progressives feeling isolated and unwelcome, a distance mile from the ‘broad church’ approach advocated by Keir Starmer. The calculated reluctance of the Labour leadership to offer a powerful voice against Brexit has created a void that a centrist party could fill. Meanwhile, the success of Macron’s En Marche movement in France inspires confidence that such a party could be electorally successful.
Appealing in theory, perhaps. However, arguments for a centrist party quickly disintegrate when confronted with the reality of British politics. Take the supposed analogy with Macron’s mass movement. Not only is a new force much less likely to amass significant support in a first past the post electoral system, but recent opinion polls show Macron’s ratings tumbling down precipitously as the focus shifts away from Europe and onto domestic policy. Designing a party around a single issue may suit the Liberal Democrats’ desperate desire to regain relevance, but it is unlikely to make a British party successful.
There is also further, more fundamental, weakness in the case for a new party in Britain – the only issue uniting politicians would be opposition to Brexit. Despite our apparent divisions, the Labour party is united on much more than that which divides it. From a just and fair taxation system to well-funded public services, Labour members share values and defend positions that are consistently under attack from the right. These divisions form a core part of who we are and what we believe.
What is more, it is clear that the public wants renewal beyond brand names. A party made up of the same-old faces smacks of an establishment desire to perpetuate itself and subvert the will of the people, whether that’s true or not. And with what result? A weakened left and centre-left, and a void to be filled by dangerous proto-nationalists on the fringes of the right wing. With Steve Bannon’s reported intention to target the upcoming European elections, the danger of geopolitical upheaval is as real as it is concerning.
The route forward, therefore, is not about creating a new party. Instead, we must focus on maintaining the broadchurch traditions of the Labour party, and on campaigning for a Labour party policy on Brexit that reflects the views of its members – including single market and customs union membership, and a People’s Vote on the final deal.
Such a change is long overdue. For almost two years the Labour leadership has sidelined the voices of young people on Brexit, including groups such as Our Future, Our Choice. A petition from a Momentum member to reject Tory Brexit is gaining a groundswell of support among traditional Corbyn supporters, embodying the risk in the current policy of inaction; it alienates figures across the Labour party, threatening further divisions and electoral suicide in 2022.
This does not mean shying away from the issues that caused the ‘leave’ vote. Our party needs to actively engage with the concerns of Leave voters and commit to the brave and principled policymaking that puts the lives, and the livelihoods, of working people first.
The only way we can achieve this is by staying in the Labour party, and making sure our tradition helps shape our policy.
Callum Tipple is a writer for Progress. He tweets @Callum_Tipple
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