The final cry of Labour

On Thursday, I flagged down a black cab for the first time in a while. He was a nice guy, a family man with a picture of his kids on the dashboard. The cab was his pride- it was immaculate. The card reader had a plastic bag over it – credit card payments were too expensive. Modernity was visible but blocked. We went a long way round; so far out so I had to navigate us along a different route. The bill was £25 for a short journey across London – Uber would probably have been at least 40% cheaper than that).

At the time, the future of the Labour Party was on my mind. And here, in a black cab, it felt as though we were riding in the Labour party’s present. The values were impeccable but the experience somehow didn’t fit the modern world. The consumer wasn’t king; the producer was. It was a journey into a past – a lovely past – that remains in the present.

And then the mind inevitably trips to the EU referendum. Leave voters turned out in droves. ‘Labour areas’ where turnout had been depressed for decades suddenly voted. One owner of a club that hosts a polling station in a Labour area told me that he couldn’t believe it when he turned up to open the building some time after 6am only to find people waiting outside already- unprecedented. These were night-shift workers – the people Labour exists to represent and here they were to vote leave. The easy narrative blames Jeremy Corbyn. Sure, he certainly did nothing to help but Labour’s decay is far deeper than Jeremy Corbyn.

Labour will now have a leadership election. Don’t ask me for any predictions as my recent record (along with everyone else!) is pretty dire. What does seem clearer than the outcome is that, whether Jeremy Corbyn survives or not, Labour is in a state of violent convulsion. The causes are structural as much as about the actions of this leader or that. The Labour working classes have split into remain and leave. The remain working classes see benefits in international trade, travel and cultural exchange. These aren’t, as is the caricature, just metropolitan liberal types. They are more diverse than the leave working class for sure. But what drives them is a sense that workers are better served as part of a bigger international order than being locked in a nationalistic cage. That in itself is an expression of patriotism.

Leave working classes are polar opposites. They see cultural, economic and personal threat from openness. They feel it diminishes them and takes a way a sense of agency – or control. The majority of this group stopped voting Labour long ago. Most of these stopped voting altogether. Those that didn’t are attracted to UKIP. Had UKIP’s leadership not been a public school prat they might have gone UKIP en masse. They may still do so. The point is that the working class – Labour’s alleged base – is irrevocably split. Moreover, there is no going back now. The schism is permanent.

Leave labour is older and less diverse – but only generally not exclusively. Social mobility has passed them and their families by. Their communities are forgotten. Labour refused to engage them during the referendum; it fears them and fears them exercising their political voice as they have just done.

Why do leave workers feel this way? The answer is very simple: they are right. Modernity and social mobility have passed them by. Their life is hard. Really hard. Making ends meet is tough. They start to see others as having it easy- those on welfare or new arrivals – and this compounds a sense of frustration and the loss of a world that worked to different rules. Their black cab is their world and suddenly the world stops engaging with them as it moves to two wheels or to Uber and that is disorientating. And they see the Labour Party and think ‘you are meant to be for me and instead you speak a different language and don’t even understand what I am seeing’. The strange thing is that Labour thinks it represents all the working class almost by default. The Tories are meant to be the ones out of touch; but Labour is seen as just the same to many.

So we have a paradox: Labour sees itself as the workers’ party yet a big chunk of workers see it as something very different. But there’s nothing Labour can do about it. It has to abandon freedom of movement but this in itself is a defensive move. It will shed some liberal middle class support in the process but might keep more of the leave Labour voters it has managed to hold out of tradition and habit more than anything else – just.

The bigger problem is that there is no way out. There might be a magical leader, a Tony Blair Mark II, who can hide this deep structural crisis for Labour. It would just be for a while and, for the life of me, I cannot identify who this unicorn leader might be. More likely, Labour will either face quick death under Jeremy Corbyn or zombie status under another leader. It will hold together a coalition of remain labour, residual ‘out of habit’ leave labour, some public sector professionals and the social liberal intelligentsia. That would keep it in the 25% territory: dead but still walking.

There has been much talk of a potential split. This will do nothing in and of itself to begin to wrestle with Labour’s structural crisis. If Corbyn does survive, 40–50 or so MPs will probably form a new parliamentary grouping- say the Social Democratic and Labour Party UK. It would last one election in which it would be reduced to a rump. And still, we would be left with perma-Tory rule; though there is a perfectly viable progressive coalition with the right strategy.

So a split won’t achieve anything – necessary and likely though it may become. Something far bigger and bolder is required. The progressive left (as opposed to the socialist left) needs to put electoral considerations to one side in the short term. Instead of expending energy on saving Labour, something entirely new is needed. Labour was a movement before it was a party and so should whatever replaces it from within or without be.

This movement would seek to build from the cities out. It would embrace pluralist progressives – from the remain labour working classes to social liberals. It would be a movement that sought to build the right networks and platforms for social justice.

A movement of citizens that would over time seek elected office, it would espouse democratic, economic and social reform.

Scotland, London, and other great cities would be supported as increasingly independent entities (albeit within a British network of cities and nations bound by a common currency, trading area and Parliament). This would be a new constitutional network. It would support a greater engagement within communities so they have a greater say in their future; democracy is like a muscle, it withers without exercise. The electoral system and the way our failing representative democracy functions requires radical change- new democratic platforms.

We have an economy that concentrates wealth and power and this movement would espouse a very different ethos: spreading ownership and bringing together new networks of worker empowerment (as has begun to happen in US cities).

This movement would demand a new social contract; the current state fails to support the reality of modern economic life and leaves families and whole communities locked in insecurity and poverty. These would be new platforms for economic security such as Basic Income and social mobility. Security and mobility would be seen as dependent upon one another- holding no one back, leaving no one behind.

I am afraid that it is now almost impossible to see Labour embracing an agenda such as this. So this movement has to be despite and outwith Labour.

None of this is remotely possible within the current political universe. An insurgent movement to change the terms of politics becomes the only possible vehicle for change. That won’t work right? Well, a political fringe obsessed with Europe set up its own force. It infected the Conservative party first and then the entire nation. UKIP’s primary function has been secured. If progressives are serious about changing this country in the direction of greater openness, democracy and social justice then they need to get building. I fear Labour can no longer be part of that project. I will be delighted to be proved wrong. More likely, however, is that we are hearing Labour’s final cry.

Three years ago or so I wrote Left without a Future? That analysis still stands if you would like to read more analysis on these issues.