What New Labour Needs to Do

Hindsight warning – This post contains some criticism of the 2015 Labour Manifesto and of Miliband. Such things are easy looking back, but I maintain he made the best decisions possible with the information available.

Fuck values, I want Labour to be in power. But, in spite of the tradition on the topic, I’m not convinced that New Labour can do it. For one, The Third Way has taken the name of its most discredited warmongering progenitor. For another, they’re not actually offering anything that the Tories couldn’t steal.

While there is a truth to the pragmatic arguments that say we need to appeal to people who voted Conservative, this position also contains a kernel of naivety. Telling “the left”, as though Blairites aren’t left wing, to simply shut up and do what they say is the most idealistic claim in the whole leadership debate. While the left_er_ wing of the party has not been tested in decades, the Third Way has been tested, lost two elections, failed to maintain support in Scotland, failed to gain seats from those swing constituencies, and lost the faith of the core Labour support. In fact, the only thing it succeeded in doing was to give a friendly face to Thatcherism and help move political discourse so far to the right that it is impossible to even talk about state investment without sounding like a pinko. Blairism was tolerated because it worked. It is no longer clear that it still does, and it is its followers’ responsibility to make their case not the rest of the party’s responsibility to shut up.

Miliband was a master of the sort of pragmatic politics that Blairites in general and Kendall in particular speaks about. Which is odd, because Blair, so far as I can tell (I was 9 years old in 1997) clearly believed in the Third Way; there was no question of having to ‘make tough choices’ and acknowledge that we have to get in power to act upon our values. Miliband, I still believe, was a fantastic leader, a cunning politician, and a greater loss to Downing Street than has yet been recognised. Despite this mastery, even he failed. Scotland fell to nationalism (yes- it did), and England fell to scaremongering about a Labour-SNP coalition (something Ed ruled out far too late), this is not to mention the ongoing problem of voter apathy, and lack of trust in Labour on fiscal responsibility.

If there was an oversight with the Miliband Labour party, it was in accepting austerity. This has nothing to do with the obviously false idea that Labour lost because it wasn’t left wing enough. Opposing austerity is not a left wing idea. Both Gordon Brown’s Labour and the Liberal Democrats went into the 2010 election on a platform of anti-Austerity, not that this was the word used at the time. As a calculated move to get back voters, the party switched to Austerity-Lite.

In retrospect, I think this concession was a mistake. It gave far too much ground to the Tories, effectively agreeing in a form of economics Labour has never supported. It made impossible to consistently deny that Labour overspent, unless different economic rules apply in 2009 than 2012. The more I think about it, the more I realise how naive I was to think the line would ever bring back swing voters. Because the austerity agenda went unopposed, the question “Do you trust Labour on the economy?” really meant “Do you trust Labour to cut the deficit?”. This has nothing to do with fiscal responsibility, and everything to do with the fact that no one in their right mind believed Labour would do it. If you were on the centre or the right you thought they were mad statists who want to spend money on everything regardless of consequences. If you were on the left, you thought that they were in. If you were a left Labour supporter, you thought it was a Blairite feint to trick Tory voters that would be reversed relatively quickly had they got into power (I personally thought Ed Balls would be one of the first to be reshuffled). The only people who believed Labour would cut the deficit were the so-called hard left, who saw it as a reason not to vote for them. Anti-Austerity might not have brought in swing voters, but at least it wouldn’t have angered the left.

All austerity-lite did was prevent Labour’s core activists from delivering an honest impassioned argument, alienate its core vote, and convince the swing vote that Labour were more or less admitting they spent to much. It left Scotland wide open for the SNP, and made Labour’s much belated criticism of the SNP sound desperate and disingenuous, in spite of the fact it was one of the more honest parts of the campaign. The SNP’s nationalism would have been forced into a different relief if Labour had been opposing austerity. Even if they would have still lost the general election, but held more of Scotland. The Labour/SNP coalition scaremongering would have had less effect and we could very well have kept Miliband as leader.

I am not saying this to pick holes into the strategy, but to criticise the truism that, if Labour pretend to be the Tories, they have more chance of winning. By following the Tories in agreeing with the austerity myth, a myth designed specifically to discredit centre-left policies, they unsurprisingly discredited themselves and failed to have a coherent economic opposition to their opponent. This further sabotaged the campaign in that the choice to differentiate themselves from the Tories on social and moral policies (zero hours contracts etc.) they were identified as an anti-business party. Don’t get me wrong, I am anti-Business. I like anti-Business policies. Businesses have enough protection, it’s workers who are in desperate need of legislative help. But, the more I think about it, the combination of pro-worker, anti-exploitation policies with an austerity policy that no one believed made their fate inevitable. The fact that they didn’t do worse is probably testament to a popular appetite for the anti-exploitation policies.

Appealing to swing constituencies is not going to be enough to win in 2020 or indeed 2025. Historical forces are probably enough to secure some sort of “victory” in 2030, if there is a state left to run or world left to inhabit. Even if we’re willing to concede that Corbyn, who is comfortably pulling thousands of people to hear him speak, is not a route to electoral victory, we need to ask why, if Blairism is so good at getting Labour elected, they aren’t pulling crowds of swing voters given their farcical over-representation in policy discussion. Unlike with Blair, there is no vision, no end to aim for, only ways and means. There is no ideological truth to which campaigners to point in order to convince people. There is only the idiotically uncensored campaign promise that the Blairites are the ones who can figure out how to trick the electorate into voting for them—if Owen Jones is right in describing New Labour as bankrupt, the transaction to make them insolvent was the Kendall policy of telling everyone under the sun that centre right policies are a means of winning back voters rather than an end in-themselves.

A Burnham with the heart of Corbyn

I don’t want to have to vote for Corbyn. He is risky as hell. But, unless the centre left absorb the anti-Austerity “movement”, they are riskier. If anything like the last leadership competition, a Blairite victory means silence for months while focus groups are consulted and a stratagem is agreed behind closed doors when what we need, if we have any hope of transforming public opinion, is a unified and vocal opposition now. If anything, Corbyn is a good choice in the interim as, having the enormous tactical advantage of speaking the truth (or at least, truthfully speaking about what he believes) he doesn’t need to wait for voter feedback before making a statement.

Give me a Burnham with the heart of Corbyn. A unifying figure who knows not to violate the whip, but who isn’t afraid to oppose in opposition. Who recognises the crisis in Labour support from it’s traditional core vote, and attempts to engage with them, inspire them, and most importantly regain their trust. While support of Corbyn is largely naive and no doubt contains its fair share of hubris, to claim that this shift is one of madness is the most naive thing of all. It is the Blairites’ job to regain support, not the supporters’ job to do what they’re told.

Note: I actually drafted this post a few days ago, and to my delight Burnham’s manifesto already indicates he is going in this direction. I’ll have to be quicker off the mark next time.

Perhaps the New Labour need Corbyn: a few months of socialism, a massive drop in electoral viability and the inevitable realisation that Corbyn isn’t perfect will be enough to allow the New Labour wing of the party to rise again, provided they get their act together, have something concrete to offer, and don’t split.

But, if anyone thinks that New Labour can leave the party if they want, that a split in the party is a perfect way to smash the establishment corruption within it, that the task of the progressive left is to break the status quo and reestablish some sort of post-war consensus socialist utopia, they are mistaken.

Corbyn needs to be taking steps now to hold the party together, and if he is not doing so, he cannot be trusted with the responsibility of leading the party. I’ll opine more on that tomorrow.

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