May Day demo, London 2021

Labour’s route to power

Seventeen thoughts after the Tory landslide in Hartlepool

1. All politics is now about identity. It’s not just “cultural” identity, but a mixture of economic reality (precarity vs retirement, renting vs owning) plus all the new forms of exploitation: racial, sexual, consumption, data-extraction and above all relationship to finance. People want parties to express their values and aspirations and from the SNP to the Greens to the UKIP-ized Tories, the successful ones do exactly that.

2. The Labour Party is still viable as a vehicle for the exploited to create a government that acts in their favour, even if only to shape the nature of reforms. But Labourism is not. Labourism was premised on three things that are rapidly disappearing: (a) white, manual working class deference to Fabian patriarchal politics; (b) the United Kingdom, and with it Britishness; (c ) the futility of trying to do red-green politics outside Labour.

3. The party has become a container holding two, or maybe three, competing visions of the future, plus numerous political and cultural identities. But is overwhelmingly the party of cities, technological modernity, the skilled and educated working class, the ethnically diverse working class and the young. That’s not an obstacle to building an alliance with small town social conservatives — Andy Burhnam won in every part of Greater Manchester, including the Red Wall towns. But where it fails to represent the collective political identity of the progressive half of the population, Labour is vulnerable to attack from the Greens, as in Sheffield, Bristol etc, who could easily supplant the Libdems within a decade.

4. Since 2003 the internal party battle has been the left versus a neoliberal globalist faction identified as Blairism. The old right went along with Blairism. Now the old right is on the offensive. It wants us to identify ex-industrial towns as our “core communities” and the poverty-stricken inner cities as dispensable allies; it wants to sideline (a) anti-racism, feminism, LGBTQ+ and crucially radical environmentalist politics; (b) radical left policies like the Universal Basic Income, shorter working week/life, common ownership; (c) all expressions of anti-imperialism and all street politics.

5. The left is weak because it, too, is split over values. Jon Trickett and Ian Lavery attack a “remainer elite” in London from the left; Clive Lewis and Nadia Whittome were outspoken representatives for PV, and are now outspoken in their support for BLM and #KillTheBill. This is why, for all the talk, no left party has emerged. EP Thompson’s famous “two incompatible Marxisms” lie behind this reality — they have never been more divergent.

6. Scottish independence is likely within a decade. Ignore all the quibbling from the BBC and Gove over “did the SNP get a majority?” — the strategic thinkers in the British state know demographics are producing a rising majority for independence, and are set to offer federalism as a last-ditch defence. Logically Scottish Labour should become pro-federal, and allow a strong pro-independence wing, preparing itself to fight for a post-independence socialist Scotland. But it won’t because it’s become a self-selected Unionist party. This, alone, makes the case for Labour to reorganise federally, creating an English Labour Party co-equal with the Welsh and Scottish sections.

7. There are two routes to power. The first is to make Labour itself into an explicit alliance of urban progressives and as many of the small town “authoritarian left” voters (pro nationalisation, pro death penalty in the PolSci stereotypes) that are prepared to join. The sociologist Paula Surridge points out, it’s not the extreme end of the socially conservative vote we need: there are “centrists” on social as well as economic issues, and they are the ones likely to switch back to Labour, given the right offer. The second route is to recognise we cannot win alone, and begin creating the Progressive Alliance both at the grassroots and through talks at the level of party leaderships. A third — doing Corbynism all over again — is a non-starter: the numbers are not there and it didn’t work against a well-funded right-wing populist opponent. I wrote last year that, to the extent the Starmer project — of creating the party as an alliance — fails, the Clive Lewis strategy of Progressive Alliance, coalition government and constitutional reform becomes mandatory.

8. The 6 May result shows that, for now, the Starmer strategy hasn’t worked. Mainly, because he tried to build the alliance around vacuity, refusing to spell out either a vision or a programme, on the grounds — as advised by the ubiquitous pollsters — that he first had to regain his licence to be heard by becoming “not Corbyn”. Hartlepool, eight county councils and 300+ lost council seats was the verdict on that. The leadership style, which tightly controlled the messaging so that no distinctive Shadow Cabinet voices could emerge, and the decision by the Shadow Treasury team to restrain spending commitments, left Labour’s electoral offer empty.

9. To work, in the next 12 months, the leadership needs to spell out a clear political offer, framed around a Biden-style green stimulus, tangible democratic reform and devolution, and the three headings Starmer campaigned on: social, environmental and economic justice. Then it needs to repeat that message — and only that message — in word and deed over and over again until people start to notice. Working would mean regaining polling parity with the Tories, the recovery of Starmer’s personal rating vs Johnson, and tangible advances in the 2022 council elections — not just in the Red Wall but in target seats like Milton Keynes, Swindon South and on Teeside.

10. For the party to function as an alliance, control of the messaging, grassroots activity and candidate selection has to lie with local people — not just activists, but the electoral base. I would immediately survey the 7,000 people we think voted Labour in Hartlepool, asking: what do you want the next Labour candidate to do? Who should it be? What should their platform for Hartlepool be? If the answer is unpalatable to activists in Bristol West, the CLP and the MP there don’t have to take responsibility for it, because they will have a similar level of control over their own messaging. Democracy and grassroots activism are vital if we’re to turn things round: Labour HQ has to support and strengthen everything positive and start communicating, both via the activists and beyond the activists. The typical interaction between Labour HQ and members is negative: don’t do this, don’t say this, don’t select this person. The upcoming conference process will be a major test of whether they’re prepared to allow the party itself to breathe. If they don’t everything will get worse.

11. The biggest concession the left has to make is to allow the socially conservative and economically centrist right of the party to express their values, and the values of their voters, vocally and in plain language. In return, we demand the space to do so ourselves. Concretely, this means: stop telling each other to shut up. By all means express differences, but debate them in the context of a struggle for power which we have to collectively prosecute between now and probably May 2023.

12. The result will be a manifesto, and a government, that is radical on economics and social justice, but traditionally social-democratic on everthing else. That would still be to the left of every Labour government since 1945–51. Even this cannot happen until the Shadow Treasury team takes the brakes off spending commitments. You cannot offer a Biden style stimulus unless you can explain where the money is coming from. In the policy review, the left’s main demand should be the Green Jobs Revolution, or whatever you want to call the Green New Deal to placate social conservatives. The left’s red line should be on immigration. Nobody wants to discuss this, but there is now a points-based migration system, free movement is over — so we need a liberal, open and tolerant reform of that system, not a return to anti-immigration rhetoric and deportations in the Labour vocabulary. Unless Labour has a positive offer on migration, and makes a case for it, the conversations around migration in the target towns will be owned by the right and far right.

13. If you can’t stomach the above, then the only logical step is to move straight to the Progressive Alliance/PR strategy. But in all circumstances it is sensible to lay the basis for a Progressive Alliance. First, because of Scotland. If Sturgeon goes straight for a referendum, the next general election will be held either just before, or just after that. It will be dominated by yet another culture war issue: defending the Union. The same electoral arithmetic that finished Ed Miliband would then operate: “Labour can only govern in coalition with a party that wants to destroy our country” — and all the “Russian agent/ unpatriotic” slanders against Corbyn would then be deployed against Starmer. Secondly, because the Green advance is just as real, and driven by demographics and identity, as the Tory advance in the Red Wall. The Greens are not going away; young voters have no residual loyalty to Labour; and Green candidates are entirely capable of turning the screw on Labour in places like Sheffield and Bristol as they did in Stroud.

14. The first building block of a Progressive Alliance needs to be a formal Red-Green liaison committee, empowered by the apparatus of both parties, to negotiate a Westminster-only electoral pact, and in advance of it a non-aggression pact — ie stop criticising each other and using tribal tactics against each other. As I’ve argued repeatedly, this should lead to Caroline Lucas MP being invited to the Shadow Cabinet, and an invitation to the Greens to observe Labour conference. But the most important institutions are going to be local, grassroots networks and committees, such as the ones where — in places I will not name — Labour, Libdem and Green activists divided up council target seats in the 6 May campaign.

15. Meanwhile the next-generation left needs to get organised. Even the Tories can be deposed, values-defined politics are still the future, and constitutional reform is inevitable. If we end up operating under a PR system, minus Scotland, with powerful English regional governments in 10 years, time, who would want to be on a list system controlled by the Labour right? Unless the rising generation of young working class people find a voice within the Labour left, they’ll find it somewhere else. This means being on the streets, organising at the grassroots, and representing their values, even as they come under attack for — as Khalid Mahmood memorably put it — “walking around with their laptops and sitting down wherever”. You can do a lot by making alliances with people who don’t share your values; you can do nothing without the people you’re supposed to represent. I don’t know whether the Socialist Campaign Group is the vehicle for the kind of left we need to create. If, between Momentum, TWT, Labour for a Green New Deal and the unions we can found a single left tendency under the control of its members, rather than a set of MPs who don’t seem to have a common purpose, and no clear alternative leadership figure, that might be a better solution.

16. Over the past few days, for the first time, I’ve heard journalists and seasoned activists begin to think the unthinkable: that we’re seeing the end of Labour as a viable tradition and institution, and its fragmentation into its constituent parts. All the actions I am proposing are premised on that being reversible, or remediable in the next three years: through the reconstitution of a common Labour identity in England, in the same way as it exists in Wales. The key is a clear, detailed programme for government, focused on green investment, democratisation and social justice, while allowing the socially liberal and socially conservative wings to own their own parts of the messaging. It will only be created if tens of thousands of people actively create it — both in party meetings (remember them?), demonstrations, strikes etc, but also in the mass cultural life of the places we represent. This cannot be “one more heave” — the dirge of Labourism that did for Miliband, Corbyn and the May election effort. It has to be a profound change — it will feel like the “refoundation” Neal Lawson argues for.

17. But if it doesn’t work, look to Germany/Spain as the best-case scenario for Labour, the Netherlands or France as the worst case scenario. If Labour ceases, for the first time in a century, to be a viable alternative ruling party for the British bourgeoisie, they will create a Democratic Party, or Republique en Marche style alternative. They tried during the summer of 2019, but failed because key Labour rightwingers refused to split. That’s why the left needs to get its ideas, its programme, its alternative media and its leading figures focused on the future, rather than recriminations about 2019.

Comments are open…

Journalist, writer and film-maker. Former economics editor at BBC Newsnight. Author of How To Stop Fascism, published May 2021.

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