Political parties can and do die. The Whigs of the 19th-century United States and the Progressive Conservative Party of 20th-century Canada were once major forces; today they are no more. Once-mighty Pasok in Greece is today on the critically-endangered list, and the hollowed-out French Socialists could soon head that way too (see Lucy Wadham).
Such talk might sound fanciful when applied to the Labour Party, especially after a bungled Conservative budget. It still runs the big cities, retains over 200 MPs, and has recently doubled its membership. The unremittingly dreadful polls are not on their own enough to start reading Labour’s last rites, not even after those polls translated into dire totals of real votes at two recent by-elections, one of which—Copeland—was arguably the worst defeat for an official opposition at the hands of the government since the 1870s.
No, the real reason to think Labour could die is that it is beset by contradictions. The MPs and the members take polar opposite views of their leader. More fundamentally, the old alliance between socially conservative working class voters and educated, cosmopolitans in the big cities is coming unstuck. Then there is the divide along Hadrian’s Wall: the death certificate for Scottish Labour is already half-written.
It is not the place of Prospect, whose readers come from all parties and none, to take sides in Labour’s internal feuds. But we can’t help but observe the evidence that Jeremy Corbyn is leading the party towards a crushing defeat, or indeed the reality that very many MPs never gave him a chance. Too few of them stopped to notice that New Labour had been intellectually bankrupted by Iraq and the financial crisis. The Corbyn left, meanwhile, has abjectly failed to translate its twin slogans—anti-austerity and anti-imperialism—into a real programme of any sort.
These failures matter. They matter most obviously to people who care about Labour achievements like the NHS—where, as Nicholas Timmins writes, the money is falling further short of expectations than ever before. Progressive opposition matters, too, for state education: the Budget confirmed that very scarce resources will now be diverted into new grammar schools, which all the evidence says will inflame class divisions. But a functioning opposition matters to concerned citizens on the right as well as the left—for if power corrupts, unopposed power corrupts absolutely.
So it is crucial to reckon with the root of Labour’s rot. Ross McKibbin magisterially surveys the myriad ways in which Britain has changed since the 1950s, and argues that the party’s failure to respond has left it on a slow—and occasionally interrupted—slide for the last two-thirds of a century. But Corbyn’s leadership, he says, is so ruinously compounding the underlying problems that the MPs must walk away.
This is a breathtaking verdict from a historian of the left, who was often scornful of New Labour. I’m more inclined to agree with John Curtice that such a division could actually aggravate the Left’s electoral plight. But even if Labour must muddle through organisationally, it cannot do so intellectually. Both Lisa Nandy and Maurice Glasman offer some pointers to what real renewal might involve.