The rise of Labour’s soft left

The tendency of choice – the soft left?           


The Corbyn leadership victory throws up a lot of issues from the past which were never resolved, and the SWP decision to support the Corbyn supporting Momentum Group will make their job more difficult. However the more interesting development is the sudden popularity of the Soft Left among New Labourites. Odd since New Labour killed off the soft left aka the Labour Co-ordinating Committee and made Compass effectively leave the Labour party, but its a sign of the times and while the soft left is actually dead, the rebellion has opened up possibilities.
 These are not easy to assess, but immediately it is clear that the overtures from New Labour are interesting though possibly as unwelcome as Momentum may find the SWP. The key issue is of course that New Labour has lost control of the machine, and the Anyone But Corbyn campaign was a disasterous failure. The more Blair and co complained, the more support he got. So they started looking for the soft left but Corbyn still won.

 “was not won by the hard left which is numerically insignificant. It was won by the tens of thousands whose politics could be defined as ‘soft left’ It was their anger and despair at Labour’s lack of ambition and two crushing defeats that determined their votes”

However as I have already noted, this was not because of the hard left having a revival. The most interesting commment to date, one Jonathan Rutherford, a policy wonk inside the machine posting on Labour List on 15th October, rightly says the victory “was not won by the hard left which is numerically insignificant. It was won by the tens of thousands whose politics could be defined as ‘soft left’ It was their anger and despair at Labour’s lack of ambition and two crushing defeats that determined their votes”. This is obviously true, and if the Chartist collective can respond to the fact there are thousands of people out there who are mainly Labour loyalists angry that New Labour has failed we can make progress. Its not really that the rebels, as I would call them were soft left – whatever that means nowadays. It is that they despaired. This is not good.
A swingometer politics which thinks that Corbyn’s defeat of the machine means we have a left upsurge on our hands will lead to disaster. There isn’t, and trying to manufacture one as some seem to be doing will mean the ultras make hay and it will be impossible to take on the more insidious dangers posed by machine politics. Rutherford here is instructive and his piece should be read. The key issue he poses is that Labour is in danger of becomig irrelevant even in its remaining core areas – dropped to 25% of the vote next time – and in citing Ken Spour’s very interesting Compass analysis of the Tory attempt to take over the working class – blue collar Toryism – the Osborne Supremacy – he hits a nerve. Things can get worse. Some folk are now writing off the 2020 election in favour of internal party faction fighting. That will play into the hands of Osborne.
However his own analysis is a cul de sac. Firstly, he is pro-austerity, and attacks the anti-austerity campaigners. Austerity defines the immediate future and is the key challenge. Secondly he is pro-welfare reform, a tricky area as the Tory agenda – Thatcherism plus – is to destroy, not improve the welfare state, exploiting the fact it is not working well at all. As Mid-Staffs hospital shows. Thirdly, he takes a pro-Miliband stance on immigration, which is foolish. There is a real problem with uncontrolled immigration and few, looking at the school population figures as I have been doing, can have any doubt that immigration has to be controlled. The failure to do so is leading to strain on council schools – the Academies and Free schools don’t take their share nor does the private sector – and this further damages working class people. Miliband, like New Labour, failed to get to grips with this. Perhaps Rutherford’s career affects his judgement. I do not know who he is, but he worked on the policy review 2012-14. The outcomes of the Miliband years were not impressive.
But his analysis could make headway with the rebels, if ultra left fighting breaks out. The immediate issue is the austerity agenda, and the way Ultra Thatcherism in the Cameron – Osborne party is playing the field. The austerity trick worked beautifully partly because Miliband could never challenge it. And we still cannot challenge it head on. But it is not necessary to do so. Austerity happens with a shortage of money – obviously. But in 1945 Attleee and Co faced all these problems. And set up the welfare state. The COC (Cameron-Osborne Conservatives) have established a hegemonic link that austerity means cutting the state. Not the case at all, and Attlee showed this to be so. That government built the welfare state. As an immediate response to the curent impasse, an effort to revive the lessons of the Attlee government is a useful gambit. While we wait for the Keynsianism of the McDonnell commission, why not float an Attlee revival to break the link between Austerity and Attacks on the welfare state? The history is quite clear, and even somewhat herioc, showing that austerity does not mean cutting provision for the public. Now that is a lesson from history waiting its moment.

Trevor Fisher                                                             

 October 16th 2015

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