Michael Calderbank

Fabianism – the cure or the disease?

Michael Calderbank

One of the many allegations thrown at Corbyn during last year’s attempted leadership coup was that he sabotaged the Party’s efforts to highlight the 2016 New Year increase in rail fares by announcing a Shadow Cabinet reshuffle on the same day. Many making this allegation were also among those welcoming the publication of a report by the Fabian Society on the first working day of 2017. The report was a calculated effort to wreck Labour’s fightback by grabbing the headlines with lurid predictions of substantial electoral losses.

The report, Stuck: How Labour is too weak to win and too strong to die - authored by Fabian General Secretary Andrew Harrop - offers a combination of the banal and the bizarre. It points to challenges which are real but well known - and which pre-date Corbyn’s tenure - before advocating a strategy which takes the method of ‘triangulation’ to the most absurd lengths. 

Triangulation was a method first developed by Bill Clinton’s Democrats in the US, and enthusiastically brought across the Atlantic by New Labour. Essentially it means encroaching onto enough of your political opponents’ territory to force them to retreat and relinquish the ‘centre-ground’. For Blair and Brown this meant Labour would talk more about competition and the private sector, getting tough on crime, and investing in defence.

The effect was to capitulate in a political stampede to the right, where the centre-ground is always moving rightwards, and once ‘moderate’ social democrats like Roy Hattersley suddenly found themselve painted as left critics. This was critical in creating a vacuum to Labour’s left, and undermining working class support - and it allowed the SNP to nearly wipe Labour out as a progressive force in Scotland.

If the pioneers of triangulation created a political tragedy, then Harrop seems determined to replay it as farce - by suggesting that rather than reflect on and reject the Blairite trajectory, we should go further still with the triangulation in response to the victory of Trump in the US:

 “Tony Blair once tried to own the ‘centre ground’ of the left-right economic axis. Now the party’s goal must be to dominate the centre of the newly dominant social/cultural axis that runs between Blair’s liberal internationalism and Trump’s social authoritarianism. The Party must plant its flag midway between these poles and seek to occupy as much space as possible, so that it can rebuild connections with people with all sorts of different backgrounds and worldviews, whatever they did at the referendum.”

Labour should be mid-way between Blair and Trump!  And this is the great seer whose ‘analysis’ is being lauded by the political establishment?   Harrop goes on to suggest we team-up in this process with the Liberal Democrats, the Tory collaborators throughout five years of vicious austerity. The bankruptcy of the liberal political establishment could hardly be clearer.

If he wanted to understand the real reasons for Labour’s present malaise, Harrop would have been better understanding that vast socio-economic and ideological gulf that has grown up between the professional managerial elite which has assigned to itself the right to steer the labour movement and working class communities in whose name it has purported to speak. Actually, the patrician disdain for workers themselves runs like a toxic thread throughout the history of the Fabian Society, whose leaders included proponents of eugenics and useful idiots for Stalinism. As Trotsky observed:

“Lenin was passionately hostile to the conservative bourgeois who imagines himself a socialist, and, in particular, to the British Fabians..., In 1907 he first wrote of the Webbs as ‘obtuse eulogists of English philistinism’ who ‘try to represent Chartism, the revolutionary epoch of the English labour movement, as mere childishness.’”

Beatrice Webb also responded to the General Strike of 1926 by welcoming “the death gasp of that pernicious doctrine of ‘workers’ control’ of public affairs”, which she believed “a proletarian distemper which had to run its course - and like other distempers, it is well to have it over and done with at the cost of a lengthy convalescence”. She praised scabs as “patriotic blacklegs!”

Far from being a potential remedy for Labour’s present ills, the disdain of professional middle class ‘reformers’ and their ilk for active working class resistance is right at the core of the problem. Fabian analysis will not contribute to Labour’s cure - it is part of the disease in which we have been gripped.


is Secretary of Brent Central Constituency Labour Party