- 12 December 2019 was a catastrophe for the Labour Party.
- A sombre grey ringing knell for those who support left leaning, progressive policies. Its ring is uneven.
- No party ever overturns a majority of 80. So keep the earplugs in for another ten years of Tory rule. (an un-austere total of 19).
- History may provide some comfort, even if distant and cold. This has happened before. After Michael Foot in 1983, Labour took 14 years to regain power. When the Tories had a similar catastrophe (after 18 years of rule, up until 1997) they took 13 years to sort themselves out.
- Even then … how on earth will Labour attract enough voters to command any kind of majority in the future? Seats in many regions (hello Scotland) will be required.
- And this presumes that Scotland will still be part of the UK. If Scotland gains independence, what on earth does that mean for Labour?
- But then if Scotland does gain independence so many roots underpinning our imagined forest of the future will be violently ripped from the ground.
- I grew up familiar with a roster of heavyweight Labour politicians. John Smith, Mo Mowlam, Clare Short, David Blunkett, Donald Dewar, John Reid. Blair and Brown, of course.
- Aside: It’s worth noting of course how many of them are Scottish. The incredible drought of Scottish Labour not only severely starves Labour’s chance of a parliamentary majority in the future, but it means the once flowing river of talented politicians has dried up.
- More recently, the few familiar Labour names in the public eye were purged as the Corbynite faction of the Labour party grasped its chance. Not only did this divest the public of familiar, at least half trustable faces, but it gave the sense of a party at unrest, inharmonious, unsure of its direction.
- While the airy, abstract values of Corbynism (redistribution, equality, international solidarity) where not difficult to perceive, I failed to see what practical policies this entailed. It was only when the manifesto was launched that one could knot the strings together. And there was plenty in there that was attractive (renationalising the rail industry, scrapping universal credit) and no-one can deny that this was not a fresh choice.
- Yet they were radical ideas, transporting Labour from the bland ‘safety’ of a centrist position (hello introducing tuition fees!), past the traditions of social democracy and into socialism (shares for workers)
- This is too fast for history. This is too fast for Britain. These are powerful, needed ideas to deal with the problems of contemporary capitalism.
- Britain is not per se a conservative country (though its many of its reflexes are). But embedding radicalism takes time and steps. Leaping to a shiny socialist manifesto in one go will have left many voters’ mouths gaping.
- In recent memory, the Conservatives have always been labelled as the party with the European problem. A blue and yellow boil, visible for all to see.
- But actually, so did (and does) Labour.
- The Tories have now ruthlessly burst that boil. The Court Jester took the risk of purging the Tory remainers; now, post-election, he has a phalanx of Brexitters gazing adoringly at the healthy size of his majority. The Tories are now clearly an anti-EU party. It was messy. The lancing provoked plenty of hysterical claims and frantic wishes that this be a terminal moment for the the Tory party. It didn’t and it won’t, at least not in the next few years.
- Labour, though, tried to nurse the boil. Corbyn knew he had supporters from both camps. Electorally, this made sense. But it means the boil is still there. Only when the reality of the now confirmed Brexit, will the pus seep away of its own accord. What will it leave behind?
A Certain Type of Democracy
- Is democracy another winner here? Or rather adherents of a certain type of democracy, the traditional, British First Past the Post system all wrapped in our great unwritten constitution?
- There was a referendum. There was a result. It was advisory. Parliamentary ummed and erred. It got messy. There was much debate. Senior lawyers began to rumble. It got messier. There was an election. It got messier still. Senior lawyers appeared, now in frocks. And then there was a definitive election.
- No shots were fired; no soldiers were mustered. (Although, I guess we never expected that).
- But throughout this chaos, has there been any consensus discussion that the constitutions needs changed; that the electoral rolls need updating; that the balance of powers is misguided?
- From a Tory / winner’s point of view, we have muddled through and lived to tell the tale. Democracy is doing just fine. Only the losers are talking about a failure of democracy.
- Okay, this ignores the corrosive effects of social media, the frenzy of lying in the election campaigns and the stench of Russian influence.
- It ignores the loud cries from Edinburgh, it fails to see swaying Belfast.
- But still.
Where next for Labour?
Here’s a graph.
- The left to right axis maps approaches to economics from socialist to free market
- The up to down axis maps approaches to cultural and social politics from libertarian to liberal to conservative to authoritarian
- Dots mark certain the positions of specific UK governments, with the Prime Minister initialed.
I know. It’s a huge simplification. And you will quibble about some of the placements. But let’s run with it.
Corbyn pushed the Labour party further to the top left corner than that Labour party has been for a long time. Blair was centrist. David Cameron started sort of centrist but veered rightwards.
Meanwhile, the British population has drifted to the bottom left. Globalisation has both created economic inequality and a sense of social dislocation. Of course there are millions of committed voters who refute this, exist in other segments of the graph and are still strongly dedicated to supporting their values they believe in. But it’s the floating voters, the ones that could vote Tory or Labour that have drifted in this direciton. And in the UK’s first past the post system, the floating voters are the ones that turn an election.
(The book National Populism: the revolt against liberal democracy is very good at analysing this trend. Its adherents could have predicted the 2019 election result).
By making Brexit a central policy platform, Johnson pushes the Tories in a different direction. There is now a general sense of (worried or interested) curiosity about where he will take the Tories in the next five years. Is the courting of the north and the noises about economic infrastructure development just election-talk? Or do the Tories see themselves sitting on the the Labour ‘Red Wall’ as a long-term strategy?
And so where next for Labour? Does Labour ditch its multi-culturalism and trying build a new form of patriotism? Stick to its internationalist values and try and pull more voters in its direction. It’s a complex difficult question for Labour. In any case, I hope they do not rush into choosing a new leader. The party needs a couple of ugly years of infighting and listening before active decisively.