11th January, 2016
Bad Year Blues: Part 1
As the Rev I M Jolly used to say: “So that’s the old year over.” Indeed it is, and as even the good Rev might not have added: “The worst year in the history of the Labour Party. Except for 1931.”
The list of disasters is quite short, but each of them was devastating:
• losing a General Election that was there for the winning
• in that election suffering losses to the SNP on swings of up to 30%, indicating a permanent loss of traditional support
• electing Jeremy Corbyn as leader, despite his having no experience of running anything since the Public Works Committee of LB of Haringey Council in 1982
• Corbyn’s election having set the Parliamentary Labour Party in direct conflict with an expanded and radicalised party membership
And what was even worse than these: the manner of the way in which they came about: a General Election programme and campaign conducted in the prose of government rather than the poetry of opposition; and a leadership campaign where the most competent candidates avoided inspiration and idealism, and capitulated to Jeremy Corbyn, the least competent and least electable candidate.
The combination of these disasters appears, as the New Year begins, to signal catastrophe for Labour, and potentially our extinction.
It is wholly possible that Labour has had its century of history and it is all over. The original programme set out by Keir Hardie has been largely achieved (Home Rule/devolution, welfare state including free healthcare, shorter working hours, pensions) or have been superseded (temperance) or are now repugnant to socialists (anti-vaccination hysteria, anti-immigration prejudice.)
If this is the case, the Labour Party may be suffering not just from a slump in support, but from what management theorists call “Programme Exhaustion.” If so, and if all of the great battles have been largely won, it is also possible that voters in future will wish to see someone else running the services and institutions which we fought for and established.
For example, one of the features of the General Election in Scotland in 2015 (and in the independence referendum which shaped it) was the ownership of the National Health Service by the SNP. The NHS may have been born out of the Labour movement (the miners’ mutual arrangements in Tredegar), established by 1945 Labour government, and saved by the Blair/Brown investments following the 2001 Labour win with a mandate to increase NI contributions to double and triple investment, but it was the SNP to which the people of Scotland turned at the ballot box to protect it.
The conclusion to be drawn is that people may value what Labour has achieved, but do not see us as the best party to actually run things. This has long been the case with the Tories, who even if they were intensely disliked in the Thatcher-Major years, were seen as more competent than Labour. This of course ended with Black Wednesday and the loss of their economic reputation, coupled with the emergence of Tony Blair’s New Labour and Gordon Brown’s burgeoning authority at the Dispatch Box.
Seen in this light, the Cameron-Osborne administrations are the resumption of business as usual: the public see the Tories as the party of competence in government, or once more as the natural party of government.
This position has been periodically challenged, and it is useful – especially for Labour – to see how political progress has come about over the past century or so. This has not been a steady and sustained linear progression, but a series of cycles: an up-spike of reform and progress has been followed by a longer period of consolidation and assimilation, when the radical and the innovative become the bipartisan norm.
This is what happened to the achievements of the Asquith-Lloyd George administrations either side of the First World War; to the Attlee-Beverage settlement post 1945 (later becoming Butskillism); to the enlightened liberal innovations of Wilson and Jenkins in the 1960s; and finally to the Blair/Brown revolution, which has now been adopted in part by Cameron and Osborne.
In this last case, we can see that the big achievements of the Labour governments from 1997 are intact: the centrality of the NHS, the value of pensions, the National Minimum Wage and redistributive Tax Credits. In the end, the aims of the Tory/LibDem coalition and the current Tory government may be seen as “Small State Blairism.”
The other conclusion which we can draw form this analysis – sort of a modified micro-Schumpeter/Kondratieff thesis – is that although things seem entrenched at the moment, they will not stay so forever. I can recall the late Professor Bernard Crick describing the fall of Gladstone’s Liberals when it appeared they would be power for ever; likewise it seemed that the Tories would not capitulate in the Thatcher Years; and Tony Blair’s mastery of the political scene appeared at last to have established Labour as the natural party of government.
At the same time, however, there is no guarantee that Labour will be in any position to benefit when the current cycle ends. The bottom line is whether we will even exist as a major party by the time 2025 or 2030 comes around: we have no right to existence, and there is a real and present danger that we will be a vestigial remnant like the ILP or non-LibDem Liberals in 15 years’ time.
Even more worryingly, there is no guarantee that the baton will pass from one progressive force to another as it did from the Liberals to Labour in the decades after World War One. The current trend, as seen in Scotland and in the increase in UKIP’s votes in Labour seats in England, is that we would not be supplanted from the left, but eclipsed by identity-led populism and xenophobic chauvinism.
Labour therefore has a responsibility to offer an electable alternative to the Tories.
If we are going to live up to that responsibility, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is a good place to start, for which there can be no better example than the appalling mess of the post-Christmas Shadow Cabinet reshuffle.
Every politics-watcher in and out of the Labour Party will have their favourite car-crash moment, for instance, the wish to sack Hilary Benn for the cardinal sin of advocating the confrontation of fascism, or the actual sacking of Pat McFadden for the suggestion that terrorists should be held to account for their own actions, or the appointment of Emily (“I don’t know why”) Thornberry and the end of any pretence of impartiality in the defence review. These all show a vindictive and narrow political dogma at work, and indeed the mantras of Corbyn’s fan club in the country will be familiar to anyone with knowledge or experience of the far left.
The declaration of primacy of the Corbyn mandate is not only designed to shut down argument, but also gives away his supporters’ adherence to Leninist democratic centralism. They believe that if the Party cadres elect a central authority, in this case the Corbyn-McDonnell leadership , it as absolute and exclusive authority, and any opposition is treachery – including that of MPs.
This is, of course, totally at odds with the principle of parliamentary democracy, where MPs are selected by CLPs and elected by non-party voters according to a manifesto based on policies decided according to the Labour Party constitution. On no issue is this clash of political philosophies clearer than that of the renewal (or not) of Trident and the UK’s nuclear deterrent.
In this case, the party has a clear policy to renew decided by conference and confirmed as recently as last September. Likewise, all Labour MPs were elected in May last year on a manifesto commitment to “a minimum, credible, independent nuclear capability, delivered through a Continuous At-Sea Deterrent.” In contrast, the Corbyn leadership now seeks to impose on those same MPs (and their constituents) a policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament, based on a faction-driven internal party process alone. Put simply, the Labour left is seeking to boss the will of the electorate against its will, leaving MPs with responsibility without authority: a definition of political and personal hell which few should be willing to tolerate.
If possible, the other signal given to voters by the reshuffle is still more damaging: it was drawn out and dithering , did not achieve the ends trailed by the leadership spin team, and caused more problems than it solved. In short, it was incompetent.
In its wake, the leader himself was not prepared to do the round of press and media justifying its conduct. Instead he sent out his henchmen John McDonnell and Ken Livingstone to do so, and to smear his critics as “extreme rightwingers” and “Blairites” (which must have made Brownites like Michael Dugher smile.) This incompetence and unwillingness to take responsibility of course only confirms that Jeremy Corbyn has no experience of any front-bench, leadership or managerial position, either in politics or outside. However, it must be an eye-opener for voters who might imagine that such experience is essential to be considered suitable for the post of Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition.
Above all – and this goes back to the Tories’ recurrent dominance of British politics – voters want to be able to trust their country’s security and economy to representatives who appear competent to look after them. Anyone looking to the reshuffle for signs that Labour can recover will have been disappointed, to say the least.
By this token, any leader who cannot run their own party is seen by the electorate as not fit to run the country. The reshuffle fiasco can only have confirmed this view in the eyes of voters where Jeremy Corbyn is concerned.
This is an updated and extended version of an earlier post here – Planet Pedro
By Peter Russell