I started this series of blog posts examining the ongoing crisis in the Labour by saying that I cannot remember a time when the Labour Party was in such a sorry state. The party’s prospects have not improved in the last five months. Recent research shows that trust in Labour is low. 66% of voters do not trust Labour and this is nothing to do with the Iraq War or Blair’s more authoritarian moments - as some have suggested. The problem is also nothing to do with the poorly planned and poorly executed coup that the PLP engaged in after the EU referendum. The problem with Labour is that the electorate does not like Jeremy Corbyn, and that Labour is seen as too soft on spending, benefits and immigration.
All wings and groups within the Labour Party need to face up the situation the whole party is in. Labour has a lot to do to win back the trust of the voters and to stand a chance of governing again in the next 15 years. The Party needs to address the issues of spending, benefits and immigration or else face a crushing defeat to the Tories. If you are relaxed about being defeated by the Tories - or intent on making excuses if this happens - then you should not be in the Labour Party. The Labour Party is not the Green Party; it is not a party of protest but a party of government and a government that changes things for the better.
The problems go much deeper than who should lead the party. Labour’s old base of support that won three general elections has collapsed and cannot be easily won back. This problem cannot be easily solved by repositioning the party to be in line with the public on immigration, spending and benefits; it can only be solved by finding a compelling vision for Labour. Once we have this, then we can discuss who should be leader.
The party needs unity until it can answer some key questions. Most importantly: what is the Labour Party for? Is it only for winning elections and undoing the worst of the damage the Tories have done, as the so called Clause One socialists would argue? If so, then maybe we need to be cynical about positioning the party. For all my reservations about Corbyn and his leadership, this is not what I want to happen.
I want the Labour Party to tackle real social issues such as the housing crisis, rising hostility to immigration, falling productivity, inequality and the economic problems caused by technological change. I want the party to help people abandoned by the Tory government. I want the party to offer a real, credible alternative to what we have now. This is what I want the Labour Party to be for.
For now, Corbyn is the party leader and all members need to accept that (unless they have a candidate who can beat him in a leadership election). However, Corbyn’s brand of 80s throwback politics will not offer the vision Labour needs to win an election.
Time has moved on. Across the world in the 20th century, left wing movements were all telling different versions of the same story. When Communism fell we lost that story, because we lost the belief that we were moving towards a better, more left wing future. Communism may have been a bastardisation of the dreams of many on the left, but it still represented the view that we can move forwards to something else. When Communism fell the word “progressive” became meaningless. What followed was the technocratic management politics of “what works”. Now “what works” has stopped working - the rise of Donald Trump and Brexit show that - and we need something new.
The left need to tell a new story for the 21st century. It needs to be about a future where the benefits of technology are shared between people and not hoarded by a few. A future where we work less and not more. A future where we rethink the role of the state. What can it do for us? What should it do for us? A future where we rethink ourselves as actors within society. What can we do for the world? What would be good?
We need a new narrative for the 21st century. The Conservatives are moving to the right socially to push out UKIP and the left economically to attract moderate Labour voters. In doing so they are redefining the centre ground as aggressively anti-immigration. They are targeting Labour’s former industrial heartland as they think they can use immigration to attract people alienated by Corbyn. At the same time the Tories are exposing the naked racism of Brexit, for example: 59% of voters support making companies report how many foreign workers they employ (Source: YouGov / 05 Oct). I have a horrible feeling that the Tory plan will work as the public is deeply opposed to immigration. Even half of all remain votes think immigration is too high and should come down. This is very electorally fertile ground that the Tories are moving in on.
Labour will face problems whatever it does. It is faced with general apathy towards politicians, a hostile right-leaning and pro-Brexit press, the rise of the far-right and bad memories of the Blair/Brown era. Economic stagnation and declining living standards present a new challenge to the party. Labour needs a policy for growth, a policy for housing, a policy for the NHS and a plan for Brexit (or a plan for stopping it). Labour must rise to these challenges.
The Labour Party will have to adapt to meet these challenges. We need a new way of discussing the left. Social democracy has run out of ideas to tackle our economic and political problems, so we need to start talking about it in new ways. We need to think about costs and value in terms of social good and not simply economic good. We need to look forwards and not backwards. Our new narrative needs to be informed by the past, however it cannot be dictated by it. As Abraham Lincoln said: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.”
There is some good news that this is already happening. At the most recent Labour Party conference, a Momentum fringe event showed some of the promise that Labour needs. Labour needs more discussion and more ideas. We need an answer to what is Labour for in the 21st century? If we can get a good answer to this question then we can start the fight back against the Tories and the resurgent far-right. If Labour cannot, then the party will be pulled apart by infighting and then swept under the carpet of history. I do not want this to happen and I am ready to fight for the Labour Party.