By an anonymous Labour councillor
The term “Labour moderates” covers a widely disparate range of views. They include socially and economically liberal ‘Blairites’. This group largely embraces global capitalism. However, they want to harness the power of the state and the market to reduce inequality. Sharing the moderate tent are more statist social democrats. Their objectives are not wildly dissimilar to the Blairites. However, they are more sceptical of markets and globalisation. Nevertheless, they have no desire to bring down capitalism. Next are those who self-identify as socialists but who espouse more radical reform of capitalism. They should feel at home in Corbyn’s Labour Party. However, their outlook tends to be internationalist. Therefore, the default anti-West mentality of the Corbynite alt-left does not resonate with them. More importantly, they feel uncomfortable about the cultishness surrounding Corbyn.
These characterisations of Labour moderates are somewhat crude. There are many shades of opinion within and between the groups described. Still, this account of Labour moderates is more nuanced than the caricatures envisaged by the Corbynite left. They see a common enemy consumed by bitterness and a desire for power over principle. Labour moderates’ scepticism about Corbyn and his acolytes is regarded as proof positive of a barely repressed, innate conservatism. The word ‘Blairite’ has been appropriated as shorthand for this. Some Corbynite apparatchiks, close to the man himself, have taken to using dubious terms such as ‘slugs’ and ‘melts’ about Labour moderates on social media.
The Corbynite pressure group, Momentum was formed in late 2015. Its initial purpose was to consolidate Corbyn’s position. Over time, it has developed a parallel organisational structure. In effect, it is a party within a party. Momentum activists define themselves in opposition to Labour moderates. They flexed their muscle early on. In December 2015, the House of Commons voted for airstrikes against ISIS in Syria. Corbyn made his vehement opposition clear. Many Labour MPs, being of an internationalist disposition, were inclined to vote in favour. However, a perceptible number did not. The expected rebellion was stifled rather than quashed. Many attributed this to an intense social media and lobbying campaign by Momentum activists.
Momentum proved effective as Corbyn’s Praetorian Guard in the summer of 2016. A leadership challenge was instigated by the Parliamentary Labour Party. This occurred after the 2016 referendum on EU membership. Many Labour MPs perceived that Corbyn, a lifelong Eurosceptic, had deliberately sabotaged the Remain campaign. Nevertheless, the challenge was easily defeated. Corbyn was greatly helped by Momentum’s organisation and resources. In some ways, the outcome of the referendum was more significant for the Party than the subsequent leadership election. It represented the beginning of an illiberal populism in the UK that is evident across the Western world. Donald Trump’s election as US President, in November 2016, further exemplifies this. Labour moderates have found that their core liberal values are under attack from the right and the left. They have few allies in the centre.
Speculation about a new party surfaces periodically. This has been a regular occurrence since Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour Leader in 2015. The speculation ebbs and flows according to Corbyn’s fortunes. Commentators ruminate on the discomfort of Labour moderates: Surely the Party activists have become too hostile? Is Labour still the right party to advance their politics? Would a new centrist party not be more viable for them? After all, the Party has been transformed beyond recognition in only two years. Still, moderate Labour MPs are dismissive of such talk, in public and in private. They are genuinely and deeply reluctant. However, they may not be given much choice. Momentum are waging a war against moderates. It is genuine, sustained and highly organised.
Their increasingly impossible situation begs an obvious question: why do Labour moderates stay? Many are haunted by the spectre of the Social Democratic Party (SDP). In 1981, a number of Labour moderates were alarmed by an earlier hostile takeover of the Party by the hard-left. Their response was to break away and form the SDP. For a short time, in the 1980s, the SDP was in the ascendant. However, it experienced a rapid decline when Labour, under Neil Kinnock’s leadership, moderated and appropriated many of its policies. Many Labour moderates, especially sitting MPs, have night terrors of ending up in a fringe party on the margins of politics. This is not what they have devoted their lives and careers to. They also have a deep tribal, familial identification with the Party. To them, Labour is more than a political party; it is a community which often provides the basis for a social life. They are, understandably, reluctant to isolate themselves from that.
Until very recently, Labour moderates were enmeshed in the structures of the Party. They were often in a position to act as a restraining influence. However, the result of the 2017 General Election has changed this. The Corbynite wing has interpreted the better-than-expected result as validation of their world view. Moderates within the Party have been fatally weakened. Momentum have been quick to take advantage and a new phase of a hostile takeover has commenced.
Noisy threats to deselect Labour MPs were frequently made by Momentum activists before the election. However these have subsided and there is a reason for this; they have a new target. Many local Party branches have held their annual general meetings in recent weeks. Longstanding branch officers have found themselves replaced by strangers wearing badges emblazoned with Corbyn’s name. This is the result of slates organised by Momentum. Moderates report that has become increasingly difficult for them to find candidates for voluntary positions. People are said to find the atmosphere of Party meetings intimidating.
There are two clear lessons to be learned from Momentum’s latest manoeuvres. Firstly, they are completely uninterested in cohabitation with Labour moderates. They seem them as a barrier to be removed. Secondly, they are no longer targeting Labour MPs directly but they are still targeting them. They have chosen the more indirect route of seizing control of local party structures. Moderate councillors are their next target. Their objective is not simply to weaken moderates but to expunge them altogether. Labour moderates have little desire to leave the Party but staying is rapidly becoming less of an option.
Many Labour moderates dream of regaining control of the party. Others, who consider themselves to be pragmatists, hope to reach some sort of accommodation with Momentum. Neither of these outcomes seem likely.