A spectre is haunting the Labour Party, the spectre of centrism. As Jeremy Corbyn has moved from token lefty paper candidate, to apparent front-runner in the Labour leadership elections, there have been mutterings in the commentariat about the possibility of the right-wing of the party splitting off á la the SDP in 1981. These muttering are not without justification. The right-wing of Labour has been bold in recent years. Their euphemistic language about being “tough” on benefits and “credible” on the economy has dominated much of the discourse about the party since Gordon Brown's resignation. Their desperate chasing of that mythical “middle-England voter” has led many in Labour to openly espouse aping the Tories. Whether or not this is the right tactic for them to take (it isn't) it is arguable that at no other time since the rise of Blair has the right of the Labour party so dominated the discourse of the nominal left. Or that was the case until a few weeks ago, when people in Labour suddenly started talking about things like nationalisation, free higher education and, whisper it, higher taxes. Words, which by now seem foreign, almost anachronistic, coming from the mouths of Labour party supporters, appear heretical coming from one of its leadership contenders. Worst of all it appears to be popular! The other leadership contenders don't seem to quite know what to do. Andy Burnham has tactically edged his rhetoric (but not his actual policies) somewhat to the left in an attempt to compete; Yvette Cooper has been pushing herself forward as a “unity” candidate; and Liz Kendall has been speaking darkly of a Corbyn win being “divisive”. All this talk of needing unity, and being wary of divisiveness has obviously hinted at the possibility of another 1981 if Corbyn wins. But I'm not convinced this is likely, and to explain why we need to compare the two situations.By 1981, the tensions between the social democratic and socialist elements of the Labour Party had reached breaking point. The social democrats had become convinced that the left of the party was unelectable and that a new centrist politics, similar to that found in Europe at the time, was needed. The SDP was an explicit break with the past, an attempt to create a different kind of politics. They did not believe the electorate had forgiven Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan – they believed Michael Foot was continuing that tradition. Foot, and much of his front bench, had been leading figures in the troubled 74-79 Labour government – the socialists were the establishment. The SDP's energy, the hype which surrounded them in their early days, was based on their being perceived as something new. Not the (apparently) discredited socialism of Foot, nor the hard line neoliberalism of Thatcher, but a middle ground on which the electorate could unify. Arguably their politics found its best proponent in Tony Blair – the big tent politics of New Labour were the obvious heir to this kind of thinking. It certainly proved a vote winner eventuallyBut 2015 is not 1981, nor is it 1997. Burnham, Cooper and Kendall are not fighting against some socialist establishment figure. Jeremy Corbyn has not by any means been an intellectual ally of New Labour and Labour has just lost two general elections on what might roughly be construed as the “centre ground”. This time the Labour establishment is on the right and it is their record in government which continues to haunt them, and it is their approach which the electorate has rejected twice in a row. The circumstances which allowed the SDP to become a party which rocked the political boat in the early 80s (some polling even predicted they would win the 1983 election) do not exist for the Labour right any more. They are not the exciting new kids on the block – they've been saying pretty much the same things for 20 years. They do not have an opponent tarnished with being involved with an unpopular prior government – they are the unpopular prior government. They do not have two extremes to oppose themselves to – they are part of a cosy consensus with Tory ideology which has led millions to stop voting altogether. For all the talk of “Red Ed Miliband” - his policies were really just a slightly pinker shade of Brown, and he lost to a Tory party which got fewer votes than John Major did in 1997. Hardly inspiring stuff. The Labour right simply do not look like an exciting electoral prospect on their own, and I suspect they themselves know it. The Labour party is still haunted by the 1983 general election. It has been a frequent cry of opponents of Corbyn that no one wants a repeat of the 80s. But what seems to be always forgotten about '83 is that the combined Labour-Alliance vote was 53%. Counter-factuals are always a little wobbly so this is conjecture: but it's not difficult to imagine a situation where the SDP had stuck it out in Labour, not split the non-Tory vote, and kept Thatcher out of power. To split the nominal left and risk 15 unbroken years of Tory or Tory-led government, the right wing of Labour would have to ask themselves some serious questions about if they really wanted to keep the Tories out. And if not, why not join them? The ultimate fate of the SDP, winding down into an annexe of the Liberal party and consigned to electoral irrelevance for two decades, should also give any right-Labour MPs pause before going off in a huff. I suspect there will be some ruffled feathers if Corbyn wins. Perhaps there will be attempts to oust him by MPs fearing deselection. Maybe a few MPs in Labour-Tory marginals will realise their true loyalties and cross the benches. Possibly even a couple of nominally-centrist-but-really-a-bit-Tory independent MPs will arise, only to be voted out in 2020. But a full on SDP-style split? The spectre of the SDP being raised sounds more like a scare tactic than a real threat. History and the current political situation just don't suggest that it will be either appealing, or very smart.
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