The rise of Labour’s hard left reflects the weakness of the soft left

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!

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7 thoughts on “The rise of Labour’s hard left reflects the weakness of the soft left”

  1. Interesting, but you seem to pose more questions than answer them. Out of interest Matthew, would you class yourself as a social liberal (Tim Farron, Simon Hughes) or an Orange Book liberal?

    1. That’s a fair comment Jon. I suppose my wider point is that the left is in serious crisis and badly needs to develop its economic thinking. Which, of leaves the question of what form that new thinking needs to take. I have suggested some general lines of direction on this in past blogs, but I want to harden up on that. I try to avoid the social liberal vs orange book classification – but I’m closer to Orange book types in general sympathy. But, in Labour party terms, I think that the social liberals are too close to the soft left, and the Orange Bookers to the Blairites – though that is not really fair to either faction. I hope that a new grouping develops around the thinking of David Boyle – though I don’t agree with him about Citizen’s Income.

  2. Matthew

    Interesting article and I come to this as someone whose heart probably rules their head more than it should and I don’t consider myself to have any deep understanding of politics and all it’s philosophies and ideals, I just know how I feel and my life experiences dictate my opinions, often bordering on the ill informed and ignorant, I accept that. I am what I am. But anyway, Labour, I pretty much despise them.

    Growing up in Scotland and living in Scotland most of my life the Labour Party has failed to make anything better overall. They come across as a real nasty bunch of careerists and even more close minded than myself. I have been both a member of the SNP years ago and the Liberal Democrats more recently but have really struggled being in a party and how they work but I consider myself a Liberal although I voted SNP for Holyrood due to having no faith in Willie Rennie or the party in the main in Scotland, but I do believe that the Liberal narrative is the way ahead, although I would lean more to the social liberal model.

    I’m not so sure that the rise of Corbyn is the rise of the hard left as I am not so sure they even know what they really stand for, and that will be their undoing. The membership I suspect is more left than even Corbyn and I have no issue with that. My worry, and I don’t have the answers obviously, is that we appear to pander to the money and where it lays rather than coming at a point where decency is the measure of what we do. Economics will always dictate, I understand that, but I live in hope that a model can be found that is as fair as possible and that policy is based around decency. Globalisation, as far as I understand it, have made the majority poorer and has resulted in a race to the bottom as far as wages and living standards go while practicing socialist for the wealthy as Owen Jones said some time ago. I would like to see Labour, if they don’t kill themselves off, move to the left of centre but accept there will need to be a balance with some what might be considered right of centre policies in the globalised world. However, there is a real opportunity for a caring, honest and decent soft left of centre narrative and that could be filled by the Liberal Democrats in England if the party can play it right and actually get some air time from the hostile media.

    Just my thoughts.

    1. I thoughtful contribution as ever, Bruce. I agree that “hard left” is an inadequate description of Corbyn’s younger supporters, though it works well enough for the older ones. There is something new to this, a bit like Bernie Sanders’s movement in the US and Podemos in Spain.
      And politics should be about fairness and decency. I would take issue with two points though (more of emphasis than substance). First I think a focus on economics is not, or should not, be primarily about money, it should be jobs and what academics call “agency” – the power of people to control their own lives. Second I think there have been many more winners than losers from globalisation, not only globally (it has led to a breathtaking reduction on world poverty) but nationally. But there are many more losers in developed countries than politicians have allowed for, and the losers have been badly neglected.

  3. Terrific article , Matthew , and where are you , n the commentary on Liberal Democrat Voice , it seems those with good blogs avoid that site and should not ! I even see Bruce there sometimes or did!

    The Labour party is one I care about in that once upon a time I was in it , as the same age as the Nick Clegg generation, I saw old and new versions of it before the Iraq war and the absurdly broad left to right nature of the party made me join where I belonged all along and do , the Liberal Democrats.

    We need to do something about what is going on in politics now , that we are not . Bruce mentions the parties in Scotland , Momentum , aside , I think we need to ensure the only alternative to SNP nationalism there is not just the impressive Ruth Davidson.

    In the rest of the UK and strongly , we need to embrace both radicalism and moderation. Corbyn himself is not the worry or boon in Labour . Socialism in its left most variety is on its way to nowhere electorally . Only when radicalism gets that people are also moderate , will it succeed. It is what the Democrats in the USA get !

    1. Thank you Lorenzo. I have contributed to LDV in the past, but it is trying to do something different to my blog – which is more thinking aloud than trying to promote particular ideas. Their 500 word limit (I think that is it) actually takes longer to write than my usual 1,000 words and I have had quite busy year with other commitments. My first priority is to produce two blogs a week for my regular readers – and that I have not been able to do. I also have an ambition to produce a series of longer essays to develop my thinking further – but that ambition is on hold for now!
      Absolutely agree that we want to be both radical and “moderate” – I prefer the word “inclusive”. This is something the Lib Dems are well positioned to deliver.

  4. anarchism is a coherent intellectual and political current dating back to the 18 and the First International, and part of the labour and left tradition

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