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Facing the facts: a progressive strategy for 2020

Labour has never secured a convincing majority from opposition and implemented a progressive programme. To believe it can this time is absurd. It's time for a different approach.

image: carolinelucas.com What Labour has never done

There is a basic brute fact of British political history which all mainstream commentary totally ignores. This is the fact that the Labour party has never once in its entire history done the one thing that most of its supporters and members have always hoped that it was going to do. What it has never done is simply this: to come from opposition, win a convincing parliamentary majority and then gone on to implement a genuinely progressive programme.

Let’s be very very clear. Labour has never done this. Not once. Never.

‘What about 1945?’ I hear you cry (we can discount the first Labour government under Ramsay Macdonald – it didn’t have a parliamentary majority, and nobody in their right might has ever claimed that it implemented a progressive programme).

There is an often-overlooked fact about the 1945-51 Labour government, which was pointed out to me by Anthony Barnett a few months ago. The fact is that that government was not elected from opposition. Most of the key domestic posts in the war cabinet were held by Labour ministers. Churchill may have been deposed as prime minister, but when Atlee’s government was elected in 1945, it was partly on the basis of a programme of reform which they were already half-way through implementing.

Harold Wilson, the next Labour prime minister, never won a convincing majority from opposition. His one actual working majority was achieved in 1966 by holding an election half-way through a parliament, in a blatant move to exploit the economic cycle to his advantage.

And what of New Labour? Blair’s landslide victory in 1997 was a historic electoral achievement. But it was already very clear to many supporters and Labour members, in the years running up to that election, that it was to be bought at a very high price. That price was Labour giving up on any kind of genuinely progressive programme.

Let me be clear what I mean by ‘progressive’ here. I don’t just mean ‘doing some nice things for poor people’. New Labour did do some nice things for poor people. What I mean by ‘progressive’ is: ‘actually shifting the balance of power, even slightly, towards the poor, and away from the rich’. That is a very different thing from simply alleviating some of the worst symptoms of extreme poverty. And it was something which New Labour was always very explicit that it would never try to do, unlike all previous Labour governments.

I remember very clearly what it felt like to be a Labour member in the months leading up to Blair’s election as leader in September 1994. The pressure from the press for us to back Blair was incredible. It felt like we were being offered a deal – in effect the Murdoch press was saying to us:  ‘elect this guy, accede to his programme, which will do absolutely nothing to weaken the power of finance capital over the rest of British society, and we will support him, and let you win an election, and implement a few reforms to make life easier for the poorest, and prevent the schools and hospitals from physically collapsing.’ We took the deal. There seemed to be nothing else on the table.

The definition of madness

The definition of madness, it is often said, is to keep doing the same thing while expecting a different result. The Blairites are fond of alluding to this idea when criticising Labour’s recent shift to the Left. Mainstream commentators are unanimous in assuming that the only possible outcome of such a move can be the same as it was in 1983, when Labour came close to permanent electoral oblivion.

They are right of course. As much as the world has changed since then, it has not changed in any way which seems to offer much hope that a repeat of the early-80s strategy can lead to any different result.  For those who are even passingly familiar with the current direction of the Labour party, that strategy should already sound familiar: a radical manifesto was put to the country in the teeth of abject hostility from almost all of the national media and much of the Parliamentary Labour Party. You know the rest. We can already see this scenario repeating itself before our eyes. It is true that the Labour vote did not collapse at the local elections last week as predicted – but no sane forecaster is predicting a Labour parliamentary majority in 2020 on the basis of the results. This is even before the effects of the coming constituency boundary-changes, which are expected to deprive Labour of about 40 seats – are taken into account. So it feels like we know where this story of a Labour left-turn is going to end: in another electoral disaster.

The trouble is – we also know now how the Blairite story ends. It ends with a country more unequal than when it started, with a labour movement weaker than ever before, with trust in the political class at an all-time low, with countless indicators showing that the individualism and crass commercialisation of public culture has created a society which is congenitally unhappy, insecure, and not very productive.

Yes, New Labour introduced some ameliorative measures which tempered the worst effect of advanced free-marked capitalism. They rebalanced the tax system so that it no longer crassly favoured the rich over the poor, and even introduced a minimum wage. But they still left behind a country in which real wages fell for 5 straight years (2009-14) for the first time since the 19th century. After 13 years of Labour government, the unions and the people they represent should have been left strong enough to ensure that it was politically impossible for workers to be made to bear the brunt of the recession. But this is not what happened.

New Labour rebuilt the schools – but they also handed them over to the academy chains. They invested in the NHS, but they did so using mechanisms such as the Private Finance Initiative, which enabled our most treasured national institution to become, for the first time, a site of rent-seeking and profit-accumulation for private capital; this was despite the fact that all surveys of public opinion showed overwhelming opposition to such a move. There are some Labour members and supporters who wanted things to go this way, or who genuinely believe that there was never any alternative – but there are not many.

And so we come back to my original statement. Taking all of this history into account – it has never once happened that Labour comes from opposition to win a convincing parliamentary majority and then goes on to implement a progressive programme.

Why must Labour fail?

Why is this? It’s pretty easy to understand. Under our electoral system, there are only 50-100 parliamentary constituencies in the country that are actually 'marginals';  i.e. that might change hands during an election. The others are almost all safe Labour, Tory or SNP seats – and there is honestly not much point voting if you live in one of those 550-600 safe constituencies, because there is no chance that your vote will make any difference to the outcome.

Now, even in the marginal constituencies, most people always vote the same way. Only a few thousand actually tend to change their votes between elections. This means that only a few thousand people in each of those 50-100 marginal constituencies actually determine the outcomes of elections.

The wealthy elite controls the press and most of the other media in this country. This does not mean that they can control all of our minds (we are not programmable robots). But it does mean that they can influence the opinions of the 50,000 people who matter to electoral outcomes, when they really want to. At the last election, the Conservative party literally had a list of these 50,000 people (or a good proportion of them, anyway) and they targeted individually crafted electoral messages at each and every one of them, writing to them individually, knocking on their doors. Yes, they really did. Assisted by their friends in the press, they managed to persuade a large number of those floating voters to be frightened of the consequences of a Labour /SNP coalition government, and hence to deprive Ed Miliband of any chance of becoming prime minister. This is the kind of thing that the Tories, with the help of the right-wing media, have been doing since the 1930s. There is no reason to think they are going to stop being able to do it any time soon.

Under these circumstances, it is simply madness to keep acting as if there were any real chance of Labour coming from opposition to win a parliamentary majority, without first having made the total capitulation to elite power that it made in the 1990s. And yet, all of the mainstream political commentariat, all of Corbyn’s critics in the Labour party, and almost all of his supporters continue to behave as if this were somehow a realistic prospect. His critics lambast him for not being able to do it. His supporters insist that he can, and that he is well on the way. On both sides of the argument, the historical facts are studiously ignored.

A progressive alliance

But what is the alternative? There is a possible alternative strategy for Labour, and it is one which various strands of the thinking Left have been urging on the Labour party – off and on – for decades. That strategy is as follows:

1)     accept that our electoral system is hopelessly undemocratic and support moves for the introduction of some form of proportional representation

2)     accept that the Labour Party has been clearly proven to be an insufficient vehicle for the creation of progressive governments, and seek to build a broad alliance of different progressive parties and movements in order to bring such a government into being.

In practice this would mean coming to some kind of arrangement with other parties – especially Greens and Liberal Democrats – according to which they and Labour would stand down their candidates in key marginal constituencies in order to give whichever party had the best chance a clear run at beating the Tories. I realise that to many tribal Labour members this sounds like utter madness – existential suicide, unimaginable, like allowing the other side to win a football match because you wanted to help them avoid relegation. But politics is more complicated than football. (No really – it is). And more importantly – this kind of thing has happened before, in our own history when the parties of the National Government of the 1930s agreed not to stand against each other, and it happens in other countries all the time.  It would only have to happen once – then PR could be implemented, and we could fight it out for vote-share under a fair system, and form coalition governments on the basis of the results, as happens in almost every other parliamentary democracy in the world.

Significantly, such a pragmatist strategy would probably mean accepting that Labour is finished in Scotland, and coming to some kind of arrangement with the SNP. Let’s be real here – there is no foreseeable way in which Scottish Labour can come back from oblivion. What has happened in Scotland is quite complicated, but easy enough to grasp. For now, most Scots don’t want independence – they want radical federalism. But they also want to be represented both in Holyrood and in Westminster by an unambiguously social democratic party. They do not trust Labour to be that party in Westminster or Holyrood, and it would be insane to expect them to look down south at the antics of the Parliamentary Labour Party and to come to any different conclusion.

There are only two ways this can go now. Either independence is coming down the track very soon; or the SNP can be persuaded, at least for the medium term, to do what most of their voters actually want, which is to park independence for the time being and to support a radical progressive government at Westminster, while administering most of their affairs from Holyrood. There is no other option on the table. Of course it would be politically impossible for the Labour leadership to admit this publicly – they can’t admit that they have given up Scotland. But Labour members and supporters would do well to accept this reality.

Again, I realise this is anathema to many Labour tribal supporters. But I ask you now – all of you Labour supporters who sneer whenever the possibility is mooted of a ‘Progressive Alliance’ between Labour, Greens, Plaid Cymru, the SNP and the Liberal Democrats – what is that you think is different this time? What is that you think has changed, that means that your preferred scenario – Labour winning a parliamentary majority without first completely selling out – is actually on the cards now, for the first time in over a century?

A huge number of Labour supporters on the ‘soft left’ still seem to to think that there must be some magical sweet-spot in between completely selling out and putting forward a convincing radical programme, and that if only we could find that sweet-spot, all would be well. Surely the experiences of Miliband and Kinnock, and indeed the whole history that I have alluded to already, makes clear that this sweet-spot simply does not exist. It is the mirage which has led generations of Labour activists into impotence and disappointment. We must give up this fantasy if we are ever going to move on from that history of failure.

Of course, there are many reasons to believe that the progressive alliance strategy is itself no panacea. Even if we added up all the votes for the parties who might make up this coalition at the last general election, or even if we had had PR already, then we would see that the electorate (as in the US for so long) is almost perfectly divided between the right (Tory and UKIP) and the left (the other parties). This means that even if we had PR, then the wavering voters of Middle England, that consumerist, self-interested, aspirational constituency which has been the cornerstone of both Blairisim and Cameronism, would continue to exercise considerable influence. That’s what you get in a democracy – the people in the middle, who can tilt the balance, are the ones that everyone has to try to get on-side.

Those of us who believe in the possibility of a Progressive Alliance (see, for example, this) speculate that a coalition of different parties, speaking to different constituencies about a common project of social and democratic reform, united in a desire to save the environment and to create a more equal Britain, to rebuild our democracy and safeguard our public sector (including the BBC), might have an attractive force and a political reach which no one party could have today. We think that such a coalition would be able to bring on side the most progressive and energetic sections of Middle England, and so would be able build a coalition which did not need to pander to its more conservative and paranoid elements. This is pure speculation of course – nobody knows for sure if it would work. We might just end up with a Tory / UKIP government. But does anyone have a better idea? An idea that has not been clearly shown to fail?

This is why it is so important and so heartening that John McDonnell has come out publicly in favour of PR. He is the most senior Labour figure ever to have done so, and should be given every encouragement from all sides for having taken this brave step. But if there is to be any hope of a progressive government in 2020, Labour and its supporters must go much further in accepting that the only sane course is to do something very different from what we have done before.

About the author

Jeremy Gilbert is Professor of Cultural and Political Theory at the University of East London. His most recent book is Common Ground. See jeremygilbert.org for more information, or follow @jemgilbert.


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