by Samuel Dale
Last summer, Labour Uncut ran a series about telling ten hard truths for the Labour party after an epic election defeat in May 2015.
Those were the days. Remember Andy Burnham giving his opening leadership speech at Ernst & Young and talking about attracting business support? Or Liz Kendall and Yvette Cooper fighting over who could say aspiration the most times in a speech?
For a few heady days in May, we were all Blairites. An incredible 12 months in Labour politics has passed and it is time to tell 10 hard truths to Labour moderates about our role in the party.
1. Jeremy Corbyn won because Labour members backed him. Corbyn currently appears to have the overwhelming support of Labour members, not to mention affiliated and registered supporters. In fact, he is one of the most popular leaders the party has ever had among its membership. The only realistic route to removing Corbyn is persuading these members that there is a better alternative. Telling them they are clowns or morons (as I have done many times) is self-indulgent and clearly unpersuasive.
2. Momentum have out-organised the Labour right. Last summer, the Corbyn campaign signed up 88,449 registered supporters paying £3 each to vote for him. That was a huge effort of organization and political skill. Without those registered supporters then the vote would have gone into a second round and anything could have happened. This year’s election has been an even bigger effort with an estimated 150,000 registered supporters signed up in the last 48 hours. Some will be moderates for Saving Labour but it seems likely that most will be Corbynistas.
3. Corbyn’s successor will be very, very left-wing. The membership revolution in the Labour party means the next leader will be very left wing. More left-wing than Ed Miliband. Corbyn has significantly, and perhaps permanently, dragged the party leftwards and that will be his crowning legacy. The next leadership election will be run by triangulating between the ideas of Corbyn and Miliband, not Miliband and Cameron.
4. Corbyn has inspired hundreds of thousands. The Labour party now has more than 600,000 members, nearly four times as many as the Conservatives. This is a big achievement and clearly Corbyn is partly seen as an inspirational leader and a symbol of a more hopeful politics. Moderates can’t mimic the politics but they must learn to show an inspiring vision to change modern Britain. Blair did it in the late 1990s, not because he was seen as a flaccid centrist but as a radical inspiring liberal leader. In changed circumstances, the same rules apply to winning Labour leadership elections.
5. Labour MPs will likely face re-selection battles. The Conservatives will ram through their boundary changes during this parliament and it will give the hard left the chance they have always wanted. They will be able to fight hundreds of primary campaigns against sitting Labour MPs as well as future candidates. Mandatory re-selections (or primaries) have been a disaster in the US where politicians are forced to fight off any party challengers before turning to the electorate at large. They have fuelled the rise of the Tea Party and far right and added an unpredictable and centrifugal effect to US politics. It is not a process that favours moderate candidates.
6. Creating a new party is seductive but self-destructive. A new SDP would deliver the Conservatives into government for the next 15 years. It would be impossible to build a new party and organization in time for the next election so the Tories would win easily. Under our electoral system then it could even allow Ukip or Tories to come through the middle to win extra seats. The collective seats of left-wing parties would be lower in 2020 than it is today. Labour under Corbyn would win more seats than any new party. A new SDP would become the equivalent of the Lib Dems with a ceiling of 60 to 100 seats even in 2025. The Tories will be the permanent lead party of government until Labour gets its act together. We should be in the party for when it does. Splits are seductive but futile.
7. Anti-establishment politics is the new norm. Immigration was the scapegoat and driving force behind Brexit but wage stagnation, economic disparity and distrust of political elites were the causes. It remains to be seen whether general elections can be won on this basis but Brexit and the rise of the SNP and Ukip suggest it is a important driving force. Any Labour moderate must recognise the anger and try to provide policy solutions through tax and spending solutions and political reform. It cannot be dismissed or ignored.
8. Blair did not do enough to tackle inequality. The Blair and Brown governments were too focused on creating a growing economy and maintaining market and electoral fiscal credibility. There was no mission to drive out inequality of outcomes in all its guises. Changes to welfare were significant and helpful to the cause but did not go far enough. There was no attempt to redistribute on a larger scale through wealth or property taxes, for example. For all its many successes, it was too timid from 1997 and 2010.
9. Blair was far too timid in winning social democratic arguments. Tony Blair transformed the size and nature of the British state through the minimum wage, tax credits and billions in NHS investment. But he never made the full-throated arguments for a larger more active state. Only once – in the 2002 budget – did Labour launch a national debate over a 1% increase in National Insurance to fund NHS spending. And this was small beer. After 2001, Blair and Brown should have been winning arguments and changing Britain’s soul rather than through stealth taxes and silent spending and welfare reforms. It should have welcomed big arguments more often, and won them.
10. It is a long road back to a liberal, centrist Labour government. I have been tempted by the argument that if only we could remove Corbyn then we will immediately have a chance to govern again soon. But that is fantasy. The rise of the SNP shows no sign of dissipating while boundary changes will make the mountain even steeper to climb. Ukip is genuinely challenging the party in its northern heartlands and Wales, and it could be re-invigorated under a new, less bombastic leader. The Lib Dems could win voters back from a more left-wing Labour in their millions. These are structural problems for the next election that will not be immediately undone if we remove Corbyn. It is a long road back for a liberal centrist Labour party in government. Settle down for hard slog.
Sam Dale is a financial and political journalist