Labour’s Brexit debate has exposed tensions and cleavages within the party that have nothing to do with left versus right. Among centrist social democrats there are proponents of both globalist liberalism and working-class cultural conservatism.
And on the Corbynite left there is striking disagreement between Momentum’s green internationalists and the Bennite ‘lexiteers’ who seek sovereignty for socialism at home. One of the most important developments of 2018 has been the emergence of significant diversity and disagreement within the Labour left, on both ideological worldviews and political practicalities.
In terms of ideas, Corbynism is a badge for a broad spectrum of thinking. Some of the Labour left’s priorities have hardly changed since the 1980s – fighting cuts, extending free services, nationalising industries. But there is genuine innovation too, especially when it comes to economic thinking.
To date the moderate centre left has struggled to respond to the intellectual challenge from the Corbynites. Sometimes when defending the orthodoxies of the last Labour government, social democrats have sounded stuck in the past themselves. But there are signs that the centre left’s renewal is slowly starting.
Self-styled moderates are proposing radical and politically contentious reforms to challenge our gross inequalities of wealth and power. They want to reduce the UK’s huge wealth disparities through new taxes and market interventions: even Tony Blair now backs a land value tax. They seek to place agency and control into people’s hands by reducing concentrations of power within public services, workplaces and consumer markets. And they are searching for practical ways to achieve balanced growth and to secure good work, in a way that embraces new technology and delivers shared prosperity across Britain.
In all of this the moderates are not so moderate: political voices on opposite wings of the labour movement agree on much more than they admit. To add to the story, there are lots of ideas which unite people divided by the tribal left-right split, but which do not command consensus within each rival camp.
The proposal for a universal basic income is a case in point. But, more broadly, both extremes of the movement are home to statist and anti-statist tendencies: radical plans for decentralisation, mutualism and grassroots democracy have a home in centre left as well as Corbynite thinking.
Across the Labour family, people are trying to answer the same questions – and often coming up with the same answers – even though they may be reluctant to acknowledge it is a shared conversation, because of the party’s factional fissures.
This is not to underplay the distinctions between Labour’s left and right. There is a different tone and mode of politics, with the moderates more likely to champion change from within and more preoccupied with winning a hearing from voters who don’t share the left’s convictions. And when it comes to economics, moderates don’t share the Labour left’s heady dreams of post-capitalism; instead they want a steady, practical journey to a more productive, egalitarian variety of capitalism.
But it is often the rhetoric more than the policy that marks the two ends of the axis apart. Indeed, on some questions traditional social democrats appear more radical than the Corbynites. On equality, MPs have attacked Labour’s leadership from the left and pointed out that the party’s social security, tax and higher education policies do too little to close the gap between rich and poor.
In the years to come the centre left will have a key role to play in demanding intellectual honesty within the Labour family and calling out the leadership where there are gaps in the party’s thinking. That might mean demanding rigour on the tax policies required to fund a Scandinavian welfare state; or getting beneath sloganeering to the sort of real-world curiosity and nuance needed to reform failing markets, workplaces and public services.
This all adds to the case for the British left remaining one movement not two. The Labour party should be a broad church not just because it is an electoral necessity; but because, when there are more voices sharing in the conversation, all sides benefit and stronger ideas emerge. A labour movement that offers a comfortable home for Liz Kendall as well as John McDonnell is one that will shape a brighter future for our troubled country.