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- Former Leader of the British Labour Party, MP for Islington North
In 1967 the poets WH Auden and Allen Ginsberg were hosted by the Labour MP Tom Driberg in the Gay Hussar restaurant. Their purpose over lunch was to form a new political party and, to that effect, they were joined by the young man they imagined as their leader: Mick Jagger, the lead singer of the Rolling Stones.
This weekend there were reports that Jeremy Corbyn, the former leader of the Labour party, is thinking of establishing his own party. Corbyn has apparently realized that his suspension from being a Labour MP is never going to be revoked. Mary Creagh, a former Islington councillor as well as the defeated MP for Wakefield in Labour’s 2019 electoral rout, is a possible candidate for the Islington North seat and would be a good one.
Corbyn has no more chance of success with his new party than Mick Jagger. The absolute summit of his ambition would be to keep his own seat. George Galloway achieved this for his Respect party until 2015 but advanced no further. There is no hope that his venture could be the breakthrough Left-wing party that his supporters believe the country needs. In a way, this is a shame. There is a significant minority of people who would prefer a party that occupies a place to the left of the Labour party. In a proportional electoral system such a party might have a chance of winning a few seats. Under our current arrangements, that party has no hope at all. It is a complete waste of time, doomed to failure, as Corbyn’s Peace and Justice venture is.
Corbyn ought to know this. He became the Labour MP for Islington North in 1983 because his predecessor, Michael O’Halloran, had defected to the newly formed Social Democratic Party two years earlier. O’Halloran tried to return for Labour but he was rejected and Corbyn beat Paul Boateng to became the Labour candidate and then the MP. O’Halloran stood as an independent and came fourth with 11 per cent of the vote. Corbyn will do a lot better than that but, even for a politician with a record and strong local recognition like him, it is hard to win without a party banner.
The lesson of the SDP hangs heavy over the whole enterprise of starting new parties in British politics. It seemed, for a short time in the early Eighties, as if a Left-wing Labour party might be permanently supplanted by a party that was pro-European and New Labour before the fact. Six months after its formation the SDP was running at 50 per cent in the opinion polls.
By the time of the 1983 election that initial enthusiasm had faded a little but to win 25.4 per cent of the vote was no mean achievement for a party that was only two years old. Sadly, that delivered only 23 seats. The electoral system meant that the party establishment held.
The consequence of this is that a significant minority of people do not get the representation they want. In a democracy this should trouble us, even though Corbyn himself is too pious for my taste. And it would, in any case, be preferable for Corbyn and his supporters to have their own party. They have too little in common with the Labour party and both sides would be happier with an arrangement by which they are no longer forced to co-exist.
This would also be the end of the line for Corbyn which is either a shame or a bonus, depending on your point of view.
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