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.