Labour split: not a blip, but a symptom

Neal Lawson

Monday, 18 February 2019

The announcement today that seven Labour MPs have renounced the whip and are setting up as independents comes as no surprise. The seven spoke of their personal reasons for leaving Labour – which must have been difficult. But they said little about what they were for. Some will say ‘good riddance’ and celebrate. But splits, splinters and acrimony have no place in a world of such huge and complex challenges: we don’t need division – we need a genuinely new politics.

Image: Alex Brenner

To be clear, we are not against new parties – we are, after all, pluralists and believe that real lasting change comes from diversity not conformity. But new and different parties must talk with others, to negotiate a better future. The mould that has to be broken isn’t the Labour Party, or any party, but our dysfunctional political culture of raw tribalism and winner-takes-all mentality that doesn’t allow us to deal with big, complex and long-term issues – witness Brexit, but climate change and many others issues too.

This has been a long time coming. The old monolithic blocks have been breaking up for years. In a world dominated by the culture of networks and social media, where people join, leave, build and organise at whim: the idea of everyone being part of only one or other party is incredibly out of date – binary politics in a world of digital bounty.

Our rotten voting system – first-past-the-post – simply forces people to back their least worst option and stifles innovation and change. In 2017, this forced people back into the two big camps – but it was, and is, totally dysfunctional.

Today’s split, however, is the old way of dealing with problems. It is to declare independence in a world of growing interdependence. Proportional representation would help a lot, but we also need a richer and deeper democracy. That’s why among other things we are championing a citizens’ assembly on Brexit. A more participatory and deliberative democracy, allied to real devolution of power, is simply the base camp of doing politics effectively in the 21st century.

Some in the Labour party never reconciled themselves to the Corbyn leadership and refused to give it a chance. That is their choice. But what they cannot ignore is the failure of the old centrist politics, to which the rise of Corbynism is a response. Whatever the seven ‘independent’ MPs’ personal issues for leaving the party – and we are sure they are genuine – the 2008 crash, and the austerity that followed it, changed everything. As does climate change. There is no going back – either to 1997 or to 1975.

Image: Alex Brenner

We must address the culture of Corbynism. The Labour Party leadership doesn’t appear to trust anyone beyond its immediate small circle and doesn’t reach out to party members, MPs, and council leaders as much as it should. We need to see pluralism within and without the party – or the project will fail.

Already, through its culture, the Labour leadership have provided to some MPs, at the very least, excuses to split from the party. More may follow, unless the leadership changes its ability to work with others. Anything approaching the Corbyn agenda simply cannot be accomplished without the active backing and participation of an overall majority: that means Labour, Greens, social Liberals, the Women’s Equality Party, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, and others. It will demand an alliance of progressives.

Today is not a blip, but a symptom of a political system that isn’t working. We need a politics fit for the 21st century: a world that is agile and fast-moving demands collaboration and the participation of active citizens. New parties may come and go – but there is no alternative to a new politics.

Compass will keep making the case for a good society: one that is much more equal, sustainable and democratic. We will keep developing our non-tribal and alliance-building approach to help get us there. There is incredible energy and capacity in our communities to build this good society. It is not politicians standing on podiums that will transform our society, but people standing together on platforms. Politics must be in service to them.

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  1. Posted by David Lyons

    Never has the need for cooperation been more urgent. I am standing as the Green candidate in an overwhelmingly conservative area where I cam second last time. It is frustrating that my good friends locally who are Labour activists feel the need to put up a paper candidate, despite getting a third of my vote share las time. With regular ward newsletters, casework and full canvassing we have a chance of winning but it seems tribal Labour still prefer another conservative councillor. Do really really have to hit rock bottom hard before we work together…a fascist state is where that might be….

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  2. Posted by John Littler

    The old tribal two party dominated system under first past the post voting, cannot remotely deal with the brexit issue and has got Britain into a total mess, with Honda being the latest casualty.
    I listened to announcement on the closure of Honda and vox pop of workers affected with horror.
    This type of loss was predicted in a report released by the Japanese Government, but no one was listening, with the brexit lot preferring to hurl insults at EU leaders. Of course Honda will prefer not to say brexit caused it, as they might lose half of their customers, much as shops never display political posters. Farms do display posters because their produce goes out mostly as anonymous commodities.

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  3. Posted by Eric Walker

    I welcomed the election of Jeremy Corbyn as a refreshung change from the Blair / Brown leadership. But when I heard that in the last Islington Council elections he had been canvassing in the only ward which had a non Labour councillor, a Green Party councillor, I realised that he had a narrow vision and was unlikely to work to get rid of the first past the post system. He is wasting the opportunity given to him to help get rid of a political method which flips between left and right and all we gain on the left gets lost later.

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  4. Posted by Alan Suter

    Chuka & Co appear to be entering a political desert, since none will find it easy to be re-elected in 2022. They talk of a broken political system and the need for a “new politics” without giving any detail. Abandoning FPTP should be the start for a new compass direction, and consider COMPASS as a necessary oasis on the way!

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  5. Posted by Abdul Mohamed

    I am hugely disappointed with Corbyn not listening to the significant Labour membership, by not supporting the option of the People’s Vote. But instead he used the Brexit chaos to focus on triggering a general election. To me that was a very selfish and poorly timed act.

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  6. Posted by Ian Gilhespy

    I’m a green through and through.. but Corbin is the only big politician I trust outside the greens .. I share his values.. after all has trying to get a Scandinavian style system in place.. I dont think attacking him is doing any favours to the joint effort that is needed by all the progressive parties.. to beat big capitalism.. stick to ways of getting PR introduced.. because without that we will have nothing.. we need all groups having their say..

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  7. Posted by Dave

    I voted against proportional representation out of a long felt loyalty to the labour movement, seeing in it a risk to the prospect of a labour government. All these years later I hear comments from Caroline Lucas, Sarah Wollaston, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and many others which reflect my view of the world. I need these people as much as I need the labour party. And Tony Blair has spoken with intelligence and leadership on the Brexit issue. My next hope is for a pluralism which allows my pro brexit friends some intelligent leadership too.

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  8. Posted by Seton During

    Yes, we need a new politics. How do we convert these current problems within our politics into challenges for combatting?

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  9. Posted by Clive Hewitt

    I have long thought our system of politics is dysfunctional. Firstly ‘first past the post’ must go ! Secondly most European countries have moved to a more collaborative form which celebrates collaboration between those of different views. After all – most successful human activity involves the coming together of people to compromise and collaborate to create something new. In the UK and USA we both have the destructive form of adversarial politics. WE MUST DO BETTER

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  10. Posted by howard lane

    An alliance of progressives is a great idea, but where are they to be found? The SNP and Plaid Cymru are both nationalist parties, and although they state their opposition to the Tories, there is no way that nationalism is a progressive standpoint. As for Labour, they are more concerned with the Leavers in their “heartland” constituencies than they are with the Remainers in their own membership. Of course Labour contains many true progressives, and its anti-austerity policies are to be applauded, but they won’t benefit from any form of PR, they’ve been stuck in the two party system for too long.

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  11. Posted by Steve Woodland

    I don’t like capitalism so I won’t vote tory, but I want brexit and Corbyn is against it and no other party can influence a decision, I am not a political animal so I’m completely flummoxed at present.

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  12. Posted by MattR

    Please, you make me sick. By denying the EU referendum result you are betraying democracy in two ways. Not only do you deny the clearest electoral result I can remember in decades (turnout, clear majority, misinformation on both sides but with the balance of power and resources massively with the losing side). You also aim to align us with an anti-democratic neo-liberal organisation for generations to come. You stoke divisiveness and then blame your victims – those who voted for democratic accountability and the only chance we have of economic renewal. I assume you understand this, but don’t care. The EU and other pan-European Governmental institutions represent the power and interests of big business and generations of unnecessary austerity. Knowingly or not, you are trying to hand the future of the working and middle-classes to them on a plate. Shame on you.

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  13. Posted by magaret levy

    is it possible for Compass to work with ERS (Electoral Reform Society) to help bring about change in the voting system?

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  14. Posted by Hugh Prentice

    The FPTP system forces the tribalism that we see in the larger political parties – and is the main root cause for Brexit. The next election will be run under the FPTP system – so we have to work within this system. I calculate there are about 150 constituencies where the conservatives had between 50% and 60% of the vote in the last election. If the left-ish parties collaborated and only put up one candidate there is a very strong chance that the left candidate would win. Say only half were successful – that is a shift in 75 seats. @David Lyons “Never has the need for cooperation been more urgent” indeed.

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  15. Posted by David Beacham

    I thought maybe it was good that they are splitting as they sounded different last night on the news, however reading about the 7 today they don’t sound any different and so will split the votes even more.

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  16. Posted by Alison Gray

    You cannot simply file ‘SNP’ under the heading of progressives. There are progressives in the SNP but the Party’s all consuming objective is not. There is an important question to be asked as to why many progressive people in Scotland are not attracted to working with the Labour Party and have not been for some time. The various tribes in the Party all share responsibility. The way forward is not leaving, or Corbynism, or the complacency and sense of entitlement of the past.

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  17. Posted by Paul Dunn

    My wife and I are blessed with Liam Fox as our MP and with a council without one Labour councilor in our constituency of North Somerset. Our 30 years of campaigning with many others would have been far more effective with PR, as in the EU elections. There is san excellent article in Labour List about it by Joe Sousek.

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  18. Posted by db

    Compass may be among the few believing the motives of the 7 Splitters to be sincere. Many others disagree. These self-styled centrists are not ‘progressive’ voices – they are right-wing liberals – and it ill-becomes a coalitionist group purporting to be on the left to sympathise with their schismatic actions, even indirectly.

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  19. Posted by Philip Denner

    Most of what you write I agree with. However, the 7 MPs who have left Labour (and others will probably follow) have in common an objection to Corbyn’s support for justice in Palestine. There has been a relentless campaign against Corbyn fron supporters of Israel with the involvement of the Israeli Embassy (see AJE Doc) and our media and deep state. It is a very specific battle. Unless you acknowledge this you may come to the wrong conclusions about the leadership approach and what needs to be done. There seems to me to be more democracy in the Labour Party than for many decades. The fact that some interests don’t like that tells you more about them than about those they criticise. Taking the big picture I believe Corbyn is a democrat and many of those who oppose him have an elite centered view that they know best and using the media their views need to be sold to the voters. Democracy has to be bottom-up based on dialogue as Compass knows.

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  20. Posted by Catherine Lodge

    Since I live in Munich and don’t know what the bank charges will be if Brexit comes to pass, I am refraining from committing to a donation at present.

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  21. Posted by Colin Gilbey

    Agree with your assessment, Lets face it, there are not all that many that Corbyn can trust in the PLP; hopefully the problems with the Party Organisation have been solved. But yes, the theory is OK, Blair and Brown spoke along the same lines but it did not seem to happen. We need an alternative to the looming right wing oligarchy and fast. We need more than theories.

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  22. Posted by fraser devlin

    Good article and Compass has finger on pulse as usual. What we need most of all is a PR electoral system. Fix the system and many other problems fix themselves. I think a general election under PR would far more often than not deliver a coalition government of progressives – and one that would have more democratic integrity than a pre-fabricated alliance.

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  23. Posted by Chris Neill

    It’s interesting to note that the Indpendents Group have talked about doing politics differently – for example, by examining evidence and coming to decisions through a process in which there is mutual tolerance and respect. (I really hope that they are going to include and emphasise Honesty). This mirrors the Compass approach as I understand it and, by the way, some of the language of the Indepents for Frome who took over a town council with this philosophy in 2011 and won every single council seat in 2015. I believe that there are huge number of people desperate for such a ‘new way of doing politics’ and heartily sick of the unrealistic ‘one-more-push’ approach of Labour. To dismiss us all, as one commenter does, as centrists and right-wing liberals, is delusional as well as offensive. The reasons I am reluctant to vote Labour include that their policies on the environment are weak, they won’t support PR, they won’t openly back getting rid of Trident and they conduct their internal affairs dishonestly and oppressively. These things don’t make me a centrist. Labour’s biggest problem, though, is to cling to the belief that they can (and have any right to) govern when they can only manage to get the votes of about 40% of the electorate. If they want power they need to share it with others who think differently – that requires co-operation, honesty, toleration, respect, etc – things which I think the new group are standing for. I hope their stand, which I think is a necessary step even though it may seem destructive, will be the beginning of a process which brings to an end the old way of politics and gives us a real chance to end this most miserable period of Tory misrule.

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  24. Posted by Lina Bor

    That’s right, we need a new policy. But first of all, we must stop lying and blaming others for our weakness. You have to leave politics if you can’t do anything for people. We need a new international mutually beneficial policy of peace, not war.

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  25. Posted by Trevor O'Farrell

    I stood for the Green Party in the last local elections. We had no materials and the main focus of the party’s campaigning was to secure the one seat that we held and I was active in this push. With a group of Make Votes matter activists, I recently met with Keir Starmer to discuss PR. He is now thinking about it and we will hold further discussions. It was pointed out to him that under a STV system (or other permutations) brexit would not have been enabled and Labour would probably be the largest party in a parliamentary coalition. Labour hold the key to unlocking this this era of necessary cooperation and I am afraid that without an endorsement of PR they will remain an opposition party for a good few years yet.

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  26. Posted by Ron Glatter

    This is one of bthe best assessments I’ve read in a long time. I kept thinking yes, yes, yes and as someone who had been starting to wonder whether I should still be supporting Compass it laid my mind to rest. It made a powerful case for the “non-tribal alliance-building” approach that is the hallmark of Compass. Neal is certainly correct that the rise of Corbynism was a response to the failure of old centrist politics, but herein lies a danger. The impression given by much coverage of the defections from both parties is that there are now only two types of political grouping – those who define themselves as radicals (of left or right) and those who define themselves as centrists. Could there now be a swing back to the centrist politics of old instead of to a cooperative progressivism along the lines of the vision of, say, Caroline Lucas? Welcome though this week’s developments may be in terms of the critique of old tribal politics, we need to recognise the danger that new alliances may form, but they will not be truly progressive. Compass and others must try to make sure that they are.

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  27. Posted by Alan Johnson

    Is it really possible to discuss the resignations without using the word ‘antisemitism’? To evade the issue altogether by talking of ‘personal reasons’? Apparently it is. Wow.

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