In my last blog I outlined my response to the disastrous elections in May, and bemoaned the collapse of ethical standards in public life. It was a gloomy piece, not least because the normal source of solace when faced by the corrupt incompetence of the Tories and the prospect of ten more years of their asset stripping, the Parliamentary Labour Party, is no longer available as a credible alternative. In this blog, I’m going to examine how this has come about, and what a plausible challenge to Tory populism might look like in the future. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Don’t worry – there will be a few jokes. I can’t promise Marina Hyde or John Crace type wit, just an overarching weary cynicism.
The inevitable defeat at the Brexit general election ushered in a plethora of analyses of what went wrong and what to do about it, nearly all of them completely wrong. They tend to fall in to one of two camps: Either Jeremy Corbyn is the Godhead who reintroduced socialism to the Labour Party and was only prevented from winning the election by a toxic combination of the distortions and prejudices of the mainstream media, the traitors of the Right wing of the PLP, who spent all of their time undermining Jeremy, and the disastrous and undemocratic attempts to go for a second referendum.
Or Corbyn’s Labour Party was a throwback to the Seventies and the electorate were never going to vote for such a hard left collection of policies and the only answer (helpfully supplied by Peter Mandelson) is to go back to the Blair playbook and present the party and the manifesto as a slightly nicer, more humane version of capitalism.
It’s very frustrating that both of these analyses are so completely wide of the mark, and that either of them, if adopted would set back the goal of a labour government for years. I suspect that, even worse, they would simply hasten the eventual demise of the Labour Party as a political grouping in this country. It remains to be seen whether that would be a good thing or a bad thing.
Let’s deal with the analysis first.
- Jeremy Corbyn, bless his roughly-darned cotton socks, was a terrible leader. I’m acutely aware that some people reading this will have already made their mind up about me and where I stand, but that just makes me another victim of the tribalism I allude to above. Just put down your outrage for a minute and hear me out. Yes, he’s a socialist. Yes, he has fought for humane, people-centred policies all of his adult life. Yes, he inspired a new generation of young activists (more of this particular achievement later). But none of that is enough. Nowhere near enough actually. He had never led anything before the election for Labour leader. He was persuaded to stand to ensure the left had a standard bearer and that there was some sense of democratic legitimacy, but no-one ever, in a million years, expected him to win.
The leader of a modern political party these days, must start with some kind of emotional connection to the general public, as expressed through a horrible kind of amalgam of Daily Mail and Daily Mirror readers. We can forget about readers of The Guardian and The Telegraph. They are largely unquestioning cannon fodder for the two main parties (more for The Telegraph, admittedly). But the absolute sine qua non for a leader in the modern age, no matter how much we might dislike it, is to be likeable and, more importantly in some ways, to be recognisable as authentic. This is the thing that the Corbynistas just can’t get their head around because Jeremy is all of these things to them. But they are so unlike the average floating voter, who doesn’t give a toss about “Politics”, that their response is an unreliable guide. They are not the people that Labour has to convince.
2. The manifesto was, and remains a huge strength of the party. That is why so many of the policies, after being derided as loony left by the Tories and their henchmen in the popular press, were nakedly stolen after the election. (They always do this, by the way. See my earlier blog here: https://wordpress.com/post/growl.blog/209
The time is right for greater public spending, nationalisation, a focus on housing, employment rights, the National Health Service and a coherent approach to Social Care. These things are popular. Even the much-scorned free broadband policy is a winner. Rather than being attacked for costing too much money it should have been lauded, with the question asked, “How much money will this generate for the economy?”
People do not vote on manifesto policies. The process is nowhere near as rational as that. The days of “It’s the economy stupid” are long gone. They vote, in part at least, on their gut feeling about who they can trust to take seriously the things they care about. And so, the response of the right, which is to say that the voters were frightened away by a programme that was too left wing for them, just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The problem with the policy offer in the last election was not that it was too left wing but that it was so poorly managed, with ideas emerging as if Labour were desperately trying to buy votes form anyone and everyone, making it up as they went along. Oh, the irony of this being a criticism from the Johnson Government, who are the ultimate in policy by focus group and targeted spending (or bribery as it’s sometimes known).
So the first part of the solution was to change leader. Keir Starmer was the obvious choice. A serious heavyweight in terms of intellect, he was in direct contrast to the blustering liar that is Johnson. How disappointing he has been. He has been unlucky in terms of the pandemic and Brexit, but the choices he has made have made the job much harder than it need have been, when normal service is resumed when the vaccine roll out is complete. The real problem is that Starmer accepts the Mandelson analysis. He thinks Socialism is the problem, not the solution. And here we come to the real heart of the problem for Labour, the problem that has beset them ever since Margaret Thatcher. The centre right don’t really believe that there is much wrong with capitalism that cant be solved by a bit of tinkering. They are embarrassed by the policies of redistribution. They apologise for their core principles. They seem to completely lack the intellectual confidence in their own ideology, and so they, slice by slice, repudiate it. And as the Tory Party has drifted rightwards, turning itself cynically into a particularly nasty version of an English National Party, Labour has opposed in the most lukewarm of ways, so the centre is dragged ever rightward and things that would have been beyond the pale forty years ago now become mainstream common sense. Cameron and Osborne, and now Johnson and Patel, make Margaret Thatcher seem like a member of the Fabian Society. They really are a brutish bunch, who can act with impunity.
This can be seen clearly in the response of the party to the defeat at Hartlepool. It seems barely possible that professional politicians, presumably with armies of media advisors, don’t get the fact that if you are continually apologising for who you are and what you stand for, then the public will be left with the impression that you are really quite weedy and that you stand for stuff that’s not very nice. How many more times must we witness Sir Keir abjectly hand wringing, with the face of a person who has just run over a treasured and much-loved family pet, probably in a foreign car? I’m sick of hearing that the Labour party failed to listen to the people’s legitimate concerns and we are very bad people and we are going to be much better in the future. The results were actually not the complete car crash that the media proclaimed them to be. There were great signs of life in the twitching corpse in the big metropolitan cities, where Labour Mayors are rewriting the narrative with imaginative responses to austerity, and in the South of England, where the trad mainstream Tories are beginning to feel a little squeamish about the nasty amorality of their party in Westminster.
This sense of revival was confirmed in Batley and Spen, where some kind of unspoken electoral pact could be discerned. The Lib Dems clearly fought a campaign in name only. Lib Dem votes going to Labour just about offset the effect the appalling George Galloway, the living definition of narcissistic chancer.
And it is this, finally, that is the only chink of light for The Labour Party. And it is simply a matter of mathematics. Even a Blair-like surge of enthusiasm for the collective vision of Labour would not be able to overcome the collapse of Labour votes in Scotland. It is impossible for Labour, even performing at historic highs, to achieve a parliamentary majority. So, the only route to such a majority is some kind of pact with the Lib Dems, The Greens and the Independence parties.
What would such a pact look like? What would be the policies, the values the vision. What would be the Big Idea. Because we’re assured that to be sucessful , you gotta have a Big Idea.
You’ve got to spend. There is no point shilly shallying around this. In the last election , when there was such a furore about Corbyn’s spending plans in the Right Wing media, a little reported fact was that those plans would have still left us below the European average in terms of spending as a proportion of GDP. All the data screams out, comparing European countries with our own, if you dont spend enough on maintaining a strong state, you inevitaby turn into a Third World Country in terms of housing, transport, health service, social care, employment. Everything, in short.
This is what you spend it on:
Massive increase in Council Housing
Nationalising key Industries
Green New Deal
Sure Start type early years provision
Increase in Living Wage so that people who worked did not need to be in Benefits
Investigate Universal Basic Income
Revival of Corbyn’s free comprehensive Broadband coverage
Renentry into the EU Single Market
Renegotiation of Free movement of Labour to address catastrophic labour shortages in key sectors
Massive investament in Education and Training
Commitment to Devolution and local solutions
The cost? Read some proper economics and try and get your head around the case for Modern Monetarism. Then make the case and hire Cummings to come up with a three word slogan. I’ll do it for Fiver.
If that is going to happen, the ground needs to be prepared, with behind the scenes discussions now. It would be disastrous if it was left to the eve of a general election campaign, when it would inevitably be greeted by the predictable cries of betrayal from the left (who love nothing more than proclaiming their own, pure socialist values, while demonising the Centre right as closet Tories. All while the real Tories are mercilessly stabbing ordinary people in the back. And the side and the front and anywhere else they can get away with. And then getting elected again, in the face of a centre left majority of voters in this country).
The real issue is whether Starmer and his allies are going to be brave enough to go for this, even to the extent of taking a back seat to some of the other parties if they have to. In this argument the Party is very definitely less important than the outcome. I’ve been a Labour voter since 1975, but I would swap the Party and all of its history, for the likelihood of Fifty years of weedy Social Democracy. Just imagine what this country could be if we had had that instead of the horrors of Thatcherism followed by Cameron/Osborne/May/Johnson. And so, just like The Liberals at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, The Labour Party has become irrelevant, or worse. Without the language, the analysis, the unity, the vision, the belief, its every appearance is an apology for its own existence. Rather than fetishize the union movement, and conference and previous campaigns, all of which were once important, just take a clear-eyed look at what is at stake. And move aside.
Stop Press: In another move of audacious brilliance, the party moves to expel Ken Loach. Talk about whistling in the dark. I’m just off to watch Kes again, made at a time when there was some kind of consensus around the state and social justice. Now Kes would be portrayed as a a rallying call to working class tories to storm the Red Wall. After I’ve watched it, it’ll be time for a lie down in a darkened room.