Labour’s problems: some structural aspects

by Tom Miller

A million people have written a million things about the problems Labour faces, with some quite simplistic responses from several knackered looking leadership contests. The main surface aspects are simple. In polling, we lost certain groups of voters, notably at the older end.

In terms of political geography, we desperately need to win back a lot of Tory voters who used to vote Labour. But we’re also faced with the challenge of winning back a serious number of seats from a party which anyone serious can see has attacked us in the base, and from the left, in order to gain majorities by adding these voters to its previous vote – the SNP. This seems to have warranted far left discussion, in part because our media is right wing and attached to Labour’s own hard right, in in part because the media and what remains of the Labour Party are pretty anglocentric.

But the point is made repeatedly that this malaise is affecting us around Europe and goes deeper than individual elections. Which reminds us immediately of a second coming of Hobsbawm and Hall (as per this and this).

Ludicrously, Liz Kendall warns us against trying to become a Syriza or a Podemos because of the need for electoral success. But in these countries it is social democrats who face eradication for being weak, and too closely aligned to both national and international elites. Hilariously, both of the parties mentioned are great examples of snatching prominence, relevance, and mass support from the jaws of pointless left cultism.

This is not to say that Kendall is wrong in her conclusion – we have very different economies and politics to these countries, which have sharply diverged. But her conclusion is in ignorance of her premise, not based upon it.

Elsewhere it is certainly true that social democrats are taking a hammering in non-crisis countries, for reasons which appear to be far more complex than simply not being seen as on the side of there core, traditional working class votes. This has gained some scrutiny from the European intelligentsia of the centre-left, but little on a domestic level.

As ever, I’ve been inspired by facebook chats, in this case to have a think about some of the structural aspects of Labour’s own experiences dealing with this kind of decline. I have laid out some of my own thoughts below, but I would urge everyone to read Rory Weal’s piece on what appears to be a deepening question of relevance and a resulting leadership gulf.

I’ve collected my own thoughts in a verbatim fashion below. The first was in response to a fashionable, typical, and highly incorrect claim that the SNP had outlaid and anti-austerity manifesto whilst Labour unveiled a pro-austerian one. Obviously it called for posting this.

SNP

Doesn’t fit the narrative, does it?

Given that this is undoubtedly the popular perception, even more so among voters in Scotland itself, the gap between perception and reality offers some basic answers as to what Labour is directly experiencing – a slightly magnified version of a traditional, cross-class crisis of reformism.

Why didn’t we make our level of overlap with the likes of the SNP in terms of wanting to reverse austerity more clear? What does that mean for Labour’s place, and its place relative to the wider left?

We as a party didn’t use this rhetorical or political strategy because some of the things we need to at least sound like in order to get support one way usually and indeed presently repel enough people the other way, whichever direction we go, for us to lose.

This is a structural problem for reformism. The fundamental basis of reformist/electoralist socialism (and official social democracy) is that people see themselves as the sort of middle class that a centre-left agenda would stick up for rather than threaten. Enough voters and activists on our left take the shit for this that support in Labour can be profoundly depressing.

Ideas like New Labour and the Labour right before them have a structural underpinning and rationale deeper than ‘treachery’ or whatever semi-materialist accounts get thrown around.

Aspects of this have probably been true about our socioeconomics since the 1960s at least. So the left as a whole, if Labour is to be included, needs a vibrant and opinion changing ‘leg’ outside of Parliament.

Sadly for those of us inside the parliamentary centre of power or straddled between those things, much of the external left exists on the premise that we exist in a ford its society; even ‘social movement’ focussed approaches which try to get round this (e.g. People’s Assembly) concentrate on the class conscious proletariat, and even only that which exists in public sector occupations. Despite being founded on the opposite premise.

You trust the CPB and Counterfire for one minute and look what happens!

They don’t want middle class people to support them; if they did they would feel like they were doing something wrong and they had lost integrity.

What we need is something much more like the Scottish referendum campaign which is more community than industrial, but allows a class coalition against the right to form, and to eventually be superseded by one actively led by the left.

Obviously for all of this to happen it helps for Scotland to be in and committed, but the Scotland part of the question can’t be solved because the left there is so far from being both in the wider political battleground and involved in this strategy that for the Labour, England and Wales focussed bits of this to work is simply increasingly impossible.

Add that to EVEL or and independent Scotland and the ‘one leg in, one leg out’ strategy becomes impossible. The in leg won’t be able to win without splitting from the out leg, and our broader movement that this giant represents simply falls over.

Is there a deeper problem for Labour and ‘official’ social democracy in particular?

Under the financial pressure of austerity the coalitions social democrats have relied on when on the offensive have not worked on the defensive.

People start to act like rats in a sack. They don’t see the coalition gaining overall, but parts of the coalition ending up with cutbacks, be that welfare or service cuts, or tax rises. They start to actively repel each other as it turns into a competition not for pork, but to protect what little meat still exists. It’s the standard strategy the right applies of trying to dive the workers applied instead to a more diverse block of clue and white collar workers.

Likewise, years of third way politics ended up requiring some patience and discipline after a term had passed, for all involved in this compromise process, especially the less well off (whose interests i.e. access to autonomy and quality of life is further from the centre and have more testing circumstances). What happens when you have played all of the cards that can please one without repelling the other? The third way tendency in particular now seems to set out in opposition to any social democratic gains whatsoever, even on things as fundamental as child poverty. The left has completely lost tolerance for a strategy which it in turn sees no stake it – not even a moderate one.

These two twin crisis have affected social democracy before, notably after the oil crash. Given that both are magnified by the shape of the modern economy, it is little wonder that there is a problem.

I’ve outlined a million problems above. I would love to be able to sit down and tick them off with a senior politician who is interested in parting the waters. Sadly for me, everyone else has also found a million problems of their own. This is what comes of idling on facebook.

More broadly put, we have a novel version of a very traditional problem. We are too narrow. We need to win people who disagree with us to the left and partly disagree but distrust us to our near right (note that these are not quite the same things).

To do this means widening our base a lot more than it means moving it.

In order to do so, leadership will need to be strong and imaginative. This is not completely disconnected, but matters considerably more than policy. One of a few requirements is to persuade voters to our right back to Labour – remember these have not always been Tory. But none of it adds up unless the wider party and opinion forming elements of society outside Parliament have some level of agreement with it, and as a lone strategy it offers us no hope of achieving government, or indeed running one without being able to get any legislation through.

The long years of New Labour’s social coalition were like an impressively large building with particularly weak foundations, and some quite contradictory features once you are through the front door. The years of austerity have been like placing heavy weight on that building’s roof. This makes bad things happen.

Divisions and collapses are underway. But Labour has not had a building without stress since 1951. The crisis is more serious than that of the 80s, in that the answers are less easy and the electoral obstacles higher. But the model remains traditional because the tensions and trade offs involved are the same ones we have always faced. We face many of them at the same time, and of particular strength, however.

If we are to recover from a severe version of a traditional crisis, we need our politicians to sharpen up by a factor of about ten.