Over the last six weeks, I’ve been on a political tour of London and Labour. Concerned and confused by the turmoil in the Labour Party since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader, I decided over the Christmas holiday to set out into the city around me and figure out what the hell is going on and what I can do about it.
As someone new to London and new to British Labour—having moved here in March 2015 from Belfast, where I had been a member of the SDLP—I want to gain as much knowledge as I can about my new context, with the intention of figuring out the best way to contribute to pushing forward progressive values and policies. On one level, the questions I want to answer are objective. What is really going on in the Labour Party right now? Does the centre-left in Britain have a future? Who are the people that support Jeremy Corbyn and what do they hope to achieve? How can Labour win again?
On another level, though, it’s personal—much more than I ever could have anticipated. Corbyn, by all accounts, and I’ve met him once myself, is a courteous and gentle man, who is empathetic, sensitive and truly cares about the plight of the poor and marginalised. But for me, he represents a faction within leftwing politics I find, at a gut level, truly disturbing. Veneration of authoritarian socialist governments in Latin America, nonchalance about anti-semitism, expressions of solidarity with extremist militia movements, an obsessive hatred of Tony Blair and the last Labour government. There is a dark side of Labour and Corbyn has roused it to takeover the party.
As the worldview of the new Labour leadership has come into the light of public scrutiny, I’ve found myself in fluctuating states of disbelief, anger, and shock. But the part that actually hurts the most is that, upon reflection, I’m not sure I have a guiding ideology of my own to fall back on. The Corbynites are—at least partially—correct: the centre-left has become a somewhat vacuous political space. As someone who identifies as being on the centre-left, I am confronted with a hard question: what do I believe? While the word has been overused lately to explain the state of Labour, it really has been something of an existential crisis.
So in 2016 I’m on a quest to figure out what I believe and to find who’s left in the radical-centre of Labour. To do this, I’ve developed something of a masterclass curriculum for myself, which involves mostly listening to people in the party and others who have spent a lifetime thinking about British politics. Since the beginning of January, I’ve attended talks with MPs and London councillors put on by Progress (I attended three of their future of Labour’s centre-left events); been to lectures at LSE, Birkbeck, and the University of London; been warmly welcomed to the Tottenham CLP for a discussion on Trident; attended church with new friends from Christians on the Left, and attended a handful of lectures about Syria and Iraq that have sometimes involved Labour MPs.
I’ve heard some sobering accounts and some hopeful accounts of the state of the party. “The radical centre-left doesn’t currently have the best ideas in the party, and we have to be honest,” a voice in the audience said at a Progress event. “The centre left needs to be about supporting people and helping them find security and purpose, and helping families find what’s best for them,” said another. I heard a room of Labour members explode into laugher at the idea that Britain’s military has been an historical force for good. I’ve met a whole host of activists, councillors and MPs committed to bettering their communities, and fighting, for example, to keep libraries and Children’s Centres open. They’re distraught about the incompetence and cruelty of many of the Tory’s social policies, but equally so about Labour’s current direction and disastrous polling.
One of my favourite moments occurred at a Progress event in East London, where someone stood up, and in a confessional voice you might hear at an AA meeting, said, “Hello, my name is George, and I’ve felt like I’m going insane. It’s nice to be here tonight where I’m not alone in my agony about the state of the Labour Party. Because, lately, I’ve lost a lot of friends on Facebook because of all my Corbyn rants.” The whole room seemed to let out an exasperated sigh of understanding. But, as satisfying as this moment was, for myself and others, sadly I think a lot of people have gotten stuck in a bitter, indulgent wallowing, waiting for the whole Corbyn phenomenon to burn out. One thing I’ve concluded so far. Labour, whatever happens next, is never going to be the same. Whatever saves the party, it’s not going to be nostalgia for New Labour. “I don’t want the next generation to have to go through what I experienced growing up: 18 years of Conservative government,” said Rachel Reeves, MP for Leeds West, in Committee Room 14. “The only people that can stop this from happening are Labour moderates. So we better get on with it.”