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If the left wants a future, it must ditch Corbyn

The Times

What would you do now if you were on the Labour left? The last year has been a calamity. The next year doesn’t promise much better.

This weekend Jeremy Corbyn announced the establishment of something called the Peace and Justice Project, fronting an amateurish video that had the feel of a 1974 Open University lecture. The idea seemed as hazy as the cinematography, but appears to be to unite the left behind traditional Corbyn themes.

Revealingly, the associated website is called thecorbynproject.com, showing how personal the endeavour is. But is that really the right way for the left to go? Why should this Corbyn project be more successful than any of the other Corbyn projects of the past 12 months? There has been the Corbyn general election campaign (disastrous defeat), the Corbyn leadership succession campaign (Rebecca Long Bailey flopping completely), the Corbyn battle for power inside Labour (losing control of the national executive committee, losing members of the shadow cabinet, losing whatever purchase the left had on Keir Starmer or his deputy Angela Rayner) and the Corbyn expulsion saga (remarkably little party reaction, given Sir Keir’s bold decision to suspend the former leader). I think that’s quite enough Corbyn projects for a while, don’t you? It’s surely time for a post-Corbyn project.

The first step in recovery for the left should be to understand where its potential strength lies. And that potential is quite considerable.

This month the think tank Onward, of which I am chairman, published a report entitled No Turning Back, looking at the realignment of voters in the 2019 election. One of its key findings was that while Conservative voters were similar to each other in terms of values and attitudes, Labour voters were not so nearly aligned.

There is a solid core of Labour supporters who are mildly socially liberal (more than the average voter) and somewhat economically interventionist (quite close to the average voter). But then there is a large group of Labour supporters — about a quarter of the Labour vote and about 15 per cent of the overall electorate — who are sharply to the left of the party’s average voter.

These people are economically more interventionist and socially much more liberal. This is the left’s core support. However, there is also a slightly larger group of urban professionals who share this radical social liberal outlook while being slightly more economically centrist. Separately these groups are significant; together they are large enough to make an electoral impact and certainly to be a big force within Labour.

Such a coalition of voters has another attraction for the left — it’s disproportionately young, urban and highly educated. So it’s a coalition that will acquire more influence in a country that is becoming more liberal, more urban and more educated. Conservatives are confident that as people grow older they “grow up” politically (as Tories see it) and move to the right. And to a limited extent they do. But people bear the imprint of their early voting and opinions for the rest of their lives. This is likely to boost the future prospects of the left.

The problem for Keir Starmer is that this bright future won’t come soon enough for him. So he has clearly decided to reach out to older, more culturally conservative voters in seats Labour used to hold. These voters might come “home” quickly enough to secure him office at the next election or the one after, so he is tilting the party in their direction.

This provides the left with its opportunity. It can challenge Sir Keir for control and influence over Labour but only if it does three things.

First, it has to stay in the party. Any strand of thinking that represents about 15 per cent of voters can exercise influence and it’s possible to do that from outside the main party system. Nigel Farage has shown this. So the creation of a substantial leftist Green Party, say, is certainly viable and it would draw support away from Labour.

Yet however much of an impact Mr Farage may have made, that of the Conservative right — Iain Duncan Smith, Priti Patel, Steve Baker — has been greater. If the left wants real power rather than just occasional influence, it can only be done from inside the mainstream Labour Party. Allowing its supporters to drift away has been the biggest setback for the left this year.

Making a success of staying in the party requires some compromise. Less with Sir Keir than with the progressive professional voters the left needs if it’s to acquire real political heft. And these professionals are economically slightly more centrist.

So the second thing the left needs to do is to adapt its agenda. The obvious starting point is to stop going on about Jews. Forget for a moment that it is morally reprehensible; the left making a fight over antisemitism its dividing line with Sir Keir is the most politically stupid thing I have seen in my life. And I’ve seen a lot of politically stupid things. Indeed, I’ve done a lot of politically stupid things. But none of them are as stupid as that.

Championing the governments of Venezuela and Iran as part of a campaign for peace and justice would only be a mild improvement. Nor do I think that fighting Sir Keir over tax or nationalisation, which is what the left will probably do next, is the most fertile ground. Where the left can build a broad base is on social liberal issues where radicals and progressive professionals agree.

As Sir Keir tries to show Labour is “patriotic”, he will support the military, be careful not to oppose immigration control, back a Brexit deal if one comes along and shut up about it if one doesn’t. He will leave space for the Labour left to rally liberals on issues like immigration, diversity and identity politics, liberalising the justice system, legalising cannabis and committing to Europe.

The third thing the left needs to do is find itself a new leader. Jeremy Corbyn is over.

Let’s leave aside whether he was ever good enough. He certainly isn’t good enough now. The slogan for his new project may still theoretically be “the many not the few” but in reality it is “the past not the future”. Jeremy Corbyn can only attract the people he has already attracted and he can only unite those he has already united. And that is not enough people.

If the left’s next project is thecorbynproject it will fail, because it will be refighting battles it has already lost, using the same personnel and the same weapons. Even that’s optimistic since some of those people are now discredited and some of those weapons are now redundant.

By doing this, defeat for their cause is not probable, it’s certain.

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