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Labour needs much more than a change of leader

Between now and April, the media will have a field day publicising the personalities of the various contenders for the position of Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition for the remainder of the decade.  There is the centrist millionaire working class boy made good; the metropolitan liberal woman who makes Jo Swinson look sane; the mad right wing one; the old Labour northern one; and the leftie inheritor of the “Corbyn project.”  This makes for great spectacle; but it is ultimately pointless unless and until Labour is prepared to undertake some serious examination of their own version of “The Long Descent.”

Much of the debate so far has been around the extent to which Labour’s crushing defeat last month was due to its position on Brexit, its policy platform or the character of its leader.  Each of these is seductive to various leadership contenders precisely because it allows them to avoid any discussion of the structural reasons behind their failure.  Unreconstructed Blairites can claim that the manifesto and the leader were too left wing and out of touch.  Remoaners can claim that Labour should have embraced an anti-Brexit position. Old fashioned leftists can argue that Labour should have honoured the referendum result.  Again, this makes for good TV coverage; but the failure to dig deeper will condemn Labour to a decade or more of opposition at best.

Political economist Mark Blyth points out that neoliberalism ultimately undermined neoliberal political parties themselves.  Having undermined organised labour, and driven product markets to the floor, neoliberalism went on to destroy the “political market” too.  The modern Labour Party is no more the party of organised labour than the Tory Party is the party of British capital.  As historian David Edgerton points out:

“What is interesting is not so much the connections between capital and the Tory party but their increasing disconnection. Today much of the capital in Britain is not British and not linked to the Conservative party – where for most of the 20th century things looked very different…

“Today there is no such thing as British national capitalism. London is a place where world capitalism does business – no longer one where British capitalism does the world’s business. Everywhere in the UK there are foreign-owned enterprises, many of them nationalised industries, building nuclear reactors and running train services from overseas. When the car industry speaks, it is not as British industry but as foreign enterprise in the UK. The same is true of many of the major manufacturing sectors – from civil aircraft to electrical engineering – and of infrastructure. Whatever the interests of foreign capital, they are not expressed through a national political party. Most of these foreign-owned businesses, not surprisingly, are hostile to Brexit.”

Where Edgerton documents the disconnect between Capital and the Conservatives, journalists like the Guardian’s John Harris and Unherd’s James Bloodworth set out the reasons behind the chasm that has opened up between Labour and its former working class supporter base:

“Back in 2016 I spent some time in Rugeley in the West Midlands. And I returned there last year to make an audio-documentary for UnHerd. The former mining town is situated in the constituency of Cannock Chase, which, in the years from 1997 to 2010, saw a Labour majority of 14,000 gradually wittered down to nothing; today the constituency boasts a Conservative majority of 20,000.

“Amazon set up shop in Rugeley in 2011, 20 years after the Lea Hall Colliery shut its gates. The colliery, which opened in 1960, was the first modern coal mine opened by the National Coal Board, and the Cannock Chase coalfields at one point supported 48 mines. The last of these, in Littleton, closed in 1993…

“Amazon — or more accurately, the agencies Amazon tasked with employing people — did in fact take on locals. I met some while working at the company. But most didn’t stick around. The work was too gruelling and the regime too authoritarian; we used to walk around 10 miles a day and were forbidden from talking with co-workers during shift time.

“Taking a day off sick — even with a note from the doctor’s — landed you with a disciplinary ‘point’. Spend too long on a toilet break and you received another point. Six of these and you lost your job. Amazon was the largest employer in Rugeley and like other big employers in the towns employed its staff on zero-hours contracts.

“Amazon’s arrival in areas such as Rugeley, Swansea, Doncaster and South Yorkshire — all former coal mining areas — brought the tantalising prospect of restored pride… It’s a pity no one bothered to ask whether the jobs being created were any good or not…”

The old myth about work being a route out of poverty had been exploded long before the 2008 crash and the ensuing decade of Tory austerity.  And for most of the period, a Labour Party that represented metropolitan liberals in London and the top-tier university towns turned a blind eye – shopping on Amazon, having food brought around by Deliveroo and JustEat, and using Uber to get around without stopping to worry about the pay and conditions of the people providing those services.  So far as Labour politicians were concerned, those people had nowhere else to go… after all, they weren’t about to vote Tory, were they… er…

Brexit was not just the revenge of the old, white working class in the midlands and the north.  As Kirby Swales at the National Centre for Social Research notes, 39 percent of younger working class voters – many working in those low-paid metropolitan service jobs – also voted to leave the European Union in 2016.  Labour’s decision to effectively become a pro-Remain party – itself a reflection of its metropolitan liberal activist base – put the final signature on Labour’s December 2019 suicide note.  Whereas the Tories had managed to reconstruct themselves as a kind of UKIP 2.0 by expelling supposedly moderate Tories like Ken Clarke, Oliver Letwin and Philip Hammond and by taking an aggressively pro-Brexit stance; Labour remained far too close to the politics of New Labour to convince people that they would deliver the change they were promising.  As Labour Peer Maurice Glasman puts it:

“In 2017, when Labour said it respected the result of the referendum, it surged through the final two weeks of the campaign. The Conservatives, running on the policy of ‘lose your mind, lose your home’, turned a Brexit election into a discussion of the financial consequences of dementia.

“There were indications of disaffection as Mansfield and North Derby turned blue; but the heartlands believed that Corbyn was a faithful son of Tony Benn and he had spent a lifetime denouncing the EU as a capitalist club where no-one was accountable. Against the current of continental Europe, Labour alone was a vital and renewed social-democratic party committed to nationalisation and the redistribution of wealth. Brexit was a source of socialist renewal and democracy was re-affirmed as the means of resisting the domination of the rich and their decades of relentless plundering. But, then, Corbyn’s Labour renounced Brexit...”

It is not just that Labour got the policy wrong; it failed to understand the tectonic shifts in the political geography of the UK that had occurred since the glory days of 1997:

“Pope Francis said recently that we are not living through an era of change but a change of era. This Conservative victory is an important part of defining what the features of the new era are. The previous consensus was defined by four shared assumptions; that the nation state, democracy, the working class and conservatism would matter less. The dominant forces were the educated middle-class, globalisation, written constitutions and liberalism. Blair and Cameron expressed this perfectly…

“Despite the result of the Brexit referendum, it was assumed that the task for Labour was to build a coalition of ‘progressive’ voters around a second referendum which they called a ‘people’s vote’. The difference between 2017 and 2019 was that the working class noted that Labour was blocking Brexit and denying the legitimacy of their vote… The deep complicity between New Labour and the Corbyn Project was shown here. The progressive certainty that history was going in one direction, towards the free movement of people and things, that technology would dissolve place and borders in an undifferentiated swirl in which only the individual and Treaty law mattered.

“That the future was based on globalisation was unquestioned between them, as was the idea that the nation state and democracy no longer really mattered. This Whig theory of history is as untrue now as it ever was. The working class, the Nation-State and democracy are key features of the new era. Far from being losers, the post-industrial working class has decided the two most significant votes of our time.”

Whether Labour chooses a Blairite or a Corbynista as its next leader is completely irrelevant to the changed political geography of the UK.  The fundamental questions – who does Labour represent and what is Labour for? – which will likely go unanswered in the leadership debate, will be far more important not only in deciding whether Labour gets back into office in the late 2020s or early 2030s; but whether there will even be a Labour Party for much longer.

Blair’s New Labour – and Clinton’s Democrat Party in the USA – cynically “triangulated” their appeal to the rising affluent liberal section of a baby boomer generation that had propelled Thatcher and Reagan into government in the early 1980s.  The working class had no choice other than to go along for the ride; despite the policy programmes being increasingly punitive toward the working class.  As had happened previously in our history – as “progressives” are fond of uncritically pointing out – when the parties of the centre left abandon the working class, it tends to be the parties of the hard right that benefit. 

Although the official narrative had been that the rise of UKIP was primarily the result of disgruntled Tories switching parties, UKIP also attracted a large part of the supposedly apathetic section of working class that Labour had abandoned.  At European elections, The Welsh Assembly election in May 2016 and even in the Brexit referendum this could be dismissed as a kind of protest against the austerity imposed by Cameron, Clegg and Osborne.  The apparent success of Corbyn in 2017 (provided nobody mentioned that he actually lost the election) appeared to confirm this.  The success of Farage’s Brexit Party at the May 2019 European election and the staggering victory of Johnson’s Tories last month, though, expose the 2017 result as a temporary blip in an otherwise remorseless march to the political right.

In the USA – where the Democrats were always a party of the centre right – writers like Thomas Frank – Listen Liberal – and Chris Hedges – Death of the Liberal Class – had sounded an early alarm for anyone on this side of the Atlantic who cared to listen.  However, as professor of politics at University of Kent, Matthew Goodwin, points out, Labour strategists’ greatest failing is that they don’t read… you don’t need to if you have convinced yourself that the future is yours by default.

Brexit didn’t happen because the people were ignorant; Trump didn’t get elected because the Midwest is full of deplorables; and Johnson isn’t firmly entrenched in Downing Street because Britain has become a nation of sexists and racists.  The success of all three – and of the wave of nationalist populism that has swept the world in recent years – is that they promise to address (even if they are unlikely to deliver) structural changes that a centre left which primarily represents an affluent metropolitan liberal minority does not even perceive, still less understand.  This failure of understanding is compounded by the bad habit of referring to politicians of the right such as trump, Farage and Johnson as “fascists” while failing to understand that the fascist parties of the inter-war years were extremely popular among the working class precisely because the parties of the centre left had abandoned them.  As historian, Professor Sheri Berman explains:

“There can be no question that violence and racism were essential traits of fascism. But for most Italians, Germans and other European fascists, the appeal was based not on racism—much less ethnic cleansing—but on the fascists’ ability to respond effectively to crises of capitalism when other political actors were not. Fascists insisted that states could and should control capitalism, that the state should and could promote social welfare, and that national communities needed to be cultivated. The fascist solution ultimately was, of course, worse than the problem. In response to the horror of fascism, in part, New Deal Democrats in the United States, and social democratic parties in Europe, also moved to re-negotiate the social contract. They promised citizens that they would control capitalism and provide social welfare policies and undertake other measures to strengthen national solidarity—but without the loss of freedom and democracy that fascism entailed.

“The lesson for the present is clear: you can’t beat something with nothing. If other political actors don’t come up with more compelling solutions to the problems of capitalism, the popular appeal of the resurgent Right-wing will continue. And then the analogy with fascism and democratic collapse of the interwar years might prove even more relevant than it is now.”

Glasman makes the same point is response to Johnson’s recent victory:

[The failure to honour Brexit reflects] The severing of the long-term marriage with the working class that created the Labour Party in the first place. It opens the space for the emergence of a genuinely nasty right-wing populist Party as an alternative to Labour and the Conservatives. The Brexit Party is merely a mild taster of what the future portends. The Conservative vote only rose a few percent overall, many former Labour voters went for the Brexit Party. What was clear is that the Labour vote collapsed in the heartlands and the Brexit Party saved more Labour seats than it lost.

“The glory of Labour was its ability to express the Labour interest within the framework of the inherited Parliamentary and legal institutions asserting democratic politics as an alternative to violence. While the rest of Europe did polarise and went Fascist or Communist, Labour retained the affections of the working-class and engaged in the politics of war and peace…

“The virtues of civility, generosity, and kindness in the public square are easily dismissed and hard to retain. Labour was the source of that politics and with its departure from the working-class communities it used to represent, a sullen resentful politics looms. Something closer to the Front National or the Afd in Germany.”

Nowhere is it written that the Labour Party has to be the beneficiary of the Tories likely failure to deliver on their various electoral promises.  Brexit is unlikely to be over and done with any time soon; and – at least in the short-term – the economic disruption is likely to depress living standards even further.  Nor can anyone seriously believe that a near bankrupt Britain is about to bring back the millions of industrial and manufacturing jobs that Thatcher and Blair shipped off to the Far East.  Nor – after a decade of anaemic expansion – does anyone seriously expect the global financial system to escape an even bigger crash than the 2008 one.  When that basket of ordure finally hits the fan, it will not matter a jot who the leader of the Labour Party happens to be if that party has failed to make peace with the modern British working class.  As John Harris explains:

“If you see a certain kind of old, white, working-class man and think that progressive politics ought to have nothing to do with him, you should maybe understand that your opinion is an indication of huge political failure.”

If Labour fails to learn this lesson, don’t be at all surprised if the government that succeeds Johnson arrives wearing black shirts, jackboots and armbands.

As you made it to the end…

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