So just what are Labour up to?

Britain is entering a period of high political drama. All the political parties are geared up for a few months where they could have a decisive influence on events. Except, apparently, one. Labour’s policy on Brexit, the issue of the day, appears confused. They have added to to the general confusion after one of its most senior leaders, John McDonnell suggested they might not get in the way of a referendum on Scottish independence. Meanwhile the party appears riven by internal issues, not least the longstanding row over antisemitism. Just what is going on?

To outsiders the obvious answer is that the party is suffering from weak leadership that is unable to make hard choices. Its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has had a life in politics playing the gadfly, and has very little background in the heavy-lifting stuff. But he is surrounded by clever advisers, who live and breathe political strategy. Something more purposeful is surely going on.

The first thing to understand about Labour is that the hard left, people that I have also referred to as Leninists, took control when Mr Corbyn took the leadership in 2015. These are patient people with long-term goals. They have been dreaming for a generation and more of taking control of the party, and after that the country: they are not going to loosen their grip if they can help it. They have consolidated control over the party machinery, and Mr Corbyn is one of their own. But their hold is not totally secure, especially with so many MPs not in their camp. If Mr Corbyn was to step down as leader, they have no strong candidate to replace him. Their best bet is Mr McDonnell, who is clearly smarter and more strategic than Mr Corbyn, but is another older white male, without Mr Corbyn’s particular charisma. Somebody else could do to him what Mr Corbyn did to the front-runners in 2015. The other candidate often spoken of is Rebecca Long-Bailey. But she gets very little media space and most people (me included) don’t really understand who she is. I suspect that she is another of those popular insiders who get talked up by their colleagues but haven’t quite got what it takes for the big stage. So Mr Corbyn has to hang on in there, even though he seems well past his sell-by date. Meanwhile the internal runctions are simply part of the price the leadership pays for consolidating its hold. They think much of it is pumped up by enemies of the party in unsympathetic media channels; they aren’t entirely wrong there, though that is normal everyday politics.

The second thing to understand is what the leadership’s general political strategy appears to have been over Brexit. The inner group, in accordance with Leninist ways, is closed and secretive, so it is actually quite hard to know for sure what their game is. But they seem to be deeply scared of taking sides, and alienating either working class Brexit-supporting voters in their northern heartlands, or the Brexit-hating younger middle-class activists who do most of the work. They are mostly Brexit supporters themselves, fearing that EU regulations might limit their options in government. They hope that Brexit happens, and allow the political debate to move on, with the process being messy and the Conservatives getting the blame. They can then attack the tarnished Tories in an election, where they can move the agenda on to “for the many, not the few” (a horrid phrase designed to say less than it seems, appropriated by former leader Tony Blair to replace the much more specific old Clause 4 of the party constitution in the 1990s).

This strategy suffered a major blow when Brexit did not happen as expected on 29 March this year, prolonging the inevitable strain. When it came to the European Parliament elections that resulted, the party had nothing of value to say and performed very badly. These elections gave credibility to two alternative parties, who beat them: The Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats. The Greens also did well, surely at Labour’s expense. Labour’s voters are getting used to considering alternatives for their vote. This makes things harder.

But the strategy appears to be undead. Brexit looks likely to happen on 31 October. This will probably be chaotic and this could tarnish the Tories, as planned, while taking the wind from the sails of TBP. The Lib Dems will become irrelevant with their main anti-Brexit message pointless, and Green voters can made to realise that their cause is hopeless in the current electoral system. So keep going.

The most important question the party now has to face is what happens if the government loses a vote of no-confidence in September. This will be too late to stop a no-deal Brexit unless an alternative government can be formed with Labour at its core. What would the party do to facilitate this? The most credible strategy would be to form some short-term multi-party “government of national unity” (a misnomer if ever there was one), by ganging up with the SNP, Lib Dems and Tory rebels. This needs a less partisan and more competent prime minister than Mr Corbyn to have its best chance – some elder statesman, not necessarily even Labour. The Labour leadership appear to have ruled this out. They would have two reasons for doing so. Firstly they would be taking sides and alienating their Brexit supporters; the gambit might even stop Brexit from happening. Second it does not help Labour appear as a credible government in waiting if they accept that their leader isn’t up to leading it.

So the idea appears to be to present Labour as an alternative, minority, government, with Mr Corbyn as prime minister, and dare the other parties and Tory rebels to provide enough votes and abstentions to get it started. If it succeeds it would be an excellent platform from which to launch a general election, with the party’s credibility boosted by the trappings of power. The problem, of course, is that the party would have to take ownership of Brexit. That firstly means getting the EU to delay, which should be feasible. The party says that it wants to revive the previous government’s deal with the EU, tweak it to their liking (for example by making the objective of a customs union explicit) and put it to the people in a referendum. This is very fraught. In practice they would be likely to negotiate a delay and launch a general election. The problem with that is they want the election after Brexit, not before.

In fact what I suspect the leadership really wants to do is somehow to allow Brexit to happen with the Conservatives in charge, and then move for the kill. “Somehow” because they must do this while appearing not to facilitate it.

That all looks very fraught, but it is making the best of a difficult hand. The potential reward for the leadership is massive. They could end up in power after an election, with a lot of their troublesome MPs cleared out, and with the political sting largely drawn from Brexit. The chances of this don’t look that high, but for those Leninists who have been willing it all their political lives, it must look like the best shot they will ever get.

To observers who do not equate national with party interest, and especially those who want to put Brexit to another referendum, this is a dismal prospect. The Labour leadership could act decisively to resolve the crisis through such a referendum. That it won’t isn’t because it is weak, it is because it doesn’t want to.

6 thoughts on “So just what are Labour up to?”

  1. I think this analysis is largely correct. Except for the hyperbole! The Labour Party at the moment are as Democratically Socialist as ever they have been in their history. You may not like Jeremy Corbyn’s inner circle but they are no more Leninist than the inner circle of any other leader! He came to be elected using a system designed, incidentally by the right wing of the party, to be much more democratic than any previous one. So anyone with a problem of Labour having Jeremy Corbyn as leader has a problem with the concept of one party member/supporter -one vote.

    The problem for Labour is obviously Brexit. It’s perhaps worth reminding anyone who may have forgotten that Labour, under Jeremy Corbyn, achieved 40% of the vote in 2017. This was at least 10pts better than the doomsayers were predicting at the start of the election campaign. This would have been enough to win in normal circumstances. As it turned out, it was enough to deprive Theresa May of an overall majority. This must be evidence enough that JC’s popularity isn’t a key problem for Labour.

    This was also achieved with a promise to the electorate that Labour would abide by the 2016 referendum result. We all know that Labour aren’t promising that any longer and we all know, too, there is little chance of getting anywhere near 40% if we have an election fought on the issue of Brexit. When doing some canvassing in 2017, I was instructed not to bring up the subject of Brexit/EU on the doorstep unless I was specifically asked. Largely I wasn’t. That was the previous year’s debate as far as most people were concerned.

    It’s unlikely that Brexit can be kept off the agenda again if we have an election before we have actually left. The big problem, which everyone is fully aware of, is that Labour’s policy is totally incomprehensible, not only to the average voter but also to anyone who looks a little deeper than can reasonably be expected from our support base . There’s been an attempt to try to keep both Remainers and Leavers on board which has resulted in significant defections from both. In an attempt to please everyone Labour has ended up pleasing no-one.

    From Labour’s POV, the election has to take place after we’ve left the EU. After the Tories have taken us out. That will enable the next election to be fought on the much safer ground of the state of the economy, the NHS, education etc. It will also give the electorate the opportunity to say to the far right that they might have succeeded in taking us out, but they can’t expect to then have everything their own way.

    I’ve never quite understood why we would ever have a Tory Brexit or a Labour Lexit. We are much more likely to have a reaction from the electorate to be just the opposite of what is usually predicted. In other words, paradoxically (or should that be ‘ironically’? I’m never sure!), a Lexit can only come about if it’s the Tories who take us out.

    1. Point taken about the Leninists tendencies of all leadership elites. Still, those surrounding Mr Corbyn strike me as being even more Leninist than usual. Partly it is their focus on consolidating their position in the party machinery and moving on to MP selection, which they seem to be pursuing with unusual vigour. Perhaps you will tell me that it is no different in character than what happened under Neil Kinnock or Tony Blair. I have never been a member, and I wouldn’t be able to present much evidence. And I wish Nick Clegg had been more Leninist in his dealing with Cameron et al.
      Interesting on the 2017 election. I am told that Labour canvassers around here did bring Brexit up on the doorstep. They told voters that voting Labour was the best way of stopping Brexit. The Labour vote surged and they took this seat (Battersea) off the Tories, and nearly took Putney too, in spite of a very weak candidate. When you reach levels of 40% support it is not through gathering support for a coherent political position, it is through a multitude of different stories told to different people. Many people voted Tory in that election not to support Brexit but to stop Labour. If Labour are anxious to move the conversation on from Brexit, that is also true of the Tories.

  2. One of your previous articles was titled “The Conservative and Labour parties are in trouble”. It goes further than that. The entire country has a problem and is in some trouble, including the Lib Dems who are, at best, semi-serious about EU membership.

    So we could ask “what are they playing at?” We’d nearly all like to be members of an EU which we approved of. The issue is whether to be a member of the EU as it actually is. No major party in the UK wants 100% membership to the same extent as we see in other main EU countries like France and Germany. Hardly anyone is really keen on the EU as it is. There’s a lot of talk about ‘Remain and Reform’ even though the EU has no track record of ever being reformed by democratic pressure from below. The changes have always been from the top and downwards.

    The Liberal Democrats used to have a policy to join the Euro currency which would seem a perfectly logical policy for any party which has adopted a pro-EU position. The EU official website proclaims that one of its “goals” is to:

    “establish an economic and monetary union whose currency is the euro.”

    The EU complaint against the UK is that:

    “They previously wanted in with lots of opt-outs, now they want out with lots of opt-ins.”

    Isn’t this a perfectly justifiable criticism of both lukewarm remainers, which include the LibDems, and lukewarm leavers?

    That’s the problem for the UK. We are split between half-hearted remainers, half-hearted leavers and the more enthusiastic leavers. On the positive side, we’ve a lot more in common than many would care to admit.

    1. The Lib Dems buried their commitment to the Euro mainly because the idea became deeply unpopular in the country at large; political parties have to compromise if they are to succeed. Many socialist ideas won’t make it into Labour’s manifesto: that doesn’t mean the party is half-hearted about socialism. Still that only confirms your wider contention that most Remainers are lukewarm about aspects of the EU as currently constituted. A Norway-style solution would probably keep them quiet, even if it left a yawning sovereignty deficit. It’s just another overused abstract noun. The Norwegians themselves seem quite happy with this way forward after rejecting membership in a referendum, so it is nonsense to suggest that it violates the referendum mandate. A Swiss pick’n’mix option would also be a compromise that most would find liveable with – except that the EU regard it as a messy failure and don’t want to open up that route. A combination of Tory extremists and Labour mischief-making have driven such compromises out though.

  3. Are you saying that LibDems have dropped the idea of adopting the euro even though you are secretly in favour of doing that? It’s a much bigger step than Nationalising whatever it is that Labour might not want to admit to! Nationalisations can always be reversed. As Greece and Italy have found out the hard way, it’s extremely difficult to escape the eurozone. Some would say impossible. It’s walking into a huge trap.

    I agree with the EU Federalists, the only way the EU can succeed, short of abandoning the euro and going back to an EEC model, is if they go onwards as fast as they can towards a fully functional superstate. Guy Verhofstadt is quite right about that but even he balks at the use of the word! But that’s what it has to be. I just don’t see how the EU are going to get there though. It means that the German and Dutch governments, all EU govts, would have to allow a Federal government to raise taxes in the richer areas and spend them in the less affluent areas.

    There would be even less chance of the EU getting there if the UK were still involved and holding things back, so we’re really doing the EU a favour by leaving!

    I would expect that, once we’ve actually left, talks will continue in a sensible manner to reach an agreement. We’ll end up with something which will resemble neither the Norwegian nor the Swiss model. The ‘negotiations’ so far have been mainly about keeping the UK inside the fold. Once everyone accepts we’re out then a lot of the political obstacles will be removed.

    1. The funny thing about the Lib Dems and the Euro is that nobody talks about it any more. I’m sure that it has been included in conference motions from the early 2000s, and never reversed since. But at some point (2010 I suspect) it fell out of the manifesto. You are absolutely right about its irreversability – and even Lib Dem enthusiasts understand that ramming it down the throats of an unwilling public would be a democratic outrage. We will have to wait for confidence in Sterling to collapse, which I used to believe was round the corner, but may well never happen. If politics here moves on to the question of rejoining the EU (in 20 years or so) then it will be a central question.

      I don’t actually happen to agree with either you, most British commentators or the Euro federalists that the EU will have to develop into a superstate, though changes will be needed. I think the EU is becoming rather like the Holy Roman Empire: mocked and despised by English and French intellectuals, but which survived hundreds of years and laid the foundations of distributed political and economic power which are the basis of the most successful economies in Europe (Germany, Austria and Switzerland). Or, perhaps, like the flight of the bumblebee if you want an alternative analogy. Anglo politicos just don’t get it, because centralised power is always their solution to any given problem, even as they give lip service to other models.

      Ultimately you are right that the UK and the EU will start talking constructively once we are out and have a better understanding of our respective needs. I fear that will be impossible with our present government though, with its dependence on the DUP. Part of the sensible solution is moving NI into the Single Market with a border in the Irish Sea – which surely has majority consent on both sides of that sea, and even in NI. British politics will continue to be hijacked by Ireland, as it has for at least 500 years.

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