The decline of the Labour Party has been a long process, though some commentators are wont to forget that. In ascribing the totality of responsibility for Labour’s undeniable failure last week to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership – which is not blameless, it must be said – they ignore the structural changes underpinning the current situation in British electoral politics, not to mention the enthusiastic trashing of the Labour Party which many of its MPs have engaged in since Corbyn’s election.
Corbyn isn’t blameless, but what he is probably most to blame for is being an accidental leader. Corbyn entered the 2015 leadership election never expecting to win; his aim was the same as that of many who nominated him – to broaden the debate. Corbyn is undeniably a decent, principled, hardworking constituency MP and campaigner, but he lacks many of the qualities necessary to succeed in electoral terms. As one correspondent put it to me recently, if the left had thought they were going to win they would have nominated someone else.
And yet whilst Corbyn can and must bear some responsibility for Labour’s failings, this shouldn’t overshadow the longer-term analysis of where Labour’s at. It would be equally easy (as many Corbyn supporters have done) to blame the wider PLP, who have helped present the image of a party irrevocably split. But whilst there’s some merit in this too – after all Labour’s poll ratings collapsed once the PLP launched its unsuccessful coup – there’s more to the present state of Labour than heroes and villains. It’s a problem of success, and its roots lie decades in the past.
New Labour’s legacy
Under Tony Blair’s leadership the Labour Party enjoyed unprecedented electoral success. This was in part due to Blair’s undeniable charisma and political talents, something now often obscured by the looming shadow of Iraq. It was also due to a consistent project orchestrated by a range of figures around Blair to ‘rebrand’ the party to enable success within the framework of the Thatcherite political paradigm. Accepting that framework – of ostensibly low spending and low taxation, an ashamedly pro-business ethos and a valorisation of the market – meant, for the ‘sultans of spin’ (as Nicholas Jones once termed them) at the summit of New Labour, the acceptance of the Thatcherite narrative of Labour’s past. In an anticipation of the ‘masochism’ strategy Blair would adopt in his attempt to escape the implications of the Iraq War, the architects of New Labour sought to distance themselves from Thatcherite criticism of their party by embracing it. New Labour has always been the Labour Party’s fiercest group of critics.
They accepted the Thatcherite narrative of Labour’s history. Peter Mandelson and Roger Liddle jointly penned The Blair Revolution: Can New Labour Deliver? in 1995, which traduced ‘Old’ Labour, and provided a key resource for the embedding of that false dichotomy between Labour’s past and present. Old Labour really was bad, really did spend too much, really couldn’t be trusted with the economy. The trade unions also got a bit of stick too.
That’s why New Labour could deliver – because it could see all this plain as day, and would tame both the Party and the unions. The stage-managed fight of Clause IV. The commitment to stick to Tory spending plans for the first two years in office. The independence of the Bank of England. Not only was New Labour different to awful Old Labour, it would go further than the Conservatives had to further some aspects of the advance of neoliberal capitalism.
Blair and others around him shared a conviction, as Andrew Rawnsley documented, that Britain – and England at its core – was fundamentally Conservative. In this sense, Blair and New Labour were entryists; only instead of party entryism they were ‘country’ entryists, trying to win power in order to humanise some aspects of capitalism whilst embracing others. In that sense, winning was reduced to a choice of the least-worst option, since the rules of the game were firmly accepted.
To a convinced socialist it’s inevitable that such a contradictory position would ultimately lead to colossal hypocrisies and crisis, and there is nothing remarkable about Blair’s post-political career of largesse and extravagance. But to give New Labour its due, it’s true to note that it did introduce the minimum wage, emphasise the importance of Early Years through SureStart, build more hospitals and schools. This is something even Jeremy Corbyn’s social media campaigns acknowledged on the twentieth anniversary of New Labour’s election.
But this was all bought at immense cost. Just as the hospitals and schools built with PFI stored up problems for the future of a straightforwardly financial kind, the narrativisation of Labour as party without a history – or at least, not one it wanted to positively recognise – pre-Thatcher constrained its choices in the future.
When the 2008 financial crisis hit, New Labour found themselves demonised through a narrative they themselves had helped entrench. Labour can’t be trusted with the economy. Labour spends too much. Thus the Conservatives could escape scot-free from their own previous commitment to match Labour’s spending plans, and Cameron and Osborne could reinvent themselves as architects of austerity.
Interventions which – within a capitalist paradigm at least – were necessary, such as the nationalisation of banks, were thus characterised as a return to ‘Old’ Labour, the party that would nationalise the moon. Brown was implicated through his prior career at the Treasury; ‘Prudent’ Gordon was reimagined as a willy-nilly tax and spender.
This was not true, but that was irrelevant.
It was also not true that New Labour had completely forgotten its base – the minimum wage, SureStart, support for the NHS, redistribution through tax credits – all bore witness to the falsity of that claim. The problem was that whilst doing this, New Labour really was just humanising capitalism a little. Mandelson’s infamous statement that Labour had to be comfortable with ‘people getting filthy rich’ and a failure to attend to a property market getting out control, not to mention introducing consumer drivers into higher education through tuition fees (and breaking manifesto promises in the process when top-up fees were introduced) led to a sense of disconnect. So too did New Labour’s ‘logic of inevitability’ (to borrow from Colin Hay) around globalisation, a discursive trope common in many Western nations.
Globalisation was inevitable, which meant markets were sovereign, which meant limits on what politicians could do, which meant, in effect, that politicians were technocratic administrators of a market state. This was never true – as Linda Weiss memorably characterised it, this was the self-serving ‘myth of a powerless state’ – and as it was a discourse shared by New Labour and the Conservatives, this meant that the public not unreasonably began to repeat the mantra ‘they’re all the same’.
As Matthew Flinders noted, the terminal years of Blair and Brown saw Britain enter a phase of ‘democratic drift’. Dissatisfaction with the political system was growing and, post-Iraq, Blair’s personal style – once such an asset – became a liability. Though the expenses crisis of May 2009 affected all the political parties, there was evidence that – naturally enough – it hit the government hardest.
In 2007, the Scottish National Party formed a minority government at Holyrood, the Parliament that Labour had inaugurated through its post-1997 devolution settlement. Labour itself was expelled from power. Ten years later, the SNP is still in power. In 2014, a referendum was held on Scotland’s continued membership of the Union, in response to the SNP’s forming a majority government at Holyrood in 2011. Though the decision was to remain, Labour’s campaigning alongside the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition led to profound anger from many and added weight to the SNP jibe of ‘red Tories’. Labour, under Ed Miliband, were annihilated in Scotland in the 2015 General Election, losing 40 seats and left with only one MP north of the border.
Scotland was its own political environment with a strongly anti-Westminster tinge but the disconnect felt by Scots anticipated grievances which would be felt in England and Wales. Whilst New Labour had built credibility with middle-class swing voters, it had lost it with its own base.
The rise of neonationalism and the neonationalisation of political culture
When the swing voters did just that in 2010 – swung – Labour under Ed Miliband attempted to foster a rapprochement with its core support. For this, Miliband was demonised by the right-wing media as ‘Red Ed’, and ridiculed for eating a bacon sandwich. The electoral successes of UKIP in the European Parliament – topping the poll in 2014 – were a significant indicator of the increasing role of nationalism in UK political culture and, in particular, anti-immigrant sentiment.
With stagnant wages and a real-terms fall in the standard of living in the post-2008 years, ‘traditional’ Labour voters began to see their own party as culpable. Labour had helped bring about the crisis in their eyes, and moreover New Labour had been the cheerleader for globalisation, which, in the eyes of many, meant mass immigration.
The aftermath of the A8 accessions to the EU in 2004 had seen a significant increase in immigration. However, it was the perception of this rather than the reality which cultivated problems for Labour. There was no evidence of a general downward pressure on wages due to immigration, and many immigrants filled vacancies which various sectors from the NHS to agriculture needed them to fill. Indeed, anti-immigrant feeling was often anchored in a vast overestimation of migrant numbers.
Immigration from the EU also became conflated with immigration from the Commonwealth and attendant Islamophobia, which had been on the rise in the UK since 9/11. During the EU referendum campaign in 2016, there was a concerted attempt on the part of some advocating a Leave vote to link the two. Nigel Farage’s infamous ‘Breaking Point’ poster was one iteration of a trope whereby the EU’s Schengen area (which Britain was not a part of) was seen as ‘porous’, allowing jihadis free transit from the warzones of the Middle East to Britain.
Labour’s attempt to respond to the neonationalisation of political culture was confused. As champions of globalisation and free markets, they were nominally internationalist (at least in terms of the free movement of capital). Attempts were made by Gordon Brown in particular to assert an inclusive form of ‘Britishness’, but this was buttressed by his invocation of a former BNP slogan – ‘British jobs for British workers’. In the 2010 General Election campaign, Brown’s description of Gillian Duffy as a ‘bigoted woman’ due to her views that immigrants were taking British jobs was a clear indication of the difficulties Labour had in dealing with nationalist politics.
It didn’t stop there. When, in 2014, Labour Shadow Cabinet member Emily Thornberry tweeted her discomfort with house bedecked with Cross of St George flags in Rochester, this brought out into the open senior Labour figures’ continuing incomprehension of the growing purchase of nationalism in contemporary British political culture. The house’s owner, who was dubbed ‘White Van Dan’ by the Sun, published his own ‘Danifesto’ which included the phrase ‘send them back’ in relation to ‘uninvited’ migrants and the prospect of jail for burning the poppy.
Miliband’s response to such attitudinal shifts – not to tackle them head on, but instead to carve the word ‘Immigration’ into a giant stone and produce a souvenir mug with a pledge to deal with immigration – was a classic New Labour attempt to accept the prevailing paradigm. It failed. As Richard Seymour has noted, racism is as ‘prevalent’ in Scotland as anywhere else in the union. The SNP took it on and faced it down. Labour, in its confusion, chose not to.
On this score, Labour was damned if it did, and damned if it didn’t.
The Brexit moment, and after
The Brexit problem cut across Labour’s pre-existiing travails; with the arrival of Theresa May as Prime Minister and her overtly-nationalist rhetoric, Labour found themselves caught between those of their supporters (the majority of Labour voters) who had backed Remain, and those who had not.
The reaction in terms of diagnosis was perverse. On the one hand, Jeremy Corbyn was savaged by his critics in the press and the PLP for not campaigning hard enough for the Remain cause, perhaps even being a ‘closet Lexiter’. At the same time, he was attacked for losing the core Labour vote. The contradiction was obvious; in one short film released immediately after the referendum outcome, several voters in the North East argued they had supported Corbyn until he had campaigned for Remain, but now they felt he had betrayed them and would look elsewhere.
Jonathan Freedland, a longstanding critic of Corbyn, argued that Thursday’s election results were proof positive of Corbyn’s culpability. He cited the outcome of some focus groups conducted by Edelman, documented in the Huffington Post, repeating a sentiment heard elsewhere – that traditional Labour voters couldn’t vote Labour as long as Corbyn was leader.
This, Freedland argued, was the coup de grace. Labour stronghold after Labour stronghold had fallen because of Corbyn. Glasgow, Merthyr, Tees Valley.
Except the evidence had been selected to fit Freedland’s pre-existing narrative. Glasgow had fallen to the SNP, a pattern in Scottish politics which had dated back years. Corbyn was guilty here of no more than failing to stem the bleeding – although in itself this was bad; many of us (this author included) had thought that his election might do just that. As it is, we failed to realise the extent of the problem.
Freedland further argued that two years previously a loss in Merthyr, the home of Aneurin Bevan, would have been ‘unthinkable’; yet Labour had only regained it in 2012 after it had been in the hands of independents. Hardly unthinkable.
And in the Tees Valley, those voters in the North East who’d backed Brexit went against Labour. In other words, the Labour candidate was rejected because it was thought by many voters there that Corbyn held the same views about Europe that Freedland does.
On closer inspection, Freedland had cherry-picked his evidence from the Edelman focus groups. The Huffington Post, who had co-organised them with Edelman, took this quote as the basis for their headline instead:
“As much as I have voted Labour all my life I probably won’t be able to vote Labour this time…Anybody who has voted leave and believes in democracy currently must vote Conservative.”
The equation of support for Leave and the need to save ‘democracy’ by thus endorsing the Conservatives was part of the reason why the focus groups members felt they couldn’t vote for Corbyn. This raises serious questions about popular understandings of democracy and the rise of narrow majoritarianism, but these aside they reflect more profoundly the complexities of the situation Labour faces.
For Freedland, Corbyn hadn’t campaigned hard enough to Remain in the EU. For the traditional Labour voters Freedland cites, Corbyn had campaigned far too hard. Freedland argues that Corbyn ‘betrayed’ the young by failing to campaign harder against Brexit; and yet Corbyn’s supposed support for Remain is, according to the focus groups, a key reason for the losses Freedland also condemns him for. Had he campaigned harder for Remain, had he not ‘betrayed’ the young to use Freedland’s emotive language, the evidence points to a more brutal defeat last Thursday than Labour in fact suffered.
And that’s besides the fact that sentiments on Corbyn’s competence and demeanour expressed through focus groups are similar to comments made on Ed Miliband. In the 2015 Scottish defeat, Labour sources north of the border attributed much of the disaster to the leader’s perceived unpopularity. Focus groups conducted by Populus in the run-in to the 2015 General Election characterised Miliband as lacking in leadership qualities – ‘does not look the part’.
The above essay is simply a series of reflections on the complexities of the problems that face the Labour Party, many of which are of their own making. One, critically, was the failure during the Blair years of taking the opportunity to make meaningful constitutional reform through the introduction of a proportional electoral system. But more signfiicant is Labour’s continued attempt, since Tony Blair’s ascent to the leadership, to adjust itself to the ‘realities’ of post-Thatcher politics. This is a politics of diminishing returns. Whilst the Conservatives have retreated to older, more comfortably nationalist ground for them, Labour has no past to turn to – having played a key role in undermining its historic legacy in order to win three consecutive general elections according to another party’s political rules.
Those electoral wins were, and will always remain, in their own terms impressive. But in embracing such a negative view of its own past, in seeking to inflect its message with the emphases of neoliberal capitalism, New Labour also helped destroy the alternative, solidaristic understanding of citizenship which prevailed in the age before the deification of the consumer, and which Corbyn now tries to promote to – in sections of the media and the general public – great amusement. With the rise of an atavistic, neonationalist political culture in the face of the post-crisis economic reality, Labour has no usable past to draw on.
Unless Labour can rehabilitate its history, and develop a usable past which can in turn change a political culture now entrenched in the discursive vocabularies of the market and nationalism, offering up new proposals and possibilities for what it means to be a citizen in contemporary British society, then it really will be too far gone.
One thing is clear; it isn’t just down to Corbyn, and it isn’t just down to the PLP. It’s much more complex, and much more difficult, than that. Labour will very likely go down to a heavy defeat in a few weeks time. But it’s far too convenient – and unhelpful – to blame one man.