The Labour Party no longer functions as an effective opposition and its chances of winning an election are virtually nil—believing otherwise is not only fallacious, but toes the line of delusion.
When did this descent into the electoral abyss begin? It would be easy to point a finger in Jeremy Corbyn’s general direction. He has made an appalling leader of the opposition. His lacklustre support of the Remain camp during the EU referendum alienated many labour voters. He failed to act during the amendment phase of the Article 50 bill which sailed through Parliament unopposed. His only attempt to regain any sentience of leadership—the now infamous ‘Real fights starts now’ tweet—was met with derision. The very idea of him proved noxious to his party’s electoral success in the Copeland by-election; Corbyn has become a liability rather than an asset.
When Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party, he promised to reconnect with Labour’s ‘spirit’ in the hope of recovering the ‘core’ voters that many believed had been alienated by the New Labour era of Blair and Brown. What this meant politically was a decisive shift to the left. Corbyn was not the first to do this however. His predecessor ‘red’ Ed Miliband, the son of the famous British Marxist intellectual Ralph Miliband had initiated this shift. What Miliband found out the hard way—a heavy electoral defeat in 2015, handing the Conservatives their first majority since 1992—was that moving to the left alienated the far larger centre vote. While we cannot foresee the result of the 2020 election, Corbyn’s move further to the left and away from the centre and his bottom-scraping poll rating’s may provide a portent of what is to come.
Labour has passed beyond the ideological precipice from which there is no return. In recent months Labour’s members of Parliament have displayed a kind of cut-throat Machiavellianism that is unusually characteristic of them. However, their manoeuvring to oust its leader has failed twice. Corbyn now stands unopposed, despite any possible new challenge to his legitimacy he is now impossible to dislodge having won an overwhelming mandate.
Corbyn’s leadership victories also essentially put an end to a debate within the Labour party regarding its identity, purpose and direction. Corbyn and his ultra-left clique have redefined Labour’s raison d’etre.
As a political party it was formed out of the trade union movement to win representation in Parliament. It was intended as a vehicle that could propel socialists into the heart of government. Labour’s socialist founders understood that in order to enact the ideals of social justice they had to have their hands on real power.
Corbyn however is a revolutionary and no reformer. To reform is to be complicitous with the capitalist regime. The Labour Party, often defined as a ‘broad church’, has always attracted socialist revolutionaries. Where reformers seek to work within the system to change it for the better, revolutionaries seek to overthrow it through mass demonstration, collective action and sometimes violent means. While Corbyn does not condone violence (I wonder if he would if it meant the death of capitalism? You have to break a few eggs to make an omelette right Jeremy?) his mass rallies and involvement in Momentum are testament to his political taste.
To the electorate, at least to the vast majority, Corbyn comes across as a crackpot whose commitment to revolution and radical principles seems remote and archaic. Corbyn lives on a flat Earth and Labour is teetering on its edge.
To overturn and displace one culture for another is no mean feat. Corbyn’s second leadership election cemented his position and gave him a watertight mandate to lead. A third election would simply revitalise him; for this reason Labour MPs dare not make another challenge. He is a rare breed of politician in that he is principled. He asks us to judge not the man but his convictions. Corbyn’s supporters voted for him not in spite of his principles but because of them. Since then Corbyn has unleashed a torrent of leftist energy that demands change not retreat (ironically the change he offers is a full-scale retreat into a form of Marxism not out-of-place in the 1960s). Naysayers, so vocal in their opposition after the Copeland fiasco can only look on as Corbyn retains the support of the party’s activists, members, and most significantly of all its paymaster and Britain’s largest trade union, Unite. Corbyn and the hard left of the party are in no mood to let loose the reigns now so tightly held. In such a climate, a moderate centre-left challenge is impossible.
But what alternative is there for Labour? The party is caught in a catch-22: it can’t veer to the left without alienating the middle class support needed to win an election, and neither can it swing to the centre without alienating its core voters. This problem was exacerbated by the EU referendum. The immigration question split labour voters (more than its MPs) largely along class lines, the support or not for Remain would have alienated those at the sharp end of its decision. If only there was a third way.
There will, I’m sure, be those who would advocate replacing Corbyn and the return of New Labour politics. This is not an altogether unreasonable suggestion in terms of electoral success. Tony Blair’s New Labour won three consecutive landslide elections. The first in 1997 secured 418 seats in the House of Commons—the largest victory in the Party’s history—and ended an eighteen year spell of conservative rule that started with Margaret Thatcher’s victory over James Callaghan in 1979. Its third election victory (though smallest) was perhaps the most remarkable considering that Labour won despite the political toxicity of the Iraq war.
While Blair, Labour’s longest serving prime minister, could win elections, this feat has eluded the party since his departure. The New Labour grandees are all too aware of this fact. In the aftermath of Corbyn’s leadership victory and sensing the new direction the party was heading, Lord Mandelson suggested that “Labour is facing the fight of its life to remain a viable party of government.”
When Corbyn was elected as Labour leader, supporters of the Messiah sang out “Old Labour, not New Labour” and “Jeremy in; Blairites out”, catchy. The sentiment had been that Tony Blair and his clique of New Labour cronies had poisoned and warped Labour’s good name into something hideous and alien. Perhaps they thought a return to ‘Old Labour’ would spell election success?
Since the Second World War, there have been twenty-one elections in the United Kingdom. Of these the Labour Party has won nine—three by New Labour. We hear today of the Conservative Party’s ‘razor thin’ majority of twelve. Of the six ‘old’ Labour victories, Clement Atlee’s second electoral victory secured a majority of five, Harold Wilson’s first electoral victory, four, his third was a minority government, and his fourth only three. In short, and again discounting the New Labour era, since 1945 the Labour Party has only convincingly won two elections one in 1945 where they had a majority of 146 and another in 1966 where they secured a majority of ninety-eight. It is then no wonder why one of Corbyn’s close advisers reconciled the era of New Labour as a ‘historical anomaly’—they could win elections consistently and convincingly. But that’s all New Labour was, an anomaly, a short deviation from the traditional party line that averted collapse. The problem for Labour is that anomaly’s cannot be recreated.
We are led to believe that Corbyn’s leadership victory sounded the death knell of New Labour. Gordon Brown had been an instrumental component of the New Labour machine and Ed Miliband had been compromised by the role he played in it as well. Corbyn on the other hand rebelled over five hundred times against the New Labour whips. Following Corbyn’s leadership victory one Labour MP said “New Labour is now dead and buried” while the disgraced former Conservative defence secretary Liam Fox, said that Mr Blair’s legacy “has finally been laid to rest”.
The reality however is that as a political force, the guns of New Labour (all flash, no bang) had long fallen silent before Corbyn’s ascension. Blair pinpointed the moment that New Labour died to the day he stepped aside for Gordon Brown. Regardless of whether this was the exact moment (Blair says the party “lost its driving rhythm”), New Labour was certainly dead before the leadership election in 2015. The only candidate resembling anything like a ‘Blairite’ in that election—Liz Kendell—received only 4.5 per cent of the leadership vote. Since then other modernisers, convinced of the mendacity of Corbyn’s ideology and leadership direction have effectively given up; Tristrum Hunt is the latest high-profile casualty.
New Labour is a spent force. There is little enthusiasm for the protracted struggle required for its return from within the party where the centre ground has melted away and any resistance to the insurmountable and entrenched leader has all but been stamped out. Blair’s legacy is as towering as it is toxic. Within the Party, his comment that “the debilitation of the Labour party is the facilitator of Brexit. I hate to say that, but it is true,” was met with acquiescence by sympathisers and outright denunciation by the left. Outside the party, the young and politically apathetic have turned to the left-wing grassroots Momentum movement in their droves while those old enough to have lived through the New Labour era see only Blair’s wars and his blood stained hands, they pit his inordinate wealth against the economic mismanagement of his government and remember the almost sinister clique he surrounded himself with.
Labour is also struggling to make itself relevant to the very people it was founded to represent. Historically it broadest support, the working classes, have been turning their backs on Labour in their droves for decades. This may have something to do with the decline of the industrial working-class in Britain. Those who identify as working-class today tend to seek something different to the socialist values Labour was founded on and prefer an equality of opportunity not an equality of outcome.
Labour is also increasingly unable to draw on the twin hydras of nostalgia and tradition. The herd mentality that is nurtured and encouraged by nostalgia and tradition—my parents and grandparents voted labour so that’s what I do—is a taboo that is finally being broken. I mean really. Come on. Who is to say what was best for your grandparents is best for you? People are beginning to look beyond the confines of tradition and are now facing up to contemporary political realities. It is no longer enough to simply be the party that are not the Conservatives.
While there are clearly larger socio-economic, political and cultural forces at work, these do not excuse Corbyn. He was elected leader to counter-act these forces. However, his vision to turn the clock back to the heyday of British socialism is unsurprisingly a flop. While the voters rejected Corbyn’s vision in the recent Copeland by-election, a recent YouGov survey found Labour to be the third most popular party among working-class voters, behind both the Conservatives and UKIP.
It seems that Labour’s claim to a monopoly on the working class vote has come to an end. Anti-establishment forces have proved effective splitting labour’s ‘core’ vote, often channelling working-class resentment over immigration. We have witnessed a ‘rise’ of UKIP at the same time we have seen a decline of Labour. What has proved electorally game changing however, is the ability of the Conservative Party to successfully court the working-class vote.
I would like to think that the move away from traditional patterns of voting is indication of a political enlightenment in Britain, but this is not the case. I think that the only way that people can free themselves from the chains of tradition and shake away the balmy haze of nostalgia is for something similar to take its place. People would not vote for something that was ideologically opposed to their own ingrained beliefs and values. This is the unfortunate triumph of the Conservative party. Through a rhetorical juxtaposition they have managed to elide traditional labour values with conservatism. If Theresa May’s speech at the Conservative conference in 2016 was significant, it was only for the fact that we had heard something very similar before—from ‘red’ Ed in 2013. May has proved a stealthy assassin that is an election away from delivering the coup de grâce to a Labour party whose tradtional voter base is being split at the seams.
Lost in an ideological wilderness, Labour is beyond salvation, its decline terminal, and recovery unthinkable.
Illustration by Glen Preece