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The Progressive Policy Think Tank

Editorial: The long march of labour halted – again?

The editorial for edition 22.2 of Juncture asks why Labour suffered such a serious defeat in the May general election, and what is required if it is regain the trust of voters and make the long march back from the political wilderness.

In 1978, Eric Hobsbawm penned his famous lecture, ‘The forward march of labour halted?’ In it, he documented the reasons why the organised working class was no longer marching forward as the collective agent of historical transformation. The Keynesian era was coming to an end, and the Labour movement could not prevent it happening. The following year Margaret Thatcher was elected prime minister and the Labour party began its own long march into the wilderness.

Jeremy Corbyn’s improbable election as the leader of the Labour party has brought the arguments as well as the iconography of that era back into public view. But where it failed to get its own standard-bearer elected to the party leadership back in the tumult of the late 1970s and ’80s, the Bennite left of the Labour has now triumphed, sweeping through the membership, registered supporters and trade union levy-payers of the party to secure an overwhelming victory for Corbyn. He held up a mirror to the party, showing how hollowed out, technocratic and uninspiring it had become – and the mirror shattered.

The Corbyn surge was so rapid, and unexpected, that the Labour party didn’t stop for breath to analyse why it had suffered a second successive – and devastating – election defeat. In a series of careful dissections of the evidence, this edition of Juncture seeks to answer that question.

John Curtice stresses that it wasn’t a ‘lurch to the left’ that led to defeat – indeed, he argues few voters inhabit an ideological world of ‘left vs right’ in any case – but rather the fear that Labour was ‘incapable of providing the skills and leadership needed to take the country anywhere at all’.

Jane Green and Chris Prosser reiterate the importance of leadership and competence, rather than a simplistic ideological determinism, in interpreting the defeat. They argue Labour still ‘needs to give working-class, left-of-centre voters a reason to vote for the party again and the party needs to win support at the centre. It should resist choosing one over the other. The idea that one or the other route can be chosen is based on a false premise.’

As Jon Cruddas, Nick Pecorelli and Jonathan Rutherford argue, a radical economic reform agenda is possible, but only if Labour is trusted to run the economy again – and is trusted on the public finances in particular. Labour has drifted worryingly far from public opinion on a set of major policy issues, such as austerity and welfare reform. This is important. Our economy remains highly financialised, productivity is stagnant, growth remains overly dependent on consumption and asset price inflation, and employment is defined by sharp hierarchies of esteem and reward.

However, Labour will not get a hearing on how it would address these issues if it cannot show sensitivity to the complex cultural identities and economic anxieties of the electorate, nor if it proves incapable of building the broad coalitions necessary for reform. All of this looks difficult given the path which has been chosen by the new party leadership.

All of this suggests that this time the road back from the wilderness will be even rockier. Labour is intellectually weak, and politically disorganised. It has collapsed in its Scottish heartlands and lost the ballast of its formerly centrist trade unions. Blairite standard-bearers, meanwhile, were blunt and unforgiving in their analysis of Labour’s general election defeat, but they had no answer to the mobilisation that was taking place in front of their eyes, nor the magic ingredient that had once made them so successful, which Hobsbawm called ‘having the future in your bones’. Now, intellectual openness and organisational renewal across all wings of the party is necessary, as the former Labour MP and academic Tony Wright points out in his essay. Ideas matter profoundly in politics.

When you have lost on the field of battle, Ken Spours reminds us, you must not only ask what you did wrong, but also what your opponent did to beat you. He maps out the new Conservative hegemony, symbolised by the supremacy of its chief strategist, George Osborne. The Conservatives are currently dominant not just in the House of Commons but across the wider political landscape. They are defining the era’s ‘common sense’, and not only occupying the centre ground but moving it. How Osborne has achieved this dominance is the focus of Spours’ intriguing, Gramscian analysis.

One potential response to Conservative dominance is for Labour to adopt a left populist strategy. Across Europe, new political movements have sprung up, inspired by the analyses of theorists such as Ernesto Laclau, which have sought to build popular blocs of support, casting ‘the people’ against the elites. Yet in his wide-ranging and carefully argued essay, Jan-Werner Müller seeks to define what contemporary populism is and what it is not. It is not just anti-elitist, he claims, but also necessarily anti-pluralist, and in this ultimate claim to representation of an undifferentiated people lies its profoundly undemocratic character. This is why Corbyn’s Labour will need to avoid the temptation of the populist pull.

Despite this, there are grounds for optimism on the centre-left. Economic reform, meeting the challenges of climate change and ageing, and the promise of digital, horizontally organised technologies – all of these hold potential for creating a more democratic and equal society. Social democracy is just as well-placed as any other political tradition to capitalise on what the 2020s will bring. But the depth of the crisis it faces right now demands deep and sustained rethinking, as well as political reorganisation. The rupture that Corbyn’s election has forced must be a catalyst for that change, or it will never come.