The Progressive Dilemma remains – only sharpened

by Jonathan Todd

The reshuffle has done little to dampen perceptions that Jeremy Corbyn is the most left-wing, pacifist and unbending Labour leader ever. Keir Hardie and George Lansbury might compete. Corbyn, nonetheless, is still the most preeminent such leader since Clement Attlee succeeded Lansbury in 1935.

In this sense, the dilemmas posed by the Corbyn leadership feel uncharted. They portend, however, only a deepening of the British left’s core dilemma.

Throughout the period since Labour overhauled the Liberals as part of the duopoly of UK politics, as David Marquand wrote in the second edition of The Progressive Dilemma (1999), “apart from a brief period in the early 1980s, Labour was strong enough to prevent anyone else offering a serious challenge to the Conservatives, but too weak to make its own challenge effective.”

For all the reshuffle’s sound and fury, this position remains, only painfully deepened. Recent analysis by Glen O’Hara and Adam Boulton suggests that Labour remains too feeble to overhaul the Conservatives, while being too electorally entrenched for anyone else to.

Having waded through the evidence on polling and electoral performance, O’Hara concludes at the Staggers that, “the Party is dicing with a double-digit defeat at the 2020 general election.” Equally, however, as Boulton warns (£) in the Sunday Times, “Labour’s core vote is a lot for Corbyn’s internal opponents to walk away from, as some Bravehearts would like, and to form a new party”.

 “The two-party system which prevailed from 1868 to 1918 – the system of Conservatives versus Liberals – produced a total of twenty-seven years of Conservative or Conservative-dominated government, against twenty-three of Liberal,” observed Marquand in the late 1990s. “Conservative or predominately Conservative governments have been in office for fifty of the seventy-odd years since the Labour party first became the official opposition in the House of Commons … Liberal England may have died, but Labour England has failed to be born.”

Throughout these years of Conservative government, Labour has been reduced to wondering, “why must we endure this?”

We’ve looked at Conservative prime ministers, as we now contemplate at David Cameron, and seen them to be demonstrably failing to address the country’s problems. We’ve wondered why our fellow citizens appear unable to see this. We’ve blamed them. And we’ve castigated the media. False consciousness and vast right-wing conspiracies.

But a century’s bitter experience might cause us to look closer to home. In the years since Marquand wrote, Tony Blair won two elections and Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband have lost once apiece; Labour Scotland has turned to SNP Scotland; and if the trends identified by O’Hara persist, it is hard to see a Labour government before 2030, as the 2020 defeat will be too catastrophic for Labour to recover from in one parliament.

This will continue to be George Osborne’s country, which we’ll just live in, with Labour England unborn around us. The new dawn won’t break for the same reason that it hasn’t broken before. Labour retains enough of what was once Liberal England to remain the dominant anti-Conservative force, while not sufficiently securing the descendents of Liberal England – the chapel-goers and small shopkeepers of a century ago are the great grandparents of today’s social entrepreneurs and business innovators – to electorally triumph over the Conservatives as consistently as the Liberals once did.

There is a decent argument, which Phil Collins has advanced in Prospect, that both the Conservatives and Labour are strongest when they tap into the parts of the liberal tradition that sit most easily with them. As Osborne is a Hayekian liberal, Labour might revisit the New Liberalism of LT Hobhouse, an intellectual touchstone to the last Liberal government, providing fertile terrain for contemporary progressive thinking.

Labour governments have always depended upon some form reconciliation between their aims and market machinations. Whether that be Clement Attlee’s calm reassurance, Harold Wilson’s white heat of technology, or Tony Blair’s prawn cocktail offensive. Revisiting Hobhouse – who, as Marquand put it, sought, “to limit the rights and extend the obligations of property, not expropriate the property owner”; the social market, not grasping state socialism – may provide a new reconciliation in tune with generation rent’s gig economy and compelling enough to both give shape and form to a new social democracy and more fully capture Liberal England than Labour has previously managed.

It would amount to more than the moaning that John Harris in the Guardian contests is all Labour moderates now offer. As moderates seek to be a constructive force, we would be aided by reconceptualising the Corbyn era not as a wholly changed challenge but a hardening of the progressive dilemma that has hung over Labour for approaching one hundred years.

Labour’s long-term aim – and it may take to 2030 or beyond – should be to finally resolve this dilemma. Moderates must keep an eye on this long-term prize, while engaging in the ducking and diving that short-term political expediency requires. This prize comes most clearly into view in policy areas that form the UK’s institutional structures: the constitution, the electoral system, corporate law, the balance of powers between national and local government, and responsibilities between the state and civic society.

While it is hard to feel that the reshuffle was the forceps of the long-delayed Labour England, these dry debates may be.

Jonathan Todd is Deputy Editor of Labour Uncut

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17 Responses to “The Progressive Dilemma remains – only sharpened”

  1. Robert says:

    A sensible article. Of course, the progressive dilemma would largely be resolved by electoral reform. Progressive parties would be able to compete against each other without splitting the anti-Conservative vote. We should not fool ourselves, however, the British people would still choose Conservative-led governments about half of the time.

  2. Tafia says:

    Finally the reality is starting to dawn on some people.

    It doesn’t matter who is running Labour or where on the right-left spectrum it positions itself. The Tories are a shoe-in for 2020 and 2025 at least. (*)

    The base mathmatics make it a certainty. Corbyn is a red herring and Corbyn bashing is a waste of effort. Whether he remains leader or not, he will be long cold in his grave before there is another Labour PM.

    You have lost Scotland probably for good but definately for at least a generation – even your own Scottish Leader says the position is all but hopeless unless Labour Scotland becomes a totally separate party and do not look to London. Wales was wobbling long term but seems to have firmed and recovered slightly since Corbyn came to power – probably because Wales is far more left leaning than England. And in England the boundary changes that will be in place for 2020 do not favour Labour in the slightest.

    Stop banging on about Corbyn – that is not where the problem is.

    (* Back before GE2010, a couple of years before, I bet a tenner on the tories being the largest party at 20-1. I won. I immediately bet the lot on the tories winning with a majority in 2015 at 5-1. I won again. All £1000 was put on the tories winning with a larger majority in 2020, before Corbyn was even nominated. It’s been blatantly obvious since the slide started just before Blair threw his hand in.)

  3. Anne says:

    When I first read this piece last night I felt very sad and I decided I would no longer write any comments on uncut but having had a good nights sleep I feel renewed.
    From reading what Jonathan has written my conclusion is that everything has its time and change is with us constantly, not always for the good. The Liberal Party had its day and ten years ago who would have predicted the Conservatives would be as dominant. Nicola Sturgeon took Labours clothes and crafted them into her image and in so doing created a brand popular with the Scotish electorate. I believe many vote for Nicola, not because they want independence but because they see her as giving them the best for their families. Corbyn is creating a party in his image – ignoring advice to include the moderates, and one which is not appealing to those who could be termed centralist thinkers. The centre ground in British politics is now vacant. We could do as Jonathan suggests and wait 20 years to have any real say in World politics or we could move with the times and creat a new Centralist Party . One which takes the good parts from the Conservatives and Labour. It will be difficult but surely better than sitting on our hands and doing nothing with the hope that things will get better.

  4. paul barker says:

    All very clever but you give no evidence that The Left would be in any way interested.
    You set out 2 alternatives for Centrist Labour but there are 2 more. Labour Centrists could simply join The Libdems, that has the advantage of being something anyone can do, it requires no organisation or funding, just a decision.
    Alternatively, with a majority of The PLP the Centrists can simply declare that they are “Labour”, with the sole right to stand candidates under the Labour name. That would end in the Courts I suppose but The PLP would have a good case.
    Whatever Labour Centrists do they should do it soon, your position gets weaker with every battle avoided.

  5. Tafia says:

    It’s the story that keeps on giving and is not going to go away.

    ‘This week’ referred to is literally the last few days.

    Simon Danczuk, the Labour MP facing demands to step down after sending sex texts to a 17 year-old, asked the girl to meet him this week for a coffee.
    The teenager, now 18, received a message from the Rochdale MP in which Mr Danczuk claimed she would be paid a fee if a media agency was allowed to take photos of the pair together.

    He attempted to persuade her by saying the meeting “would help me and it would be nice for us to be on a civil-friendly footing”.

    In a series of messages sent on Wednesday night Mr Danczuk wrote: “Come on, let’s do this first meeting . . . it’ll actually be funny!
    “It sounds like a good idea to me, think they’ll pay you a fee etc take photos.”

    It’s not over yet folks, not by a long chalk.

  6. Delta says:

    So in other words you will hide until the Party becomes a prospect for victory again and then seize the “prize”. or hope that in the limited gene pool of MPs once will emerge who isn’t a complete loss who can hold a salient argument that will be accepted by the Lefties who will fail to achieve anything of note in practical politics.

    Noble choice 🙂

    I made the right move in leaving you fools.

  7. Mike Homfray says:

    The problem is that those on the socialist Left are definitively NOT liberals. The issues where the left have dominated and convinced now means that the Tories no longer wish to persecute gay people or other minorities, and so this culktural liberalism which was at one time associated with the left has now been accepted across the board
    That leaves far more divisive issues such as foreign and defence policy, and economic policy, where there are very clear differences between liberals and socialists. You rightly point out that Osborne is a metropolitan liberal, but it is the neo-liberalism of his economic views which repels socialists, and I cannot see an attempt to relaunch Hobhouseian new liberalism as something to unite Labour’s left and right. Indeed, neither really agree with it. Blairites are much more pro-market and classically liberal but also tend towards the authoritarian. The socialist Left finds it insufficiently focused on structural change and collectivism

  8. stan says:

    Minor pont but was it not John Smith who launched the prawn cocktail offensive?

  9. leslie48 says:

    You ignore -There were many reluctant Tory voters this year. They did not like Miliband. This more than any move from Labour. Ed was always the wrong choice in terms of experience, humour, likeability, media presence, not personable ( unlike Cameron, Trudeau or Sturgeon or Boris). Like it not we are in a post-modern age where political ideology and old tribal loyalties are less important to most voters who often vote for the candidate not ideology especially away from Labour heartlands.

    Corbyn and his crew are a back to 1980s re-union party – a Red Ken live again blast off- it will be disastrous for this party as Tony Blair and others suggested it could be mortal.

    What hope perhaps a kind of Dan Jarvis type leading a centre left party which will appeal to unite our society not a left wing attack on the rest of England who from Derby North downwards to the South and East will rush to the polls to defeat the unelectable Hard Left Corbyn mad men waving the little red book and shouting lets leave Nato.

  10. Mike Homfray says:

    Jarvis leading a warmonger centrist party…I’d rather have the Tories. At least they would be honest about what would be delivered.

    Labour is not a centre party.

  11. Tabman says:

    So Labour’s biggest achievement is stopping the Liberal Party from governing whilst being unable to govern by itself.

    That worked well, then.

  12. Smartypants says:

    The problem is not that the public don’t dislike the Tories…

    Blair won a landside or two. Brown and Miliband didn’t. Corbyn won’t. To win in Britain, you have to move to where the public is and that’s not the far left. No matter how pure the socialism of the far left is.

  13. Jonathan Todd said: “it is hard to see a Labour government before 2030, as the 2020 defeat will be too catastrophic for Labour to recover from in one parliament”

    I think it’s far worse than that. Under the new rules which Corbyn will, no doubt, introduce, it’ll be the membership who decide, and that membership is enormously different from the membership who gave more votes to David Miliband than Ed Miliband in 2010. It’ll be even more leftwing than the membership who, even if you disregard the non-member voters, gave Jeremy Corbyn about 50% last summer, because many more leftwingers have joined, and many moderates have left – including some that I’ve chatted with who’ve joined the Lib Dems.

    It’s possible that a Neil Kinnock figure could emerge after defeat in 2020. But I think it’s more likely to be a Michael Foot figure, who will be a step back from Corbynism, but totally unable to reach out to the political centre ground.

    If someone like Michael Foot takes charge in 2020, from the experience of 1979, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if the Tories won three more elections after that, which would take us to through to 2040. From 2015 to 2040, that’d be 25 years of Tory rule, and 30 years since the distant memory of the last Labour government.

    25 years is as good as forever. Many votes will have been born and died. The world and the country will change massively over that period. Surely there must be an alternative way to create a political force that can beat the Tories before then.

    I’m not a Labour member, so maybe you know things I don’t. But ex-Labour people I’ve talked do have been in despair, and believe that Labour is now pretty much lost.

  14. swatantra says:

    I have a feeling that at the end of 3 years JC will become a ‘progressive’ having seen the error of his ways having seen with his own eyes that the leftish policies he is proposing are simply laughed out of court by the rest of the world.
    And there is no better convert than a reformed sinner.

  15. John P Reid says:

    Swat team, you voted for him, and… If you’re wrong?

  16. John P Reid says:

    Mike homfry, if the Labour Party wasn’t war mongering,during World War Two,and wanted to appease the nazis, I’d sooner have the Tories ,too, so would the public,

    but for different reasons to you, they’d want the Tories to fight fascism ,be it National socialism, or islamofascism

  17. Peter Kenny says:

    I love the certainty of people’s predictions about things that are, in some of the posts, 25 years away! It gives your posts their characteristic sheen of patronising arrogance.

    I’m with William Goldman: “no one knows anything”

    So think about all the political and social events no one (or hardly anyone) saw coming – revolutions in eastern europe and the fall of the USSR, hung parliament in 2010, Tory victory in 2015, Irish referendum on gay marriage, 45% for independence in Scotland and then the SNP landslide, the Arab Spring, Galloway winning Bradford, Livingstone winning London as an independent, MPs expenses, Phone Hacking and NoW closing etc etc

    Not to mention Corbyn winning the leadership and the party doubling in size.

    Of course you’re so smart you’ve divined the hidden structures, the mysterious rules that us poor fools can’t see and therefore you “know”.

    You don’t, do you? Neither do I.

    Let’s think about politics in the context of say, another financial crash or a no vote in the EU referendum, or a narrow yes vote, or another independence referendum in Scotland which goes for independence, or the collapse of the euro zone, or a Trump presidency, or an NF presidency in France.

    Some of these are far more likely than others – but you could perhaps take my point – stuff happens, and sometimes, actually quite often, stuff no one expected.

    So for me the question isn’t about “knowing” its about principles – who do you stand with and what for?

    It seems to me that what you’re left with at the moment is little comfort blankets you’re hanging on to: maybe Dan Jarvis, maybe someone else, maybe, maybe.

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