With the prospect of a General Election looming once again, many in Labour are panicking. Much of the debate is reaching a fever pitch within the Labour right amongst former Blairites, Brownites and social democrats who never truly accepted Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. As in early 2017, many dread the prospect of electoral annihilation, whereas others fear a Corbyn victory even more.
The problem is that the Labour right’s understanding of Corbynism is lacking in every regard. At every turn, the Labour right have strengthened Corbyn’s position within Labour. As a supporter of this faction within the party, who opposed Corbyn in 2015 and 2016, I have found this frustrating and embarrassing. In this article, I will suggest five principles that the Labour right should follow.
(1) Acknowledge the crisis in social democracy, and the failures of social democratic parties.
(2) Don’t follow the scorched-earth tactics of Bennites.
(3) Recognize Corbynism as it actually exists, not the monster conjured from your nightmares.
(4) Fight battles you can actually win.
(5) Realize that you cannot win without ideas.
(1) The crisis in social democracy
To start with, we need to recognise that European social democracy is at its weakest point since the early 20th century. Social democratic parties have faced unprecedented falls in support across Europe. Labour has experienced a similar wipeout in Scotland. It is true that political allegiances have been fracturing for many years now, but across Europe it is the social democratic parties that have been hit hardest.These shifts in support have been related to the decline in organised labour, and the transformation of most centre-left parties, from parties principally representing the working class into to professional parties representing a coalition of university graduates, urban dwellers and minorities.
Today’s left-wing politicians are increasingly likely to be white-collar university graduates. Between 1979 and 2015, the number of MPs from a manual labour background fell from 98 to just 15. This can only partly be explained away as a consequence of changes in the country at large. More generally, as society has become individualised and socially fractured, movement politics in general has starkly declined. At the same time, of course, social attitudes have been changing: social issues have been rising in prominence over time, with one particularly significant example being the increased political salience of immigration.
One consequence of these trends was that there was much less of a broad-based social movement to ground the centre-left parties or root them ideologically. This might explain a lot about why many so readily adopted ‘Third Way’ policies which represented an accommodation with neoliberalism. I believe that these shifts – which did deliver short-term electoral success for leaders like Tony Blair and Gerhard Schroeder – sowed the seeds of the long-term decline. The German SPD share of the vote has fallen steadily since Schroeder introduced the Hartz reforms in 2003-2005, from 38.5% in 2002 to 23% today. The same is also broadly true of other social democratic parties, considered over the long run.
The financial crisis sparked a delegitimisation of all mainstream political parties. This was greatly exacerbated by the austerity unleashed across Europe in its aftermath. The main social democratic parties in many countries pinned themselves to the austerity mast, and it has been a disaster. Importantly, we have to realise that votes were shed in multiple directions. Where alternative left parties or Green parties exist, they have picked up many votes (examples are the Green parties in the Netherlands and Germany). So have liberal parties in some countries (such as in France). The centre and far right have also benefited.
Those social democratic parties that have survived have mostly followed one of two forms of populism. Both recognise popular rage at the establishment but pull in different directions. In Portugal, Spain, the UK & the US, the main centre-left parties have shifted firmly to the left whilst remaining socially liberal. In the UK and US the main parties are coalitions are coalitions of the centre and left due to the first past the post system. In Portugal the left and centre-left have formed a coalition, whilst in Spain Pedro Sanchez is struggling to do something similar.
The other strategy, employed by the Danish Social Democrats (arguably we see something similar with New Zealand’s Labour party) is to shift firmly to the right on immigration (and a little to the left on economic policy). Alternative left parties (Radikal Venstre and the Socialistisk Folkeparti) have picked up many votes, while the mainstream social democrats have compensated by taking some support from the right. It has made a broad left coalition viable, but only thanks to a relatively proportional electoral system.
Regardless, the point is that we must acknowledge that those centre-left parties continuing to pursue “neoliberal” policies are almost universally failing, unless they employ one of two “populist” strategies: either economic or social.
(2) Don’t be scorched-earth Bennites
The strategy of much of the right of Labour since Corbyn’s original election can be summarised as refusing to compromise (for example by joining the shadow cabinet), undermining the leadership at every turn, trying to overthrow it, and making unreasonable demands. There are parallels between this strategy and that adopted by the most hardline Bennites against Kinnock in the late 1980s. In both cases, the strategy failed catastrophically, damaged the party for a generation, and hugely strengthened the internal enemies of those who followed it.
The Bennites refused to compromise with the party or country at large. So too have the latter-day Blairites, instead responding with denialism. Challenging the leadership from the right now would be an utterly destructive idea. Both the Bennite challenge of 1988 and the Labour right challenge of 2016 failed totally in their aims, damaged their faction’s reputation with the party members, and strengthened their opponents. A new challenge against Corbyn in the near future would be even more self-destructive.
You cannot win the leadership of Labour without the support of the Labour selectorate. And as Blair recognized, you have to meet the electorate where they’re at. This is why the strategy of non-compromise has been disastrous. By undermining the party (and in 2016 by appearing to using underhand tactics to exclude thousands of voters and block Corbyn from standing), the parliamentary Labour party have delegitimised themselves in the eyes of party members. Most destructive is the constant undermining of Labour to the media. The mounting rhetoric against Corbyn no longer seems attached to reality.
(3) Recognise Corbynism as it actually exists, not the monster conjured from your nightmares.
We need to acknowledge Corbyn as he actually is. The media, the Conservatives and the Labour right have conjured a spectre of Corbyn that just touches on reality enough to be believable. But increasingly, I think they have begun to believe their own rhetoric. That is dangerous.
To respond to Corbynism effectively, we need to get to grips with what it actually is. It shouldn’t surprise us that, just as everyone else has shifted ideologically since the 1980s, so have former Bennites. I want to consider two of the main charges: firstly that Corbynite ideas are radical and dangerously left wing, and secondly that Corbyn himself has sided with authoritarians and dictators opposed to the West. So let’s start with the charge of radical leftism. In terms of policy, the former far left have generally co-opted the space vacated by the social democrats of old. Many policies in the 2017 manifesto are merely extensions of Blair-era ideas – electoral reform, ending arms sales and the NHS internal market.
While Corbyn’s plan to renationalise the rail industry is often derided by Blairites, in the 1990s, Labour contemplated (but never quite committed to) reversing the privatisation programme. Labour in 2017 suggested plans for a windfall tax on the profits from PFI profits, echoing Labour’s 1997 windfall levy on the excess profits of the privatised utilities. Of course, there are differences too. Ideologically, Corbyn is still a socialist, fundamentally opposed to neoliberalism. Labour would try to reverse or slow some of the long-term societal shifts that have been weakening social democracy, by empowering cooperatives, local government and trade unions. Labour would be led by socialists, putting forward a manifesto not wholly unlike that which won so much support in 1997 . Nothing about this should be terrifying to the Labour right: this has been the case for much of the party’s history.
What about Corbyn’s supposed sympathies with totalitarian dictators? On Venezuela, it is true that Corbyn and others on the left have been overly defensive of the regime. But we also must acknowledge what the Labour left get right. New Labour and Conservative governments supported arms sales to repressive regimes like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. In 2005, Blair blocked an inquiry that may have shed some light on the Al-Yamamah arms deal with Saudi Arabia – hardly an example of the ethical foreign policy promised by Robin Cook eight years earlier.
Labour has been critical of Russian dark money flowing into British politics (£3m from Russian-linked oligarchs to the Conservative party from 2010-2018). Whilst Labour under Corbyn’s leadership have been more cautious about uncritically taking the word of British intelligence, if we follow the money, Labour are not the pro-Russian party. On China, the Conservatives have failed to condemn the detention and cultural genocide of the Uighur people, and have offered only the feeblest criticism of events in Hong Kong. Corbyn has vocally condemned Chinese authoritarianism .
This is not to deny that there is room for valid criticism of Labour’s current programme. Increasingly, however, the problem is that so much of this has become detached from the ideas that the Labour leadership is putting forward. If the Labour right are to challenge Corbynism effectively, then they need to start by honestly addressing the ideas on which the Corbyn project has been founded.
(4) Fight battles you can win.
If we accept the above three points, the question then arises: what battles can and should the Labour right win?
The Labour right have been waging a war of attrition against the leadership, resembling what Stephen Bush has described as a thinly veiled “grim opportunism”. Rather than openly expressing their ideological differences with the Labour leadership, they have fixated on process and on electoral performance. Yet, the one thing the Labour right have demonstrated since 2016 is their own inability to offer the type of positive message capable of winning an election.
This all compares unfavourably to the battles fought by the right wing of the party against Benn in the early 1980s. In the 1981 Deputy Leadership election, Denis Healey embraced the challenge from the left, candidly argued for parliamentary over party democracy, and openly presented his social democratic programme, including a defence of Callaghan’s policies and nuclear weapons. If the Labour right cannot do the same today, it raises the question of why exactly they are in politics at all.
This is not to deny that the Labour right have had policy successes within Corbyn’s Labour. The 2017 manifesto retained the party’s commitment to renewing Trident, in spite of Corybn’s lifelong support for unilateral nuclear disarmament. Long gone are the days when McDonnell backed disbanding MI5 and disarming the police. As shadow Home Secretary, Diane Abbott has instead criticised Conservatve cuts to police numbers. Labour do not challenge Britain’s role in NATO. Perhaps most importantly of all, Keir Starmer has gradually guided the leadership towards supporting a second referendum on Brexit.
That being said, the Labour right have had least of all to say on economic issues. Whilst the Labour left have a clear agenda in this area, those on the right on the party have had little to say. There has been a vacuum of ideas.
(5) Realize that you cannot win without ideas
As the Economist has suggested, it is the left that is currently alive with intellectual energy, exemplified by a growing network of think tanks. Most exciting of all has been the IPPR’s leftwards shift, mostly notably with their report Prosperity and justice: a plan for the economy. It has always been essential to have an intellectual foundation for any political programme. Think tanks like the Centre for Policy Studies, the Adam Smith Institute and the Institute of Economic Affairs provided the groundwork for Margaret Thatcher’s reforms in the 1980s. Similarly, the network of Tufton Street think tanks and lobbyists laid the intellectual foundations for the Tory-led coalition government’s austerity programme and for the successful Leave campaign of 2016.
There are many questions crying out for answers, to which the Labour right could and should contribute. What would a right-of-Corbyn, left-of-centre economic policy look like in the post-financial crisis era? How can we implement German-style workplace democracy in the UK? If outsourcing has gone too far, what should replace it? How can our public services be both universal and accountable? What would a social democratic response to globalisation/automation look like? How can the UK capture German success in training and skills, and retaining a stable labour force in medium-sized firms? What should be the purpose of Universities? What about vocational education? These are all desperately important questions, and represent areas of policy where the Labour right could contribute valuable insights.
It took many years for the Labour left to learn from their mistakes of the 1980s and the long wilderness years, but eventually they learnt. They no longer bear much resemblance to the Bennite hardliners of the 1980s. They are intellectually engaged, interested in the concerns of the country, and have at least some understanding of how to win political battles. If the Labour right are to contribute meaningfully to the party’s direction in the future, they will need to learn, or relearn, many of these same lessons. They should start by honestly addressing their many failures of policy and strategy to date. At the same time, they urgently need a more realistic analysis of the reasons why Corbynism has been successful so far. Then, rather than attempting to undermine the leadership at every turn, they must start to engage critically with it, whilst building their own networks of think tanks and generating new ideas. All of this will take time, but the time to start is now.