One of our main political parties is at an immense disadvantage. Labour is tied to a form of idealism. Socialism is a strong form of idealism. It can only gain and hold power by diluting this idealism, mixing it with realism. This is psychologically difficult, existentially unstable. When it finds a way of gaining power, it is not calmly at ease with itself, but divided. And this intensifies after a period of power: purists seek revenge on those behind the ‘successful’ compromise. Blair’s Iraq war adventure is incidental to why he is so hated by the left. He is really hated for winning all those elections.
How has such a party survived thus far? How can the moderates bear to rub shoulders with the purists who so hate them? How, in the past, did idealism and realism manage to coexist? Only just is the short answer. But one aspect of it was religion. Christian socialism has served as a sort of glue of the idealistic and the realistic. It enables a rhetoric of unashamed moral crusading – and yet it also ensures that such rhetoric does not translate into fixed dogmatism. It makes room for self-criticism, flexibility.
The leader they should have chosen after Brown was Frank Field. He could have offered a more sober version of New Labour, morally earnest, unimpressed by money and power. Maybe he is still up for it. Who is a younger version?
If Labour does split, the new moderate party should face this underlying issue of the religious aspect of the party’s past success. Without its religious vision, there’s a grim choice between slick managerialism and angry purism – between Peter Mandelson and Owen Jones.