The problem with the Labour Left…

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

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10 Responses to “The problem with the Labour Left…”

  1. nhsgp says:

    ly abandon Labour, despite the endless provocations from the liberal-left that they are all ignorant, Brexit-voting racists.


    The problem for Labour is those voters won’t make the subtle distinction. Why isn’t it the left-left that do the abusing? In my experience that’s where the abuse is coming from.

    After seven years of Tory austerity,

    You left 6 trillion pounds of debts. Between 2005 and 2010 Labour quadrupled the pension debt alone.

    Labour policy to allow criminals access to their mobile phones in prison.

    Amazon will do what she can’t. The world’s smallest mobile, no metal, rounded edges. Goes well with KY jelly according to the reviews.

    Perhaps you’re of the ilk that says pensions aren’t going to be paid so aren’t a debt. Rip the plebs off eh

    Many people have their hearts in the right place

    Correct. Problem is that they haven’t realized that they’ve created the mess. Were’s the wealth for the trillions given to the welfare state for their old age? Spent, by the welfare state. So no assets, massive debts. And it’s not gone to the rich or the banks.

    Redistributed along socialist lines.

    Mr Median has lost well over a million quid.

  2. buttley says:

    So Kevin’s big ideas are compulsory voting, and being tougher on prisoners, with phones.

    Maybe in Kevin’s utopia, we should also incarcerate those who have the temerity not to vote, perhaps on an IPP.

    Inequality plays a massive role in all of this, & closing this gap, would have beneficial effects for all levels & layers of society.

    This is a self interest policy to the majority. Yet one that is an anathema to most politicians.

  3. Anon says:

    Could the Labour party hurry up and die.

    New Labour took a gamble – John McTernan: “The truth is that the white working class are not Labour’s base any more.” Public service apparatchiks, students, and the mass of incomers were going to be New Labour’s base – along with that most potent of sectors, the ‘weaponised’ NHS.

    But even public service apparatchiks have friends and children who are trodden underfoot; and students have seemingly right wing parents and grandparents who can tell of a different tale of Labour’s once-solid relationship with the horny-handed sons of toil.

    This country is divided because Labour sowed the seeds of division; it has told its core vote that they are not really up to the job; that they are lazy and not worth bothering with; and that they should toddle off home with some dole in their pocket, and Labour will bring in replacements to do the work for them.

    Go Labour, for heaven’s, sake get out of our lives. Form a students brigade, or a public service collective; somewhere where we can recognise you for what you are, and be able to not vote for people who basically hate our guts.

    Old, New, or New Old – Labour are doing sod all for the people they were meant to represent.

  4. John P Reid says:

    NHsgp the mobile phones in prison is Shami Chkrabatis policy not labour’s one,as I, sure you know, if someone gets a phone into prison without authorities knowing its against the HRA to take ur off them, and his the prisoner gets it in there, can be described as if it wedged in their body,a warden can’t physically touch them to take it off them

  5. Rob says:

    Labour’s Tory-lite wing is short of ideas. Chuka was on the telly today, for example, talking a lot of spiteful nonsense about immigrants. Is that the best they can do?

  6. John P Reid says:

    Anon, not sure if you’re right, but what you have described was labour core vote for the 2015 election, of which, Ed miliband had made clear at that election we weren’t new labour anymore

  7. Tafia says:

    Old, New, or New Old – Labour are doing sod all for the people they were meant to represent.

    Hear hear.

  8. ad says:

    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.

    Those people already can vote. Non-voters are not dedicated Labour voters who are mysteriously prevented from walking to the polling station by the absense of compulsion: They are mostly people who don’t think there is any important difference between the contending parties, and see no point in walking to the polling station to pick a party at random.

    If they were forced to vote, they would still think there was no important difference between parties, and pick one at random. As witness Australia, which does have compulsary voting, and does not have a permanent Labour government.

  9. Tafia says:

    I am not a fan of compulsory voting however I am a firm believer in compulsory attendance.

    Postal voting should be denied for all but those certified as physically unable to attend a poling station.

    People should be able to vote via a cash point with prior approval and an issued PIN, on an election by election basis. (the technology to do that is not beyond the wit of mankind and banks are more secure than paper in a polling booth) thus enabling them to vote in their constituency/ward from virtually anywhere on earth.

    Polling should be moved to the weekend and run from 1800 Friday night for 48 hours through to 1800 Sunday night.

    Postal voting slips must be returned and if you do not wish to vote, returned ripped in half.

    The remainder then either vote via cash point (pre-arranged) OR attend a polling station and either vote in person or destroy their ballot in person.

    All those attending a polling station must be in possession of verifiabke ID (driving licence, SIA licence, passport etc etc). I personally have seen two people – one in a donald duck outfit and the other in a mickey mouse outfit, complete with matching heads, walk into a polling station, collect their ballot, vote, walk out and not one single official challenged them to even remove the headress.

    National Insurance numbers, NHS numbers, Council Tax records, driving licence details, passport details Home Office ID such as SIA licences etc etc should all feed into the Electoral Register (and likewise out of the electrtoral register and cross referenced)

    Nobody should be forced to vote, but there is no reason why they can’t be forced to attend even if it’s only to destroy their ballot. Likewise there is very little valid reason why people shouldn’t be on the electoral register nor why it shouldn’t be far more accurate than it is.

  10. Steve Jack says:

    Hilarious reading this article now. Its partner piece, The Problem with the Labour Right, largely still holds true, but this piece shows just how utterly wrong and out of touch most so-called experts often are. I trust the author has felt suitably chastened since?

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