The future of the left since 1884

Drifting apart?

Labour has been right to seek a compromise on Brexit. But the divisions within the party and beyond now run deep, writes Andrew Harrop.



In democratic politics you can’t always get everything you want when other people disagree with you. So the pragmatic Fabian worldview has always accepted the place for compromise and accommodation. It was this spirit of compromise that led many remain voters with a Fabian mindset to accept the verdict of the 2016 referendum and to tolerate plans for soft Brexit as a second best to EU membership.

The same instinct has also guided how many Fabians have adjusted to the post-2015 changes within the Labour party. The society’s membership encompasses all strands of opinion within the Labour family and the Fabian response to the democratic Corbyn revolution has been to build bridges, seek common ground and explore compromises across the left.

But there are times when an instinct to accommodate is sorely tested, as the demands for ideological purity mount. The Labour party remains bitterly divided along factional lines, in a way that is totally disproportionate to the mild differences between left and right on most economic and social policy questions. Too often Labour bridge-builders are being made to feel unwelcome within their own party.

The party’s reckless mishandling of the poisonous antisemitism within its ranks has created another challenge. Some, like Luciana Berger, have been shamefully hounded from the party, but others have concluded they cannot morally justify remaining as a member. This ethical purity may be understandable, but it puts at risk the eradication of antisemitism on the left, which will only happen if enough people make a stand from within the Labour party.

On antisemitism and on Brexit, the formation of the Independent Group was a declaration of narrow purity in preference to the big tent. The breakaway is not a rebuff to Corbynism, but to the traditional Labour mainstream which sees a broad labour movement, with all the com-promise that entails, as the only way to secure a government of the left in Britain. In abandoning pluralism, the TIGgers are a mirror image of those on the Labour left who want to drive away all but their own.

The allure of sectional purity – be it on the left, centre or right – is a reflection of how politics is being reduced to the expression of people’s own strongly held commitments. The noble craft of representative democracy – to understand the diversity of others’ beliefs, to bring people together and to forge compromises – is in retreat.

On Brexit, it was the nationalist right that initially refused to compromise. Our grave political crisis is the result of right-wing ideologues who will not take ‘yes’ for an answer and settle for soft Brexit. But the Brexiters’ intransigence has now been countered by equally polarising demands from remainers, too many of whom seem contemptuous of the views of people who voted leave.

These leave and remain camps insist on the purity of their positions – no customs union on the one hand, and no Brexit on the other – and they pour their opprobrium on the compromisers in the middle, as much as on each other. It is sad to see the bitter attacks on politicians who are striving in good faith to find compromises to safeguard the economy, bring remainers and leavers together and achieve a parliamentary majority.

Having said that, even compromisers have to recognise that there comes a point where the search for accommodation must reach its limit. Soft Brexit is flawed because it means ‘rule-taking’ not leading within Europe. If it helped heal the deep divisions Brexit has revealed and exacerbated it would be a price worth paying – for a few years at least. But our politics are now so toxic that perhaps that will not be the case. Soft Brexit could end up being a compromise that pleases no one, with the public just as divided and embittered as now.

Or, given the entrenched support for both no deal and no Brexit, there might be no stable parliamentary majority for the middle-ground – either before or after a general election. We are deadlocked and the mid-way option looks precarious. Labour has been right to seek compromise but the party may end up having to make the case for remain. If it wants to be the party of the many however, it must first test to destruction the road to soft Brexit.

Image credit: Amy Grimes

Andrew Harrop

Andrew Harrop is general secretary of the Fabian Society.


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