Labour's problems are about far more than one leader

Everything that made Labour strong has been turned on its head. The party must embrace the future, or it will die.

Neal Lawson
17 March 2017

Jesse Klaver, leader of the Dutch Green Left, which ate the Dutch Labour vote whole this week.

Yet another cold bucket of water has been tipped over the heads of Labour and social democrats everywhere. The PvdA, Labour’s Dutch sister party, has just suffered a catastrophic decline in support from 34 MPs to 9. It follows in the wake of PASOK in Greece, annihilation in Scotland, crisis in Italy and loss of power and influence for social democrats everywhere. In France next month the Socialist candidate is likely to finish fourth. Yes, Martin Schulz, the SPD candidate for the premiership, is enjoying polling success in Germany but this could just be the fact that he is the new face in the race.  Come September it could look very different, not least because it’s unclear if he has any real sense of political project. So even if his does win office he is unlikely to win or build the power to do much. Its more likely to be Hollandism than anything transformative.   

So if you were harbouring any hope that there was some charismatic centre-left leader or technical fix to the existential crisis of social democracy – the Dutch result forces us to think again. To bring the debate back to these shores, the crisis of Labour simply cements the notion of the floor disappearing beneath of the feet of social democrats.

As such, the crisis of Labour is not really about Jeremy Corbyn, though he is clearly not helping and may like Ed Miliband, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair be hindering the real renewal of the party. Labour can change its leader, but it’s unlikely to make any real difference without a fundamental change of direction. Here is why.

Everything that once made Labour and social democrats strong from 1945 for roughly 30 years has gone and everything that makes Labour weak has replaced it. The working class as the engine of Labour is now very weak and the factories of solidarity that produced such classes have long gone. The hierarchical and bureaucratic system of government and control (Fordism) that helped win us win the second world war and acted as a model for Labour to govern have gone too. Indeed memories of that war and the depression that preceded it, which bound the nation together in hope, have long since faded from our memories. Finally, the threat of the Soviet Union, which brought  the capitalists to the table in 1945 to concede the welfare state to buy off any revolution in the West, evaporated decades ago.

Since then globalization, financialisation, individualization and consumerisation have weakened Labour further to leave it in its current feeble state. The forward march of Labour has not just been halted but reversed.

New Labour was just a blip that temporarily addressed the electoral weaknesses of the party without ever addressing the cultural malaise. The end of something old, not the start of something new as Alan Finlayson has written. Post the 2008 crash, Corbynism looks like another blip in the long decline of a movement that belongs to the 20th century but not yet, and maybe never, the 21st.

The idea that all Labour can do is swing between Bennism and Blairism leaves us without hope; a return to a 1975 siege economy and old style public ownership based on illusory ideas of full time employment or a return to the centrism of Blair, that got us into this mess, are neither feasible nor desirable. It’s not just that Blair’s electoral success can never be repeated, it helped poison the well of British politics. Let’s be honest, almost any Labour Leader could have won in 1997. New Labour then enjoyed 60 consecutive quarters of growth in which they lowered taxes, set the City free, refused to build public houses and then agreed to extend Europe to the east and allow mass immigration with no transitional agreement. Yes it did many good things – but it failed politically in terms of strengthening left politics – rather it weakened left politics. The whole project was based on the belief that left voters had nowhere else to go.  We now know different. In Scotland the brick moved and only the SNP were left. Across the North UKIP and the Tories can mop up working class votes and in the South the Liberal Democrats might be well placed to win the remain vote. Labour is stranded in no man’s land. Electorally and culturally bereft. Can anything be done?

It will require far reaching change in terms of purpose, politics and policy. Labour must start with a fundamentally new vision of what it means to be human in the 21st century built on the recognition that we don’t die wishing we owned more things but had more time with the people we love, doing and creating the things we love. So if it’s time and autonomy we aspire to, then how do we get them?  

The new approach Labour must adopt is called 45 Degree Politics. In the 21st century we are not going to be passive recipients of a politics done to us, we have too much influence through information and voice via new technology. But protests from the bottom up like pink hat march while welcome are simply fireworks that light up the terrain in a flash before darkness descends again. We need the resources and legitimacy of the state to sustain our action. 45 Degree Politics is the meeting point of horizontal and vertical change, the fault line through which a new society can emerge. The zeitgeist of the 21st century is not the hierarchy but the network. The Corbyn wave is an outlier of this politics that’s bubbling up across the civic society and the economy – but to work, parliament and the state must be taken seriously. In terms of policy basic income, taxing the machines and a shorter working week would liberate us all to do the jobs and work we want, but also to care and create.

For such a transformative programme, the idea that Labour and Labour alone will usher in this new era is farcical. Scotland has gone, maybe for good. The Greens and the Liberal Democrats are not going away. Note, it was the Green Left that were the bigger winners in the Dutch elections. The basis of this complex future will have to be negotiated not imposed through proportional voting – a system that should deny the Tories are ever in power alone again. This in turn demands a progressive alliance to win power and change the system so that we can change society. The disastrous Copeland by-election and the 19% deficit in the polls are just symptoms of the fundamental cultural disjuncture between Labour's past, present and any future.

There is more than enough hope and substance to unite a huge majority of the 52% who voted for Brexit and the 48% who didn’t in a progressive campsite in which Labour is the biggest but not only tent. But can Labour get there? Can the likes of Clive Lewis and Lisa Nandy help the party transform itself? If they can’t then the last Labour government, like the last Dutch Labour government, will be just that.

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