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The Progressive Policy Think Tank

Let us face the future: Labour, Jeremy Corbyn, and the power of the past

Labour is in deep trouble. Palliatives and short-term fixes won’t address the condition of the party. Making a start would entail something risky and unpredictable, and for Labour to stop defining itself literally by its past battles, victories and many defeats.

This has been the most exciting and cataclysmic Labour leadership contest in a generation. The nearest comparison must be the Benn insurgency for the deputy leadership of the party in 1981, when he narrowly lost to Denis Healey. This marked the peak of the left’s influence in Labour – until now.

What has occurring in the Labour contest, with the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and his unlikely election as party leader, and the diminishing of Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall, is little more than the passing of a political generation, along with the main reference points and ways in which the party has understood itself and done its politics.

The Blairite project is over, with the Blairites now reduced to a tiny rump and a few desperate, intemperate followers (Progress, John McTernan). Labour’s traditional right has been hollowed out, with the trade union leadership and activist base who once gave the party such ballast (and brought it back from the Bennite-induced abyss in 1981–82) now firmly on the left.

To illustrate the scale of change in Labour, the previous centre of gravity of the party in the Kinnock years, and even in the early years of New Labour (‘the soft left’) has all but disappeared. Its leading proponents have been tarnished by office (John Prescott), died (Robin Cook), or gone to foreign shores (Bryan Gould) and have not been replaced by a younger group.

All that leaves as significant strands are Jon Cruddas and Compass. The former may have been Miliband’s policy coordinator, but he was effectively marginalised in the big discussions. Compass has been one of the few bright spots working with Labour in the last decade, but has sadly had little major influence on the directions and deliberations of the party.

This has created the environment that has made the irresistible rise of Jeremy Corbyn possible. A transformation in the culture and landscape of Labour, a change in existing membership first during the Miliband years and then post-election, combined with the new system of electing a leader, and an influx of new members to produce a Labour base of well over half a million supporters.

This summer of insurgency has produced an unprecedented situation: an upsurge of left-wing activity, engagement and hope towards Labour. Yet, with all this, there are still significant continuities with Labour’s past and that of left culture which need to be understood, and which are limiting the potential for change.

Labour and the myths of 1945

Labour has, since its inception, been shaped by collective memories of the past and what might be seen as a set of foundation myths. In its early days, this included the Tolpuddle martyrs, the growth of trade unionism in the 19th century, and growing recognition of the need for independent organised labour representation. After 1945, the potent images of the 1930s had deep resonance: the Jarrow march, mass unemployment and hardship, and Tory appeasement of fascism.

Yet as Labour has grown increasingly unsure of itself in recent decades, with the emergence of Thatcherism and rightward drift of British politics, the party has increasingly come to frame even more of how it sees itself and the world through the past. Thus, the spirit of 1945 is continually invoked as ‘the golden age’ of Labour. The pre-Thatcherite world of ‘the postwar consensus’ is seen as homogenous and by some as ‘social democracy’, and the pre-New Labour party as an undiluted force for centre-left politics. To some, everything pre-Blair can be seen in a better light. ‘What was wrong with the 1983 manifesto?’ asked Steve Belcher, a Unison regional organiser, in a Financial Times article. ‘It was about renationalisation, it was about reindustrialisation … What was wrong with that?’

This is a fictitious past, about now not then. Take one example: 1945. The Attlee government achieved many great things, but at the time it wasn’t seen in Labour in quite the rose-tinted way it is now. First, it only lasted six years, failing to run for a full second term, and left office exhausted. Second, it wasn’t exactly very democratic (something we will return too), being a product of the hierarchical, deferential society of the time. Lastly, its politics weren’t very bold or imaginative – nationalisation, or even Bevan’s compromise in setting up the NHS, by which he allowed GPs to sit outside it, which exists to this day. The post-Attlee consensus, even among Labour thinkers (Richard Crossman, Tony Crosland), was that it had done much good, but overall had felt a disappointment. The incessant invoking of 1945 isn’t about Attlee. It is about the compromises and retreats since.

The idea and culture of Labour throughout its history – coming from one about working-class solidarity and representation – has been shaped by the experience and bitter memory of defeat and losers in society. Therefore, the party has continually been uncomfortable with winning and being in office, in a way the Tories have never been. Part of the current predicament of Labour is the feeling of many that Blair’s three election victories were gained at too high a cost –namely, the erosion of the party’s principles and even its sense of its soul.

Labour as a party of conservatism

The left agenda of the last couple of decades has been one of continual retreat and defeat. This has reinforced a tendency to be increasingly backward-looking, to try continually to revisit and undo the past.

A large part of the Corbyn agenda is informed by this mindset. Thus we have seen a high profile given to such demands as nationalisation of rail and energy companies, reopening mines and repealing anti-trade union laws.

Now, the first of these is hugely popular – which is hardly surprising, considering the shambles of rail and energy privatisation which have replaced public with private monopolies and a pretence of competition.

Nationalisation of railways is a substitute for understanding the commanding heights of the economy. Railways were part of the key infrastructure of the country in 1945, but today they are less so. What are the critical infrastructure conduits today? They are the internet, Google and Amazon – but no one is proposing to nationalise them.

As for repealing anti-trade union laws, is this really the mark of the radical? For a start, the trade union reforms were popular (and popular with trade unionists). They democratised trade unions and gave more power to individual members. Is anyone on the left seriously going to make the case for the return of strikes without secret ballots, secondary picketting and the closed shop?

This stance is a product of the retreat of trade union membership, but is also a displacement from seriously thinking about work, employments and workers’ rights, and how the world of business is done. Corporate governance, for example, is a subject Labour and the left have historically said very little on, and the last time Labour and the trade unions intervened on industrial democracy was the Bullock inquiry of 1977. A very powerful strand of British trade unionism sees itself in opposition to employers – whether private, public or voluntary sector – and has traditionally been suspicious of such an agenda.

Labour’s lack of democracy

Labour has for most of its existence not very effectively advanced democracy.[1] Let us take a couple of examples.

One is the area of constitutional reform: the need for a written constitution and the importance of binding checks and balances on the power of the centre and arbitrary power. Despite constitutional reform being one of the biggest achievements of the Blair government, it was never understood or embraced. Furthermore, across a range of issues – from the Freedom of Information Act to the Human Rights Act and Scottish devolution – Blair either tried to undermine in the first place, or expressed regret afterwards.

There has been a lack of interest in revitalising local democracy, opposition to any form of proportional representation at Westminster, and coexistence when in office with the House of Lords. Lest we forget, there is Labour’s tradition of not advancing party democracy. The most successful Labour government – under Attlee – was centralist, representing a command-and-control politics and defined by the mantra, ‘the man in Whitehall knows best’.

Labour’s historic attitude to democracy and pluralism can best be summed up as follows: Labour governments have to be elected to capture the state, so they can control it and do good things for the people, irrespective of whether the people like it or not. Such has been the need for the greater progressive good.

Radical nostalgia and the limits of the left

Thatcher and Blair might well be the two main villains, not just to the left but to large parts of wider society. Yet there is a powerful mythology in how they are seen today and how their success is judged in retrospective. They are understandably identified with the economic, social and political changes which happened while they were in office, and how Britain has changed over the last 40 years.

However, Thatcher and Blair did not bring about the economic and social changes of this period. They did not create the modern world we now live in. What they did do was amplify, encourage and aid existing trends.

This is what modern-day radicals of the left need to understand. Rather than hanker after past eras or attempt to ‘defend’ various institutions – the NHS, the BBC, even the welfare state – the left has to be about the future, and about democratising and creating new institutions. This has to go with the grain of existing trends and patterns in society, nurturing and supporting progressive shifts and expressions such as the rise in autonomy, self-determination, self-expression, mutualism, sharing, cooperation, interconnectedness and the potent sense of ‘nothing about us without us is for us’.

Why has the left become a prisoner of what can only be called radical nostalgia? This has always been part of the left’s DNA – the hankering after primitive communism, William Morris, the early ecology movement. But today the world and change is so messy, contradictory and fast-changing that it is much easier and attractive to cite past positions and over-emphasise certainty. Far easier to blame Thatcher and Blair for the state of all that is wrong with Britain now, or invoke only anger and anti-austerity as the mainstay of your political dispensation. Much of this is understandable, considering the complexity of the world and standing of mainstream politics, but raging against the machine only gets you so far.

There is also where the left comes from, and where it used to. Trade unions are a mere fifth of the workforce, concentrated in the public sector, often quite aging, and often in secure, tenured parts of the economy. Then there is the absence of the Communist party, which for all its undoubted flaws gave a non-Labour left perspective, ideas, theory and – in its last decade – Marxism Today. Some left-wingers hated that journal, because in their eyes the worst crime is heresy, which indicates the quasi-religious dogma of a strand of the left.

The Communist party provided a cadre of leaders and activists in the labour movement, and in particular trade unions, who knew how to organise and campaign, and who had an historical and political tradition. Its demise has come about at the same time as the retreat of unions, and the diminution in the quality of leadership – each has reinforced the other. Look at the union leadership of the country today, and compare them to Hugh Scanlon, Jack Jones and Mick McGahey of years ago: the drop-off in quality and political intelligence is severe.

The left as a tribe

The left is, in its culture and politics, more often than not a closed tribe – not, in Sue Goss’s phrase, an ‘open tribe’.[2] The words of many of the left’s most defining songs indicate this – the ‘cowards’ and ‘traitors’ of ‘The Red Flag’, or the sense in ‘Which Side Are You On?’ that the intent is more accusation than any open invitation to join the cause.

Radical politics are not about the myth of a better yesterday – the spirit of 1945, the postwar consensus, or the pre-Blair world. One rather telling discussion of the four Labour leadership candidates on BBC Newsnight centred on the question of ‘what would Clement Attlee do?’ in current circumstances; other media items have addressed the equally pointless question of ‘what would Keir Hardie do?’ today.[3] This is not a healthy politics or situation, but an indication of the problem.

A politics of the future would not be about hankering after the past, trying to invoke certainty where there is little, or advance the solutions of the 1940s and 1950s for today. It would be about a very different kind of politics:

  • A different kind of political organisation, idea of a party and politicians – as far removed from New Labour and the traditional left model as possible.
  • Think about political economy, globalisation and interdependence. Blair regularly lectured Labour on the latter two, but the entire New Labour era, as Iain Martin pithily pointed observed, had nothing to say about the first of these.[4]
  • Address the huge concentrations of wealth and power, while also recognising that vested interests come in many forms – from the private sector and big business to parts of the public and voluntary sectors.
  • Stop invoking abstracts such as austerity and inequality as if they were the solution. Bucking the economics of the global economy requires more than rhetoric, as Syriza in Greece has demonstrated. And while inequality scars our society, reducing it is hugely complicated, and requires an understanding of how people view reward and status, and of how they often see those nearest them, economically speaking, as the least deserving.
  • Embrace the revolution in information and knowledge, exchange and value, which is offering huge potential for new forms of cooperation, sharing and networking. This is transforming the nature of physical goods, intellectual property and the nature of business in ways most of the left seem far removed from.

Perhaps the biggest leap the left could make is one of culture and practice: namely, to abandon the mindset of humourlessness, condemnation and hectoring which is too prevalent from those who cast themselves as true believers. Large segments of the left rarely recognise the nearly impenetrable barriers the left erects around itself in its dealings with the world – which not only puts many sympathisers off but also distorts the left’s own interpretation of reality.

A transformative politics should be about joy, dance, irreverence, playfulness, even a subversive humour with regard to much of what passes for being left. As the famous quote from Emma Goldman goes: ‘If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.’ Rarely has this been understood, let alone acted upon.

These are not flippant add-ons to how politics is done. They are central to what Barbara Ehrenreich called the liberation of ‘collective joy’ and the remaking and reclaiming of the public and public space.[5] Such insights have been made by groups such as the New York-based Centre for Artistic Activism, who made the observation that left activism is an exhausting, soul-destroying form of practice, one which often sees its measure of success in the near-distant future as simply not having to be an activist any more – the reason being, because it is not enjoyable and is not sustainable. They conclude that this says there is something wrong with most left politics.[6]

The Labour leadership contest marks something really significant. Not only is it the end of the Blairite project, right-wing Labour and the soft left, but is also the final death knell of labourism: the political culture of defensiveness, sectionalism and insularity which defined much of working-class and trade union culture, and which has shaped so much of Labour politics.

This culture has long been lambasted by left-wing intellectuals and thinkers through the ages – from Tom Nairn to John Saville – who saw it as insufficiently theoretical, Marxist or European. This, then, is a party still defined by some of the indirect offshoots of labourism: the power of the past and defeat, conservatism and absence of democracy. This shift could actually be a window of opportunity for the party to embrace a more far-reaching and radical change than the passive top-down revolution of the Blair era.

Labour is in deep trouble. Palliatives and short-term fixes won’t address the condition of the party. It is now more than ever a regional party – one of Wales and parts of England: the north, bits of the Midlands and London. It won a mere 18.9 per cent of the electorate in 2010 – the party’s worst showing since 1918 – and only 20.1 per cent in 2015 – a whisker above the catastrophic defeat of 1983, and thus Labour’s third worst showing since it became a national party.

There is a circularity to many of the Labour arguments and even of its crises, but it is clear that we are reaching some kind of breaking point. The Labour party doesn’t actually have a divine right to be part of the British constitution and Her Majesty’s loyal opposition or government. The same though is true of a radical and left critique and opposition: it just isn’t enough in these times to shout the loudest or simplest, and say that ‘the status quo is not good enough’. That is blatantly obvious to anyone, including many of the elites who pretend otherwise.

Tomorrow’s radical politics has to be very different to the constricting practices of Labour, or the rhetoric of the actually existing left. It has to be optimistic, hopeful, daring, recapturing the power of dreaming but linking it to a politics of action and words, and profoundly democratic. We have to do risky things like understand our pasts, not be a prisoner of them.

This is an age of opportunity, not just of retreat and defeat, if it can be seized. The vertical-control age of the party, corporation and public sphere is being challenged by the rise of horizontally organised politics, business and civil society, one which will threaten all sorts of monopolies and closed communities if its liberationist potential can be fully utilised.

Not all of this could be addressed in the Labour leadership contest or its immediate aftermath. Making a start would entail something risky and unpredictable, and for Labour to stop defining itself literally by its past battles, victories and many defeats. It could entail more and more people taking the words of the party’s most famous manifesto literally and saying, ‘let us face the future’, rather than clinging to an imagined set of myths about the spirit of 1945.

Gerry Hassan is a writer, commentator and academic, co-director of Scotland’s Festival of Ideas, and author and editor of 20 books on Scottish and British politics, the latest of which are Caledonian Dreaming: The Quest for a Different Scotland (Luath 2014) and a study of the Scottish public sphere Independence of the Scottish Mind (Palgrave Macmillan 2014). This column first appeared on his blog, at www.gerryhassan.co.uk


Notes

1. Kettle M (2015) ‘The strange death of Labour Britain has a worrying precedent’, Guardian, 15 August 2015. ^back

2. Goss S (2014) The Open Tribe, Lawrence and Wishart. ^back

3. Benn M (2015) ‘Labour should ask itself: what would Keir Hardie do?’, Guardian, 31 August 2015. ^back

4. Martin I (2015) ‘The Problem with Blairites’, CapX, 31 July 2015. ^back

5. Ehrenreich B (2007) Dancing in Streets: A History of Collective Joy, Granta Books. ^back

6. This is a point I make about the prevailing cultures of large parts of the British and Scottish lefts in: Hassan G (2014) Caledonian Dreaming: The Quest for a Different Scotland, Luath Press: chs 8 and 9. ^back