In a recent essay, Jeremy Gilbert has offered an insightful diagnosis of how Labour has come to find itself under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership as well as a challenging prognosis of what the future direction of ‘Corbynist’ Labour should be.
Reflecting arguments made in another earlier and widely-circulated piece for Open Democracy, Gilbert points to a catalogue of failures within Labour over the past thirty-five years. This includes the failure of the ‘Bennite’ hard left in the early 1980s to develop a political strategy that was realistic about how unlikely a party offering a radical critique of capitalism is to achieve electoral success under the first past the post system. There was also, he argues, the failure of the New Labour Government to offer any meaningful challenge to the hegemony of finance capital and to achieve anything more than mild ameliorative social programmes in the face of deepening social inequalities. Most recently, there has been the failure of the ‘soft left’ to recognise that Ed Miliband’s strategy of attempting to make social critique palatable to a sufficiently large part of the electorate to win a Parliamentary majority is doomed to failure, just as it was under Neil Kinnock in 1987 and 1992.
Yet despite these failures across all wings of the Party, Gilbert sees grounds for hope in the future exemplified by the strength of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership victory in 2015. This is not a hope for electoral success in 2020 or even for a future majority Government under the first past the post system at some point beyond that. Instead, he sees grounds for optimism in the Party recovering a stronger anti-capitalist critique (in the spirit of the early 1980s), whilst at the same time adopting a more realistic strategy for achieving political power than the ‘Bennites’ ever did. This strategy, argues Gilbert, should arise organically from the ‘Corbynist’ ethos of radical democracy, which in turn should lead the Party to work with others to campaign for an electoral system based on proportional representation. Under such a system, the progressive and radical vote across the UK is far more likely to achieve effective political power, even if this necessarily takes the form of coalitions between progressive political parties.
Gilbert’s essay is essential reading for anyone concerned with Labour’s future because it sets out a strategy of political ‘purity’, whilst abandoning aspirations for a Parliamentary majority under the current electoral system, that appear to be shared by a number of people enthused by the Party’s ‘Corbynist’ turn. It is important, though, not just for understanding that vision for Labour’s future, but for its clear delineation of the fault-line along which the Party’s current membership may now have to split.
Whilst there will be those in Labour who welcome Gilbert’s position and see it as the only way in which political principle and realism can be held together, others, like me, will see it as a fundamentally problematic abandonment of political responsibility. If Ed Miliband’s ‘35%’ strategy for the 2015 General Election was fundamentally flawed, those who want to see an effective progressive government in Britain will see little appeal in Gilbert’s call to reduce this electoral calculus to a ’20-25%’ strategy.
Gilbert argues that building a stronger anti-capitalist stance within Labour with reduced electoral support is a sensible approach because a) trying to appeal to a wider body of the electorate than this will inevitably involve problematic forms of political compromise and b) the key swing voters of Middle England are devoid of a civil society that would enable them to resist neo-liberal propaganda and are, for now, essentially a lost cause. Writing off engagement with the majority of the electorate until their ‘false consciousness’ can eventually be eroded is, however, a counsel of despair. In pragmatic political terms it seems obviously damaging to embrace a strategy of self-imposed marginalisation. But if we understand a sense of emotional connection between political parties, Government and the wider electorate as an essential part of a functioning democracy, then it seems deeply unhealthy philosophically to pursue a strategy that claims there is no possible basis for connecting progressive policies with the majority of voters’ values and concerns.
In this respect, an important counter-argument to Gilbert’s position is made in the introduction of Philip Gould’s book, The Unfinished Revolution, in which Gould traces his experience of growing up with his lower middle-class and working-class peers in Woking. Rather than seeing his friends and colleagues as hapless, atomised, self-interested individuals, deaf to the truths of socialism, Gould touchingly traces the values and cares that they had, recognising the integrity of their moral ecologies, and wondering why Labour had become so distant from them.
Gilbert’s position is a coherent expression of a Marxist and Gramscian ideological stance. What I see as problematic with this is its relative inattention to the ordinary loves and concerns that animate most of our daily lives. It is through such attention to the concerns of voters, who may for various reasons have been drawn to vote Conservative or UKIP in the recent past, that Labour can build a healthier bond with voters across the country. Amongst these, unacknowledged in Gilbert’s account, is the on-going need to find ways of building a stronger, progressive sense of national identity in which people from a wide range of communities can feel a part of the project of building a better nation for all. Without this, voters who have a sense of a loss of cultural identity may continue to be attracted to the clear nationalist message of UKIP whilst turning a blind eye to its shambolic party management and policy agenda.
These two approaches – of an ideologically ‘pure’ minority party and a progressive party that, with humility, genuinely seeks to build bonds with a broad range of voters – are entirely incompatible. Part of the deep dis-comfort of the Labour Party at the moment is that both find strong support within it, deeply compromising its political coherence and holding back the ability of either approach to move forward with its respective programme. The time may now be approaching for an amicable divorce in which these two approaches can find alternative party structures – whether through the establishment of a new Socialist-Green alliance beyond the Labour Party or the painful emergence of something like the SDP, mark II.
At the moment, the Labour Party (particularly the PLP) seems to resemble a couple who know that their relationship is over but remain in denial about this because the process of divorce seems so daunting. In this sense, Jeremy Gilbert’s essay provides an important challenge to that denial and reminds us that the task of restructuring the left and centre-left in British politics is becoming increasingly pressing, for the good of all of us.