The Crisis in the Labour Party

After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers’ Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?
— Bertolt Brecht - The Solution

In all my life I cannot remember the Labour Party being in such a sorry state: completely divided, at war with itself, non-functioning, wandering lost and wondering how its fate became so bleak. The simple reason why the situation has got this bad is neglect. Neglect of everything from electability to the party’s once broad support base. This neglect has been going on for a while and now its effects are being felt, crumbling away the party’s support and cohesion.

There are a few optimists in the Labour Party who believe that the problem is simply leadership. These optimists believe that either removing Jeremy Corbyn as leader or forcing the PLP to unite behind him will solve all of Labour’s problems. This is not true. Leadership is certainly a facet of Labour’s problems, but the problems for Labour are complex and predate Corbyn being chosen as leader.

I believe that the best thing for the country is a Labour government to undo some of the damage the Tories are doing - rising child poverty, rising food bank dependence, falling living standards. Below are the obstacles that are keeping Labour from being electoral successful and threaten to make Britain a one party state with no opposition.

The first and greatest problems for Labour is collapse of the party’s broad base of electoral support. In my lifetime Labour won three elections by appealing to a huge cross section of society. In 1979 11.5 million people voted Labour, in 2015 9.3 million people voted Labour. Labour has become a party of middle class, metropolitan liberals and there are not enough of those to win an election (if there were then Ed Miliband would be Prime minister).

Centrist swing voters have deserted the party and the support of the working class is bleeding away. The demands of these groups are completely divergent from each other and I cannot see how Labour can appeal to both of them. This is most apparent in how Labour responds to the outcome of the EU referendum; does it support Brexit and alienate centrists and the metropolitan middle class? Or ignore the Brexit vote and turn over large parts of its base to UKIP? Or go for some middle option that satisfies no one - progressive controls on immigration, anyone?

Labour also has a perception problem amongst many voters. Many view the party as bad for the economy, too soft on the work-shy and too relaxed about immigration. A large section of the electorate want less government spending, less benefits claimed (apart from pensions) and less immigration. To win an election Labour needs to find something to offer these voters, or to find a way to neutralise these issues. This is not just a problem for Labour. Across Europe voters are turning against liberal social democratic parties and towards right wing authoritarian and nationalist parties. Social democracy has never been more under threat and Labour appears to be on the losing side of recent history.

These problems mean Labour cannot win an election if it were called now, but it could change this situation by convincing people of the merits of voting Labour. It could win back popular support and neutralise toxic issues with strong arguments. This brings me to the third problem facing Labour: lack of vision, or nothing to convince people of. Neoliberal capitalism has existed in a state of crisis since the 2008 financial collapse. The promise of Blair and Brown’s never ending plenty dried up, to be replaced by austerity and economic stagnation. Labour - and the left more broadly - have many criticisms of this but no solutions.

There is no plan coming from any faction of Labour - from Corbyn to Liz Kendall - to respond to the challenges Britain faces. There is no vision of the kind of society Labour would want to build if it were in government. There is no way to tame neoliberalism and no economic system to replace it. Labour needs to know what it stands for if it is to convince people to vote for it.

If Labour had a vision (even a vague one) of the society it wanted to create and the argument it wanted to make, then the issues of leadership would be paramount. As it stands it is only the 4th biggest problem keeping Labour from power. Labour does not have a leader capable of leading the party to victory. Corbyn has engaged a lot of people on the left - including some who either did not vote or had lost faith in Labour, but he also alienates a lot of people. Corbyn does not have broad enough appeal to win a general election, however I do not see any other leading Labour figure who could. Those who think that Labour’s problems can be solved by putting Owen Smith - or Chuka Umunna/Dan Jarvis/Tristram Hunt - in charge are massively overestimating their popular appeal. The best we could hope for is a return to Miliband levels of competence.

There is no senior figure from any faction who could unite the party and face the challenges outlined above. While there is a leadership vacuum, factional infighting is ruining the party and preventing it from doing its job of opposing the government. Labour needs to be united to function.

There are further obstacles to the Labour Party winning a general election that would have to be faces if Labour had a coherent vision and an engaging leader. A lot of these are wider social factors beyond the party’s control. There is a general hostility of politicians amongst many people, epitomised by the vote to leave the EU. Labour would have to win over a segment of those disaffected voters to form a broad enough electoral coalition to oust the government. Corbyn might be able to convince the apathetic that he is different from most normal politicians, but I am not sure if the Labour Party in its current form can win over enough people alienated from politics to make a difference.

Whoever leads, Labour would have to face both a hostile press and some degree of reluctance to vote Labour caused by bad memories of Blair/Brown era. To many voters, Labour are still too much the establishment for them to be seen as an alternative to the establishment in government. Again Corbyn could make a difference here, but will it be enough?

Economic stagnation and declining living standards have alienated many from supporting mainstream political parties, even ones with radical leaders. Labour need to engage with the housing crisis, rising cost of living, climate change and host of other issues. There is also the rise of the far right, winning over many voters with nationalism, nativism and xenophobia. Many of Labour’s voters are abandoning the party for these parties, and Labour needs a way to win that support back if it’s to form a government. Society as a whole seems to be drifting away from the Labour Party.

This is a broad summary, but it is not an exhaustive list of the problems facing Labour. The issue of who leads the party is important, but having Jeremy Corbyn as a leader is the not the only thing preventing Labour from winning a general election. Whoever leads Labour into the next election will need to overcome a wide range of political and social obstacles that are keeping Labour out of power. I hope the party can rally itself and start tackling the problems it faces, otherwise I fear for the future of the Labour Party.

The above quote from Bertolt Brecht’s poem The Solution sums up where the Labour Party is right now. We broadly have two wings, both of which have lost faith in the electorate, but in different ways. On the one hand we have the right of the party, who show nothing but contempt for the members and who they have voted for. They insist they are brilliant at winning elections, but cannot beat a man who they claim is unelectable. Their analysis: the party members have gone insane and cannot be trusted to look after the party. The Labour electorate is wrong about who should be leader and they should have their views suppressed for their own good and the good of the party.

On the other hand we have the left of the party, the Corbyn supporters, whose views are out of step with what the public wants. Labour's poll ratings are at a historic low and the party is facing a crushing defeat in the next election. The Corbynistas’ analysis is that the public are deluded and under the control of a hostile mainstream media. They may not want Corbyn, but Corbyn is what is best for them. The public's dislike of Corbyn must be ignored or dismissed as much as possible.

Neither of these attitudes are healthy for the future of the party. No political organisation that is so willing to ignore the opinions of the people it is trying to win over can survive. We must reconcile the two sides, but first we must find out how we arrived in this mess in the first place.

Labour Party picture taken by Andrew Skudder and used under creative commons.