Don Flynn dissects two important contributions on Labour’s future
It was not so long ago that Labour in the UK seemed to be bucking the death spiral which social democracy across the rest of Europe had locked itself into. The heady days of 2015-17, when the party grew to over half a million members, rallies and activities were taking place across the country, and it won a 40 per cent share of the popular vote at a general election, are now long past. Bewilderment and paralysis seem to have gripped the mainstream organisation and a possible way ahead remains to be illuminated.
In retrospect, it seems clear that the degree of progress achieved in the middle of the last decade was due to the fact that the party under the centre-left had stumbled on a way to work with the populist moods that had come to prevail across the country.
Mastery of the populist political method is a long way off and the Corbyn years figure as a series of experiments rather than the finished article. As was discussed in our recent interview with Marina Prentoulis, populism requires an acute sense of the moods rippling across the public and, most importantly, a sense of the direction they might be taking. Under Jeremy Corbyn, the party was able to pick up on the grievances of sections of the population which attributed the hardships they felt to the state’s withdrawal from policies centred on the welfare and well-being of citizens, subordinating all to balancing the Treasury’s books.
Party against left populism
Corbyn’s populism mobilised a generation of millennials with politics that promised them a way into the setting of agendas and a leadership role in bringing about change. Its failure in this endeavour was that it was unequal to the task of overcoming the inertia of the party machine, dominated by a parliamentary party strapped into the role of being a government-in-waiting, and an executive machine willing to resort to whatever skulduggery was required to defeat the would-be usurpers. If a single sentence is to suffice in describing the party’s role during the course of these years it would be: to confront and defeat all efforts to forge a new democratic politics out of the moods of discontent that have prevailed in the period since the Great Recession.
So, the populist surge was checked and, in defiance of all the laws of physics, a vacuum has rushed in to take its place. Starmer has no excuses for finding his leadership in the predicament it’s now in. His moderate social democratic backers saw the fall of the so-called ‘red wall’ seats as the price that had to be paid for putting an end to the Corbynite experiment. They assumed that ‘under new leadership’ would register with people as being a return to normal politics. Labour would reappear as a party loyal to the constitution and the stability and ageless continuity it stood for, and the green shoots of a revival in fortunes would soon be seen.
That bubble burst with the dreadful result in the Hartlepool by-election and the unconvincing victory (by 323 votes) in Batley and Spen. True, there is an intriguing glittering in the otherwise overwhelming darkness, showing up in the results for metro mayors and the swing against the Tories in southern England. But if these are to become the material out of which a new mass centre-left political force can be built then we will need to see a revival of the adventurous spirit of left populism which excited such a significant segment of the population six years ago.
The Labour right
In a recent posting on his ‘How to Stop Fascism’ blog, Paul Mason puts the need to resolve the dilemma of the hybrid character of the Labour Party as the central task for the left. He sees the organisation as a ‘container’ for two, maybe three, competing visions of the future. The most prominent two of these consist of the “party of cities, technological modernity, the skilled and educated working class, the ethnically diverse working class and the young”; and the second, the socially conservative viewpoint of the small towns. Difficult though the task might be, it is not in principle impossible to imagine these currents being fused into a political bloc that is based on the facts common to both – that their interests are jeopardised by the programme of the elite clustered around some version of the vision of ‘Global Britain’.
But Global Britain has its own advocates within the party, represented among the groupings seeking a revival of Blairism. Seeking the ear of the floundering Starmer leadership, they have a keen interest in stymying an alliance based on the economic interests of cities and towns by promulgating the myth that the two are irreconcilable. If cultural fault lines exist between places like Manchester and Hartlepool, the Labour right is working hard to say they are utterly unbridgeable. No expedient alliance is possible and instead one has to triumph over the defeated body of the other. Since the cities, with their relative youth and ethnic diversity, look so much like the sort of places that backed Corbyn six years ago it has to be their standing within the political structures of Labour that has to be reduced to rubble.
There are many rich ironies to be found here. New Labour’s rigid support for global financial interests based in the City of London had a dire impact on industries which required a cheap pound to be competitive in international markets. The glitzy public sector investment, often using EU development funds, raised hopes in the areas like the towns of the North East that things were finally getting better, at exactly the same moment Treasury policies were creating an environment where industries could not prosper. It is no surprise that disillusionment with Labour runs so deep in these regions.
Bottom up progressive alliance
The goal of the left must be to find the political programme which gives expression to the desire of the towns to see industries revive and, for the people in the city regions, that this should happen in accordance with the obligations of a Green New Deal and respect for the diversity of the communities being built in the large urban centres. This will require a political process that is capable of working through the compromises that will be needed if the range of viewpoints that need to be accommodated in a progressive left bloc is able to happen. The first moves in this direction are being taken and, to some extent, have shown up in the encouraging votes for the metropolitan mayors and authorities which, as in the case of Greater Manchester, tend to cluster both city and towns together in their respective regions.
More intellectual interest will need to be shown in the coming months in work that expresses the viewpoints of towns that cling onto industry and the communities that are battling to preserve their values. The recent contribution of Labour MP Jon Cruddas, his book The Dignity of Labour (reviewed in the next issue of Chartist), merits particular consideration in the arguments he has set out for a politics that is rooted in the workplace. There is a warning here to hold back on the modern world of work as a place filled with ‘bullshit jobs’, to coin the phrase popularised by the late David Graeber. Whilst Graeber sought to underscore the psychological damage done to individuals by work he considered meaningless and alienating, Cruddas insists on seeing the possibility of the workplace as engendering awareness of injustice and exploitation that can in turn produce solidarity. Leftists in the techno-utopian camp, who have given up on the idea of even the desirability of full employment and who want to make a Universal Basic Income the core of their programme, should be ready to think again about what would be lost in a world were human beings were not actively engaged in building the society in which they would live the entirety of their lives.
Labour’s fractured politics requires more thinking about the circumstances in which a progressive alliance of citizens could be built from the bottom up. The tools which might allow this to be done have at least been partially revealed by the innovative thinking done during the Corbyn years and the experiments undertaken with the perspective of left populism. That is the core of the political project we need to get under way again.