by David Butler
Saturday September 12th was perhaps the worst internal defeat ever suffered by the Labour right. The scale of Corbyn’s victory was as vast as it was stunning. To recover, the Labour right must rediscover a clarity of mission and craft a new story to tell the party and the country.
This defeat was worse than Michael Foot’s victory in 1980 and the internal setbacks of the late 70s and early 80s. Foot was picked by a divided and fearful PLP. A minority of ideologically uncompromising activists drove the Bennite surge. Corbyn’s victory was, by contrast, a popular one; the Party’s members, supporters and affiliates dealt the blow.
Like the Liberals in 1906, this may be a victory from which the left of the party never recovers. Yet Corbyn’s failure, if that occurs, will not be sufficient to win back the hearts and minds of the party faithful.
Phil Collins argued that internal regeneration has three parts: intellectual, organisational, and personal. Intellectual renewal precedes the latter two. This involves not just reflecting upon ideology but also the strategic context that Labour operates within. Critically, it is also about finding a new clarity of mission.
The leadership election had a clear message: dry arguments about process, policy and electability are not enough to win. Too much time spent on these and too little time on developing a vision cursed the three moderate candidates in the race. The candidates of the right, unfairly or otherwise, came across as hollow.
A clarity of mission should be central to the story that the Labour right tell the party and the country. A definitive purpose is a pre-requisite for victory. it should be one of what Matthew Taylor of the RSA called “design principles” for policy and institutions.
Mission was at the heart of New Labour’s success. Early New Labour was about the renewal of our country as it entered the twenty-first century. The stale Tories could not do the modernisation of Britain; only the young, hopeful and thoroughly modern Labour Party could.
Republicanism* (or powerful freedom to use Anthony Painter’s phrase) should inspired this new clarity of mission. Central to republicanism is a single notion: that true freedom consists of non-domination – the absence of others exercising arbitrary power over one’s life. A republican approach seeks to expand the ability of people to be architects of their own lives. This is achieved through the development of what Amartya Sen called “capabilities”.
In practical terms, republicanism involves designing policies and constructing institutions – economic, social and political – that expand capabilities, rebalance power in society and reduce coercion.
It is a creed that allows Labour to own the future – embracing individualism and the power and potential of markets and technology – whilst recognising and ameliorating the downsides of rapid social and economic change.
Republican language, speaking to the liberty and dignity of all of individuals, can transform how arid but worthy policies and institutional reforms are framed. Closing the skills gap isn’t just abut boosting growth but about liberating young working class kids from a precarious labour market and the greater autonomy over their lives that these skills offer.
The mission derived from powerful freedom is simple: Labour will give you more power over your life. Labour cannot insulate you from the world but it can give you the tools to survive and prosper. In the words of Roberto Mangabeira Unger, it offers every citizen “a better chance to live a larger life”.
Over the past five years, prominent figures within the party, not exclusively of the right, have embraced republicanism. Jon Cruddas, in his RSA lecture, argued the task of politics is to empower “individuals and their families, in the work they do and in the places they live”. In the Purple Book, talk of Sen’s “capabilities” concept could be found throughout. Liz Kendall’s leadership campaign also had republican themes. However, this spirit was not the dominant story of her campaign and she was too easily typecast as a Blairite caricature.
Finding a new clarity of mission is just the beginning. It is a necessary but not sufficient part of intellectual renewal. It does not tackle the organisational nor the personal renewal needed. However, without this new mission, risks the same failure happening again. Republicanism can be the foundation stone for rebuilding.
*a distinct doctrine from anti-monarchism
David Butler is a Labour activist