Labour vs Labour

Watching a marital argument unfold in public is an experience, like grief, that passes through several stages. The first barbed exchanges come as a surprise to anyone nearby. And then a ripple of amusement passes through the onlookers as the row becomes heated. Dirty linen is being aired in public. This is fun! But then the argument turns nasty. Things are said that can never be unsaid. The crowd becomes alarmed. How will it end? What does this mean for the children? It is distressing to watch a relationship fall apart in front of our eyes.

The Labour party leadership contest is moving from a spectacular but phoney war into all-out conflict. The ABC (‘Anyone But Corbyn’) camp is desperate. To unleash Blair on the situation was misguided: it only enhanced Corbyn’s appeal. To roll out Brown was different. It showed how seriously the leadership takes this issue. Next will come Miliband. And then what? Kinnock has already spoken. Will the bones of Attlee be made to dance?

This battle is not simply between left and right but between two versions of the Labour Party. For convenience, we might call them Corbynite Labour and ABC Labour, but they are much older than Jeremy Corbyn and his detractors. In fact, Corbynite Labour and ABC Labour have inhabited the same body for so long that they both believe they are the Labour Party. Hence the mutual incomprehension with which they speak to each other. They simply cannot understand where the other lot are coming from. In the eyes of each camp, the others must be traitors, or idiots, or both.

Labour is an uneasy coalition of radical and progressive socialists who got together in 1900 to agree that the route to a fair and sustainable society must lead through Parliament. For some in the Labour movement, this was the logical extension of their democratic principles. For others, it was a bitter pill to swallow. But all sides agreed that the battle for social democracy must be won at the ballot box and that in order to win elections they must set aside their differences and work together.

These are the founding assumptions of the party which Jeremy Corbyn aspires to lead. He appears to share these assumptions. He understands that Labour is not a pressure group, a think tank or a terrorist cell but a political party, operating in a democratic context. He agrees that his party is a broad church (of the left). He knows that some people will passionately support and others vehemently disagree with everything that Corbynite Labour stands for, but he assumes that the argument for social democracy must be made, and that it can be won.

ABC Labour also works on the assumption that elections are the route to social change, and that the party must be a broad church in order to gain power. But here the similarities stop. Yes, ABC Labour wants to build a fairer society. (To be anti-Corbyn is not to be pro-Tory, as some have argued.) But the ABCs’ recipe for a fairer society is defined primarily by its (sometimes subtle) differences from Conservative policy, rather than its overtly social democratic flavour.

Only through power, argue the ABCs, can Labour implement policies which reduce the impact of poverty, sustain public health and extend opportunities to those who are born without them. ABC Labour does not challenge the economic drivers of poverty, poor health and inequality, because it assumes that — in order to win power — Labour must be a broad church of the centre, not the left. And, to this end, it must not frighten the horses of Middle England, with their mortgages, their pensions and their property wealth.

Corbynite Labour was prepared to accept the assumptions of ABC Labour so long as they delivered a fairer society. But ABC Labour has little to show for its most recent period in office. Too many of its achievements were easily overturned as soon as Labour lost power. The economy has continued its long-term drift towards financial services, with little obligation towards the society which hosts them. The arts, museums and libraries — regenerated under Labour — were among the first areas of public spending to be cut after 2010. Local authorities — so critical to the quality of our lives and the quality of our schools — are facing an existential crisis. The minimum wage and Sure Start has been eroded, as have the Future Jobs Fund, tax credits and meaningful child poverty targets.

In any case, these policies were essentially sticking plasters on the wounds of inequality. They helped people out of poverty, but struggled to find anything for them to do with their short-lived opportunities. The Conservatives have torn off these sticking plasters and seem to be prepared to let the underlying wounds suppurate. They argue that society will thrive, in the long term, if it does not waste time and money on interventions which get in the way of social evolution. The survival of the fittest, according to the Tories, will ensure that those with innate capacity and determination will do well, and that those who do not do well, do not deserve to do well. This is morally and economically wrong, but it provides a clear and compelling story in troubling times.

In the eighteenth century, Tories upheld feudal privilege. Now they uphold the ‘natural order’ of neoliberalism. But ABC Labour has deliberately suspended any critique of neoliberalism. And this is where it radically parts company with the founding assumptions of the Labour party. A party which was established in order to change society should not be constrained by the dominant narrative. It should not be satisfied with temporary fixes. The marginal gains of a Labour party which is limited to tampering with the status quo will always be undone by the next government. And the long-term trends in our society — as we have seen over the last thirty years — are towards the entrenchment of privilege, the narrowing of opportunity and the triumph of the Tory assumption that power is not to be questioned, but celebrated.

The irony is that ABC Labour’s economics may even be more expensive than Corbynomics. The burden of sustaining social democratic levels of investment in health, education and welfare will fall ever more heavily on Middle England if the nation’s wealth continues to be siphoned off by companies and individuals who are not inconvenienced by any sense of responsibility towards nation states. The ‘fittest’ players in global neoliberalism enjoy all the benefits of social democracy (stable governments delivering affluent enough consumers in the developed world) even whilst they feed the drivers of instability (weak and unstable governments, supplying cheap enough labour in the developing world). This is not fair on either rich or poor countries, and it is not sustainable. ABC Labour is happy to pay to clean up neoliberalism’s mess; but it expects taxpayers to foot the bill.

ABC Labour persuaded the electorate that neoliberalism and social democracy were compatible. (They are, but only for the people at the top.) Corbynite Labour recognises that we cannot have everything. Unless we challenge neoliberal economics, we will be the ones to pay the price, as our economy withers, wages fall, climate change accelerates, the world becomes more unstable and global migration increases.

This is not to say that Corbyn has all (or indeed any) of the answers. But he and his supporters are asking the right questions. And, as neoliberalism starts to bite on Middle England, Corbynite Labour may ultimately come to seem more realistic — and more electable — than ABC Labour.

The two Labour parties have co-existed for this long because they provided each other with mutual benefits. Corbynite Labour supplied a party machine and foot soldiers to ABC Labour. In return, ABC Labour won support from the centre and the soft right of the electorate. The truce which enabled that model of co-operation is over. Is there any alternative to the acrimonious split which now looks inevitable, whichever candidate wins the leadership election?

It will not be easy, but in the context of Britain’s two-party electoral system, we urgently need to rebuild Labour as a united party of social democracy.

I once had a stand-up row with my partner on the street outside a café. The sun was reflecting off the plate glass windows and we did not realise that we were visible — and audible — to everyone inside. Finally, an old lady emerged to put a stop to the spectacle we were unwittingly making of ourselves. She took our hands in hers. ‘You give a little,’ she said to me, squeezing my hand, ‘and you give a little,’ she said to my partner, squeezing her hand. She placed our hands together, before walking slowly away.

Corbynite Labour and ABC Labour both need to give a little. The Corbynites are right to insist that Labour is a party of social democracy, not a soft form of neoliberalism. They need to accept that most ABCs share these values, but are unsettled by the questions which Corbyn is asking. The ABCs are right to insist that Labour can only change society when it is in government, as it did in 1945. They need to accept that the Corbynites also understand this, but are unhappy about the compromises which the ABCs are proposing in order to regain power.

Together, these two versions of Labour, which have gone through so much together, can revitalise British social democracy as a powerful political force. Labour should not be deceived into thinking that it must choose between unelectable principles or tainted power. The real challenge here is to find answers to the questions the Corbynites are asking. And for that, we need everyone in the party to renew their vows.

Jonathan Heawood is writing in a personal capacity.