What has Labour got to say as the British establishment collapses?
Sunday National, September 22nd 2019
The Labour Party meets for its annual conference at Brighton this weekend, confident about its future prospects.
The reality is that the state of Labour is not good. The party are polling between 21% and 28% in the polls – with the two pollsters who called 2017 most accurately putting it on 21% and 24%, and in one they are third place behind the Lib Dems.
This puts Labour on course to lose a massive six million votes from 2017 to the present – more than Blair managed in a near-decade from his 1997 triumph. And even if Tory weakness gives some hope with their 32-33% implying a loss of 3.5 million votes, Jeremy Corbyn’s ratings are another drag on the party.
This week Corbyn broke another record with his leadership satisfaction ratings of minus 60% (16% positive, 76% negative) the worst on record for an opposition leader since this question was first asked in 1977: making him more unpopular than Michael Foot, William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith who all tanked.
If that were not enough the party finds it is being squeezed between Boris Johnson’s Brexit ‘do or die’ and the Lib Dems’ ultra-Remainer stand, all of which underpin the difficulties that Labour faces in speaking to a divided country. And alongside that, needing to hold together a Labour coalition – from Scotland, to an increasingly assertive English dimension, and restless Wales.
A Narrow Window for a Labour Government
This has numerous consequences. The most practical is that there is only a narrow route to a Labour Government at the next UK election. Despite the party’s dire poll ratings, many gathering in Brighton believe that such a prospect is still possible.
They draw from the 2017 experience when they cut a 24% Tory lead to 2.4%. They believe that they have the advantage of a mass party and army of motivated activists, unlike the Tories. But there is a danger that they are fighting the last war; for as David Herdson of ‘Political Betting’ noted ‘2017 has entered political mythology, but the truth is the cards fell perfectly for Corbyn’. They are unlikely to do so again.
In any election it is likely that the Lib Dems will make electoral gains and that more will come from the Tories than Labour, having the net effect of aiding Labour. Whether this will counter Labour losses to others remains to be seen, but a major factor post-election could be that Jo Swinson has ruled out supporting Corbyn entering office.
This leaves only two possible outcomes to Labour coming to office. The first is a minority government winning majorities on a vote by vote basis. The second is a Labour administration supported by the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens. Neither of these look very stable and long-term, and both entail Labour having to make significant gains in England.
Some of this explains Labour’s shifting position on another indyref with Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell indicating that the party in government would ‘not block’ another vote. This intervention seemed considered and strategic, recognising the electoral realities of Scotland and need to not alienate the SNP.
However, such are the tensions inside Labour that those remarks had to be qualified by Jeremy Corbyn saying that they would not allow a vote ‘in the formative years of a Labour Government’, comments seen as being influenced by Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard’s displeasure at the UK leadership’s stance.
This week Corbyn made a major intervention on Brexit writing in ‘The Guardian’ about the party’s support for a second referendum – without saying if they would officially back Remain, while Corbyn as leader would take the unusual step of being neutral.
Underlying this positional politics has been the failure of the Corbyn project to develop a detailed, radical prospectus. Where has Labour been in the crisis of conventional politics that has unfolded? This has been a historic opportunity and instead of striking out against the ruling order, Labour has been for the most part content to talk to itself and believe in its own radical rhetoric.
Take Scotland. Where is the insurgency Labour agenda challenging the SNP’s cautious, centrist social democracy? Former Scottish leader Johann Lamont has written that the entire Scottish Parliament, Labour and SNP included, has fallen short, asking where are the politics about ‘decentralising power, of bringing control to communities and individuals’ and ‘making rational choices focused on equality’?
After decades of being the dominant force in politics, Scottish Labour has lost its rationale. What does it stand for now – beyond being against the SNP and independence, which is a defensible position, but becomes problematic given the state of Britain? It takes Labour on to the terrain of being unconditionally in favour of the maintenance of the union and a politics of unreflective British nationalism. What if anything is the breaking point of the likes of Douglas Alexander and Anas Sarwar if it isn’t the disaster nationalism of Brexit?
There are forces pushing for change in the party. Paul Sweeney, MP for Glasgow North East, talks radically of ‘the British state apparatus’ being ‘dysfunctional’. Labour he believes has to embrace ‘a radical federal reform of the UK’s constitutional architecture’ which involves ‘the creation of a codified constitution and balanced symmetrical legislatures across each nation and region, whilst removing English domestic politics from Westminster, enabling it to function as a properly federal Parliament.’
That is quite an agenda and one being discussed in Labour, but leaving aside that it goes against the party’s entire history of believing in the principle of absolute parliamentary sovereignty, there is as yet no detail, and no discussion of the scale of popular mandate and support that would be needed to push through such change against entrenched interests.
Corbynism beyond Corbyn
‘Corbynism’ is a much more diverse force than the Corbyn leadership and includes new, radical voices impatient to change the stultifying assumptions of British politics. Matt Phull has talked of ‘acid Corbynism’ to convey the alternative generational shift of younger people who are looking for a different way of doing politics: a light hearted way of describing the potent forces inherent in ‘Corbynism from Below’: the title also of an important, diverse collection edited by Mark Perryman (and full disclosure in which I have a chapter in).
Four years into the Corbyn leadership the contradictions between the different strands of the left could not be clearer. For all the energy of the Corbynistas they have failed to change Labour’s top down bureaucratic culture. Indeed, the way the leader’s office works is about entrenching this and in left-wing thinker Jeremy Gilbert’s view has ‘a reputation for secrecy, authoritarianism and narrow-mindedness’.
For many of the older Corbynistas, defined by the wilderness years on the margins, politics is about controlling others, being sectarian, and not being able to change. This can be seen in the moves by Jon Lansman, founder of the pro-Corbyn Momentum group, to abolish the post of deputy leader to remove Tom Watson, the current deputy, now pushed by Corbyn out to ‘review’.
Part of this is the fragility and anxiousness these older left-wingers feel, and their awareness of enemies everywhere in the parliamentary party and media, but it is also what happens to revolutionaries wherever they seize power: they have trouble not becoming even more authoritarian.
The ill-fated move against Watson was seen by some as indicating that Corbyn could be away to resign, probably in the aftermath of any election defeat. But it was more likely about the left’s fear of its impermanent control of the party, and belief that it has to engage in post-Corbyn succession planning to prevent any reversion back to the party’s right, even temporarily.
Beyond this mindset the new wave of radicalism, including many within Momentum, are impatient with a politics which harks back to past battles. Jeremy Gilbert believes there is something inherently positive in the forces of Corbynism which represents ‘a moment of new political possibility’ and asks: ‘Can that radical possibility be realised in a creative and dynamic movement to democratise the Labour Party, the labour movement and British society?’
On every major political issue facing British politics, the need is for more radical thinking and policies. This necessitates breaking with the conventions which have dominated British politics, but also many of the assumptions of the traditional left: its centralisation, command and control, and obsession with seizing the British state without systematically reforming it.
The Corbyn leadership may in time be seen as a transition which won the party and created the conditions to make Labour a party of the radical left and anti-establishment. There is no prospect of the party returning to the politics of the past: whether this is the discredited Blairite years despite its electoral success, or a moderate social democracy. These are different times and perhaps the wider Corbynista alliance could begin to recognise this and break with the conservative nostalgia and leftism which has defined Corbyn and some of the key people around him.
This is a political age of disruption, sudden shifts and unexpected surprises, of which the Corbyn experiment has been one. Labour is away to face choppy waters and a difficult election, but this is a climate for radical thinking and challenging the conventional orthodoxies of capitalism and the City of London.
Somehow the diffuse Corbynista alliance need to go even further in areas that they have so far been hesitant: embracing decentralism and greater democracy, talking about England, understanding that Scotland marches to a different beat, and recognising that the crises of the British establishment offer a once in a lifetime opportunity.