The battle at Westminster for political centre ground

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They want to kill us,” says the Blairite figure, eyes shining in the lights of the Christmas tree. “They don’t care about winning an election these Corbynites, they care about controlling the Labour Party, not the country. But no one is doing a damn thing to stop them. It’s mad.” He tips his glass for a champagne refill and declines a mince pie. “For us to do nothing is like being on the boat in Jaws and not going back to harbour. Are we going to dither until the shark has chewed up the entire boat? We need to kill the shark before it kills us.”

This is the fourth party in a week where I’ve heard Blairite versus Corbynite politics reduced to murderous analogies. Indeed, Jess Phillips, MP for Birmingham Yardley, said she’d knife Jeremy Corbyn “in the front, not the back” if it looked like he was damaging their party’s chances of winning the election.

All any Labour moderates can talk about is how “Labour is f**ked”.  What they really mean is how they are f**ked — because although they may be right that Labour remade as “diehard” Leftie is unelectable, the defenestration of the party’s mainstream is one of the great political spectacles of our age.

Moderates such as Tristram Hunt, Chuka Umunna, Dan Jarvis and Yvette Cooper appear confounded by the speed with which the rug has been whipped from under their feet. Andy Burnham has responded by taking a frontbench role (much to the disgust of other moderates). “At least Chris Leslie and Rachel Reeves have taken a stand,” says one close to the party. “Bud talking about dissent — as Stella Creasy has discovered — exposes MPs to vitriol and abuse both on Twitter and in person. Everyone who spoke to me for this piece did so “off record”. And it’s no surprise that so many have kept their heads down. They live in fear — literally — of being deselected. Blairite critics call this silence “cowardly” but recognise the problem. “Anyone who speaks out is accused of stirring up disunity — but the disunity exists anyway.”


Ever since Corbyn’s summer coup, those in Labour who, until a few years ago, thought they would rule for ever have been meeting in north London villas to plot and kvetch. There’s been scheming about a counter-coup to dethrone Corbyn. There’s been chat (over pasta and red wine) of launching a new “centre” party, even musing about what it should be called (“inevitably some mixture of democrat, social and progress”).

Branding issues are dissected into the small hours (would the powerful “Labour” name give Corbynites a built-in advantage, or pace today’s new superbrands such as Uber, would a new party find it easy to make an impact?).

But it’s all talk. Once the Today programme clicks on in the grey London dawn, once the alcohol and adrenalin subsides, the bulk of the Parliamentary Labour Party — so estranged from its leadership — reverts to its new state: paralysis. 

So what has happened to the Labour of the centre left, the only Labour that voters have ever backed with sufficient votes to form governments? And is there hope for the rebirth of a Labour that doesn’t resent wealth-creation, that is in favour of markets, that loves America and the EU, that believes that without economic growth it’s impossible to generate the resources to help the poorest?

The moderates are torn between the “Let’s wait” group, who want to see what happens (“Let him have some electoral failures first and then see”), and the “Let’s roll” group, those who fear if they don’t act now “it’s only going to get worse”. One strategist explains: “As Corbyn gets a stronger grip of the party he’ll become increasingly difficult to dislodge.”

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Fewer and fewer seem to think a new party is the answer. “If someone finds out I’m trying to start a new party, and then no one else joins in, I’ll be [politically] dead,” explains one. “I would if 200 others would definitely join, but not knowing what 200 will do, or fearing they’ll lose their nerve once I jump, my best strategy is to not to do anything. It’s the classic ‘Prisoner’s dilemma’ of game theory.”

Also, insiders say, they are haunted by the failure of the SDP, (the party set up by moderate Labour refuseniks in the early Eighties, which was initially popular and then disappeared in a merger with the Liberals). “And they’re right to be haunted. It’s hard to create a new party,” says a strategist. “But politicians are being absurdly cautious. The dithering is infuriating.”

Right now the challenge faced by the moderates is formidable. Their greatest obstacle is that, following the party’s constitutional overhaul by Ed Miliband, Labour is in effect owned by its new grassroot members. These new members largely adore Corbyn and loathe them. 

Blairite supporters gradually abandoned the party during the Miliband years and were replaced by those of more “Leftish sensibilities” — until after the general election there was a great wave of insurgents (thanks in part to the way that a new cut-price voting membership allowed tens of thousands of diehards and greens to find a new outlet).

The new “owners” are seen to be more interested in making a loud noise about putative injustices than actually taking power or forming a government. 

“Many are Sixties liberal university Lefties who’ve read too much Karl Marx and who’ve never accepted modern society. They were kicked out of the Labour Party years ago and can’t believe they’re back. They don’t care about winning the election — they just want control of the party. Being in government fills some of them with horror. They want to be agitators.”

They are in effect fundamentalists who wish to purge Labour of supposed Blairite apostasy. In the coming months they’ll attempt to take control of Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee (NEC). And when the Government shakes up constituency boundaries (“probably in 2018”), they’ll attempt to evict many on the Right of Labour. 

In recent weeks the gulf between the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and its membership has become yawning. Last night Peter Mandelson told a packed meeting of Labour peers at the House of Lords that 30,000 more moderate members had left the party in the past few months.

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“There are now two Labour parties,” he said — one made up of the traditionalists, one made up of the new Left- wing activists who have joined since Corbyn’s summer victory.

“It is genuinely terrifying,” says one Labour MP, “that now I have literally nothing in common with my local party members.” 

Donors too have fled. Up to a fifth of Labour’s One Thousand Club (those who donate £1,000 or more to the party) have quit since Corbyn became leader. “The last straw was when I got invited to an evening where the special guest was going to be Jeremy Corbyn,” confides a former donor. “I thought, who would give a thousand pounds to the Labour Party and want to meet Jeremy Corbyn — other than to kill him?” 

A Labour strategist adds: “And the gulf between the party and the public is even wider too. The public didn’t vote against Miliband because he wasn’t Left wing enough.”

For large numbers of Labour MPs, the current internal struggle is existential. But they admit they have a second serious handicap. There is no obvious king across the water for whom they can conspire to usurp Corbyn. And the Labour princeling David Miliband is now seen as too toxic to members.  

Among the moderate ranks — Hunt, Umunna, Jarvis, Reeves, Cooper, among many others — there are plenty of competent politicians but no genuine superstar. “There’s no Blair in the making — there’s not even a Neil Kinnock,” says a strategist. 

“Worse still, no one in Labour has come close to offering a vision for Britain that would seriously enthuse the electorate.”

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    Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall

    The photograph was taken on a private estate while on their annual Scottish holiday

    Clarence House/PA

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    Keith Vaz and the Home Affairs Select Committee

    As you’ve never seen them before…

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    Kelly Clarkson and family

    The singer unveiled her Game of Thrones-themed card, featuring her husband, Brandon Blackstock, her daughter, River Rose, and her two step-children.

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    Jeremy Corbyn

    His card features a group of forlorn bicycles in front of a red telephone kiosk amid deep snow

    Labour Party/PA

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    David Cameron

    Shows Prime Minister David Cameron and his wife Samantha returning to Downing Street after the formation of the new government earlier in the year

    Stephen Lock/i-Images/PA

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    Kevan Jones

    The MP understands how to do a proper Christmas card with his dog, Biff, having a snooze by the Christmas tree

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    Tim Farron

    The leader of the Liberal Democrats found a solution to an annual problem: get children to make Christmas cards as part of a constituency-wide competition and pick a winner

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    Nigel Farage

    The politician made his about Europe and decided to avoid Christmas altogether

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    George Osborne

    George Osborne loves to build stuff, and really enjoys wearing high-vis jackets and hard hats – he went for a playful cartoon mocking himself

This has allowed George Osborne to make a massive land-grab of the centre ground. “What do you think the Northern Powerhouse is if it isn’t chasing the centre vote?” says a former Cabinet member. “The Tories know they have the South, East and West. They’ve given up on Scotland, so it’s just about breaking down the walls of Labour’s last remaining fortress.”

And Labour has fluffed its chances to paint Osborne as the extremist. After he announced big tax-credit cuts, which would have made him look of the far Right-wing, Labour, say insiders, ended up saving him by voting it down in the Lords. 

“A triumph of tactics over strategy when they had a perfectly good excuse to say, ‘look if this is what the Government wants to do, let them go ahead with it’.” Osborne would have been stuck with a policy that would have evicted him from the cherished centre ground. 

(As a footnote, one insider says that Osborne, when he worked for William Hague in opposition, played the role of Blair in mock debates, “because he was thought to understand Blair’s thinking so instinctively”.)

So what is the big difference between now and the last time Labour’s Left was in the ascendant, the early Eighties when Michael Foot was leader and Tony Benn was in his pomp? Then Labour’s funders, the trade unions, were largely a force for moderation: among the ranks of their leaders the Left-wing ultras were few and far between. So it was the trade unions that played a big role in seeing off the insurgents from Militant, for example. Today, of course, many trade union leaders and members are the Leftie insurgents.

So is there hope for yesterday’s Labour bosses, now fearing years of irrelevant life on the backbenches at best, or eviction and unemployment at worst? Well there are a handful who take hope from the sheer speed of Corbyn’s coup. “If we can swing so fast to the Left, surely when Corbyn fails — which he will — sanity will be restored equally rapidly,” says one former frontbencher. His colleagues look at him with kind-eyed tolerance.

There is only the one politician seen to have it all: authentic working-class roots, an instinctive connection with voters, a horror of all extremism in politics. They refer to him reverentially as “AJ” — Alan Johnson. The problem? They’ve begged him before to lead their party, and he has always told them where to go. 

@chedwardes

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