Neal Lawson: Labour is stuck but the people who want to leap to a new politics are scattered across the party

Neal Lawson


Dear Labour,

B.B. (Before Brexit), I started writing constructively critical letters to other progressive parties; the Greens, the SNP and the Liberal Democrats. You can find them here.  The reason was frustration about their lack of strategic direction and the structural weaknesses of all of them. And now we get to my own party – Labour. Where to start?

Let’s go with the flow and take the leadership election as the way in and this opening observation; the answer to Labour’s existential crisis does not lie on the leadership ballot paper.  Yes, people will make a least-worst-case choice but neither Owen nor Jeremy will succeed if we define success as a real and lasting shift in power from the few to the many. That isn’t because they don’t mean well or try hard, but because despite their different approaches, neither of them understands how transformative change happens in the 21st century.

Let’s start with Owen Smith because the analysis is easier. It seems to me that what Owen and his campaign represent is the desire to turn back the clock to a mythical soft-left moment that never really existed – and probably never will. Put simply, if Ed Miliband couldn’t secure victory in 2015, before Brexit and before the rise of Corbynism and the meltdown of Labour – how on earth do we expect Owen to do it now – a left-wing version of Ed whom most people hadn’t heard of two weeks ago? This is tough I know, but Owen has never said or done anything that suggests that he understands the global crisis of social democracy or the particular meltdown the UK is experiencing.  Where are the books, pamphlets, speeches, articles – where are the campaigns and the movement building which would begin to show he is offering something more than merely an echo of previous failures? If you want to lead a party out of an existential crisis then you must have the experience and the plan.   The party has to stop pretending that its saviours simply exist within its ranks and that all we have to do is elect the ‘right’ person. It’s not that what Owen says isn’t in part attractive, it’s that he has little idea how to make it happen.

Here Labour is hidebound by the “1945 Myth” that all transformation took then was a few good leaders – Clement Attlee and the rest.  But 1945 was based on a 100-year conversation between socialists and liberals and on the most incredible rich cultural, intellectual and organisational basis.  And it rested more than anything on the strength of the working class, the experience of the war and the presence of the Soviet Union, the fear of which brought employers to the bargaining table and combined to make the post-war settlement within the nation possible. But all that has gone and has been replaced by globalization, financialisation, consumerisation and individualisation.  How on earth do we expect Owen to deal with all that – without the strategy, forces, ideas, narratives, networks, global alliances and movements that such a moment demands as a minimum?

In the corners of our minds we remember 1997 and some of us still hope against hope that we could at least get back to then. OK it wasn’t exactly perfect but at least the party won elections! But New Labour was a once-only move, made possible by the desperation of 18 years of Tory rule, the absence of any electoral opposition on Labour’s left and an unprecedented 60 consecutive quarters of growth which meant it could paper over the cracks of a failing economy and democracy. The roof was always going to fall in and it did.  The social divisions opened up make a return to such a centrist big tent approach simply impossible – both economically and politically. But a soft-left version of such a big tent being offered by Owen is equally misplaced.

After 30 years of neo-liberalism the idea that Labour can simply legislate on high for a new golden era of social democracy is simply fanciful. Owen is swinging to the left to play to the Corbyn gallery – but how will he actually realise these left wing policies – his 20-point plan? Not just how will he persuade the electorate to vote for it, but how will he fend off the national and global forces of neo-liberalism who will look to destroy him at every turn? Again, I ask you to think back to Ed Miliband and what happened to him.  Why will this be any different? It is likely to be even worse. Corbynite policies without any wave of support, only dressed up in a smart suit, is simply the politics of wishful thinking. It is Kinnockism in the 21st century and it is doomed.

So what then of Jeremy Corbyn? The first point is that it is exactly the (inevitable) failure of New Labour and then a soft left version of it that paved the way for the Corbynisation of Labour. Against the backdrop of widening inequality and the marginalization of so many people – Corbynism or something like it was always going to happen – either internally within Labour or externally to try and replace it. Unless and until all of Labour understands the deep-rooted economic, social and cultural reasons for Corbynism then there is no hope for the renewal of the party. Yes Jeremy was an accident, but it was an accident waiting to happen. Even if you replace him – you wont replace the reasons why so many people feel the need for him.   

This time last year I said that I had no illusions in Jeremy but what mattered was the wave, I voted for the wave not the surfer. I stand by that view only, of course, I have fewer illusions now.  Jeremy is a symbol, an avatar, a projection screen for the hope for something better and the fear of something worse.  This is harsh too, but no one with any sense or insight believes he has the leadership skills to craft a majoritarian politics.  But that isn’t the point.  The point is that if the choice is losing by compromises you don’t believe in or losing by following your heart – then it’s an easy choice for the majority of Labour members.  And that choice is likely to prevail. You only beat a wave with a bigger and better wave.  

And at least some of the Corbynites have a semblance of a political plan.  Against the might of the Tory Party, UKIP, the right-wing media, the CBI, the City and the consumer industrial complex that will look to destroy any transformative political project – the only countervailing force they see is a Labour Party of one million members – active in every community.  And the only person who can help Labour recruit a million members is – yes – Jeremy. It’s a plan for change, it’s not a very good one as we shall see, but at least it’s a plan.

The problem with the plan is that it’s essentially a left wing version of what’s been tried and failed before.  This time it is the mobilization of the masses, or at least some of them, in support of a purer PLP that will ensure change happens, largely from above.  And to be fair, the Corbynites are interested in some social movements – but they tend to be the clunkier and more instrumental end of the spectrum – campaigns that get people onto the streets to get better legislation – not social movements that of themselves play a key and leading role in the transformation of society i.e., movements in support of left wing politicians with the right answers. Think Stop the War not Transition Towns. It’s the parliamentary road plus a bit of extra–parliamentary activity.

And while I have much sympathy for Jeremy, under constant attack from the media and his own backbenches, and hopelessly unprepared for the job of leader in anything but the carrier of hope (as vital as that is), at some stage you have break out and offer the possibility of combining power with principle. But there is no sign of either a policy or electoral strategy, no moves to democratise the party and no attempt to build European or global networks for new politics by linking up to the likes of Podemos or the Alternative in Denmark. But there is little point recounting what’s gone wrong in the hope that somehow it will get better.  In my now long experience of them, Leaders come to office pretty fully formed and Jeremy is more fully formed than most.  He will probably win this election, but he will probably not change that much.

Owen wants to take the party back. Jeremy doesn’t know how to take it forward. The Party is stuck. Is there a way out? Only if the Party can find a way to tap into the zeitgeist of the 21st century and help direct the energy, imagination and creativity of a nation that feels the hope and fear, the anxiety and the autonomy of the moment. It is a zeitgeist formed by institutions that are less and less hierarchical and top down, like they were in 1945, and more and more horizontal and bottom up – and therefore, because they are flatter, more amenable to an ethos that is egalitarian and democratic. Everyone can participate and be part of the transformation – but only if we get the politics right.

So the leap for Labour is cultural more than it is organisational or policy based. The leap is to be relieved from the impossible burden of believing that everything rests on Labour’s shoulders – that only one leader and one party can have all the answers and do everything for everyone. The leap is to be free of the myth that we can command and control our way out of inequality.  The leap is from a world of the singular, the centre and the binary to the reality of a world of wonderful and rich complexity that can only be governed by equal complexity, a world in which the future will be negotiated not imposed. The small but telling litmus test to this new politics is this – do you see Caroline Lucas the Green MP as an ally to work with or as enemy to be defeated? Your answer is a clue as to whether Labour is to have a future, or not.

That is why the first port of call on any new journey for Labour must be proportional representation and a progressive alliance of parties and movements – what Compass calls 45 Degree Politics – the meeting point of the vertical and the horizontal – into a force that can make transformative change not just desirable but feasible. It is not the mobilisation of a single party, no matter how big, that will create a good society, but the active participation of a vast swathe of civil society that prefigures and sustains the journey to that society. Labour can either be the biggest tent in a progressive campsite or it can fall to its tribal, arrogant and insular death.  

Just look at the success of Nigel Farage and UKIP.  They never sought office to pull the rusting levers of change – but as a platform to build a movement that inspired an incredible transformation. They won culturally so they could win politically. Labour can be at the helm of a new politics of  parties and movements – or it can hold out – try and go it alone and defy all the trends of the 21st century that are built, not of the rigid factory ethos of the last century, but the fluidity of Facebook that shapes this one. If it fails to leap, Labour will be the Kodak party in a world of Instagram.

There is of course much more to do.  A party that helps shift power to the many from the few will be global in its outlook and heed the warning of Brexit that people want meaning in their life, not just money. It will be fundamentally committed to sustainability, not least because climate change hits the poorest hardest. But more than anything Labour must recognise that the old game is up, that parliament is just one place where power now resides, that pluralism must be embraced as the best way to make and carry out decisions and that everyday democracy is the only tool we have to fix our broken society.  The nation is hungry to hear this and hungrier still to be part of it.

But finally, back to the reality of Labour this summer and the impossible choice facing you on your ballot paper.  If neither Owen nor Jeremy can help make the leap the party needs, then someone else must.  The likely reality of course is not just that Jeremy will win, but that his successor will come from the same vein within the party. But people who want to leap to a new politics are scattered right across Labour, from Jim McMahon, Steve Reed and Jonathon Reynolds, through to Jon Cruddas, Lisa Nandy and Clive Lewis. Can a group like this and more fashion an open, plural, global and local, emotional, feminist and deeply empathetic way of doing politics? Will they dare to remake Labour, not as a voting machine for one heroic leader, but as a platform to help bring a radical and progressive 21st century into being because it allows all of us to create our world collectively? This is Labour’s only hope.

I’m sorry my letter was so long. The problems of the party are so deep and I am merely skimming the surface. The party has been defying gravity for a while – held aloft by a combination of the first past the post electoral which over inflates our MPs – and a working class affinity that has been amazingly loyal – but is no more. The Forward March of Labour was halted many decades ago. The party is now about to fall off the cliff – it must leap. Will it? Will you?

With great affection,


Neal Lawson is chair of Compass

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