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Labouring on? It's time to leap

What is to be done about the Labour party in the UK?

Butterly, image: ra_hurd, some rights reserved 

 “short term hopes are futile, long term resignation is futile”

Hans Magnus Enzenberger

For Labour this is not really about Brexit or Jeremy, they are respectively just the trip wires and symptoms of a crisis that is so deep and so complex and has been coming for so long.

I’ve been walking round the Labour party kicking the tyres and looking under the bonnet for a few years. Straight after the election I wrote a short pamphlet called Downfall published here on oD. This was just before the Corbyn surge which neither me nor Jeremy saw coming. Reluctantly and without illusions I voted for Jeremy – a mirror image of how (naively) I enthusiastically backed New Labour from 1994 to 1998. Both in their different ways were responses to the crisis of social democracy I’ve been trying to trace. In May I published this essay which delved into the crisis again.

In short my argument is this. Everything that once made Labour strong and the 1945 settlement possible; a unified working class, a bureaucratic system of governance (Fordism), memories of the war and the depression and the existence of the Soviet Union as a global counter to capitalism had gone. They have been replaced by forces inimical to traditional social democracy, namely financialisation, globalsiation, individualization and consumerisation. Labour, I argued, was a ‘Kodak party in a world of instagram’.

This, by definition, isn’t Labour’s crisis alone. Every social democratic party is being rocked. Hollande in France is on 15% in the polls, the once mighty SPD in Germany is on 19% and in Spain PSOE scored 23% in their elections last Sunday. We know what has happened in Greece and Scotland.  

New Labour was in some way a brave attempt to by-pass the crisis, a trick that was possible for three reasons; the party was so desperate for office after 18 years of Tory rule they would surrender principle for power; its term in office  was underpinned by 60 consecutive quarters of growth which held the coalition together and because there was no one else to vote for. None of those conditions now exist. In a post 2008 crash world any return to a technocratic accommodation with neoliberalism is impossible.

Corbyn offered another illusory route out. A generation without hope, endless austerity and climate change projected onto the vest of Jeremy all their burning hopes. His authenticity was hugely attractive, as were his rather vague policy prescriptions, after all the lies, spin and triangulation. Where social upheaval now meets social media you get these great surges in politics. The wave found its surfer. But eventually reality bites. Jeremy can’t be the leader they wanted him to be. He simply doesn’t have the skills to lead and has thus far failed to build a competent team around him. ‘He is not strategy person’ said his leading advocate, Jon Lansman, in a recent essay by Sam Knight in New Yorker. Some of John McDonnell’s policy development, the rising star Clive Lewis and the young leadership of Momentum aside, it’s been less than underwhelming. But any rejection of him as a leader doesn’t get rid of the reason why so many people voted for him.

So Labour is left in a terrible bind. New Labour wasn’t new enough and wasn’t Labour enough. Corbynism isn’t new at all but is way too Labourist. The party is saddled with people who don’t know how to win or don’t know why they want to.

The party is saddled with people who don’t know how to win or don’t know why they want to.

The plotters stupidly thought that Jeremy being isolated in the PLP would see him step down and forget that that’s how he has spent the whole of his political life. And they can’t find a charismatic alternative leader because one doesn’t exist. Instead it will be a luke-warm re run of a Blair, Brown or Miliband in circumstances that have deteriorated way beyond anything those three former leaders faced. In any leadership election it wouldn’t be a surprise to see another 100,000 new members and a bigger mandate for Corbyn: the party already has 60,000 new members this week, and I’m guessing they didn’t sign up to vote for Angela Eagle or Owen Smith. Labour splitting or simply dying is now easier to see than Labour surviving.

Meanwhile as you read this (and maybe weep) UKIP, its mission accomplished, is in a bunker somewhere working out with Aaron Banks how to morph into a populist and authoritarian workers’ party to win seats from Sunderland, to Stoke to South Wales. Given the mess it’s in, about as far from a government in waiting that you can get, and despite the mess the Tories are in, Labour is likely to be crushed at an election whenever it is and whoever is the leader at the time.

So, to paraphrase Lenin, what the hell is to be done? As with the last Labour leadership election I will vote on the basis of the candidate who can best protect the interests of those who most need and hold out some semblance of the ability to shift the balance of power from the elites to people and the interest of the planet. I wont be holding my breath and as Gramsci told us, now and always “we should live without illusions without being disillusioned”.

But if short hopes are pretty futile, what do we do? I would suggest we learn from the right. The New Right and now Farage didn’t start by thinking about how to get into office. Farage has never been near office but has revolutionized our country and possibly the continent. In both cases they had a dream, free markets and the UK’s exit from the EU, and pursued those dreams with imagination, verve and determination. They played it long.

My dream is a good society, a much more equal, sustainable and democratic world. To make it happen there are no short cuts but in a world of social media things can change fast if we get the politics right. There are four key criteria for a future progressive force, either a transformed Labour party working with other parties, or a new party that has any chance of creating a good society. 

First it must disavow itself of growthism. A world dominated by turbo-consumerism offers us no hope. It both burns the planet and stretches social solidarity to breaking point. We have to do better than the offer of things you didn’t know you needed, bought with money you don’t have to impress people you don’t know. The politics of love, time, creativity and care must trump this. 

The only weapon we have against the right is democracy.

Second, it has to be local, national, European and global. Power is now so dispersed that democracy must follow at every level. And so third, it must be deeply democratic and plural. The only weapon we have against the right is democracy. It must be extended far and wide to all corners of the economy and society – a democracy that is participatory, liberating and fun. Let’s really take back control. But it must recognize that no single party or movement has all the answers. The future will not be imposed but negotiated. Most immediately it needs to be negotiated by all the progressive parties in a Progressive Alliance to try and counter the massive shift to the right we are experiencing. This is why proportional representation is so essential. Labour has lost its last and only card – its discipline. It can’t impose any singular will in its own ranks – let alone the country. The fracturing of old politics and the desperate need for the birth of something new demands electoral reform. 

Finally, it has to be emotional and relational. It has to be founded on the love of humanity and the desire to develop the full potential of all of us. The progressive politics of the future will not be done to people but by them. The job of the political party will be to create the resources and spaces for people, individually and collectively, to make their world. It is a politics that is driven from the bottom up but is enabled from the top down. This meeting of the horizontal and the vertical, in what Compass calls 45 Degree politics, is the basis for the transformative politics we need. 

If this rough prescription for the future is anywhere near right then it is asking the question ‘can Labour stop being Labour’? I doubt it. But the issue is not to ask the question any more but to build the forces of ideas and movements that might change Labour or might create something new but will in either case build the foundations for the transformation of our county. 

One senior politician remarked to me this week that we had fallen off the cliff and wondered if we could scramble back up. But why would we want to? It is a time to leap. The caterpillar can’t be a better caterpillar. Our politics needs a butterfly.

About the author

Neal Lawson is Chair of the pressure group Compass and has written many pamphlets for the organisation on the themes of democracy and equality. He was author in 2009 of All Consuming (Penguin) and was co-editor in 2001 of the Progressive Century. He serves on the Boards of UK Feminista and the AV Referendum Campaign.  He is a Contributing Managing Editor of the quarterly journal Renewal and writes for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He appears regularly on radio and TV.  He was previously a trade union researcher, an adviser to Gordon Brown, and a communications consultant. 

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