I am no fan the British Labour Party. I have spent years enduring its arrogance and tribalism; I would not mind terribly if the party did not survive its current crisis. There is a temptation to gloat over its predicament – though this would be a distraction from the important political questions of our time. But it is more important to reflect on wider lessons for the political left.
Labour’s immediate problem is that their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has no idea how to lead a political party, even if he were inclined to lead it in a sensible direction. To understand the depth of his failure I would point to two articles by former supporters. First from the Guardian journalist Owen Jones is getting a lot of attention right now; but what really shocked me was this from Richard Murphy, who developed Mr Corbyn’s economic manifesto last year, when he was running for the Labour leadership. And yet Mr Corbyn remains very popular in the party’s mass membership, much of which has only recently joined, who seem convinced that he represents a new kind of politics, and that criticism arises from malign forces. And that is enough to keep Mr Corbyn secure in his role.
As a convenient shorthand I will call Mr Corbyn and his supporters the “hard left”, though it is in fact a more complex fusion of old and new leftist trends than this name suggests. The word “hard” suggests its uncompromising attitude towards the political and business establishment, and its rejection of the conventional methods of politics. It compares with two other loose groupings. First are centrists, who held sway in the late 1990s and 2000s under former leader Tony Blair. These combined an embrace of global capitalism with a broad role for government intervention, albeit using quasi-market structures much of the time, and with a contempt for intermediate levels of democratic intervention below national government. The centrists made a successful pitch for formerly Conservative voters, giving the party power from 1997 to 2010. And yet the left of the party felt betrayed by its compromises, and especially by the Mr Blair’s support for the Iraq war in 2003.
In between the centrists (otherwise referred to as Blairites) and the hard left stands what outsiders call the “soft left”. I’m not sure if they would be happy to use that term themselves, they might prefer “liberal left”, but it seems to me highly appropriate. The soft left want to have the best of both worlds: drawing on the anger felt by the public sector workers that are the core of the hard left, while still wanting to achieve and wield political power through conventional political processes. The soft left became the dominant Labour faction under the leadership of Ed Miliband, after Labour lost power in 2010 until last year’s general election. It still forms most of Labour’s parliamentary party, and it is trying to oust Mr Corbyn as leader.
The success of the hard left reflects the weakness of the centrists and the soft left. The centrists are now a busted flush. The financial crash of 2008 exposed the hollowness of their achievement; the economy was not robust enough to support the level of public expenditure they favoured. Meanwhile their economic policies seemed to favour an affluent minority. While they might use government agencies to redistribute much of the wealth, what was required was decent jobs in poorer parts of the country. The Conservatives took over much of their governing ethos.
The soft left are no better, and that goes to the heart of Labour’s problems. They have no more idea about what to do than anybody else; the hard left doesn’t have much idea either, but is able to focus its energies on being against things instead. They nevertheless focus hard on what they have to do and say in order to win back political power. Under Mr Miliband this took the form of endless re-launches as they tested out one half-baked idea after another. By 2015 they ended up with an election manifesto that was generally centrist. Its core fiscal policy is in the process of being adopted by Theresa May’s new Conservative government, along with many other policies and priorities. But in order to coopt the anger of the hard left they had to dress it up as something more radical. This is what, in another context, the Economist calls “homeopathic politics”: the adoption of radical policies in minute quantities in the hope that it will create a positive aura by association. The Economist framed this idea to describe the way the American right tries to tap into the anger of the working classes at globalisation. Its warning was that it always backfires, as it will never satisfy the people that it Is trying to appeal too. In due course it led to the capture of the Republican nomination by Donald Trump. Something similar has happened to the soft left.
The soft left have compounded their problems by changing the leadership election rules so that not only is the mass membership in control, but they are boosted by temporary members (though they are trying to backtrack on this now). Two muddled ideas seem to be behind this. The first was that broadening the franchise for the leadership battle would make the selectorate more representative of the country at large; a quick glance at US primary elections should have shaken them out of that. Second was that the soft left could ride the tide of left wing anger at “austerity” and “neoliberalism”, the abstract ideas that the hard left choose to obsess about. But they have been outgunned by the hard left.
Meanwhile soft left MPs have shown little backbone. Their chosen challenger to Mr Corbyn, Owen Smith, was almost unheard of outside Labour circles, and even he required another MP, Angela Eagle, to break cover and make the initial challenge. The best qualified MPs to be leader are keeping a low profile.
The political misjudgements and the lack of backbone are signs of a wider weakness – a failure to develop distinctive political ideas of their own with which to excite the country at large. Owen Jones’s article, linked to above, takes the form of a series of questions to which he feels Mr Corbyn’s supporters have no convincing answer. But the soft left would struggle with exactly these questions.
This vacuum of ideas on the left is not unique to Britain. It is why populists of left and right are doing so well in so many developed countries. It is why the left is in full retreat in Latin America too. Beyond the populists it is leaving the political space dominated by the centre-right, such as Britain’s Conservatives and Germany’s Christian Democrats. Developing new, liberal ideas on economics and democracy is now of the utmost urgency on the left. I wish more people were engaged in that exercise.
And it is the best hope for my party: the Liberal Democrats. It has flirted with both centrism and the soft left; neither will work now. But it is as close as anybody to the new ideas that will be needed to take our society forward. It should make development of these ideas its top priority.
But what are these new ideas? A topic for another day!