Wynn Thorne considers the ideological differences within the Labour Party and wonders whether it is time, not for a schism, but simply for an agreement to go our separate ways.
Due to the problems associated with Covid 19, many of us have had to endure films and TV programmes we might not normally watch. The Lake House is one such case for me, a romantic drama starring Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves made way back in 2009. The film is an unlikely source that illustrates a major underlying problem within the Labour Party that recent events have exemplified. The film tells the tale of two people who occupy the same space – a house built on a lake – in different times. Separated from each other by a gap of two years, Bullock and Reeves begin a ‘magical’ correspondence with one another that maintains the two year gap throughout.
My friend is a (self-described) moderate Labour member – a social democrat – whereas I as a socialist identify with the left wing of the party. Currently the strain between the party’s left and right is stronger and more damaging than I have ever known. The Starmer-Corbyn fracas is a public display of the internal problems within the Labour family. The paradox we face is that social democrats and socialists joined two different parties that occupy the same space; both are convinced that their beliefs are consistent with the ideology underpinning their party, but they have beliefs that are in many ways incompatible. Like the Lake House, the key is in when you entered that space – or in this case when you entered the Labour Party.
My Labour Party is that of Harold Wilson, Michael Foote, Eric Heffer and Ian Mikardo, and my friend’s is that of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Jack Straw and Harriet Harman. My Labour Party is that of nationalisation, worker’s rights and opposition to military intervention whereas my friend’s is the Third Way, working with the private sector and supporting justified military intervention.
For some time, like Bullock and Reeves in the film, socialists and social democrats have been in a dialogue about the party’s direction and its political soul. Socialists from the Foot era see the social democrats as soft Tories or ‘Tories with red ties’, and social democrats from the Blair era see socialists as Corbynistas, lefty extremists and ‘zoomers’. Both view each other as entryists. My heart sinks when the party moves to what I would call the right but for others its the centre, and for social democrats the death knell rings when the party moves to the left which they see as fringe and unelectable.
Whose party is it? Through argument and conversation I have been convinced of my friend’s vehement belief in the Labour Party as a party of social democracy, yet I had always believed the party to be socialist – passionately socialist. But there it is: he has a different vision of the party just as passionate as my socialism.
Like Bullock and Reeves we have a conversation separated by a trick of time, but the happy romance where Bullock saves Reeves from death and the two meet together as a couple doesn’t seem to fit with Labour’s future. This Labour Lake House is more likely to end in continual domestic in-fighting and political death. In my opinion, staying together ‘for the sake of whatever’ will make the party unfit for government, while a divorce might offer a better future for both factions.
I believe that Labour’s internal problems, due to this ideological polarisation, will continue to dog the party and will always make it less electorally attractive. With political passions on both sides this is always going to be a noisy argument. With both sides striving for control of the party hoping to shape very different visions of the future political landscape of the UK this disunity will always shine bright in the public eye whenever the press wishes to highlight it. Bad press makes election victory difficult – but going a little deeper, is it right that socialists and social democrats continue to cram into this Lake House knowing that the argument can never be amicably resolved?
Perhaps now is the time to start talking about a velvet divorce, rather than public argument or acrimonious schism, to allow the party to become two: one socialist, one social democratic. This would allow Sir Keir Starmer to build the party he wants with a free hand and allow Corbynistas and old-school socialists to build one that can follow basic socialist principles without having to chase the centrist voters. And each party could carry with them the history of the Labour movement and, indeed, part of the Labour brand.
One thing is certainly clear, right now there is only one Labour Party, but it is most definitely a different entity depending on the time zone in which you entered it. Perhaps this is the moment to decide who holds the keys to the Lake House.
11 thoughts on “The Lake House and the Labour Party”
This is a fair and descriptive account of the current situation. The usual response to such a viewpoint is to play the ‘broad church’ organ. This is simply to avoid the issue-both at the level of ideology and also internal party politics. It seems to me undeniable that Corbyn was opposed in many ways, initially by the party machine and also by many MP’s . Some of whom finally did the decent thing and left while others perhaps at the last moment, lacking the courage, clung on and are now in Starmers shadow cabinet. For those on the left, they either have to suspend disbelief and hope he will adopt left wing policies and continue support or, having been well taught by the social democrats they stay but undermine in every way possible. This sadly also mirrors the party in Scotland. Thank you Wynn for an honest account and challenge.
Hello Adrian – thanks for the comment. The party seems so divided at times and so many people in Scotland have moved from Labour to SNP over the last few years. Another broad church replaces the old broad church. In my opinion people want change, but so often the change on offer is just a different flavour of the same stuff!
Why not learn to live with difference?
Hello Eddie thanks for your comment. I think this is what the party has been doing for decades now, however the usual on-going internal divisions leave the party vulnerable to the hostility of the main stream media’s biased reporting. Its easy for them to portray the party as divided, at war etc., because often it is! A conservative press will always be partial in its reporting and to an extent the media influences the agenda for public debate. In the run up to an election this can be very damaging. Secondly, over time, as socialists in the party are required to acquiesce to accommodate ‘centrism’ the ideology of socialism itself becomes subverted. Sometimes there seems to be more consensus between the right of the party and members of the Liberal democrats than there is with the left. I am not saying social democracy is wrong but, for me a socialist, the question is where does the socialist go?
All large parties have to be “broad churches” to a greater or lesser extent. As Eddie opines above, they generally have to live with it and put forward a united front. Labour is increasingly hopeless at this. To their credit, it is generally because of its commitment to freedom of expression within their ranks. However, complete free rein can, and has, had regrettable consequences for the Party.
The SNP was remarkable in its ability to provide a united front to the electorate. A party united by a commitment to an over-arching cause. That is sadly, and extremely suspiciously, cracking just as independence looks inevitable. Alex Salmond, once a figure I had the greatest respect for, now looks like he may be the rock the cause of independence will founder on. How ironic.
The best party at living with the differences within it is the Tories. They are ruthless, pragmatic and Machiavellian in equal measure. They will slaughter each other ruthlessly behind the scenes but, once the bloodletting is done, the losers will pragmatically bend the knee (while still plotting the next wave of back-stabbings) and present the united front to the electorate again. Both impressive and horrifying at the same time. I tend to emphasize the horrifying aspects over the impressive ones.
All parties need to be able to provide the united front to the electorate while providing a home to a broad range of ideas, even if some of those ideas have to play second fiddle to others at different times. If they don’t, the Party System falls apart as increasingly small, niche, “poor” parties become the norm and only the wealthy can afford to stand for and enter Parliament in any numbers. Many may see the demise of the Party System as desirable but, in my opinion, that would truly see perpetual Tory rule whether through a still united Tory party or a right-wing preponderance on the benches.
Hello Bungo. This is a difficult one for me as I understand the idea of the ‘broad church’ and that it can be argued that more can get done by ‘winning and delivering policies’ that are (in fact) a good compromise between left and right. The real danger in British politics (and I mean British) is that the move to the centre where we all fight on the same patch offering a basket of fruits, each distinct in their variety but all containing fruit, there are no vegetables on offer just fruit. What we are seeing is the homogenisation of political choice. Yes, in my world there would be “small, niche, “poor” parties” but for a healthy democracy I feel we need that choice. The option of real change should be available if the electorate wish to vote for it. In many European countries there is still a wide range of political parties ranging from fascist to communist in the ‘mainstream’ for the electorate to accept or reject.
Wynn – I think we are both just getting old. The contrasting Labour figures you mention are of different generations. I can’t accept your description of people like Gordon Brown and Harriet Harman as social democrats. The Tory Government attacked Harriet’s socio economic duty in the Equality Act as ‘socialism in a single clause’. I take your point on military intervention. The contrast between Wilson and Blair is well made but on most other issues Wilson was not left wing in office. Michael Foot backed the Falklands intervention. And what about Ed Miliband – where does he fit in to your analysis? Let’s just stick together and respect our differences. Enjoyed reading it though.
Hello Alastair. You have definitely got a point there – age probably has got a bit to do with it. Old and tired is probably more accurate.
None of us is ever just one thing–right, centrist, or left–and it tends to change with life, experience or just pure bloody mindedness!
It looks like Labour is struggling to find an identity (even a collective one): Starmer having proved a disappointment to his own supporters, whilst antagonising others.
We live at a time when the media us relentlessly (and positively) focussed on Boris Johnson, an incorregable liar, fraud and rogue. How can anyone defeat him? Even in Scotland, where the public don’t trust him, the media can see no fault in the man: ignore his lies and promote his gushing hucksterism.
While I think Boris will cut and run pretty soon, it will leave the Tories in an undeserved ascendency and Starmer a lame duck. What then? Another election lost, and another Leader required.
Splitting Labour won’t solve the problem. I believe in self-government for Scotland, and just wish Scottish Labour would recognise Keir Hardie rather than Keir Starmer.
Hello Gavin – thanks for your comment. The position I take on the party is just that the level of infighting and the friction – sometimes ugly – makes the party seem more like two distinct entities. I think it was when the SDP was formed one of the things mentioned at the time was the loss of the Labour brand and I recall this being talked about when there was a threatened split during Corbyn’s period in charge – who gets the brand? The one with the brand has the best chance of electoral success. It’s not a good argument for staying together – ideologically its awful.
Like yourself I believe in self-government for Scotland. We are lucky that we have that option on the table for the electorate to accept or reject. Unfortunately, for many in England there is no radical option available and that a number of people feel effectively disenfranchised. My brother, a member of the party in England feels it difficult to vote for Starmer’s version of Labour. Obviously, he will vote for them, but there is no party that offers him a vision of the future he can agree with.
The Labour Party had a clear purpose under Corbyn with a clear vision for the future. Unfortunately many Labour MPs were the ones leading the fight against Labour winning. So now we have Starmer with his socialist vision for the future….a place where people can invest their savings in Bonds at an attractive interest rate. Forward comrades!!
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