Sterility of the middle ground

Image: UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Don Flynn finds Labour’s election review sidesteps the important issues

Labour Together’s report on the party’s performance in the 2019 general election gets off to a good start with its insistence on the “deep roots” of the defeat. As it says, “This loss is the story of more than one election—indeed it is a story that stretches back two decades.”

Twenty years will be regarded by some as too short a time span to really get to grips with the contradictions of a political formation that wants to proclaim itself the harbinger of change whilst at the same time wrapping itself around every conservative instinct to be found in British society. For a much longer period of time these tensions have been contained within a Parliamentary Labour Party, which alone has been accorded the privilege of considering these issues from the standpoint of left, centrist and right wing positions.

All of this was tenable as long as the great mass of the party’s support could be contained within the safe middle ground between reform and continuity, which was the standpoint of a working class benefitting over the years from secure, well-paid jobs, housing security, and an NHS which everyone could be proud of. 

What happens to a middle-of-the-road social democratic party when these underpinnings for its ideological standpoint are eroded? The report has an interesting second chapter on the long-term drivers of Labour’s decline, which it attributes to “a generalised fall in party loyalty and increase in voter switching” dating from the 1960s; the “deindustrialisation, falling union density, and widening regional and sub-regional inequalities” of the 1980s; an “apparent fall in political engagement among lower income and less educationally qualified voters“ in the 1990s; and the “austerity and stagnation” with its “uneven impact on different parts of the country and elements of Labour’s coalition” from 2010 onwards. 

The review makes the important point that these have not been factors peculiar to the situation in Britain, and the eclipse of social democracy in countries which were once its strongholds is noted. All of this serves to somewhat exonerate the most recent incumbent as party leader from having to shoulder all of the blame for the poor outcome in the December election.  

But what was going on during those extraordinary years from 2015 onwards when the party was being led from the left? The review deals with this in a cursory fashion. The uptick in the party’s performance at the 2017 election is presented as a problem on the grounds that it masked the divisions which had become entrenched in what is called the historic voter coalition. The 40 percent in voter share (described as a “small recovery”) is dealt with only as a prelude to a period in which the party institutionalised its divisions by generating “multiple power centres with no clear chain of command – including  an Executive Director of Campaigns, Leader’s Office, Party Chair, General Secretary, National Coordinators – with no single person setting the strategy.”

This has more than a ring of truth about it. However, the report seems to deal with it as a failing on the part of someone (it is too polite to say who) to get a firm grip on the situation and set out the terms for reuniting the party.  

Corbyn unquestionably had created problems for himself by relying too heavily on a group within his own office whose capacity for sound political advice was limited. But it is impossible to consider these issues without considering the findings of the investigation into the party’s failure to deal with the antisemitism crisis, the report of which was leaked to the media in April.

Across its 860 pages, the report of this investigation set out evidence which showed that “many staff, including GLU [governance and legal unit] staff and senior staff with responsibility for managing and overseeing GLU, were bitterly opposed to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, and seem to have been demotivated, or largely interested in work that could advance a factional agenda”.

Further, “at its extreme, some employees seem to have taken a view that the worse things got for Labour the happier they would be, since this might expedite Jeremy Corbyn’s departure from office. Further, there is little evidence of strong management of procedures, workloads and priorities in HQ, which also impacted GLU’s work.”

Meanwhile, beyond the world of the festering sore that was the party’s administrative machine, British society was heaving with strains and injustices that were rooted in growing inequality and the insurgent mood of a generation of millennials that was now connecting with the political mainstream.  

The issues of Brexit and the people in the so-called northern heartlands, much discussed in the report, provide another dimension to the problems that challenged Labour when it went into its unwelcome election in December 2019. The party did not have to do as badly as the result turned out to be, but even if a fourth loss in a row was on the cards, it could have emerged less damaged than it was.

Was too much packed into the manifesto? Probably. Were party activists left unsupported in areas where they were most needed? Yes, and seats were lost because of this. Most importantly, were the 4,268,391 voters who came back to Labour in the 2017 election, and the hundreds of thousands who’d joined the party, given any reason to believe that a large slice of these prospective MPs actually wanted to find themselves in Parliament supporting a Corbyn government? Of course they weren’t, and that is the most damning statistic of them all.

There’s useful stuff in the report, but overall it seems destined to serve a poor end in directing party energies into another organisational shake-up and a policy review which will aim to put the Corbyn years finally to bed. The really interesting question, of what Labour has to say to the people it wants to support it during a time of continuing turbulence and a sharper sense of grievance provoked by the Covid-19 crisis, is in danger of being answered by a sterile discussion about what constitutes the middle ground and how the party can get back on it. That is the decades-old crisis of social democracy in a nutshell, and Labour does not seem in a mood to move on from it.

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