The uncredible shrinking party: Labour’s sliding irrelevance

Labour is a shrunken Party. Shrunken not just by objective measures such as seats and vote share, but in clarity and purpose. The dismal scenes of Monday night – in which the Party opted to abstain on the government’s punitive welfare bill on the second reading, prompting a 48-strong rebellion, and allowing a narrative to emerge that Labour was responsible for the bill’s passing – was an indicator of a party stumbling and clutching for political relevance, and becoming deeply polarised in the process.

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This key issue – relevance, or lack of it – has been aptly identified by Tristram Hunt as the core crisis facing Labour. “The speed and rapidity with which we are beginning to be regarded as irrelevant and out of the debate is really terrifying”, he correctly asserts, before advocating about the most irrelevant thing any political movement can do in a major debate over national policy – abstention.

This thought-process is symbolic of the intellectual paralysis Labour suffers from at present; the ‘frank debate’ which has occurred after the election defeat has basically just consisted of dumping high-profile pre-election policies (mansion tax, 50p tax rate, energy price freeze – note: all of which poll incredibly highly with the public). Now, to appear ‘responsible’ we can apparently add tax credits to that list of policy baggage to ditch. This is apparently what constitutes ‘bravery’ and ‘challenging thinking’ in the Labour Party today.

Applying the blow-torch to our policy programme is no unprecedented phenomenon, of course – since the free market triumphalism which followed the fall of the Berlin Wall, centre-left parties across Europe have had to bend to circumstance so as not to break; an altogether understandable and pragmatic venture. Yet the New Labour concessions of the 1990s to the broad contours of Thatcherite political economy were justified precisely so that we could get into government and get the chance to enact the good stuff – specifically, tax credits to alleviate poverty pay. Now we have people advocating the concessions without the good stuff. This is presumably part of the valiant effort to reclaim ‘the centre ground’ – but when a welfare policy introduced by Blair a decade ago finds its greatest present-day defenders in the support base of Jeremy Corbyn, it becomes pretty clear that ‘the centre ground’ in British politics has all the stability of the San Andreas Fault Line. It continues to hurtle to the right in some areas, shoots wildly to the left in others, as this TUC and GQRR election day poll showed – Labour haplessly chasing its perceived epicentre will spell disaster for nation and party.

So as the Tories continue to astonishingly successfully define every public policy debate on their own terms, and in so doing render our solutions and values ‘irresponsible’, our process of ‘renewal’ becomes a continually reductionist project. Desperately narrow conceptions of what constitutes realism hampers Labour, thwarts ambition, and breeds incoherence (crucial to understanding our election defeat). Time for big thinking? Apparently just binning a few ‘anti-business’ policies will suffice. Chucking deckchairs off the Titanic – that could be what the future looks like for Labour.

It is against this hopeless backdrop that the Corbyn phenomenon has exploded, and the welfare bill debacle will surely only exacerbate this further. It is a product of pent-up frustration at the paucity of intellectual courage and debate in the wider party – frustration at a culture of meaningless platitudes and sound bites inadequate for a time of crisis as great as this. Dismissing that huge chunk of membership as simply ‘suicidally inclined’, as John Mcternan sought to do on Tuesday’s Newsnight, is not only unhelpful but deeply counter-productive. Moreover the habit of screaming ‘IT’S 1983’ every time someone challenges the unsustainable and crisis-ridden model of contemporary British capitalism is equally unhelpful and further polarises the debate (not to mention demonstrating a complete lack of awareness of historical context). Thus the Corbyn campaign success is less due to the man himself (who remains a dogmatic and largely unimaginative politician, all things considered) but due to a wider centre-left hopelessly bereft of ideas, and deeply intransigent in its assumptions about what constitutes being ‘responsible’ and ‘electable’. Corbynism fills a vacuum.

Yet patently Jeremy Corbyn is not the answer to Labour’s contemporary woes. Just as the right of the party is defined by the Conservative narrative so too is the Corbynite left. Almost solely focused on the issue of austerity, quantitative levels of public spending have become its new raison d’être. All is negation. The unhelpful dichotomies stacked up between ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ austerity within Labour simply continues to define political debate on Conservative terms – I don’t want the right to define what the point of the left is. After a second Conservative election victory, evidence that this approach is a recipe for new electoral success remains limited in the extreme – the British situation is far from that of Greece or Spain. In short: I don’t believe that Jeremy Corbyn has the right answers to the contemporary ills afflicting British economy and civil society. But Christ, at least he’s offering some.

It would seem therefore that the choice is between capitulation and utter intransigence, a rock and a hard place indeed. But such a fate, though ever-looming, is not inevitable. To properly rebuild we must rid ourselves of our mental demons, firstly by weaning ourselves off the false dichotomies which paralyse us as a party – New Labour versus Old Labour, pro-austerity versus anti-austerity, 1983 versus 1997. We must refuse to conform to the Conservative narrative and develop our own. We must shun the crippling intellectual timidity which hampers our ability to carve out a coherent narrative and challenge the basic premises on which the government relies. This cannot just be about quantitative levels of public spending, but about a politics of the common good, building a moral economy, and speaking a language of civic patriotism and national renewal – all the while spreading wealth and power in society to the many. Then maybe, just maybe, we’ll avoid political extinction and reshape our country once more.

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