Election Reflection II: Labour’s Journey Back to the Future
This is the second in a 3-part series of reflections on the 2017 UK General Election.
The 2017 General Election first and foremost marked a return to two-party politics. Though neither party secured a parliamentary majority, the Conservatives and Labour simultaneously received their highest vote shares since 1983 and 1997 respectively. At the same time, the Scottish National Party, Liberal Democrats and the Greens saw reductions in their vote shares, whilst the UK Independence Party’s vote collapsed entirely.
These results certainly call into question the technocratic consensus that Labour’s electoral success had to come from the centre. As the party moved towards a more radical socialist economic agenda, they managed to pick up a great number of votes from other left-of-centre parties whilst, surprisingly, the decision of UKIP to field candidates in only 377 of the 650 seats, according to Chris Cook, in fact ‘probably helped the Labour party’ more than the Conservatives, given the way in which the anti-establishment element of Corbynism seems to have appealed to the core UKIP vote.
Many people within the Labour movement who supported Jeremy Corbyn through thin and thinner, will consequently be tempted to rehash arguments about electability and to re-recite their tales of betrayal regarding the sinister ‘PLP’ and ‘MSM’. But, aside from the self-destructiveness of such an inward-looking response, this ignores the fact that the vast majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party and the mainstream media operated on a heartfelt belief that Jeremy Corbyn was utterly unelectable. This was perfectly understandable given the clear and consistent Tory poll leads which failed to pick up the ‘remarkable’ youth turnout and to spot the effects of the unforeseen ‘stumbles’ of the Conservative campaign. Now that Jeremy Corbyn’s electability must be taken seriously the debates will quickly be reframed by a new political context.
As Philip Collins from the Times put it:
‘[We’ve] had these two arguments. One is: is [Corbyn] electable? And the other is about the real issues. And the second one has been shielded because we’ve been having the first argument.’
Therefore, whilst Labour MPs will at least temporarily fall in line, the media’s past mirroring of the Labour leader’s habit for being ‘long on passion and short on details’ will surely give way to a more sober and serious critique of the possible impact of a Corbyn premiership. Every untruth, every policy misstep and every piece of historical baggage will suddenly take on a new weight and significance, whilst his economic and social reform agenda will be scrutinised forensically like never before.
Again, how this change will play out in relation to Labour’s electoral ‘momentum’, is a question best left to psephologists (however suspect they have become). But we may certainly hope that sustained critical analysis will bring into question the current binary choice between Blairism and Corbynism. While each competes for the inherited mantle of the over-idealised Attlee government, both ignore that the Labour administration of 1945 onwards was marked above all by concrete attempts to address the very real problems of the day through a coalition of widely divergent thinkers operating the parliamentary system. Both Tony Blair and Jeremy Corbyn instead operate on fixed ideologies defined precisely in opposition to one another which, inevitably, leads to cliques of insiders and power struggles within the party. Instead of this zero-sum game, Clement Attlee saw his role as a chief delegator who needed to unify his party in service to the common good of the country. For him, the coexistence of the establishment of the NHS, the Welfare State and decolonisation, with the creation of NATO, nuclear weapons and the Anglo-American agreement was not a sign of contradiction but, instead, the natural outworking of parliamentary democracy.
Of course, principled debate today over Trident renewal and foreign interventions deserve their place, but there must still be collegiality, which is currently suffocated by the party’s internecine disputes. These, in turn, have starved the party of the space needed for fresh ideas to emerge. This is critical because, whilst a great deal of Keir Hardie’s original vision and Attlee’s later legislation came to form the basis of the post-war settlement, much of which remains relevant today, other aspects soon became unworkable. Labour’s nationalisation of a full fifth of the British economy in the late 1940s was certainly rooted in Clause IV socialism, but it ultimately only served to demonstrate that the ‘lumbering machinery of economic planning could not deliver’ for the country. Likewise, Attlee’s tight interlocking of the Labour party with the Trade Unions, after the repeal of the ‘Trade Disputes and Trade Union Act of 1927’, only entrenched Britain’s adversarial relationship between business and the unions, which had much to learn from those models on the continent which still retained elements of guild-like cooperation.
These twin ideological issues of mass nationalisation and adversarial trade unionism continued to haunt Labour into the Wilson and Callaghan administrations. Along with the electoral failures of the 1980s, they provide the context for the creation of ‘New Labour’, which gave way to a post-Thatcherite consensus on these matters in order to pass radical reforms regarding fiscal policy and the institution of a minimum wage: one of the founding legislative principles of the Labour movement. Ultimately, these changes were undercut by the underlying neoliberal labour relations and economic structures. Under Tony Blair, union memberships dwindled as they occupied the role of outside aggressor and the government simply watched as manufacturing industries made way for the ever-growing financial sector.
The resulting impact of the financial crash, alongside the disaster of the Iraq War, provided those on the old Left of the party with ammunition to argue for change. But whilst those such as John Cruddas and Maurice Glasman attempted carefully to work through policy that at least tried to deal with the foundational issues that lay at the heart of New Labour’s concessions to Thatcherism, Corbyn and company simply gave blanket condemnations of Blairism and argued that the party just needed to press rewind on the preceding decades. Not only has this left the party lashed to the mast with answers that were well and truly tried and which well and truly failed, but they have been left unable to offer answers to the new issues of our day. It is incredible that in such a volatile moment in our political history, with Brexit, repeated calls for Scottish independence, increasing terrorist attacks, mass migration and so much more, that the leader of the opposition thus far has remained unable or unwilling to provide substantial responses to the country’s most pressing concerns and is instead more comfortable discussing pet policies such as the wholesale renationalisation of the railways. This needs to change, but it will only happen if Jeremy Corbyn is willing to draw on the strengths and traditions of all quarters of his party.