Last week’s British by-elections prompt me to make one of my occasional posts. It is about the bizarre predicament of Britain’s Labour Party and the wider question this poses for the British left.
The first thing to say about Labour is that I am not a neutral observer. As a supporter of the Liberal Democrats I have endured near continuous vitriol from Labour supporters, especially since the coalition government of 2010. It doesn’t help that these Labourites were right to predict disaster for my party – against my constant efforts to look on the bright side. So I take some satisfaction in being right this time. I cannot deny a sense of schadenfreude. Perhaps it takes a victim of delusion to recognise the phenomenon in others – though to be fair quite a few Labourites are in despair rather than delusion.
The immediate fuss is over Labour’s loss to the Conservatives of the Copeland by-election. For an opposition party to lose a seat in these circumstances is nearly unprecedented. Labour did see off a challenge from Ukip in the Stoke by-election on the same day – but they cannot take much comfort from that. Their vote fell, and they only retained the seat because Ukip and the Tories split the anti-Labour vote between them. It was a bit like the Lib Dem by election win in Eastleigh during the coalition, though the margin was much better.
But this fuss is a bit overdone. The main news politically is that Ukip is on the back foot, and the Conservatives seem to be picking up much of their vote. That’s still a big problem for Labour, though: while seeing off a threat from Ukip, the threat from the Tories has become much deadlier.
But the by-elections are only the start of it. It is Labour’s complete lack of political effectiveness since Jeremy Corbyn took over that is behind the criticism. Labour are totally unable to exploit the government’s difficulties over Brexit – a political gift that most opposition parties can only dream of. Just compare the party’s performance to that under John Smith and Tony Blair as the Conservative government pushed through the Maastricht treaty in the 1990s. Labour was then able to put aside its own differences and ambiguities over Europe to harry the Conservatives to near political death. This was an object the lesson in how to be on both sides of the argument at once – one of the chief skills in politics. Labour could unite pro and anti Brexit forces by rallying round a form of soft Brexit – and using every opportunity in Parliament to make the government’s life difficult. Instead Labour’s opposition sounds like whingeing Islington dinner table chat.
And what about opposition to austerity? The government is pressing ahead with cuts, and seems unable to handle a crisis in the NHS and social care. Schools are now under threat. Austerity was supposed to be the rallying cry for Labour under Mr Corbyn, and the basis of a popular revolt – with determined resistance both inside and outside parliament. Labour was going to employ high quality economic minds to develop an alternative narrative. Instead, Labour contents itself with more quiet whingeing, and austerity has dropped way down the list of politically current issues. The economic thinkers who had been commissioned to help the party have been sent on their way.
And Scotland? There was supposed to be a fightback here – but instead the party has fallen back to third place. At his speech to the Scottish Labour conference this weekend Mr Corbyn undermined the Labour’s Scottish leader, Kezia Dugdale, who is attempting to recapture the political initiative from the SNP with a call for a UK wide constitutional convention. Unable to come up with strong political initiatives himself, Mr Corbyn undermines any attempts to do so from anybody else. Politically Labour has stalled.
But a recent poll revealed something quite interesting. It confirmed Labour’s poor standing amongst the country at large, and the lack of confidence in Mr Corbyn, which is felt by over three quarters of the electorate, with remarkably few don’t knows. But among Labour’s remaining supporters, Mr Corbyn has majority support. His position looks secure.
And this reveals a problem for Labour, and the political left generally, that goes beyond Mr Corbyn’s profound lack of political competence. It is the temptation to retreat into your own comfort zone. For Labour, this process started under Ed Miliband, Mr Corbyn’s predecessor. It took the form of the so-called 35% strategy – whereby Labour was supposed to secure power by consolidating its position amongst left-leaning voters, especially those that had supported the Lib Dems, without having to persuade voters that had voted Conservative. They were relying on the idea that the right of centre vote would be split between the Tories, Ukip and coalition-supporting Lib Dems – and hoping that non-voters would rally to the party too. It left them helpless against a surging SNP in Scotland, and an entirely predictable and ruthless Tory campaign to pressure Lib Dem and Ukip voters in marginal seats.
But the idea of staying within your political comfort zone is enticing. The Liberal Democrats are now taking this up under the guise of a “core vote strategy”. This is designed to attract loyal supporters rather than marginal votes. This is more rational for the Lib Dems than it is for Labour, given how low the party’s fortunes have sunk. But neither party will pose a serious challenge to the Tories unless it works out how to appeal to marginal voters too. And neither will they be able to achieve this by forming some form of “progressive” alliance between themselves, with or without the Greens and the SNP.
And that will mean taking core supporters out of their comfort zone. Just where is open for debate. Conventional wisdom has it that this must mean embracing elements of what the left calls “neo-liberalism” – such as marketising public services and holding taxes and public spending down. This isn’t necessarily the case – but the electorate will not be convinced by the traditional left wing idea of accruing power to the centre and declaring “trust us: we are the people.” Political power is not trusted enough for that.
Personally I think Labour needs to embrace devolution of real political power to regions, municipalities and even neighbourhoods, even when it means passing it to opposition parties. This should involve a new constitutional settlement (just as Ms Dugdale advocates). And it includes breaking up central control of such hallowed institutions as the NHS and national public sector deals with trade unions. For Lib Dems I suspect it means developing a new narrative on rights – and the idea that key economic rights (as opposed to basic human rights) must be earned by contribution and residency, rather than being open to all comers. Also the parry’s doctrinaire line on the right to privacy needs to be rethought for the modern age – it feels too much like yesterday’s battle. Both parties needs to break out of the strait-jacket of political correctness and victim culture – while continuing to promote inclusion. And both parties need to think about a future Europe, rather than retreat into its past.
But once the left moves out of its comfort zone, power is there for the taking. The conservative coalition is not robust, and demographics are against it. Brexit will place huge strains on it. Populism will fail. But, alas, there are few signs that the left yet understands what it needs to do. It may take another disaster.