A call for an amicable divorce

 

The moving commemorations of the centenary of the start of the Battle of the Somme remind us of the savage depths that human conflict can plumb and the courage of those who lived through such times. Against this backdrop, some of the struggles in our current politics rightly seem trivial by comparison. As we remember the past today, though, this can give helpful pause for thought about how we manage these conflicts in the coming weeks and months.

There is no doubt about the powerful and painful emotions that the current conflict within Labour have unleashed. These will be felt particularly acutely by the Labour leadership and PLP who are at the centre of the storm, as well as journalists and commentators who receive strident attacks for any position they take on this. The emotions are amplified still further through social media in which there are always enough characters to insert a four-letter word but never enough for a nuanced argument.

Amidst this turmoil, it is worth pausing to reflect on what this conflict is about. This is not made easy by the polarised language that has become all too widespread in which the PLP are cast as traitors and anti-democratic and Momentum as nothing but a fanatical insurgency. Such ways of talking are reminiscent of a divorcing couple who need continually to rehearse the failings of their partner in order to find the emotional impetus for separation. But they obscure more complex realities. I disagree strongly with people in my local CLP who are committed supporters of the Corbynist turn in the Party. But I also recognise them as people who are deeply committed to values that I share and whose work for equality, care and tolerance in my local community I greatly respect.

So what is it that is tearing us apart? It is not the issue of opposition to austerity, despite the claims that were made for this as a distinctively Corbynist position in the leadership election campaign last year. The broad principle of addressing our on-going social and economic crisis through public infrastructural investment and a re-balancing of the economy has been well expressed by John McDonnell. But these principles are shared by a broad range of political progressives, including Vince Cable and Chuka Umunna, and supporting a struggling economy through investment rather than reliance on austerity was a central element in Alistair Darling’s response to the 2008 banking crisis. John McDonnell’s new fiscal rule of balancing the Government’s current account spending would also inevitably mean difficult decisions would have to be made about what forms of Government day-to-day spending would be prioritised over others within limited means.

On many policy issues, in fact, with the exception of foreign policy and defence, there is probably much in common between the two sides of Labour that are currently tearing themselves apart.

What is at stake though is not a specific policy agenda, but a more fundamental vision of the kind of political party that Labour should be. On the one hand, the majority of the PLP and their supporters, retain the aspiration of a majority Labour Government structured around a credible PLP able to draw support from a wide range of voters. On the other, there is the Corbynist vision of a political movement grounded in radical, participatory democracy which maintains an authentic socialist option in British politics even if this cannot achieve majority electoral support. To its critics, the failures of the PLP’s stance are writ large in the legacy of a war in Iraq in which a Parliamentary Party ignored its grassroots base to pursue a disastrous course of action. Critics of the Corbynist vision will argue that a Party shaped by the pre-occupations of a left-wing activist base risks becoming a narrow sectarian movement, intolerant of political opponents and detached from the real problems of policy-making. Both sets of criticisms are worth reflecting on.

It is these ultimately irreconcilable visions of the future of the Party that underpin the current ferocity of its internal conflict. The PLP and its supporters are terrified of the prospect of a permanently unelectable Party, no longer able to exert any meaningful influence during a crucial period of our national politics. Supporters of Jeremy Corbyn are equally dismayed at the prospect of losing a Party that has, for many of them, finally become a political movement with which they feel their deepest convictions are expressed.

The conflict will persist if we continue to think that only one of these political options can emerge out of the current Party. If both sides struggle to retain control of the name ‘Labour’, then this really is a zero-sum game in which a final resolution will come after much more energy and pain has been expended as one side achieves a deeply bruising internal political victory over the other. But if the struggle now is really over the Labour ‘brand’, the wider country will rightly judge the Party harshly over its self-indulgence in fighting over issues of political identity and organisational structure when far more urgent problems are at hand.

The solution, it seems clear now, must be to accept that these irreconcilable political projects need to find separate organisational structures. Managing this divorce constructively will require leadership and maturity from both sides, and the willingness to accept the losses that this will inevitably entail. But like any divorce, the way in which it is conducted will profoundly shape future relationships. From my side of that divide, I want a political future in which collaboration is still possible with those who support the Corbynist project on the many issues that we both care about, not for these relationships to be poisoned for years by on-going rancour. My hope is that those charged with the immensely difficult challenge of working these issues through can find the vision, generosity and boldness to make this possible.

Gordon Lynch

If our nation was an illusion, now we have to build one

For many, the shock of Brexit is still sinking in. Many Remainers are reacting, understandably, with a deep sense of loss, in which calls for a second referendum look more like denial in the early stages of bereavement than a credible political option. Even some who voted Leave now seem understandably disorientated by the sweeping forces of change that are being unleashed.

Perhaps one of the deepest shocks is the recognition that many middle-class progressives’ sense of security in their national home has been illusory. The idea that most people in Britain (or at least the ones that mattered) shared the same values and felt at ease in a globalised, cosmopolitan world has been shattered. We have been shown to be a deeply divided nation – or now more accurately a divided union of nations – in which the anger and resentment of those who have felt excluded by social change has now struck a profound blow to a political system in which they felt they had little stake. This shock is genuinely frightening, raising fundamental questions about the society that we are becoming.

If a progressive assumption about a national community has now been shattered, what is left in its wake is the political project of our generation. If our sense of nationhood has been shown to be an illusion, our task is nothing less than building a new nation.

It is essential that we now find political leadership that is up to this challenge. Whilst the scale of the task ahead is still unfolding, guiding principles for it can be found.

A first is that the country must more strongly be grounded in principles of equality. The Brexit vote has shown that no political system can thrive in which a substantial part of the population feel they are struggling to get the basic resources of a good life – work and a decent wage and home – and have little prospect of making their lives better. A real national community in which those who are more comfortably off are indifferent to such inequalities is not possible.

A second is that we must cultivate a politics of care – for each other, our traditions, our communities and our environment. The progressive embrace of social change must be tempered with the recognition of the need to preserve and cherish that which is good in our communities’ past and present.

A third is that as we begin to establish a new sense of national identity, the vicious racist sentiments that some people have felt emboldened to utter again in public must be shunned as poisonous to our collective life. Our nation has within it deep currents of decency and tolerance, and those who pollute those by abusing others on the basis of their ethnicity, religion or nationality must never be allowed to think that they speak for our country.

A fourth is that we must never lose sight of the importance of serious engagement with our common political life. If the Brexit vote has done anything, it has surely put an end to the myth that politics, and voting, never changes anything. If young people have not voted in sufficient numbers to bring about the Remain victory in which most of them believed, this will hopefully be the moment of recognition that the costs of political disengagement are too high. We need to continue to find ways of engaging people in public debate, whilst resisting the populism that rejects informed and well-evidenced argument in favour of the quick appeals of celebrity and rhetoric.

How we do this – even the party political structures and coalitions through which we do this – are still to be determined. But we need to move quickly beyond disorientation and despair to try to find new confidence in our ability to build a new national home for us all.

Labour’s moment of truth

As the implications of the EU referendum result begin to sink in, one of these must surely be the urgency of addressing the current leadership and direction of the Labour Party. I started this blog a while ago because of the growing evidence that Labour was ceasing to be an effective party of national government, increasingly appealing mainly to metropolitan voters and losing touch with its traditional working-class base. That last night’s result confirmed all of these things should not be a surprise. It merely told us what was already clear from the 2015 General Election.

I have said before that Labour’s challenges are wider and deeper than purely a question of leadership. But there is now no doubt that the current leadership represent a major impediment to the progress that the party needs to make. The issue of the free movement of labour has clearly played a crucial role in the Leave victory, which again is of little surprise given that issues of immigration have been identified as a key concern for many voters for a number of years. These concerns unquestionably, at times, take racist forms and one of the many deeply unpleasant facets of Nigel Farage’s campaigning is his willingness to play to this to suit his own ends. But concerns about free movement can also touch on anxieties about social mobility, the depression of wages for low-skilled jobs, pressures on infrastructure and questions of national identity. These required thoughtful and robust responses, including the willingness to press the EU to reform or mitigate the principle of free movement where this was clearly needed. The reported refusal of the current Labour leadership to include any mention of free movement within its national campaign leaflet, against the appeals of many Labour MPs, was indicative of a wider refusal to engage with this issue that has contributed to a large extent in losing Labour heartlands to Brexit.

The defensiveness of the current leadership gives no hope for serious reflection about this. In the media script sent to Labour MPs in the face of the impending Brexit vote, the Party’s existing policy on free movement is simply re-stated. The claim that Jeremy Corbyn is closest to the position of most British voters in the referendum ignores his basic failure to win over enough current and former Labour supporters to the Remain side. Some claim that his position is tenable given that the 69% (Remain)/ 31% (Brexit) split amongst Labour supporters was not significantly different to the split in vote amongst Liberal Democrat supporters. But this ignores the fact that Labour has already been haemorrhaging voters to UKIP for a number of years and Jeremy Corbyn has done nothing to reverse this process.

The issue of free movement is an emblem of the leadership’s unwillingness to engage with issues that concern voters but which fall outside of its narrow ideological comfort zone. It is traditional, in recent times, for anxieties about Labour’s leadership to lead to calls to pull together for the sake of party unity. This is not the time to heed those calls. Jeremy Corbyn has led a Remain campaign which has resulted in catastrophic defeat and will bring defeat again if he is allowed to lead the Party into an imminent General Election.

The demographics of the Party mean that a leadership challenge to him may well result in his re-election. But in good conscience, an attempt to move the Party in a new direction must be made now, and if it fails then perhaps this will just be another stage in the restructuring of progressive party politics in the coming years.

This is a moment of truth for the Labour Party and its fate depends on how willing its MPs are in the coming hours and days to face the difficult choices that have to be made.

Corbynism and its futures – a response

 

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.

@gordon_lynch

Is the party over?

I cannot remember a time in my adult life when a political party won as slender a majority as the Conservatives in 2015 and yet their success in the next general election, five years away, was so widely assumed.

This is obviously not simply due to internal problems within Labour. The predicted effects of constituency boundary changes and the rise of the SNP in Scotland would still pose serious challenges even if Labour were in rude health. In reality, though, there are serious difficulties within Labour which, if unaddressed, will create electoral problems for the Party far beyond 2020.

A common misconception appears to be that these problems would be largely resolved through a change of leadership. Obsessing over the leadership, however, has become a form of displacement activity that distracts from more fundamental and difficult questions. Indeed the fact that a rumoured ‘coup’ against Jeremy Corbyn this summer would involve contriving to have him excluded from the leadership ballot paper, despite his apparent popularity with the majority of Party members, merely points to the Party’s deeper troubles.

A central difficulty for Labour is that its membership appears to be becoming increasingly detached from the views of the wider electorate.

One way of making sense of how this has happened is through understanding the evolving nature of the trade union movement from which Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership election campaign received so much support.

Trade union membership has declined significantly over the past thirty five years. By the end of the 1970s, around 13 million UK workers were union members. By 2014, despite a growing population, union membership had more than halved to 6.4 million workers with nearly 20 million workers not attached to a union. Membership is now heavily skewed towards workers in the public sector (54.3% of whom are union members) compared to the private sector (in which only 14.2% of workers are part of a union).

Whilst, historically, Labour’s symbiotic relationship with the trade union movement made it possible for it to claim to be the party of British workers, this is no longer the case. The vast majority of people working in manual, semi-skilled or service industry jobs are not union members. Instead, trade union members are now disproportionately drawn from sections of the work-force that are educated to degree level, employed in a professional occupation, earning a middle-income and aged over 50. Far from connecting the Labour Party to a broad range of the British workers, the trends in trade union membership are accelerating the process by which Labour is becoming the political wing of The Guardian.

This exemplifies a wider trend described by Jon Cruddas, following his study into the causes of the 2015 general election defeat. As Cruddas puts it, ‘Labour is now overwhelmingly a party of the socially liberal and progressively minded… The party is losing connection with two thirds of the electorate who are either pragmatic in their voting habits or who are social conservatives and who value work, family and their country… Labour stands on the brink of becoming irrelevant to the majority of working people in the country.’

Two other factors threaten to exacerbate this trend. One is the perception that Labour is tainted by members who hold extremist views, including some who currently have leading roles in the party. In recent weeks, there has been a succession of stories about statements made by individual party members that are anti-Semitic or sympathetic to terrorist organisations. This is likely to continue to be a problem given the emphasis, under Jeremy Corbyn, of accepting people into Labour who have previously been members of fringe political organisations. If UKIP has, to some extent, syphoned off people with more extreme views from the Conservatives, the more inclusive approach to membership of the Corbyn-led Labour Party means that no comparable buffer now exists on the Left. Having for many years derided the Tories as the toxic, nasty party, Labour may now have to face recurrent stories that call into question its own moral reputation.

Arguably, though, a more profound source of division between the Labour Party and a large section of the electorate will emerge out of the EU referendum. Although at present, the Remain campaign seems most likely to prevail, it also seems likely that the Brexit vote could reach 40% and possibly higher. In a discussion of the political landscape after the June 23rd vote, Matthew Goodwin has asked where the Brexit vote goes next. Whilst the post-referendum evolution of UKIP as a popular party of protest has yet to take shape, it seems hard to see those whose Euroscepticism has deepened through the referendum campaign quickly finding their way back to Labour. As Goodwin puts it, ‘after the referendum manual workers… are likely to feel even more disconnected from middle-class Labour politicians who will have spent the referendum campaign praising the exact things that make these struggling voters feel so under threat – European integration, a global market, free movement and rapid social change.’ The weakening ties between Labour and its traditional working-class base are therefore likely to be fractured even further.

There are, of course, ways in which these problems can be denied. People will come back to Labour when they realise that the Party is really standing up for their interests. People won’t be put off by criticisms of Labour that are just being whipped up by the Tory-sympathising press. Labour will bring a wave of voters on board who have been too disillusioned to vote in previous elections. As 2020 approaches, however, the cold realities of Labour’s lack of connection with the voters whose support they would need to form a Government are likely to become ever starker.

The party isn’t completely over just yet. There is still potential for Labour to think about how it can express values and a practical vision for society that can re-build its relationship with voters who have turned to the Conservatives or UKIP. The Party can still re-assert itself as a mainstream political force with no place for members with extremist views. If the Remain vote does prevail in the EU referendum, it can still develop a far more robust approach to campaigning for EU reform (including on the free movement of labour) with the threat of a further referendum if that reform does not take place within a set timetable. The Party can re-evaluate its relationship with the unions, recognising that whilst trade unions continue to play a vital social role, their privileged status within the Party may now be harming its ability to connect with a broader range of voters.

But here-in lies the catch. Such moves are likely to be anathema to the many members who are happy with the Party’s current direction. If, as opinion polls suggest, they make up a significant majority of the Party, it seems difficult to see how Labour really will be able to take the steps needed to regain wide support across the electorate. But if this doesn’t happen and the Party continues to turn inwards, reflecting comfort-zone of its increasingly middle-class, social progressive base, it will not win a Parliamentary majority again for the foreseeable future. The question then is whether we can wait that long.

Why I’ve started this blog…

I have been a Labour supporter for most of my adult life. I’ve had my doubts about the Party at times. I dallied with the SDP in the 1980s and wondered whether the Lib Dems were the more genuine centre-left option at times under New Labour. But I always came home to Labour. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 sparked deep disillusionment in me, but I hoped that things would be better under Gordon Brown. Even when that didn’t work out, I still kept faith with the Party under Ed Miliband.

But now my doubts are as great as they’ve ever been.

You see, I believe that we need a Government that genuinely governs for the whole country, that is committed to building up our communities and recognises deep inequality as a fundamental problem for any decent society.

But I am no longer sure that Labour can practically deliver on that by winning a national election.

This blog isn’t meant to be a personalised attack on anyone and I have great respect for many good people who’ve dedicated themselves to trying make Britain a better country through service to the Party.

It’s time, though, honestly to face the fundamental challenges that the Party faces if it is to become a serious party of government again. And if it can’t do that, then it’s time to think about what political life after Labour might mean.

@gordon_lynch