What next for Labour?
As a Labour activist, I do my utmost to be optimistic about labour’ chances in the upcoming general election. But every time we hit the road to knock on doors alongside our committed comrades in the cold Saturday mornings to explain how a Labour government would improve people’s lives, one type of response becomes exhaustingly repetitive, “I’ve always voted Labour but I won’t as long as ‘he’ is in charge”. Encountering such disappointing reception from Labour’s natural and long term backers, one wonders how the more fiercely defensive Corbynistas would react if they saw for themselves how unpopular their man is amongst the working class. As it happens, those who defend Corbyn the most in CLP meetings and tell everyone else to get behind him are the least prepared to actually sell him to the voters on the doorstep. Usually, the old militant types, take great care to remind others that their ‘leafletting days’ are behind them.
As someone who desperately wants a Labour government (as I’m sure all Labour members do regardless of how active they are or where they politically put themselves within labour’s broad church), I hope as a party we learn the lessons of the last 4 years. If God forbid Johnson manages to win a majority and with Corbyn’s likely resignation triggering another leadership race, I really hope that labour members get over this idea of voting for the candidate whom they agree with the most (since with a degree of honest self-analysis and self-awareness, they must realise that those who spend their evenings in party meetings or give up their Saturday mornings to knock on doors and preach the gospel of Socialism are not exactly representative of the wider electorate) instead, I sincerely hope that they think about which candidate will they find the easiest to sell on the doorstep and which will have the broadest possible appeal and who will have the least weak spots for the right-wing press to attack them by.
Because put simply, the country cannot afford another lost decade of Tory misrule. It would be reckless of us to condemn the country to another tory term whilst we ‘feel good about ourselves’ in opposition. In the words of Dennis Healey (possibly one of the greatest leaders labour never had, if only he was slightly less arrogant and more engaging to his colleagues) “There are far too many people who want to luxuriate complacently in moral righteousness. But who is going to pay the price for their complacency?” The same question must be asked today, Who will pay the price of Labour members electing an unelectable left-wing firebrand with a past of shady company? The very same people whom we are trying to help, the millions of working people who have had to bear the brunt of austerity for the past 9 years. In an ideal world, you should be able to have an actual Socialist in charge of a supposedly socialist party, but the adjective ideal is key here. And to borrow a phrase from Mrs May, we ‘mustn’t make the perfect the enemy of the good’.
The fundamental challenge for Labour is to be both reassuring for over 45s whilst still being radical and attractive to under 25s. Otherwise, we end up with the ‘Miliband Complex’ of being neither reassuring enough to the old nor inspiring enough to the young, but rather an unhappy medium. When it comes down to policy, the majority of the electorate agree with most of labour’s proposals, they want to nationalise the natural monopolies and end the rip off of the consumers. The public yearns for a ‘responsible’ way of investing more in our public services. Even the Tories seem to have woken up and smelt the coffee. Even they have accepted the need for more borrowing (with such record low-interest rates) to invest in public services and have cynically embarked on a looting raid of Labour’s policy recycle bin. Even if Corbyn resigns tomorrow, he has already accomplished his mission. He has already shifted the centre of British politics to the left and to his credit he has changed the public discourse away from ‘benefit street’ outrage at the poorest to the justified anger at the wealthy tax dodgers, polluters and bankers.
Labour does not need to concede more to neoliberalism in order to win over the ‘Workington man’. In fact, we should carry on attacking neoliberalism, since neoliberalism has attacked the very fabric of our society, its transformative forces have turned our once-booming industrialised towns into centres of ‘managed decline’, into mere dormitories where people only return to sleep in at night and leave during the day to go to work or shop in the big cities. Neoliberalism has turned our once great high streets into a collection of American fast-food chains and charity shops, whilst small independent businesses have lost the battle to online shopping and Amazon, where local newspapers have diminished and had to turn themselves into yellow pages swamped by advertisement. Thatcher’s revolution has failed on its own terms to a degree noticeable even to the ‘Capitalist Bible’ the Financial Times. In the words of the former Goldman Sacks banker and Tory Treasury minister Lord O'Neil “In theory, when you have many years of rising profits, it should lead to more investment, higher productivity and wage growth, but we’ve had the apparent profit growth without the rest”. Therefore in terms of economics, the tide is turning in our favour and the Neoliberal consensus seems to be falling apart, just like its Neo-Keynesian predecessor failed to survive the turbulence of the 1970s.
Whether Brexit happens or is somehow abandoned as a project, the causes of Brexit must not be shoved under the carpet. The country is too London centric. Britain’s wealth, power and opportunities are concentrated in too few hands. Labour must start to reverse this trend by ensuring that its next leader is not another London MP (hopefully not Emily Thornberry or Kier Starmer) and it must ensure that he or she will not be disadvantaged by the toxic baggage of a care-free fringe career in the backrooms with questionable company. It doesn’t mean that it must necessarily change its policies, most of which are actually popular. Labour’s next leader must embody strength and competence on crime and policing, it must learn from our sister party in Denmark on immigration. The next Labour leader must visit Britain’s military bases abroad and highlight the shameful treatment of our veterans, the lack of effective support for them to adapt to civilian life. (Starting with the aim of creating fewer veterans by avoiding unnecessary and illegal wars). And finally, the next Labour leader has to be a woman. It’s about time that the leadership reflected the strong backbone of our movement, the strong female activists and parliamentarians and provide a role model for young girls growing up in 21st century Britain. To show that they don’t have to be a Conservative to have a chance of reaching the top of the greasy pole.