In the second of a pair of short essays on the state of the party, Kevin Meagher casts a critical eye over the state of the Labour Left.
When did unpopularity and electoral failure become synonymous with the Left? On the face of it, seeking to level-up the world for those who get a rough deal should commend left-wing solutions to millions – tens of millions – of voters who, well, get a rough deal.
So why does it never turn out that way? Why is Labour languishing at 24 per cent in the polls? Why is Jeremy Corbyn less popular than the Black Death? Or Leicester City’s board?
The Labour Leader’s relaunch, much talked about at the start of the year, came to a juddering halt in the cold, wintry lanes of Copeland last week. A Labour seat, made up of workers in a heavily-unionised industry, left Jeremy Corbyn high and dry.
Of course, it was the nuclear industry, so it didn’t help that he’s implacably opposed to how so many of the voters there make a living.
Ah, but what about Stoke? Labour held on there.
Fair enough, Labour is still capable of holding some of its safest seats. But what Stoke showed is that White working-class voters in ‘drive past’ towns are loyal in their bones and will not readily abandon Labour, despite the endless provocations from the liberal-left that they are all ignorant, Brexit-voting racists.
Jeremy Corbyn’s basic problem is that he’s an unpopular populist. Yes, he leads a remarkable grassroots insurgency in the Labour party, but it is illusory in its size and impact. Constituency parties may be overrun with super-earnest teenage trots breathlessly quoting Owen Jones, or men in their fifties with slogans on their t-shirts, but, demonstrably, the country is not getting more left wing.
Trade union membership is stagnant and in long term decline. The liberal-left media is in a parlous state. The Guardian is broke. The Independent, online only these days, is a click-baiting imitation of its former self.
As ever, social media has a lot to answer for. There are no more hard lefties than there ever were. They just congregate and collaborate on social media a lot easier than they could in person.
They want to believe the country is rising up against austerity and for socialism, (often, I would readily concede, for commendable motives), but it just isn’t. Neither is there a breakthrough moment in prospect. Just look at the state of the polls.
Labour is flat on its arse. As the pollster James Morris wrote in The Guardian the other day:
‘After seven years of Tory austerity, Labour is 15 points behind the Tories among working-class likely voters, having been ahead in 2015.’
The party now has the distinction of lagging behind among every group of voter and in every part of the country. Quite some achievement to alienate almost everyone, everywhere.
Labour will find out the hard way just how resilient the British political system is. It bends occasionally, but springs back into familiar shape. There are always enough people who manage to vote out of self-interest to see that a government gets put in place.
The only stimulus to this settled order of things would be if the disillusioned millions, for whom politics-as-usual does not serve their purposes, stirred themselves and voted for their own self-interest.
The sink estates. The disaffected young. The poor and struggling. Minorities. Generation Rent.
Until there is compulsory voting and all these groups are given a chip and chair in the British political poker game, nothing will change. If the Left wants a just cause, then this is it. Until then, it indulges in self-delusion.
There are simply too many people coasting along very nicely. While the Just About Managing, or whatever we’re calling them this week, also err towards the devil they know at election time. Just watch them.
There are many thoroughly decent, committed people on the Left who are guilty of nothing more than wanting their politics to mean something.
Of course, nothing should ever be taken away from people who know what it’s like to struggle and whose enthusiasm for Jeremy Corbyn simply reflects their hard lived experiences. When the opportunity finally came along, they got behind him because he offered something different. A return to a familiar, authentic kind of politics.
That explanation does not stretch, however, to the comfortable, educated, middle-class, public sector-working, flat white drinking, virtue-signalling, politically-correct, city-dwelling, low-fi revolutionary Corbynista types with no sense of the real mood of the country beyond the confines of their local Guatamalan coffee shop or Vietnamese canteen.
Their politics is synthetic. They live in an echo chamber, only ever mixing with people as out of touch as themselves. They include the purists and ideological tourists who have passed through the Greens and the Liberal Democrats on their way to Corbynite Labour.
They join those wearying old delusionists who still seem themselves as the vanguard of the proletariat. The well-heeled bien pensant Left that can afford to dabble in politics, while sending their kids to private schools.
What’s most galling, however, is the casual dismissal of the basic disciplines of democratic politics. Electoral performance. Media profile. Party discipline. Key messaging. Popular policies. None of them are needed if you douse your rhetoric with references to ‘neo-liberalism’ (bad) and ‘socialism’ (good).
Corbyn’s speeches are written by numbers. ‘It’s not right, that in a country as rich as this we have [INSERT ISSUE OF THE DAY]’. What’s always missing is a single credible, costed or workable suggestion about how the issue at hand should be addressed.
The lack of serious, grown-up thinking coming out of the Labour leadership is astonishing. The cupboard really is bare. There are no weighty speeches (or, frankly, unweighty ones). No books, pamphlets, ideas, or even a consistent train of thought. All we are given are slogans and posturing.
Corbyn needed intellectual outriders with a compelling, modern take on the world. He needed to show the Left was relevant to the problems of the age. What we get is Diane Abbott pushing open-door mass immigration at every opportunity and Shami Chakrabarti trying to make it Labour policy to allow criminals access to their mobile phones in prison.
This is not a modern Left with a new and compelling take on the 2008 crash, or how to build social solidarity in a rapidly atomising society. It is backward-looking; a nostalgic spasm. A return to the failed, dog-eared playbook of the London Left, circa 1980.
Perhaps the absence of big ideas wouldn’t be so obvious if there was some basic competence on display, but this is the most shaming failure of all. Objectively, it is entirely legitimate to accuse Jeremy Corbyn of having no political strategy – whatsoever – for securing a general election victory in 2020.
There is no plan for winning back Scotland. Or holding the heartland seats. Or appealing to the south. Or winning marginals. Instead, we get ‘build it and they will come’. Labour is currently dead-set on a collision with electoral reality in 2020, from which it may never recover. The lack of urgency is appalling. While the Left’s basic equivocation about winning is sheer madness.
Defeat in 2020, seemingly inexorable now, will either destroy the left – perennially thereafter regarded as cranks and losers – or it will lead to a breakaway and the formation of a new centrist party.
Real Labour people should be appalled at both prospects.
There is room in a properly balanced Labour party for a range of views. There are decent people on the Left with things to say that are worth hearing and engaging with. Many people have their hearts in the right place, even, if I may respectfully suggest, their heads are not. The same is, of course, true of many neo-Blairites, (with whom I also instinctively disagree on much).
If this grand old party is truly to sink in 2020, people like me will remain standing on the deck and go down with it. I am a democratic socialist, not a progressive centrist.
But I will, metaphorically, grab the nearest lefty’s lapels and scream in their face: ‘I told you so, you bloody idiot.’
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Uncut