openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Labour should have argued against the last 40 years, not just the last ten

Labour’s defeat and the triumph of Johnsonism: part three, the narrative.

Jeremy Gilbert
15 January 2020
Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard protests against cuts
Scottish Labour/Twitter

In the first two articles in this series, I looked at the break-up of Labour’s voter coalition between 2017 and 2019, and at the successes and failures of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. In this third contribution, I want to ask a question about the way in which Labour made its case to the nation. With or without a different style of leadership, was there anything that Labour could have done differently in this campaign, or the two years leading to it, that would have made it possible to hold together its fractious and fracturing coalition?

Naturally, I’m going to suggest that there was: Labour could have offered a bold, coherent narrative that promised a decisive break with 40 years of British neoliberalism.

Against ‘Austerity’

I’ve made that case many times: here, in other publications and in personal discussions with senior Labour figures. But here goes again. Labour’s rhetorical focus on ‘austerity’, as the name for thing that we would end, was always a mistake. ‘Austerity’ names the programme of public-sector contraction that has been implemented by successive governments since 2010 in response to the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. So it refers to a set of circumstances that have had the most immediately deleterious effects on social groups who felt that they were largely doing well until 2010. This does not speak at all to those who feel that their communities in fact never recovered from the devastation of the 1980s. It implies no critique whatsoever of the long period during which New Labour spent lavishly on public services, while implementing a wholly neoliberal policy agenda (semi-privatising services, introducing and maintaining punitive welfare regimes, enforcing competition and hierarchy in the models of service-delivery, etc.), and failing to implement anything like an effective industrial policy.

Of course it is true that ‘austerity’ had the worst effects on the most vulnerable citizens: in particular those dependent on welfare or on the most resource-intensive public services. So in effect, the ‘anti-austerity’ discourse addressed a coalition of these voters with those young people and public-sector workers who had felt relatively prosperous immediately before 2010: which was always precisely the core coalition of support for Corbyn. But it did not address the problems of those in provincial towns who had got by, but struggled, for decades. It did nothing to connect their concerns with those of that Corbyn coalition. It didn’t link the concerns of both of those groups with the sense of unease that even affluent voters in the South often express, about the whole direction of our society and culture. It is very common for people all over the country to feel that our national life has been saturated by greed, and robbed of any sense of purpose or direction, since the Thatcherite triumph of the 1980s. This sense of loss can easily crystallise into forms of reactionary conservatism, if citizens are not offered some other way of expressing it. The critique of austerity was always too limited a discourse to be able to do that work.

I warned repeatedly that unless Corbyn could learn to denounce this forty years of failure, and not only the not-quite-a-decade of austerity, then he would lose support among older and middle-aged voters who had lived through the whole neoliberal period. The plight of those communities has been produced by that entire history, and by far the greatest number of their votes were lost to Labour during the period 1997-2010, rather than during any subsequent phase. The obvious appeal of the pro-Brexit narrative offered by the tabloids is that it offers a long-range historical account of that entire era, while promising a decisive end to it. This is what so many people voted for, when they voted for Brexit and then insisted on seeing it ‘done’.

Corbyn’s Labour was making a clear break with that history, as no Labour leadership had done since the 1980s. There was every reason to make this case explicitly, explaining to all of the many constituencies around the country who had never felt represented or empowered by neoliberal hegemony that we were going to put an end to it now.

I spent years making this argument. I was told on good authority that it was raised repeatedly by some members of Corbyn’s key communications team, but that the most senior officials dismissed it. I don’t know how much of this is true. Either way, we’ve seen the outcome. Time and again, canvassers in ‘heartland’ constituencies reported that voters showed no clear awareness of the profound difference between Corbyn’s Labour party and Blair’s, and gave their disillusionment with the New Labour years as a reason not to vote Labour again. This was precisely the reaction that I had warned against. Even ‘middle-class’ liberal voters found our political narrative unpersuasive: ultimately, I would suggest, for the same reason.

Why couldn’t they say it?

I’m presenting this somewhat as if it were just my brilliant idea that Corbyn’s advisors were too stupid to take up. But the truth is obviously far from that. I think the case I was making was so obvious that I can’t claim any particular brilliance for having made it. The real question is: why wasn’t it ever acted on? It’s worth thinking about what some of the structural reasons might have been.

One point that was often made to me by people around Westminster was this. For Labour to take publicly the line that I was suggesting, would mean explicitly criticising at least some elements of the New Labour legacy. As I often replied, this could have been done without dismissing all of New Labour’s achievements: by not personalising the narrative, by pointing out the historic constraints under which the Blair government had operated. But I’ve been told by several MPs that a large section of the Parliamentary Labour Party simply won’t tolerate any significant criticism of the New Labour policy regime, or its effects, from Labour leaders or prospective leaders.

If it is true that this was really one of the obstacles to Labour adopting the only plausible narrative that could have successfully made its case to the country, then it is all the more reason for the party to adopt measures making MPs accountable to the membership, as soon as possible. And this might stand as evidence to support the views of those who believe that one of the great failures of the Corbyn leadership was not using the membership to discipline the PLP, by introducing a system of automatic ‘open selections’ (in American terms: regular primaries), obliging incumbent MPs to be compete for their nominations before each election.

The failure to introduce this policy, despite Corbyn’s early and repeated promises of early democratisation of the party, is most plausibly attributed to the following fact. Corbyn’s most powerful backers in the labour movement – the leadership of the Unite union – have never wanted to give members control of candidate selections, but have rather seen Corbynism as one stage in their long struggle to win control of it for themselves, in opposition to the Blairite network that largely controlled it up until 2010. This is one reason why some members on the left of the party have been reluctant to back Rebecca Long-Bailey as the next Labour leader; they worry that she is too close to the same group of senior figures, loyal to the Unite leadership, that prevented the advance of Labour’s democratic agenda. I don’t know if any of this is true, but all of it is highly plausible.

It’s worth asking if there are any other reasons why the case wasn’t made. Why the persistent over-investment in the presumed unpopularity of austerity? Why the complete failure, rhetorically, to take advantage of the fact that Corbynism clearly did mark the first real rupture with Thatcherism and its legacy? I have a few speculative thoughts about this, which may be entirely misplaced, but which at least shed a little light on the character of the current state of Labour’s factional politics.

One is that Corbyn, McDonnell and their senior advisers were over-impressed by the significance of a single key moment in the process that led to Corbyn’s election as Labour leader. This was the instance when, during the 2015 leadership election, most of the PLP abstained on a government bill introducing swingeing cuts to welfare spending. Abstention was the position taken by the leadership of the time, and was seen as a necessary expression of fiscal seriousness by Labour. This was seen as required, as the party was still suffering in the polls because too many voters believed the utterly nonsensical claims of the Tory press, blaming the previous Labour administration’s ‘reckless spending habits’ for the consequences of the 2008 crash.

Party mythology maintains that it was the decision of ‘soft-left’ candidate Andy Burnham to follow the party line at that moment, rather than vote against the bill with 48 of his colleagues, that cost him the leadership; the members had had enough of deferring to conservative ideology, and became determined to back the only candidate who voted against the bill: Jeremy Corbyn.

That parliamentary vote retains a real significance in today’s leadership race, because the respective decisions of candidates in it are still regarded as one of the best indicators of their political orientation. Of the remaining candidates, only Rebecca Long Bailey voted against. Personally I do not think it is remotely plausible to claim that Burnham lost and Corbyn won the leadership of the Labour party primarily, or even significantly, because of that one vote against the austerity regime. But if certain people do believe that, then it may well have coloured their approach to future campaigning.

On top of all this, a further factor reinforcing the importance of ‘austerity’ in the mind of figures such as Corbyn, McDonnell and their close supporters may have been the relative popularity of the ‘People’s Assembly Against Austerity’ in the several years leading up to 2015. Although, if this was interpreted as any kind of direct precursor to the Corbyn phenomenon, then I think this was an analytical mistake. The People’s Assembly was, to all intents and purposes, a typical far-left campaign that largely mobilised only and exactly the same constituencies as were normally mobilised by such initiatives. Corbyn’s success in 2015 indexed something quite different: a real break in neoliberal hegemony. Perhaps the leadership’s failure to grasp that fact, and its full implications, was their tragic strategic error.

Gramsci Vs. Lenin?

Another related, but even more speculative, explanation for Labour’s excessive focus on ‘austerity’ is as follows. In the first substantial analysis I made of the Corbyn phenomenon, I pointed out that at least some of the key figures around Corbyn had a conception of politics and strategy that was not ‘Gramscian’ but ‘Leninist’. My reference to Leninism here is a very crude caricature, but insofar as it has any bearing on this situation, I am pointing to the difference between two different conceptions of politics. One is based on the idea that to achieve social change, radical organisations must patiently assemble grand social coalitions that can eventually challenge the power of ruling elites: this is what Gramsci calls the ‘war of position’. The other more ‘Leninist’ way of thinking about politics is based on the idea that the only way to get really radical change is by seizing at very rare historic opportunities with a decisive strike, while maintaining complete control over a party apparatus (what Gramsci calls the ‘war of manoeuvre’). The latter, as I say, would certainly be a caricature of Leninism; but it will serve as a brief description of its most distinctive features. There is no doubt that at least some key figures round Corbyn (Andrew Murray, Seamus Milne, Len McCluskey) have been closely associated with Leninist political organisations and tendencies over the course of their political careers. Murray only stopped being a member of the deeply orthodox (effectively Breshnevite) Communist Party of Britain in 2016.

Historically, within the factional mosaic of the British left and far-left, Gramscian approaches to political strategy and analysis – such as the approach informing this entire series of articles – tend to focus on ‘middle-range’ historical scales: for example, the 40 years of neoliberal hegemony that I keep going on about in this one. If you think that politics is a long-term process of coalition-building, then you’re likely to be interested in analysing changing social contexts on a medium-term basis. Such approaches also tend to be associated with a different current of the left to the ultra-orthodoxy of the Communist Party (and its allied paper, the Morning Star) and smaller revolutionary sects. This Gramcian tradition is instead more clearly identified with those political currents deriving from the ‘New Left’ of the 1960s. In terms of Labour party and wider UK left factional politics, this latter tradition is historically, institutionally, associated with the ‘soft left’, for complex and contingent historical reasons. In fact, it would be more accurate to associate it with what we might call ‘the far left of the soft left’ (eg the lobby group Compass, the journal Soundings), which in politics and spirit has more in common with the radical democratic wing of the ‘hard left’ – represented by John McDonnell and his followers – than it does with the liberal reformism of, say, the Tribune group of MPs (which of course now has nothing at all to do with far-left Tribune magazine).

By contrast, with this Gramsican tradition, the orthodox, Leninist hard left tends to be uninterested in the sort of medium-range analysis that I’m making here, preferring to focus either on very long-range topic, such as capitalism and imperialism, or on relatively short term issues: wars, government austerity campaigns, etc. This is because it is primarily concerned with seeking out short-term developments that might have the potential to radicalise significant populations within a short time-frame, provoking the kind of very occasional socio-political crises that create the only real historic opportunities for significant radical advance. I can’t help suspecting that it is this intellectual orientation – with its lack of interest in things happening on the medium-term historical scale’ – that led Corbyn’s most senior advisers never to attempt to any serious public critique of the 40 years of neoliberal hegemony.

But for whatever reason they didn’t do it: they didn’t. This was a terrible mistake. Because that 40-year period of disruption and (for many) decline was precisely what the right-wing, pro-Brexit narrative honed in on, and promised a decisive conclusion to.

Demanding Democracy

What story, with what conclusion, could Labour have offered, that could have matched the dramatic promise of Brexit? Along with offering a decisive and clearly-articulated end to the forty years of neoliberal failure, it could have offered a more authentic version of precisely what Brexit promised: a return of some kind of effective democracy. The slogan ‘take back control’ clearly expressed a profound sense that democratic efficacy had drained away from our political system.

This is undoubtedly true. British representative democracy has not returned a government that did what most of the electorate actually wanted it to do since the crisis of the 1970s. If this sounds improbable to you, then just think of it this way. Tory voters in the 1980s mostly wanted the Conservatives to take the country back to some imagined version of the 1950s. They didn’t. Labour voters in the 1990s and 2000s mostly wanted a restoration of the interrupted project of post-war social democracy. They didn’t get that either. Until the 2008 crisis, large sections of the electorate had largely given up on the possibility of any government doing anything but manage the relentless march of neoliberalism; voters had remained acquiescent largely because of the ongoing increase in the level of private consumption – fueled largely by credit card and mortgage debt – seemed to compensate for the gradual erosion of democracy. Once that source of compensation dried up for many citizens (especially younger workers), democratic demands began to be made on the British political class or the first time in a generation.

This demand for democracy was always implicit both in the Corbynite political insurgency and in the mass support for Brexit. But Corbynism was never able to express itself as an explicitly democratic movement, or to offer a narrative that both acknowledged the long-term crisis of democracy while presenting itself as the solution to it. Although a commitment to a constitutional convention was always buried in some section or other of our manifestos, it was never a focal point of campaigning. Instead, we promised people that if they granted Labour a parliamentary majority, we would be able to enact a major change to the country’s economic paradigm, its socio-technical infrastructure and its underlying balance of class forces: all, apparently, without any necessary change to a system of government that has not been significantly updated in England since the 1920s.

A certain naivety about the capacities of parliamentary government has always been a distinctive feature of the Bennite tradition. Tony Benn – Corbyn’s idol and mentor – opposed proportional representation (unlike Keir Hardie), and seemed to believe in the historical vocation of the House of Commons as the singular expression of the political will of the British people. This was always a sentimental and rather ludicrous attitude. It was quite out of step with the historic understanding of the socialist movement that liberal democracy should only ever be seen as an antecedent to, and as a poor substitute for, the more substantive and participatory forms of democracy that socialists would seek to build.

I’ve been saying this since Ed Miliband was first elected leader. I’ll keep saying it till it happens. No Labour leader will deserve to win another election who cannot give a historic speech in which they admit the following (flat out, no prevarication, no fudging). British representative democracy has been broken since the crisis of the 1970s, and has allowed a corporate elite and a professional political class to spend four decades pursuing a disastrous political project that never enjoyed an authentic popular mandate. Our entire system must be subject to a process of radical and ongoing reform that will begin with proportional representation (presumably through the introduction of an ‘additional members’ system) and radical devolution to the regions, but will have no prescribed final end. On the one hand, a Ministry of Democracy should be created, that will have as its only and inexhaustible remit the permanent monitoring and extension of democracy into as many spheres of public life as possible. On the other, a permanent constituent assembly should be established that ensures the full participation of citizens in the working of that ministry.

Right Answer, Wrong Question

Unable or unwilling to make such bold claims, Labour’s narrative was ultimately entirely unsuitable to the radicalism of its programme. If you’re telling people that you’re going to implement the most radical programme since 1945, then you have to explain in what sense the election of a Labour government is going to be an epochal event on the scale of the end of World War II. We didn’t. The anti-austerity narrative framing our 2019 manifesto instead proposed a once-in-a-century answer to a once-in-a-decade problem.

The programme was not the problem. But we did not tell a story of sufficient scope and ambition for such an ambitious programme to be a plausible end to it. We didn’t frame questions that were profound enough for such a radical manifesto to be the answer. We had the right answers. But ‘how do we end austerity?’ was too unambitious a question. The question should have been ‘how do we end 40 years of neoliberalism?’

We could easily have produced a popular narrative that framed that question, and gave a radical programme as the only common-sense answer to it. The long-term crisis of democracy that had culminated in Johnson’s hard Brexit, combined with the immediate urgency of the climate crisis; the fact that a huge majority of the UK population recognise that the country has been heading in the wrong direction for decades: all of this could have provided the backdrop to a radical call for national renewal. This could have won over many of the greens and liberals who deserted us in 2019, as well as many of the Leavers. Instead, we basically just said that we needed to reverse the cuts made by the Cameron governments. But if the problem was ‘austerity’ – in other words, the cuts initiated by Cameron and Osborne – why was a major programme of re-nationalisation the answer?

Can this change? Will any future Labour leader have the courage and imagination to tell the story that Labour has to tell: a story about the destructive consequences of four decades of neoliberalism (interrupted, to be sure, but never adequately concluded or reversed, by 13 years of New Labour)? A story that acknowledges how badly our democracy needs repair? Time will tell. At the moment of writing, Clive Lewis has been making heroic and articulate efforts to get this point across in the national media. What is depressingly plain from the responses of his interviewers has been that this isn’t an issue that most of the British media class want to see talked about. This comes as no surprise. At the same time Rebecca Long Bailey has made a very welcome commitment to radical constitutional reform: although what that would mean in practice we have yet to learn.

For the next five years, we will face a government that may seek to further extend the neoliberal destruction of the public sector and the welfare state, but which will more likely seek to draw a line under austerity and return to some kind of mildly Keynesian national capitalism. It will not reverse any of the structural neoliberalisation of UK institutions, but it will probably slow down or partially reverse the overall decline in public investment. Johnson clearly sees a chance to imitate that Victorian Tory hero, Disraeli: securing a base of support amongst the conservative layers of the working-class with some expansion of public spending, articulating an ideology of socially-conservative nationalism, dominating British politics for a decade or more. Either way, there can be little doubt that climate change denial will be a core element of his ideological programme, and that democratic renewal will be the very last of his priorities. None of the problems that we should have highlighted at this election have gone away, and all of them will deepen. The one issue that we did focus on – austerity – is unlikely to remain as acute as it has been.

We need a leadership willing to address, explicitly, the crisis of our democratic institutions, and the impossibility of achieving social and economic reform without radical democratic reform, as much as we ever did. Of course, they must also be able to show how this crisis is linked to the everyday concerns that people have. But the point is that there is simply no hope of people getting better jobs and a functioning NHS if the entire political structure that is supposed to deliver them is broken. And I think the public knows this intuitively already; which is why they found our promises so unconvincing in 2019.

But apart from issues of narrative and leadership – that bedevil every political campaign of any kind – there was one problem that Labour faced in this election that proved more damaging than any other. It is quite clear now that Labour should not have agreed to fight an election before some kind of resolution to the Brexit negotiations had been arrived at. In the next section I’ll consider why this was such an irresolvable dilemma for the party and its leadership.

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