Where Now for Labour?

If this Parliament lasts its full mandate (which it probably will) the next election will be in 2025. This will be fully 20 years since Labour won a Westminster election. At the end of the day, the British Labour Party is no different to lots of its social-democratic and socialist sister parties in Europe: it doesn’t have a clear idea on who its voters are and how it’s supposed to get back into government. It’s base is being squeezed and its electoral coalition is falling apart. Each year it spends out of power its muscles to govern atrophy and it seems less and less able to form a government. Other defeats, such as in Germany or in France, show that fighting elections in the centre doesn’t work for us. This election shows that just turning leftward isn’t enough. It’s time for a different, more nuanced sort of analysis.

Fundamentally the problem the historic European centre-left faces is far deeper than simple “too centrist/too left-wing” arguments would have us believe. After the electoral successes of the Third Way ended we faced two existensial threats. Firstly, the embracing of neoliberalism and general misgovernment alienated much of our core and destroyed the image that our parties were “on your side”, so to speak. This also included the issues of corruption that sank the Polish and Hungarian centre-left, among others. The second problem was our inability to figure out what the 2008 crisis was and what it meant for political discourse. We have not adapted to the world we live in and I’m not sure we understand how most voters, more specifically the voters we need to convince to win again, relate to this world.

The renewal of our parties should have started immediately after we started losing heavily post-2008. It seems to me that both the radical and moderate wings of the left have been on autopilot for the past ten years, running on instinct without a proper analysis of the situation around us. Our problem is not our values or policies: poll after poll shows that most Europeans broadly favour progressive, redistributive policies with high levels of investment in public services and action against inequality. Our problem is that we can’t articulate a vision of the world that people can buy into and our parties have not seemed like viable and credible governments in waiting. It’s not clear who we stand for; the post-industrial white working class? the squeezed middle-class intelligentsia? the new urban preceriat? unionised public sector workers? We fundmamentally have not been able to create a narrative that appeals to all these groups and more.

Corbynism presented itself as a project of renewal, but I think it’s fair to say that it’s internal contradictions prevented it from succeeding. A forward-looking, self-confident radical movement is founded on its principles and programme, not on a single individual. Even now as we reel from a shocking defeat the first instinct for many is immediately leap to Corbyn’s defence, despite the fact he has all but resigned already. It’s time to reaffirm what many of us have always thought: a radical socialist Labour Party is possible without Jeremy Corbyn and, considering his undeniable lack of personal popularity with voters at large, might well perform better with a different leader. The idea that without Jeremy Corbyn the Labour Party will somehow revert back to Blairism overnight is an idea so ridiculous it doesn’t deserve attention. Our movement should never be about one man because in the end it doesn’t matter who’s living in Number 10 so long as a radical Labour Party has a majority.

Moreover, the promise of Corbynism to reform the structures of the Labour Party has sadly come to no fruition. A mixture of being overwhelmed by events and a simple, visceral urge not to let go to any authority lest “internal enemies” use it against the leadership killed the democratisation programme. Incompetence, cronyism and out-and-out prejudice has meant that the fight not only against anti-Semitism but against all forms of racism, transphobia, bullying, sexual harrasment and so on has stalled. The Labour Party is sadly the same top-down machine that it has been for 20 or more years. Members are no more empowered and no less at risk of being attacked and abused within their own party. The positive experiments in alternative forms of engagement and movement-building have remained marginal.

Yes we lost partly because the cards were stacked against us from the start. But we also lost because we failed to address the structural problems that have been plauging us since 2010, if not earlier. The buck has to stop somewhere. Those who led our party to one of its worse defeats in history have to have the courage to admit their failures. Talk of a greater vote share in comparison to Blair’s 2005 victory and other such distractions will keep us in opposition for eternity. Blaming it on the Brexit position or on the media or on the fact we were too “cosmopolitan” as Len McCluskey so terribly and problematically put it distracts us from our two structural issues, our lack of clear and targeted message and our lack of credibility. Simply put: voters didn’t really get what a Labour government would mean on the most basic of levels and they didn’t want Jeremy Corbyn to be Prime Minister. Everything else is secondary.

Our task is now twofold: we have to figure out the electoral coalition that will win us 326 seats and target them like a laser, much like the Tories did this time. We need to figure out what cuts through to them and what they need to hear from us. And finally we need to elect a popular, charismatic and unproblematic leader who can assemble a Shadow Cabinet that looks like a government-in-waiting from day one.

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