How to save Labour’s wasted generation
What is the value of belonging to a wasted political generation?
A question asked by the pioneers of New Labour in the aftermath of Labour’s fourth successive general election defeat in 1992 is once again chillingly apposite.
Back then, it appeared as though Labour had done everything asked of it by the electorate, the media, and even it’s own members to deserve the privilege of governing- and had still fallen short.
Future titans of the movement Tony Blair and Gordon Brown had known nothing but opposition for each of their nine years in parliament at that point, and wouldn’t know anything else for a further five years. Their frustration must have been nigh-on unbearable.
Today, Labour is either ignoring or actively thumbing it’s nose at the electorate. Instead it is pandering to a hermetic party membership largely made up of the flotsam and jetsam of the hard left. The prognosis for today’s leading lights, however, is the same as it was back in 1992: seemingly perennial opposition.
This is a tragedy on the personal and political level. What is too often overlooked is the wealth of talent Labour has both in parliament and in the activist base- talent going to waste as the party indulges in squalid self-cannibalism.
Labour members of parliament of real experience are shut out of the process of affecting change in opposition, and are being robbed of the chance to do so in a future Labour government for the simple reason that one does not look likely for a generation.
Take a look at Wes Streeting, a parliamentarian with executive experience and acute knowledge of the higher education sector from his stint as NUS President- not to mention a vociferous proponent of LGBT rights. He should be well on his way to Shadow Cabinet by now. Instead he’s relegated to venting his frustrations on Twitter and batting away trolls from the backbenches.
The same is true of Keir Starmer, the former Director of Public Prosecutions. Imagine the damage he could inflict on the Tories as Shadow Attorney General or Shadow Justice Minister. Instead he was given a middling shadow ministerial portfolio under Corbyn and resigned in June in disgust at the leader’s failings over the Brexit vote. Another Labour asset doomed to rot on the backbenches until the hard left surrenders, or is forced from, the reins of power.
Then there’s the activist base. Of the many tragedies befalling the Labour Party, the emasculation of a talented generation of Labour champions outside of parliament is the one that causes me greatest sadness. I campaigned alongside many young, enthusiastic, intelligent volunteers and salaried staffers during the General Election and subsequent leadership campaign. They understood the communities they campaigned in and brought a maturity to the post-May 2015 debate that promised both an intellectual revival of the Labour Party internally and a fresh accommodation with the broader electorate outside of it.
Where are they now? Exchanging “dank memes” (no, I don’t have clue either) on Twitter and fruitlessly phone banking for Owen Smith, the moderates’ sacrificial lamb, an endeavour marginally less profitable than pushing treacle up a hill. In the rain. With no hands.
They are engaged in a ceaseless war with the Corbynistas, like their forebears were with Militant in the eighties, instead of applying their considerable energies and talents on the challenges facing the country.
Public lamentation is rarely a good look, but it does help focus the mind somewhat. These MPs and activists are shut out of influencing the Party because they lost. We lost. Nothing will get Wes Streeting or Keir Starmer out of TV studios and onto the frontbenches while Corbyn is in place. The activists of Open Labour, Consensus, Progress, and the Fabian Society will remain glorified meme generators as long as the Corbynistas and Momentum hold sway.
This promising political generation will wither and decay in pursuit of a hopeless conflict with the dominant hard left — ironically just as the latter did under the Blair supremacy. Their talents will never come to fruition.
Unless one of four things happens.
First, Owen Smith wins the leadership contest. As my comments above show, I see this as unlikely, to say the least.
Second, if the MPs who got us into this mess in the first place take back the party in parliament by electing their own leader and forming their own shadow cabinet.
True, this would be tantamount to a split and lead to the majority of pro-Corbyn members to defect to whatever rump organisation their erstwhile leader holds onto — whether under the Labour brand or something else remains to be seen. Let them go — as data from the Electoral Commission demonstrates, there is no link between party membership size and General Election performance. As for polling showing only a small percentage of Labour voters would choose between a breakaway party of the left or right, it’s impossible to ask people their feelings about an organisation that remains purely hypothetical at present. I’d wager support for a Labour Party separate from the hard left would attract significant public support. After all, there are plenty who want to support Labour but can’t as long as Corbyn is in charge.
Third, following a Corbyn victory in September the generation-in-exile surrender themselves, and halt hostilities until after the next general election. However, trading deeply-rooted, principled objections to the hard left in exchange for a meaningful role in directing Labour’s opposition inside parliament and out may be too unpalatable for some. It certainly seems as though the soft left is prepared to burn bridges. I wouldn’t be too surprised, though, if part of this amorphous grouping swallow their pride and attempt a rapprochement in September. Especially if Corbyn stays true to his word and promises to “hold out the hand of friendship” to MPs following the vote. That may be enough to entice lefties of a “party first” mentality to fall into line.
Fourth and finally — they leave. This would be the hardest of all choices, though, even more so than the second option. Labour’s innate (and irrational) tribalism makes defection to another party, or the wholesale abandonment of party politics, anathema to all those who sing “The Red Flag.”
However, leaving would allow these talented MPs, Lords, and activists the opportunity to actually do something with their time besides engaging in hopeless circular debates with the Corbynistas. Think of Andrew Adonis, who resigned the Labour Whip in order to chair the government’s National Infrastructure Commission. He made a choice, a painful choice, perhaps, to suffer branding as a traitor in order to employ his considerable talents doing something meaningful.
As for the non-Corbynista activists, leaving the exhausting civil war would free up time for them to volunteer in the third sector, help the homeless, and organise in their communities on single issue campaigns without having their motives questioned. It would undoubtedly prove a more fruitful use of their time, and allow them to do more good than would be possible within the party.
I’m lucky. I’m already in self-exile as a British expat in the US. I have a fight against Donald Trump to occupy my time. To my former colleagues back home, I ask: would you rather perform public service outside of Labour, or fight — most likely hopelessly — for the slimmest of chances of serving the Party?
It’s not an easy choice, I accept that. Maybe it’s not binary. Yet I know I am already regretting spending hours in arcane debate and faction fighting when I was in the UK when instead I could’ve put my principles into practice by, you know, doing something outside the Labour bubble.
At the least, it’s food for thought for former friends and colleagues engaged in another bout of tiresome internal campaigning.