Ex-MP Nick Palmer on aÂ non-Corbynite Labour focus group
For friendship and nostalgia, I had a dinner last week with 14 veteran campaigners who have mostly been with me in every campaign since 1997. Coincidentally or not, I think I was the only one at the table who had voted for Jeremy Corbyn. The others are pragmatic Labour campaigners who fight every election to win, and turned a safe Tory seat in 1992 (16% margin) into a perpetual marginal. Theyâ€™d voted for the other three, and are probably a fair focus group for Middle England pragmatic Labour activists.
Some impressions may be of wider interest:
- The group was generally pessimistic about the short-term outlook: an election tomorrow would be lost. Nobody disliked Corbyn personally, but they didnâ€™t feel he was cutting through with voters at this point.
- Membership was up hugely as elsewhere, with some of the influx active and some not â€“ â€œmuch the same as usual with new membersâ€. One veteran councillor said he discouraged new members from coming to branch meetings as their first activity â€“ â€œMy boring people to death talking about planning decisions and Section 106 agreements is no way to get them involvedâ€.
- Several had been nervous that the ascendancy of the Left would lead to purges of officers and other in the local party, and were cautiously pleased that the influx was proving tolerant. McDonnell had given a speech to Nottingham Momentum the previous week urging a broad-church approach.
- Not least because of that, but also because of perceived good performances on Question Time and the coherent-sounding economic strategy, they were cautiously warming to McDonnell. Pragmatists as ever, they wanted a leadership that would win without splitting the party, and felt he was making progress. The past comments on the IRA were shrugged off â€“ â€œevery veteran has said a few odd thingsâ€.
- The idea of a PLP move to force a fresh election without Corbyn on the ballot was seen as a coup and a recipe for civil war, and I had the strong impression that they would mostly support the Left in opposing it. â€œThe PLP needs to let things take their courseâ€, said one. â€œEither Corbyn will break through or heâ€™ll move on and someone else will, but people who split the party wonâ€™t be forgiven.â€
What struck me was that pragmatism isnâ€™t quite the same as centrism. The group wanted to find a way forward with a potential win in 2020. I wouldnâ€™t overstate the cautious interest in McDonnell, but the immediate relevance is really point 5. They didnâ€™t favour any sort of split, and didnâ€™t feel winning necessarily had to be led from the centre-right. Punters and plotters alike may think this relevant.
In 2004 Nick Palmer became the first sitting MP of any party to post publicly on PB. He’s been a regular contributor ever since