The seismic plates of politics, it seems are shifting. Abnormal has become the new normal. Expect the unexpected. Scotland to break away from a 400 year old union? Very nearly. A party composed of Thatcherites led by an ex-City trader taking votes from Labour in the North? Without question. Jeremy Corbyn as the new Labour leader? Why not. Nothing, it seems is sacred in British politics any longer.
And whilst it’s true that time are veritably changing in front of us, it is dangerously easy to confuse the symptoms of that change with its ultimate cause. It also true that some stubborn features of political life that aren’t about to be swept away on the swelling tide of change. Neither of these conclusions spells good news for the Labour Party.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose
Jez we can! As a rallying cry it might be somewhat lacking, but it illustrates the extent to which Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign to lead the Labour Party yearns to be a hopeful and energetic break with the status quo. Comparisons have been made between it and the independence campaign in Scotland, in their shared ability to engage previously hard-to-reach sections of society, particularly the young.
While the Corbyn campaign is apparently benefitting from some of that same energy, enthusiasm and anti-establishment sentiment a Corbyn-led party will not be bringing about a corresponding increase in the party’s electoral fortunes. The Labour Party is in the jaws of a multi-faceted generational-constitutional shift.
Fighting on all fronts, and losing
The long, slow and seemingly inexorable decline of class-bloc voting has changed the political landscape irrevocably. With the decline of class allegiance Labour has lost enough of that section of the electorate that would automatically cast their vote, come election time. As engagement in politics has declined, cynicism increased and turnout at election fallen, the number of swing voters who decide election has fallen to maybe 200,000. As detailed in earlier posts, the party seems caught between yearning for the past stability and chipping away at the very principles that make them electable in the first place.
Nor will Corbyn’s leadership and policies help in this situation. As Labour’s vote is spread fairly evenly across the county, and in fact is increasingly hemmed into metropolitian England and London in particular, there are few constituencies where a more radical, socialist leader could enjoy electoral success, outside of university constituencies like Nick Clegg’s Sheffield Hallam. In addition, it is Labour who is losing support to insurgent parties like Ukip, the SNP and the Green Party. Ironically, a more stridently ideological stance from a leader such as Corbyn might galvanise Labour’s core vote, and extend it somewhat demographically but it is unlikely to surmount the distorting political logic of the FPTP post system.
The rise of regionalism and nationalism threatens the centrist and unionist Labour Party. It is an irony not lost on Labour politicians that it was they that who catalysed the erosion of their own vote by introducing the process of devolution post-1997. As if all this wasn’t bad enough, the Tories are imminently to introduce boundary and voting rule changes that will make a Labour victory an even more remote possibility. Time, geography and the state all seem to be conspiring against the party.
The root cause of the current situation can be found in the distant past. In the 19th Century, thinkers on the left assumed that their political success was, over the long term, guaranteed. Socialist parties stood for the interest of a great majority of society – at the time they were called the working class – and so if the workers could vote, they would vote for socialists. But what seems like crushing electoral logic is, in fact, the original sin of social democratic vote-chasing that so plagues the British Labour Party today. If inspiring and leading people with ideas relevant to their personal experience is not necessary then why expend energy on doing so?
The Labour Party has enjoyed significant electoral success for only brief periods during the C20th. These successes, notably under Attlee immediately after WW2, with Wilson in the 1960s and during the Blair years, where achieved when the Labour Party became the standard bearers for broad, progressive coalitions which united the socialist with the social democratic elements of the party. Those periods were these elements have been openly hostile to each other – most notoriously on the 1930s and the 1980s – have meant time spent in the political wilderness. So how to bring about success again?
Here Labour politicians could be forgiven for confusing causes with their effects. On the surface, it would seem clear that unity equals success and division equals defeat. As outlined above, the history certainly bears this out. What can so easily be missed however, is how that unity was achieved at the time. Not, as might be assumed, by crudely splitting the difference between the ‘left’ and ‘right’ wings of the party. Unity within the party was won by the promotion of contemporaneously resonant ideas. The ideas and policies, which engendered the necessary political support outside the party, came first and provided the conditions for unity within the party. Attempting to bring about the latter through triangulation, without first giving due cause to the party’s ideological approach is a total political dead end. Wearing a nice tie, speaking calmly and trying not to offend anyone is not a route to power.
Lack of ideas
Writing in Prospect magazine Gisela Stuart, a Liz Kendall supporter, unwittingly demonstrates just how unclear the party currently is on its ideology. It is very strange for an elected member of parliament to be so confused, so publically, about what the party she represents actually stands for. She poses the question: “What can we, as a party and a political movement, offer to voters?” While this is indeed the fundamental question for any political grouping to address, you would hope that the answer was either obvious, or that there were some well-defined options.
Where does this leave the Labour Party in an ideological sense? One of the key contests amongst the four contenders for leader has been in trying to lay claim to ‘Labour values’, or even ‘true Labour values’. Of course, no such values really exist, and the struggle over the political direction of the party has always been in flux, as it is now. While the immediate purpose of the debate is to win the votes of party members and supporters it reveals a great deal more about the reasons for the recent dismal electoral showing, and the chances of success in the immediate future.
The New Labour project made some sense in the pre-2008 world. A gloabalised economy appeared able to provide new schools, hospitals and improved public services all round whilst the ‘wealth creators’ collected large bonuses and cash in their share options. Post-crash it is no longer viable to suggest that the Labour Party is “intensely relaxed” about people getting filthy rich, as Peter Mandelson once said. In this new era real political choices have to be made, and a fresh course plotted out of the morass. The New Labour playbook is not relevant in the landscape, and those leadership candidates insist on sticking to it are electorally sunk before they have even begun a campaign.
Labour needs ideas relevant to the time, at present it does not have them. The Conservatives are not encumbered by a need to present a solutions to the problems of late stage capitalism in Britain, i.e. low wage jobs in service sector jobs, chronic insecurity and systemic inequality, quite simply because they are a party of power. To obtain, maintain and extent the political power of those they represent is the Tories’ raison d’etre. If the Labour Party wants to challenge for power on behalf of equality – that uncontestably core Labour value – they need to do some deep thinking, and quickly.