I am considerably more sceptical about the effects of formal politics on this country’s social and cultural life than the vast majority of modern British historians. Politically I was an anarchist (as in the radical labour tradition rather than the Sex Pistols aesthetic) before I was an academic and usually take my cues from the idea that at most the fortunes of political parties only reflect and reinforce what is already happening in our everyday lives.
Hence I would defend the idea that the most radical periods of government-driven change in the 20th Century (1906–1914, 1945 -1951, 1979–1991) were the product of broader social and economic forces. The governments in those periods were for the most part managing changes that were largely inevitable and would in any case have happened in one form or another under their opponents. If it seems, at times, that radical reforming governments (Attlee’s, Thatcher’s) have changed history, opposed by implacable enemies on the benches opposite, this is largely, I would argue, illusory. When we look at the details we discover their opponents largely accepting the same frameworks, addressing the same problems and inevitably producing similar solutions. We find shadows of Churchill the welfare statist lurking in 1945 and hints of Callaghan the monetarist in 1979. And in any case, even their relatively minor attempts to swim against the tide of social and economic forces saw them both swept away in landslides. When change is coming, no electoral campaign is good enough, no campaign manager quick-witted enough.
In between these moments political parties *almost* might as well not exist. They take turns managing, they decide some marginal issues (margins that are not always to be sniffed at, but margins they are), but the destination is the same, determined by forces both too big (economic) and too small (social and cultural) to control. It is no use asking what life would be like if John Smith had lived or if Foot had won in 1983. Both would either have bent to the prevailing forces swirling around them or they would have been broken. As it happens Blair did not need to bend. Blair’s long-held convictions - economically liberal, culturally liberal, socially authoritarian — fit perfectly with managing the state and society as it already was. Hence Blair became to Thatcher what Churchill became to Attlee in 1951, a perpetuator of their predecessors’ new status quo.
So it’s in the context of this that I understand ideas of “electability”. To be “electable” as I understand it is essentially to have an appropriate programme for the period of history which you are living through. In most cases this means agreeing to continue running the state largely as it is currently being run. In two 20th Century elections it meant agreeing to dramatically change the way the state and society functioned, so that the state might resolve a particular crisis (post-1973 stagflation for Thatcher, the need to restore state infrastructure and social stability post-war in 1945).
In both cases, actively seeking “electability” is ultimately a pointless act. In “stability” elections, “electability” inevitably means repetition. You’re managing the same state, appealing to the same electorate, subject to the same economic, social and cultural forces. Your answers will largely be the same and your party is in effect redundant as anything other than a carrier of political aspirations and identity.
In the second case your policies will not appear to most politically-experienced people to be “electable”. You will be characterised (as Thatcher and Attlee were) as a political outsider, advised to take a more moderate course, told it is unlikely that you will ever appeal to the majority of the public. It is unlikely that the wider political elite will perceive the shift in prevailing conditions until quite late in the process, with orthodoxy becoming hard-wired after years of offering (now-redundant) expertise.
Which brings us nicely to the currently floundering Parliamentary Labour Party, presently proffering its own expertise on winning elections. It is safe to say that since 2008 the social, economic and political conditions that produced most of the present intake (in terms of their political formation) have been utterly transformed. It seems likely that we are living in a period during which “electability” (policies appropriate to the political period in which you live) is changing, as the centrifuge that is globalisation clicks up a couple of gears and rattles along, merrily flinging out bits and pieces of Europe’s old social democratic parties across our political landscape.
What does electability mean now for the leader of one of these parties? I don’t think anyone really knows. Certainly the Labour MPs currently mounting a coup in its name don’t seem to have much of an idea. Some, like Tristram Hunt, seem to be under the impression that restoring the party’s hegemonic position can be achieved by offering a warm “One Nation” response to the rising tide of English patriotism, a tendency echoed by his soft left colleague Owen Smith just yesterday in his call for “progressive” immigration controls in order to win over the supposedly UKIP-flirting alienated Northern (white) working class. Prior to that the right’s candidate for leader, Liz Kendall, had led the charge on assembling policies aimed at winning over “aspirational” swing voters in more affluent areas, who apparently got bored of listening to Labour go on about the economic problems of the party’s “heartlands”.
There are rather obvious contradictions contained in these three affirmations. The “heartlands” that the Kendall’s swing voters don’t care about are the same ones that Smith claims he wants to help with his border controls, and their diverse economic priorities both shoot holes in Hunt’s one nation project, which itself has a four nations problem. Meanwhile, all three of these plans alienate that other potential component of a winning Labour coalition — that is the left-leaning and socially liberal populations of Britain’s large cities and university towns — who are also more than capable of wandering off if the party takes them for granted.
Regardless of the overall popularity of the politics espoused by Labour’s different factions (including Corbyn’s), it seems unlikely that this unwieldy coalition can be stitched back together very easily. It seems especially unlikely, given the increasing speed with which global forces post-crash have ripped similar parties asunder, that unity across these categories could possibly be achieved by returning to something approaching the status quo ante — that is, the restoration of the party to a conventional “managing the state as it is” model. Especially when we consider that it was under this style of leadership (Blair) that the threads first started to fray, a process that continued under its soft-left alter-ego (in the form of Brown and Miliband).
Corbynism has its own problems, some self-inflicted (their widely criticised external communications, their refusal to downplay their least popular foreign policy interests, their inability to energise or mobilise their base for anything other than defence of the leader), some structural (ie. the unpopularity that comes from refusing to participate in the kind of nationalism that remains, sadly, dominant in public life in Britain). I suspect though that a relentless focus on left-wing economic policies is just about the only thing that actually could unite all the different groups they’re trying to marry together, if only on the basis that they might all have something to gain from them. In that respect, the incumbent Labour leader is probably closer than his rivals to generating something that could translate into an “electable” project of the left for the current state of endless political dislocation.
Closer, but still I suspect, miles away. For at present, the absolute favourite, miles ahead of the pack, is a project of protectionist nationalism led from the populist right. Something that draws together the shared resentments of middle and de-industrialised England against liberal metropolitan England, just as the EU referendum evidently just did. It is this leading the charge to be what Thatcher was to 1979 and what Labour were to 1945. As the macro-economic and geo-political fire blazes away, fuelling social inequalities, throwing populations into flux, leaving communities abandoned, vulnerable, the micro-social simmers alongside, as friends, acquaintances, family members, activists, politicians and journalists slowly, imperceptibly shift people’s ideas about themselves, their neighbours and their world, one conversation at a time. The process that produces social and cultural change, the process that may be forging right at this moment that potential coalition.
Except, and this is the exception to my political party nihilism, except, if that process goes another way. When these grand political changes come there is no one road. The crisis is the crisis and needs to be solved. But which answer triumphs is not pre-determined. The macro-economic fire rages, the micro-social pot simmers, but we all contribute to what happens inside it and thus determine how it comes out.
In the 1970s the (neo-)liberal economists, the far right, the papers, the Tory right, the pub bores, the declinist writers, Jim Callaghan, the trade union leaders, they all contributed to making Thatcherite economics triumphant. They built the frameworks and formed the questions that her movement used. There were, in that period between 1973 and 1979, other forces, creating other frameworks, answering their own questions. And if there is to be a solution other than nationalist protectionism then it means similar, but opposing forces, need again to dispute the frameworks and assumptions that are building this new consensus (and to win this time).
The idea that the movement of human beings across borders is the special force deconstructing our society. That “protecting our own” will save 'us' from anything, that “they”, “the other” should be excluded so that we might prosper. Challenging that, proposing other exits in everyday encounters, from the private to the most public, we contribute to the outcome. These interactions will forge our new social norms. They are the responsibility of all of us and do not depend on what happens within the Palace of Westminster. The real project is always in our workplaces and in our communities. But it would be foolish to pretend that they are left untouched by some of the loudest voices amongst us: national politicians. In that regard, I have to accept (with great reluctance!) that the return of Labour to its conventional voice and acceptance of conventional frameworks on class, race, nation and economics, would, for me, be an unwelcome development, and an advance for that other ominous project that we know to be under way.