Britain. Shortly before 10pm, May 7, 2015. Most within the Labour Party expect that next day, they’ll be forming a minority government; Ed Miliband is even preparing a victory speech. Then one exit poll later, the party’s collective chin hits the deck with a resounding crash. All sorts of certainties had vanished. Vanished, if Labour isn’t careful, for good.
Ever since its defeat (which shocked most, but not all of us), Labour has been like a punch drunk boxer: flailing around helplessly in all directions. Unable to find a coherent narrative under Miliband, it’s been even more unable to properly understand either why it lost, or what to do about it. Why? As long as we accept the tribal confines of British politics, in which the left pits itself against itself, cutting its own throat in the process, there is no simple answer. No clear path back to office exists: not with the tectonic plates the way they are now; not given the ongoing decline of social democratic parties all over Europe; nor when we factor in Labour’s long term neglect of its core voters, grassroots members, activists and structures.
All sorts of narratives quickly emerged to explain the defeat: all of which have some merit, none of which embody the whole picture. None of them could; the answer is too complicated for anyone to perfectly encapsulate. Was Labour trusted on the economy? No, but that doesn’t mean it should move rightwards. Did Labour shed support to the left? Yes, but that doesn’t mean it should return to what it once was. Above all because what it once was (in 2007, let alone 1983) no longer works.
Should Labour listen to its one surviving Prime Minister (and the only one to even win a majority since 1966), Tony Blair? You might think so – but the electoral coalition he put together was essentially short term; dependent entirely on him, a one-off political superstar, leading it; did a huge amount of long term damage to the party; and enjoyed success amid economic conditions and social attitudes which no longer apply, and will probably never do so again.
That the party has been so palpably bewildered and paralysed since its defeat shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s entirely natural. Wherever it looks, whatever direction it might try and move towards, Labour is boxed in as never before. If it moves to the right and tries to become a more palatable version of the Conservatives, not only does it give Scotland (without which, it cannot win) up as a lost cause, but it will shed even more support to the now left-leaning Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the dispiritingly massed ranks of non-voters… and do itself, in my judgement, lethal harm among its hollowed out grassroots. Upon whom it depends to get its message out – but it has to have a worthwhile message with which to mobilise them in the first place.
If it moves to the left in a bid to recapture its core support and sound more authentic, it is unlikely to make much headway in Scotland, where the rise of the Scottish National Party amounts to a fundamental, generational, more than likely irreversible shift, presaging independence in no more than the medium term; and achieve nothing whatsoever in Tory-dominated southern England: without which, it cannot win. Too right wing for Scotland, too left wing for England; but even that barely scratches the surface of the bind it finds itself in.
If Labour does nothing to oppose a socialism for the old, capitalism for the young Britain turned upside down, in which young people – overwhelmed with debt (which most will never pay off) even before entering an ever more insecure job market flooded with graduates, in which they’ve now been formalised as second class citizens until age 25; expected to deal with skyrocketing rents; unable to ever hope of buying a home for love nor money; and if they come from an abusive home and have no support network, are quite likely to find themselves on the streets – it won’t only lose the support of the young, but lose many of them to politics and the democratic process altogether.
But it can’t do anything much about that – and why? Far and away its worst electoral problem is with the grey vote: of whom there’ll be 1.5m more by 2020. Meaning it can’t propose rent caps, or a land value tax, or any sort of pension reform, or remove any of the freebies which so many pensioners enjoy at the same time as hundreds of thousands in work are plunged into poverty – because to do so is electoral suicide. How did the Tories win the critical support of so many pensioners? Both through being much more trusted on the economy, but also the outrageous pre-election bribe of allowing instant access for over-55s to their pension pots. A bribe supported and implemented by the Lib Dems: to their loss and their coalition partners’ gain.
And then, of course, there’s UKIP. Amongst Labour’s many election blunders, its implacable opposition to a referendum on the EU was maybe the worst of all. This didn’t only mean that it didn’t trust the people and thought it knew better; it underscored its horrendous obliviousness to the effect of uncontrolled immigration from the EU into working class areas: pushing down wages and making work ever more insecure. Labour’s attitude towards immigration – sneering at those who raise the issue as “racist”, while being wholly impervious to its drawbacks – has, all too often, resembled that of cossetted, out of touch metropolitan liberals hectoring from an ivory tower. It has to develop a vastly more Euro-sceptic stance, seeking real reform on, above all, freedom of movement, as a matter of increasing urgency.
But if it does that, it runs the risk of losing precisely the middle class, metropolitan liberal support it gained in London – its only election success story – and, indeed, of looking unprincipled; changing its position too much. Everywhere it looks, there’s a problem; what it might gain in terms of votes through any particular shift in policy, it will lose for the same reason.
Against such a backdrop, of course it’s confused. Of course it’s looked a complete shambles. Any other party trapped in such a grim position would too. But that’s not to say it hasn’t made a whole series of blunders which have turned a drama into a mounting (threatening to become existential) crisis: which started when, with the final misstep of his hapless leadership, Miliband stupidly stood down immediately instead of presiding over an orderly, Michael Howard to David Cameron 2005-style transition.
This meant that, for the second Parliament in a row, Labour immediately ceded any control of the narrative to the Tories. Last time it did that, a cacophony of gibberish about it having “caused the crash” – the big lie which won Cameron the election – was allowed to go unchecked. This time, the narrative has shifted to social security (or as Cameron likes to pejoratively term it, ‘welfare’: Tory cynicism summed up in a single word): with Labour accused of being “weak on welfare” if it did not support a whole series of horrific cuts which will plunge hundreds of thousands into poverty (including, staggeringly, many in work); socially cleanse the south of England (given the boundary changes which will follow, a nakedly political move designed to drive any remaining non-Tory support out of more affluent constituencies altogether); remove £30 per week from the disabled and infirm; slash the already derisory amounts provided to asylum seekers and their children; remove access to housing benefit altogether for anyone under 21; and even appear to require women who have a third child as a result of being raped to prove it.
During the last Parliament, the Conservative narrative on the deficit was based, very simply, on the politics of bullshit. The narrative on social security is similar. Housing benefit is what it is because of constant failure to do anything at all about exorbitant rents; and just as alarmingly few voters ever realised that George Osborne, not Labour, had doubled the national debt, so they are also unaware that by far the largest chunk of the ‘welfare’ bill goes not on unemployment benefit, not on benefit fraud… but on pensions. The recipients of which, again for nakedly political reasons, the Tories protect and indulge with various unnecessary freebies at all costs.
So is Labour challenging the narrative? Of course not. Instead, the left watched aghast as Harriet Harman, the disastrously incompetent acting leader, demanded the Parliamentary Labour Party abstain on the Welfare Reform Bill. Together, leadership contenders Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper at least forced Harman to agree to a reasoned amendment – but whatever the whys and wherefores of Parliamentary procedure, the damage was done, and those who accuse Labour of being ‘Red Tories’ or ‘Tory lite’ were greatly emboldened.
Harman – caretaker the last time Labour disastrously lost control of the narrative – had already committed a far, far worse blunder than that, though. In my view, an unforgivable one. On May 18, she threw the entire leadership contest open to anyone prepared to pay just £3 for the privilege. No doubt, this was well intentioned – the idea was clearly to elect a leader with national, not just party appeal – but it was one of the most ludicrous, moronic things I’ve ever seen any political leader do. On Twitter, I described it as “insane”; as far as I was concerned, anyone with half a braincell should have been able to see what would now happen.
Sure enough, up popped The Telegraph to helpfully implore its readers to fork out three quid, vote for Jeremy Corbyn (the nomination of whom by many who aren’t even supporting him constitutes yet another blunder) and “destroy the Labour Party”. Sure enough, the Sunday Times are reporting today that the contest has been infiltrated by the hard left and very same militant tendency which turned Labour into an unelectable, internecine rabble during the 1980s. Much of which will explain why Corbyn, an unreconstructed Bennite, former Morning Star columnist, who rebelled against a three-line whip no fewer than 238 times during the last Labour government, has swept dramatically ahead in the race, according to the only opinion poll so far conducted.
Of course, there are other reasons for his success. While his rivals compete to sound mainstream and appeal to swing (meaning, because of First Past The Post, centre-right or right wing) voters, Corbyn has simply been himself: espousing positions few of which can be described as extreme in traditional left or even centre-left terms; none of which have the remotest relevance in Britain in 2015 (for reasons I’ll shortly explain). With 76% of the electorate having not voted for the most right wing government seen in Britain since at least the 1930s, a left long since disenfranchised by the iniquities of FPTP suddenly has someone it can believe in: someone different, offering real hope.
We’ve seen the ‘none of the above’ phenomenon in British politics before. It helped sweep Ken Livingstone to the London Mayoralty as an independent in 2000; launched Nick Clegg into national consciousness during the 2010 General Election campaign; and has more than a bit to do with the SNP’s success as well. Corbyn’s success is a comment on just how narrowly unrepresentative politics in Britain have become over the last three decades; just how out of touch and disconnected, so many of its politicians – all suits with nothing to say – now are.
Instead of facing him down with conviction, authority, passion, vision, leadership, his rivals have been cowed. Burnham embarrassing himself during the Welfare Bill fiasco; Liz Kendall, the tactic without a strategy, the Blairite who doesn’t understand the first thing about Blairism, polarising the debate so much with a whole series of harshly expressed right wing platforms that she’s unwittingly pushed many voters towards Corbyn (and certainly made him look less extreme, in Labour terms at least); and Cooper: who has said nothing about well, anything really.
Why has she done that? On top of incomprehensibly continuing to support FPTP, the world’s second worst electoral system, despite it being the very thing which has left it so helplessly squeezed, the very thing which has distorted political debate and public policy so much ever since 1981, the very thing which has led it to neglect its core support and grassroots base for so long that the Corbyn surge has been the inevitable result, Labour also uses the world’s worst electoral system, the Alternative Vote, for its leadership contest. Last time round, AV delivered the wrong brother. This time, its emphasis on second preferences has left Burnham and Cooper frightened of even trying to articulate anything convincing; and the latter very plainly pursuing a strategy based on securing enough second choice votes to win.
Will this work? In normal circumstances, ie. if Harman hadn’t opened the contest up to every man and his dog, it almost certainly would have done; and personally, I very much hope it does. Cooper is the only candidate who can both keep the party together and offer some sort of credible threat to the Tories: she’s competent, capable, strategically smart, and should be effective at the despatch box too. Her ideas on the digital revolution are important; her emphasis on childcare, much needed. For the good of the party and of British politics, she’s the option who needs to win.
Yvette Cooper has the best chance of challenging the Tories
By contrast, Burnham – whose work on Hillsborough was magnificent – would hold Labour together, but merely be a more charismatic version of Miliband. He has little or no appeal in swing constituencies; and contrary to his cliches about getting out of the “Westminster bubble” (memo to Andy: if you have a problem with that bubble, try not to spend your entire career beforehand as a machine politician within it), I doubt he’d change very much about the way the party operates. His conceding the Tory lie about Labour spending is also a serious error, because it leaves him forced to go along with further cuts, or be branded a flip flopper and hypocrite.
Kendall? The trouble with Liz isn’t merely her policies, or a (deliberate?) misreading of the election result based entirely on the economy and ‘aspiration’ when in fact, Labour’s infinitely greater problem was its dreadfully weak leadership and lack of a coherent, simple narrative. It’s her harshness; her coldness even. A couple of days after the election, I watched the MP for Leicester West, who I’d never previously heard of, interviewed on the BBC, and had an immediately visceral reaction: the like of which I can scarcely recall feeling about any Labour politician.
Never mind that strategically, telling a party it’s wrong about more or less everything is, as Michael Portillo would confirm of the 2001 Tory leadership contest, a surefire way of not winning (compare this with Neil Kinnock in 1983 or Blair in 1994, both of whom were all sweetness, light and platitudes before their electors); I knew that neither Labour members nor the broader public would be able to take her at all seriously as a prospective leader. And in that, I appear to have been right.
A Kendall win, inconceivable thankfully, would split the party: haemorrhage support away to the SNP, Lib Dems and Greens, not to mention the activists it desperately needs to take the fight to the Tories on the ground. Her whole campaign has been based around the message that “only she can win”; the reality, I’m afraid, is the exact opposite.
But as her threat recedes, a much larger one grows: Corbyn. Who barely even wants to be leader (in which case Jeremy, you really shouldn’t be standing); and who when asked on Channel 4 News about having once described Hizbollah and Hamas as his friends, exploded in such a rage that it should have disqualified him from contention there and then. That’s not to say he was wrong to complain about the Middle East being trivialised; it’s just that his reaction was akin to an angry, drunk, hectoring left winger getting into an furious argument down the pub. Endearing in some ways: but a disastrous sign of what the media would do to him. And in the parallel universe of him becoming Prime Minister (imagine him at a summit with the Israeli leader!), what he’d do to Britain’s international image too.
But this is almost irrelevant when set against the wider problem of what a Corbyn win would do. There is no chance that the PLP would wear it. This would be worse, a lot worse, than when Iain Duncan Smith became Tory leader thanks to the support of grassroots members who did not have the first clue (or, in many cases, care) of what electability is actually about. Cue, in next to no time, a coup – but if that happens, so many members and activists, hopes swelled by him having won, would simply give up. Labour would have confirmed themselves ‘Red Tories’ once and for all; and the collapse of the party would allow the real Tories to reign unchecked for goodness knows how long, abandoning the most vulnerable to their fate. If this government is what the Tories are capable of with a 12-seat majority, imagine what they’d be like if there’s no opposition at all.
Many will think I’m exaggerating here. I am not. Why would the PLP bring him down? Not because of arrogance; not even because a hollowed out, top down structure which has separated them from activists more and more over the last two decades. They’d bring him down because Jeremy Corbyn’s policies could not be more impracticable in a modern setting.
During the election campaign, when Labour were actually fighting on as progressive a platform as is possible under FPTP, many on the left demanded to know why it wasn’t anti-austerity; why it also pledged deficit reduction, albeit of a more manageable kind. If the SNP could do it, why couldn’t Labour? To which the answer is: (1) As the Institute for Fiscal Studies confirmed, the SNP weren’t anti-austerity either: it just pretended to be, while actually proposing more drawn out austerity than Labour; (2) The SNP is able to sound social democratic as long as it does not have control of Scotland’s finances. The moment it does, the rules of the game change: it would immediately have to become a lot more centrist, or else.
Before its supporters furiously interject, no: I’m not arguing that Scotland is “too wee” or “too poor” to be independent. I’m arguing that an independent Scotland (which to be viable, would require its own currency and control over its own economic policy, as recent events in the eurozone have again confirmed) would immediately face all the same fiscal pressures and constraints as those already impacting on every other European economy, almost none of which (even Germany, prime beneficiaries of the disastrous euro experiment) are growing much. The great lie about an independent Scotland is it could be socialist, or even social democratic. It could not. The great lie about a Corbyn-led Britain is it could be socialist, or even social democratic. It could not.
Many of those on the centre-left who consider themselves anything but extreme are, essentially, upholders of the post-war consensus: founded upon an extraordinary sense of solidarity – everyone really was all in it together – born during the war. That Blitz spirit, everyone doing their bit to help save the country, gave rise to a demand even with the war still ongoing of a new kind of Britain: an end to upstairs/downstairs, a nation truly fit for heroes. Universal education, free healthcare, decent housing, full employment: a dignified life from cradle to grave for all. What, many reading this will wonder, could possibly be ‘extreme’ about any of that?
Across Western Europe, Marshall Aid – the US pumping in massive financial assistance to stop the continent falling to Communism – made this possible, and drew the whole region into a Pax Americana which has only expanded since. But the Bretton Woods system of collective financial management, in which currencies were tied to gold, was what underpinned it; and when this failed in 1971, the US terminating convertibility and the dollar becoming the world’s reserve currency, all that had previously been certain was now anything but.
International currency markets gained dramatically in power; and in Britain, heavy industry became more and more uncompetitive: in economic terms, a complete liability. Thatcherism, Reaganomics, monetarism and neo-liberalism were the result: the US and UK turning into countries which stopped making things, and started importing more and more instead. The US was protected by its reserve currency status; Britain was not. And as it was not – as it became service-based, with an emphasis on the financial sector above all – the welfare state its people had come to take for granted was already on borrowed time.
That welfare state, and with it, a large public sector, meant that public debt began to grow. This wasn’t a major problem as long as the economy kept growing too: and between 1992 (when the UK was freed from the Exchange Rate Mechanism by Black/White Wednesday) and 2008, grow it did: continually. But as that growth was based on a housing bubble and consumer debt, it was never going to last forever; and while Labour was absolutely not responsible for the global crash, it was running a structural deficit.
Now, the shock caused by the crash and especially, the dramatically reduced tax take led the deficit to shoot up: but what happened in 2008 was much more fundamental than that. The world financial system itself failed, and has not truly recovered since: with government bailouts of stricken banks (regarding which, they had no choice) piling colossal amounts of debt onto the public, but amounting to little more than a sticking plaster.
As the coalition came into office and austerity was enacted, Britain went back into recession. Austerity does not work because if you take money out of an economy, it contracts, meaning you still have to borrow just to stand still. So borrow, Osborne did: more in 5 years than Labour had in 13, doubling the national debt in no time. But the problem is that in this greatly changed landscape, Keynesianism and conventional macro-economics don’t work either. In the developed (but importantly, not the developing) world, capitalism itself has effectively failed; and the unspoken secret is that economists on either side of the argument don’t have an answer.
Around the world, the fundamentals remain very unsound. The US is protected by the dollar’s status; but the euro area has barely grown at all over the last decade; Russia is in all sorts of trouble thanks to US and EU economic sanctions; Japan’s two-decade-long deflation may shortly give way to stagflation; China is encountering more and more difficulties; the banks have still not been regulated. The factors precipitating a second global crash are gradually moving into place; and this time, almost all Western economies are massively less insulated, because almost all are running unsustainable deficits. And of those, Britain, with the second largest deficit in the OECD, and again only growing because of services and another property bubble, is in one of the most vulnerable positions.
Borrowing and investing in order to create more sustainable growth, as Keynesians want, is not an option against such a backdrop. Britain’s debt is only manageable as long as interest rates remain so historically low (something which puzzles economists more than maybe anything else). As soon as they rise, as they must at some point, the fur will hit the fan. The only way of avoiding this would be first, a mass Jubilee 2000-style debt write-off; and second, some new version of Bretton Woods. But in a globalised world, with corporations, not nation states, calling the shots, and the developing world (most of which is unencumbered by anything much in the way of a welfare state) growing rapidly and naturally wanting more of a steadily diminishing pie, that’s a lot easier said than done.
Complicating matters still further is what governments find when they put taxes up: as a Corbyn government would do, very substantially. It’s not just that capital flees and a brain drain occurs. It’s that the tax take itself hardly changes. Since 1964, UK income tax rates have ranged from 40%, to 96%, to 50% – yet as a proportion of GDP, tax revenue has remained extraordinarily static: almost always between 34% and 36%. As this article explains, in Britain, the reason is probably cultural: but the forces of globalisation mean it has never been harder for any government to soak the rich in order to significantly redistribute wealth and pay for a substantial welfare state than now. In the terms Corbyn proposes – even those Labour proposed in 1992 – it’s essentially impossible.
And as it’s impossible, the deficit and debt would quickly become utterly uncontrollable: indeed, lethal. This is why left of centre parties across Europe stopped proposing socialism long ago; and since 2008, have even stopped offering social democracy. Tax takes cannot pay for what the left traditionally demands. To take the most benign view (which his policies certainly don’t warrant) of Osborne’s approach, it’s also why he’s slashing spending, but not putting up direct taxation. The alternative would involve the politically impossible move of means testing pensions (albeit, tying pensions to earnings and offering free TV licenses, free bus passes and winter fuel allowances to any pensioner who doesn’t need them is wholly unnecessary, and an electoral bribe).
The unspoken truth of austerity is this. In the developed world, it’s not temporary. It’s permanent. Living standards for almost everyone will fall, and inequality rise towards South American levels: gated communities will probably begin to appear in Europe before much longer. Jobs will become ever more insecure as machines and robots reduce the need for paid human labour; holiday entitlements will disappear, retirement and pension ages will rise to almost unimaginable levels. What we expect of the state at present will be unrecognisable no more than two generations from now as China and India gradually catch up with and ultimately surpass Europe – and with corporations and businesses in competition with others all over the world, it is not possible for European governments to resist this. All they can do is seek to ameliorate it and provide as soft a landing for as many people as possible; the Tories’ wanton failure to even attempt this (and narratives based on lies designed to turn one section of society against another, invariably more vulnerable one) is why I object to their approach so strongly.
Of course, no government will ever spell this out. In Britain, there are occasional coded comments from ministers about “winning the global race” (the code covers the unspoken remainder of the sentence, “to the bottom”) – but to explain it is simply too frightening for public opinion, used to a standard of living which it once assumed would inevitably improve forever, to comprehend. But at least the right is operating from within a capitalist system which suits its individualistic ideology more than ever; throughout Europe, defining what it stands for amid such a bleak context has never been more difficult for the left.
If it admits that in essence, there’s nothing it can do, it commits hara-kiri. But a platform of “vote for us, and we’ll just tweak things around the edges a bit” (Labour’s platform at the 2015 election) is no platform at all. Meaning that as old parties decline, identity politics emerge instead: based on clear, simple, often emotive language, defining itself against something (in Greece and Spain, austerity; in Scotland, Westminster and austerity; in England, France and Denmark, immigration and the EU); and offering the hope that, if only the particular thing being angrily objected to is removed, a new Jerusalem of whatever form can rise instead. But it cannot. Much more powerful economic forces are at work, which no country can resist.
There’s nothing surprising about Corbyn’s massed ranks of supporters wanting to retreat into the past. Neo-liberalism has failed; austerity has failed; social democracy has failed; the world is now vastly more insecure. Where there used to be innate confidence on the part of most that capitalism and democracy worked in harness to lift people up, give them opportunities, help them pursue their dreams, and provide, if not milk and honey, at least a sense of progress, each generation doing that bit better than the last, that feeling has gone now. In the dawning age of post-democracy, capitalism is suddenly working against the people, not for them. There has to be something better, surely?
Well yes, eventually. In the Guardian, Paul Mason, ever the optimist, spelt out its most idealistic form. But even if, which I very much doubt, Mason’s vision is what ultimately results, it won’t be with us for a very, very long time. The transition from the failure of the world financial system to a new, almost unimaginable reality will probably take the rest of this century to complete. What can the left do in the meantime?
On the basis that oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them, any chance Labour has of a remarkable resurgence in 2020 is predicated much more on the clouded economic picture than anything else: albeit, Osborne’s cuts will hit almost all sections of society, and there’s only so much pretence around living wages that are anything but which even the Tories’ sleight of hand, smoke and mirrors will be able to get away with.
Labour must vigorously challenge the government on all aspects on this: focusing, as it’s already starting to do, on the appalling impact on working people above all. It needs a coherent, credible alternative narrative on the economy; Cooper is considerably best placed to provide it. Corbyn (who make no mistake, could certainly win; and if he does, all hell will break loose in all sorts of ways) is no option at all.
But more fundamentally: Labour must not look back to the past, to hopelessly failed methods which could not be more impracticable now, to a Bennite in unwitting danger of splitting (even, in the case of some of his hard left supporters, destroying) the Labour Party just as his mentor did; but forwards. Labour is in crisis because labour itself is no longer organised, but instead, dispersed, even atomised; so it has to re-organise, rebuild its antiquated grassroots structures, re-engage with the public in all local communities in all sorts of innovative ways, and become a continual campaigning movement at local level.
Localism, not centralism; bottom-up, not top-down, are key here; so too, as the Smith Institute put it on Friday, is “re-imagining the state… a hand-up, not a hand down”. Facilitating people, not controlling them; structures which support people from below, not above; harnessing the limitless opportunities provided by technology in very modern ways.
Building open minded progressive alliances which seek to share and devolve power, not control it, above all ahead of general elections, has never been more important either: though if Labour continues to set its face against this, don’t care will inevitably be made to care before much longer. In light of the most disproportionate election result in British history, that none of the leadership candidates, not even Corbyn, have spoken about voting reform in any meaningful way is extraordinary. Securing proportional representation, and achieving this through a specially assembled anti-Tory bloc, could be Labour’s great, radical cause… if only it could see beyond the end of its own nose for a change.
Fortunately, it at least has someone within its ranks who understands the criteria set out above; who hallelujah, does support electoral reform (if not yet PR), and who that man Blair described word for word during his question and answer session at Progress last week. The media, true to form, focused on who he didn’t mean, not on who he did: but she’s a huge part of that future. And it’s to her ideas – to Stella Creasy, a very new kind of politician, with a very new conception of campaigning, organising, mobilising, and what the left should be about – I’ll be turning in my next article.