Centrists need new ideas and purpose, not a new party

Phil Collins comments in the Times on speculation within Labour of an SDP type breakaway. Those favouring this move believe that, “the volatility of politics makes 2016 a more propitious moment for novelty than 1981.” Collins, who remains a Labour member, is unconvinced. “The only reason to stay (in Labour),” he wrote a few weeks earlier, “is that it (the Corbyn leadership) can’t last.”

“Corbynism for a decade?” asks Stephen Bush in the New Statesman. “It no longer sounds ridiculous”. In the sense that it was until very recently a widely unanticipated outcome, which would leave many, not least the likes of Collins, distraught, it still sounds pretty ridiculous. But what Bush means is clear.

“Many more than the 66 (Labour) MPs who did vote for airstrikes were convinced on the case for extending British bombing against Isis from Iraq into Syria,” reports Bush, “but pulled back due to pressure from their constituency parties”. CLPs, which MPs need to support them if they are to remain so, are increasingly under the grip of Corbynism.

If MPs are prepared to place political self-preservation before voting with their consciences on Isis, there’s probably nothing – no indignity, daftness, or nastiness – that they wouldn’t endure to extend their political careers. If in the dark nights of their souls, they affirm that this makes them happy, we can only wonder about their souls.

They might read how Tom Harris is happier as an ex-MP than he was as an MP. And Harris got out before Corbyn began. You get the sense that he doesn’t envy Ian Murray, Labour’s only Scottish MP.

“The key to being happier,” writes Professor Paul Dolan, an academic expert, “is to pay more attention to what makes you happy and less attention to what does not.” Paying less attention to Labour is making Harris, like those who have recently left the party, happier. Others hang on in Labour, not exactly happily, resisting the SDP route. Because they believe, as per Collins, things can only get better.

If the Corbynism for a decade thesis holds, however, fortified by CLPs becoming more Corbynite, as more moderate members make themselves happier by reallocating their attention elsewhere, and MPs seek to survive, perhaps sacrificing their own happiness, by pacifying these CLPs, then things may just keep getting worse.

In which case, Collins might sensibly find other focuses for his attention. He could, say, write more books. As Roy Jenkins – a distinguished biographer of Asquith and Churchill, among others – might have done after a long and successful ministerial career in Labour and a stint as President of the European Commission. One of the extraordinary things about the SDP is that, after such an exacting career, Jenkins preferred the associated confrontation and vitriol to putting on his slippers.

The slippers may have brought more pleasure, while the SDP brought greater purpose, and Dolan’s work on happiness is about finding the optimal mix of pleasure and purpose. Non-Corbynite MPs contorting themselves for Corbynite CLPs cannot have great reserves of either.

What may assist them is a contemporary version of Jenkins’ Dimbleby Lecture. “In retrospect,” argues Jenkins in his autobiography, “there is a tendency to telescope events and to see Dimbleby as having touched a lucky button of public response after which the great early days of the SDP smoothly and inevitably followed. This was not so.”

The 1981 launch of the SDP was not a certainty when Jenkins delivered Dimbleby in 1979. In March 1980, Shirley Williams visited President Jenkins in Brussels. “At lunch she bore me a warm message from Denis Healey, who was confidently expecting to become leader of the Labour Party in the autumn, and who proposed with surprising graciousness that I should come back into the House of Commons on return with a view to becoming Foreign Secretary under his premiership.”

Healey wouldn’t have been making Jenkins such offers if he was by then irredeemably lost to Labour, while Williams, like David Owen, was even slower than Jenkins to conclude that the SDP had become their best course. What Dimbleby provided, however, was a coherent centrist way of thinking about British politics. These ideas later came to animate the SDP, having what would even later be discerned as a New Labour flavour, but it is not impossible – though, admittedly, unlikely – that events may have played out such that they were more central to 1980s Labour.

The key point is that Dimbleby provided centrists with a new frame of reference. It is not the 1981 moment that Collins and similar should now be looking for but the 1979 moment: the new thinking, not the new party. Something must have gone array with centrist thinking for Corbynism to be ascendant. Having this corrected in the Dimbleby Lecture 2016 would be welcome, whether or not the 1981 moment ever arrives.

Perhaps drafting this lecture would provide Collins with renewed purpose, which would make him, as well as despondent Labour MPs and members, happier. Even if most political animals are, I fear, shorter, in Dolan’s calculus, of pleasure than purpose – or at least what we tell ourselves is purpose.