Why did the hard left fail?

by Kevin Meagher

The central assumption governing Labour politics for the past five years was that the shift leftwards under Jeremy Corbyn was unassailable. So overwhelming were the numbers of new members, encouraged, enthused and loyal to their man, following his unexpected election as leader in 2015, that control of the party had irrevocably decamped to the left.

Indeed, something had changed at the molecular level.

The creation of Momentum – a left-wing standing army within the party, numbered in the hundreds of thousands and solely dedicated to preserving the Corbyn insurgency – terrified moderate MPs who feared mandatory reselection was coming and with it the invitation to walk the plank, with hard-left activists jeering them on to a watery grave.

Party decision-making and policy formulation would fall into the clutches of a cabal of activists and far left trade unionists, who would then foist a shopping list of doctrinaire policies on the party. Unilateral nuclear disarmament – which had been the pivotal issue in party splits both in the 1950s and 1980s – would again incinerate Labour’s credibility as a party of government.

But the real story of the past five years is that barely a fraction of this supposed horror story ever came true.

Like Gordon Brown in 2007, Jeremy Corbyn had no real idea what he wanted to do with power. Yes, he had a few causes that drove him. Plenty of rhetoric, too. But there was no burning ambition. Still less a grand plan.

Rather than force through mandatory reselection and use his grassroots shock troops to unseat his opponents in the parliamentary party, the reselection process before the last election resulted in few victims.

Yes, Chuka and a few other disgruntled Blairite MPs who had fallen out with their local parties flounced off, but nothing like as serious as the 28 who fled to set up the SDP in 1981. And Corbyn was perfectly within his rights to try and bring some of his own supporters through. All leaders do it.

Whiny Labour MPs who simply didn’t respect his mandate and would never serve on his frontbench, just made a difficult situation worse. Credit therefore goes to the Jon Ashworth’s and John Healey’s and Andrew Gwynne’s for rolling-up their sleeves and serving the party’s broader interest.

Nor did policy drift too far to the fringes.

The cause of nuclear disarmament – once so totemic – seemed to just fall by the wayside. While the manifesto put forward at the 2017 election was merely a dialled-up version of Labour’s position from the early 1990s. A bit of nationalisation here. A bit more spending there. It was a dose of the old religion, but still recognisably social democratic stuff.

Looking back, what is clear is that Corbyn wasn’t really out for a fight; while John McDonnell seemed to revel in a frontbench role – all bonhomie and constructiveness after a misspent middle-age on the backbenches.

Then Brexit overtook everything. And anti-Semitism. There wasn’t enough oxygen to sustain much else. Like hurricanes that at first seem inexorable; sweeping-up everything in their path, the Corbyn insurgency eventually fizzled out. Without animating ideas or quality people to lead it, it had nowhere to go.

An unprecedented opportunity was fluffed through a lack vision and application as well as a weak officer class of followers, who were simply not capable of playing the fluke hand they had been dealt. Not to mention a retinue of incompetents masquerading as a back office. Stalinists and commies. Hacks from the hard left. To swim against the tide requires exceptional people.

Richard Burgon? Laura Pidcock? Dawn Butler?

Moreover, no succession-planning ever took place. On this, Corbyn was as myopic as Blair. Abbott and McDonnell were both the wrong side of 65. Emily Thornberry and Barry Gardener were fellow travellers, not true believers.  While it now seems laughable to think that in the early days of the leadership contest following December’s defeat that Rebecca Long-Bailey, said to be McDonnell’s protégé, was assumed to be the frontrunner.

A candidate for the leadership who wasn’t even a party member in order to vote in the 2010 contest. Was there really no-one else? It was the equivalent of passing the captain’s armband to the boot cleaner.

So, what is the Labour left’s next move?

Clearly Keir Starmer is not rushing to the centre. His shadow cabinet appointments are cautious. Unobtrusive and mainstream. Clean skins and soft left. Certainly not shock troops for an ideological battle.

What happens next is what always happens on the left. It splits. The younger, more ambition types will jettison Corbyn quicker than you can chant: ‘Oh, Ke-ir Star-mer.’

Guardian columnist Owen Jones is already out of the traps: ‘Starmer has committed to the policies long advocated by the left; and so the left’s role now is to act as the protectors and defenders of those ideas,’ he wrote the other day.

The King is dead. Long live the King.

Following the election defeat Corbyn rued that on austerity, corporate power and inequality ‘we have won the arguments and rewritten the terms of political debate.’ He added that he regretted this did not, however, translate ‘into a parliamentary majority for change.’

The unpopular truth is that, to some degree, he was right. We are currently witnessing the full resources of the state put to work for the common good. By dreaming big enough, he may have helped re-legitimise state activism in British politics. It may yet prove to be quite a legacy.

So, my remarks are not meant as an ad hominem attack on either Corbyn or the left. Yet incompetence deserves criticism, while the unwillingness to drive out anti-Semitism from parts of the party remains an abiding disgrace.

But the Labour party is an ecosystem and under first-past-the-post, where parties are obliged to agglomerate whole tracts of political territory, synthesising various traditions in the process, the left remains an important and vital part of the Labour family.

It merely found itself with an unearned and unexpected opportunity, which it then failed to convert, but in so doing managed to pull the party out of its familiar orbit, losing millions of loyal voters along the way and brought the party to its knees.

That is the story of the past five years. The left had its chance and blew it.

Now it’s time for something else.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Uncut

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4 Responses to “Why did the hard left fail?”

  1. Alf says:

    Labour members are fed up with losing. So why not give the Tory-lite approach another try? It could work this time.

  2. John P Reid says:

    Alf , labour members are fed up with losing! Funny all the Corbynites I know say it was a moral victory in 2019′ or labour won in 2017, and the true believers who’re quitting the party don’t care if labour lose as they’re not in the party anymore

    On a seriousvnot do you think the tories haven’t adopted any socialist pOlivia es in the last 10 years,
    the libdems,in coalition, plus having a libdem for Tory leader with Cameron

    Theresa May’s blue labour speech on b coming PM at Downing Street about the just about managing the left behinds, those witha ethnic minority sounding surname not having as good as others Chance of getting a job at a interview, even if because of implementing the result,she wasn’t really able to implement, excluding the race disparity audit

    Then Boris standing in a red Tory public investment in the anorth manifesto in2019
    Let alone the amount of money we’ll have to borrow and how much money has been thrown at the country in the last 4 weeks,

    When both main parties stood on manifestos to respect The referendum, leave the neo liberal EU in 2017′ was Corbyn Tory lite for having the same policies as the tories?

    Whatever policies Starmer has, the idea just because acorbyn gone ,he’s not a Tory unless the tories become more left wing than Corbyn

  3. @Kevin

    You write as if it’s over for the hard left. Let’s see.

    Some left-wingers believe that coronavirus has changed the political landscape in a way that means that UK politics belongs to the left. However, that’s what they thought after the 2009 financial crisis, and it didn’t work out that way.

    It’s too soon to know how politics will look in 2023-4, but my guess is Labour’s situation will be similar to 1987 – with a Labour party committed to a manifesto that is out of tune with the public, and with a legacy that leaves them distrusted by millions of middle ground voters.

    In order to turn this around, the Labour leadership are going to have to make changes. Changes that will be extremely unpopular with socialists within Labour.

    That will provide an opportunity for the hard left to bounce back. They’ll cry betrayal. And the Labour membership might heed that cry.

    This isn’t over.

    PS Chuka Umunna is not and never has been a Blairite. But I think you know that.

  4. Anne says:

    I think that some things written in this article are correct. I did not like the idea of Momentum – a party within a party – they seemed very fixed and wanted to crush anyone who did not agree with them. There was not enough done on uniting the party. Look – the country has moved on in a way that few people predicted. However, actions have consequences. Because, we in Labour were disjointed we deserved to loose the last election, but it also gave The Tories a big majority and sadly we now have some second rate mps leading the country at this difficult time. The better team is now the shadow cabinet – it is now imperative that Parliament is brought together in some form to allow the Labour mps to have an input. Bye the way an excellent interview with Lisa Nandy on the Andrew Marr Shaw.

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