Nick Matthews on factionalism and Labour’s missed moments
The Labour Party in its current state shows that it is unable to renew itself. For a short time under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership it had a point and some life. Now it is back on the road to respectability and terminal boredom.
Organisations are often most vulnerable when they are most successful. The long divorce between voters and parties – as Sobolewski and Ford call it in their study of British political culture, Brexitland – can be dated to 1997. They attribute the decline in support for Labour over twenty-plus years to three factors: ideological convergence – they are all the same; competition between parties becoming focussed on a small number of voters and issues in swing seats – they are not talking to me; and the professionalisation of politics, with politicians all having the same kind of background and outlook – they don’t look like me.
These issues are fundamental to the party as an organisation – namely, how it creates and communicates its policies and selects its candidates for elections. This process of alienation from Labour by many of its historical core members and voters has been going on for a long time but was masked by first-past-the-post, constituency-based elections.
Labour’s rush to the centre left many working class areas deeply alienated by a party which did not appear to have anything to say to them. This collapse in communication with what had been strong Labour-supporting areas was filled by others who did offer a message to this group of voters. That message was ethno-nationalism. For many, ethno-centric attitudes can offer a coherent worldview – although who exactly is ‘us’ and who ‘them’ can vary considerably between individuals and over time.
The early warning signs were in the larger more aggregate elections like those for the European Parliament. The canary in the coalmine should have been when in 2009 the BNP received almost a million votes and gained two MEPs.
As the slightly more palatable ethnonationalist party, UKIP also began to gain ground in the 2000’s – again, ironically, doing incredibly well in European elections – giving them a strong base across the country. This phenomenon manifested itself very differently in Scotland, with the SNP offering a solution to all that country’s ills.
We know how this panned out. Nigel Farage has completely changed Britain and British politics without winning a Westminster parliamentary seat, but by winning the Brexit vote and completely transforming the Conservatives into an ethnonationalist party.
Labour had a moment when it could have rebuilt itself. When given the chance to vote for a leader who was not a middle manager, members did so in huge numbers. However, instead of this leading to a renewal of Labour it produced an internal total war. Large parts of the parliamentary party and of Labour’s bureaucracy spent their time using the byways in its Byzantine constitution to do damage. It is true that Jeremy Corbyn lacked many of the necessary skills to be a leader of a modern political organisation, but it is also true that the party infrastructure made no effort to support him or remedy those deficiencies.
Organisations that can allow old ways to die and new ways to grow have a chance to survive.
Labour had a small chance to create a new kind of political party, a less centralised, more federal organisation, with a more inclusive political culture. A party that did things in communities on the ground not just talked about doing things.
Corbyn may not have been the solution, but the problems that gave rise to him have not gone away.