Trevor Fisher sees a Labour party that refuses to learn any lessons
With the future uncertain, it is sensible to focus on why we are here with a divided party that has had three bad election results. Firstly, the rot started with Blair – 2005 started the slide. Secondly, no analysis was made then and reversed in 2010 nor 2015 with little effective evaluation. Even at the level of practical politics – how to set the agenda and stop the opponent doing so – Labour does not get it.
Results on Thursday underline the mountain that Labour has to climb, particularly with nationalists. The Tories succeeded in using the SNP to undermine Labour over tax and spend in England in May 2015, and the Party failed to respond. Stating that there would be no deals with the SNP was not credible, as five years of a hung parliament without a deal – or without repealing the Fixed Parliament Act to defuse the SNP threat– left Labour with no practical politics. Lack of Credibility sealed its fate, though Miliband’s failure has deeper roots in his failure to deal with New Labour and Blairism, which lost Scotland in a collapse that was as spectacular as that as the Lib Dems. The rise of UKIP and the Scots Nats – with Plaid starting to make progress – show that the appeal of the nation remains a definitive one. Corbynism, though not the disaster that the media believed it would be, is a revival of an old left, and does not confront issues which demand a return to a soft left perspective.
Back to the early 1990s in fact, when the project embraced by Chartist and the Soft Left for a third road between Leninism and Reformism was highjacked by New Labour. Their strategy was triangulation, abandoning core values to move to the right to win floating Tory voters. This led to a politics of appeasement which won in 1997 and 2001 but failed in 2005 – the vote share down to 35% – and again in 2010 and 2015.
The Labour Party has an identity crisis. It accepted Thatcherism and whilst Corbybism rejects it the Party lacks a project with wide appeal. While McDonnell on economics is starting to make useful progress, the image of the party remains tarnished by the deficit issue, and the strong belief among the New Labour Right in the politics of appeasement. As Mark Seddon wrote in 2011 (Standing for Something Biteback Books) “Such has been the Labour Party’s surrender to free market fundamentalism over the past fifteen years, (its) current formulaic opposition seems… desperately unsure… Ed Miliband finds himself surrounded by unapologetic Blairites who appear to have learned nothing from Labour’s defeat”. (p240) Learning lessons is not on the agenda even after May 2015.
Mark describes in the book a TV broadcast of Miliband in Afghanistan, “wee Dougie Alexander on his left…. and.. Shadow Defence Spokesperson Jim Murphy to his right… the three of them looked desperately uncomfortable…” (p238). The problems were more than just presentation. Alexander was a triple loser in 2015, (UK campaign strategist, losing Scotland to the SNP and his own seat), while Murphy, made Scottish Labour leader after the referendum, helped seal Labour’s loss to the SNP. Yet Alexander remains kosher for the New Statesman, while the rest of the Blair tendency waits for the good times to return and plot against Corbyn. But history is not on their side.
Labour has to abandon triangulation, while not pretending it can revive a mythic golden age of oppositionalism. In the Guardian last year, Neal Lawson wrote – under the headline “Without the soft left, Labour is doomed to splinter” – of the failure of the soft left after 1992, commenting that “the hard men of the left and right would always outmanoeuvre them… Ed Miliband looked like… a version of the soft left, but he was always more Brownite than he would admit”. (Guardian 24th July 2015). Neal’s analysis was prescient and needs to be developed. The Blairites remain virulent, while the Corbynite Hard Left though not Leninist does not have a broad appeal. Neither at the level of grand strategy nor tactical practicality are there any signs of addressing the issues.
In 2015, three parties with identities gained impetus – Tories, SNP, UKIP. And three with weak identities lost impetus – Labour, Greens, Lib Dems. The need for a clear identity, albeit with tactical flexibility and jettisoning the failed politics of triangulation, is now imperative.