The party needs a lesson in history more than a new frontmanby John Harris / July 16, 2015 / Leave a comment
After nearly two months of hustings, speeches, and the odd bout of internecine nastiness, it does not feel as if the Labour Party’s contest to pick its new leader is going to start fizzing with ideas and excitement. The result will be announced at a special conference on 12th September in London, whereupon the new leader—in all likelihood, the current Labour health spokesman Andy Burnham, or Yvette Cooper, the Shadow Home Secretary—will stare out at a party still reeling from the disaster of its general election defeat on 7th May. Politics being politics, the new leader will have to gee up his or her troops for the election of 2020, a contest in which Labour will somehow have to win back at least 106 seats to triumph, and which, to judge from Cooper and Burnham’s leadership pitches, it may well fight on a introverted, nostalgic platform.
Of the four candidates for leader who made it over the qualifying threshold (having the support of 35 MPs) the north London MP Jeremy Corbyn is there, according to many of his supporters, to ensure a “proper debate” rather than to win. The noise around his campaign indicates that a good deal of the Labour tribe would rather do anything than stare, unblinking, into the future. You could say the same of Cooper or Burnham, and many of their supporters.
The one candidate bold enough to face the future is Labour’s shadow care spokesperson Liz Kendall, who talks with all the vim and brittle confidence of a contestant in The Apprentice. Kendall is often called a “Blairite,” though she has little of the hopeful, communitarian rhetoric that brought Labour to power nearly 20 years ago. Tony Blair offered a vision of a Britain in which “your child in distress is my child, your parent ill and in pain is my parent, your friend unemployed and helpless is my friend, your neighbour, my neighbour.”
Kendall’s most celebrated quote so far is the observation, taken from the late New Zealand Labour Party leader Norman Kirk, that “what most people want is something to do, somewhere to live, something to look forward to, and someone to love.” That may be true, but it does not amount to much of an animating purpose.
In terms of its eloquence, the best contribution so far was made by a candidate who did not even make it on to the ballot paper. On 20th May, Tristram Hunt, the Shadow Education Secretary, MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central and accomplished historian, gave a speech at Demos, the London-based think tank. “Our recent defeat represents far more than an ordinary electoral or political failure,” he said. “For me, it is a symptom of a profound cultural collapse.” Hunt recounted the industrial history of the city he represents. “We had the pits, the pots, the chapels, the co-ops, the steelworks, the unions, and with all that came the unequivocally progressive politics.” But the chapels had emptied, the working mens’ clubs had closed, and trade union membership was now “close to non-existent in the private sector.” He also mentioned the “weakening of class-based forms of identity when compared to local or national pride,” and concluded: “We have a bigger challenge than electing the correct leader. A bigger challenge than alighting upon the correct electoral strategy. And a bigger challenge than simply rediscovering, in my colleague Andy Burnham’s words, ‘the beating heart of Labour.’”
This challenge goes wide and deep. Globalisation and new technology have caused a revolution in the work people do and in how they perceive their lives. How should the mainstream left respond? At a time when old political allegiances have given way to more fluid identities, how should established centre-left parties organise themselves and speak to the public? If austerity and a future of drastic demographic changes threaten to kill off the idea that progressive politics is largely about public spending, what then?
These questions face parties all over Europe. Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD), which sits in uneasy coalition with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), seems unable to push beyond 25 per cent of the vote. In France, although François Hollande briefly found his voice in the wake of the Charlie Hebdoterrorist attack, his presidency has revived a statist politics that feels woefully dated.
Across Europe, the centre left is struggling, from Spain and Portugal to the Netherlands, and the supposed heartlands of Scandinavia, where Denmark’s Social Democrats recently lost office thanks to a surge of support for the right-populist Danish People’s Party. Sweden may still sit in the centre left’s imagination as an embodiment of near-utopia, but even if that country’s Social Democrats recently took power for the first time in eight years on 31 per cent of the vote, they were already weakened by the Swedish credit crunch and banking crisis of the early 1990s. And they now face an insurgent party of the populist right that is capitalising on anger about immigration.
Elsewhere, the demise of Greece’s Panhellenic Socialist Movement (Pasok) speaks for itself: as the radical left party Syriza has gone from the political margins to the heart of government, in only five years, Pasok’s support has tumbled from 44 per cent to 4.7 per cent. Closer to home, meanwhile, there is Scotland and another vivid example of how the seemingly sudden decline of established parties of the left has become an ingrained trend in modern European politics. As Hunt said of Labour’s predicament, it is rooted not in electoral misjudgements, the qualities of particular leaders, the mislaying of a set of values that might easily be rediscovered or even recent financial earthquakes. Rather, it marks a historical shift that most of the centre left in Europe has yet to understand, let alone respond to.
As strange as it may sound, nearly 30 years ago, some of the first people to grasp what was afoot were communists: more specifically, a group of people clustered around the “Eurocommunist” faction of the Communist Party of Great Britain and the party’s “theoretical journal,” Marxism Today. By the mid-1980s, the journal had become one of the most vibrant outlets for left-wing ideas. In October 1988, it published a celebrated issue based around the arrival of “New Times.” The core idea was taken from the Eurocommunists’ intellectual guru, the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci: that of “Fordism” (as in the mass production pioneer Henry Ford), a political and economic model embodied in giant industrial units, the nation state and left-wing political parties tied to huge social and electoral blocs; and its superseding by the much more volatile realities of “post-Fordism.”
“Flexibility, diversity, differentiation, mobility, communication, decentralisation and internationalisation are in the ascendant,” ran the enthusiastic editorial. Inside, the cultural theorist Stuart Hall wrote about “greater fragmentation and pluralism” and “the weakening of older collective solidarities and block identities”—particularly those of class. The sociologist John Urry examined the way that the postwar economy of mass industrial production was being superseded by “disorganised capitalism. “The growth of the electronic mass media, the disruption of class homogeneous neighbourhoods, and the development of a relatively unattached middle class,” Urry argued, was profoundly transforming politics.
Reading a 450-page “New Times” anthology from 1989, which I recently bought for a pittance on Amazon, it soon became clear that if the phrase “social media” were inserted into in every second or third paragraph, I would essentially be reading about the world of 2015. Since the election, I have been marvelling at its authors’ prescience: predictions of a fragmented politics in which voters would flip between parties at will; the Scottish thinker Tom Nairn’s suggestion that the ruptures of the 1980s might mean that “the very basis of Scottish Labourism is in doubt”; the identification, by several writers, of a new space beyond traditional parties where deep social tensions would be played out.
Though some sneered at these insights, they were built around a truth that too many people on the left still refuse to acknowledge: that many of the changes that were transforming societies and economies were not fundamentally the work of politicians. It was a mistake, for example, to blame Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan for bringing about social change of that depth. But those right-wing leaders did have a grasp of what was happening that appeared to leave the left standing.
It was a delusion to suppose that there was a way back to the idyll of jobs-for-life in which a mass of workers handed their support to leaders who would see them right. From the Europe-wide decline in trade union membership to the fall of the communist bloc, everything seemed to point in a different direction—not away from the centre left’s essential values, necessarily, but away certainly from some of its most basic ideas about what it was and how it operated.
Some of the New Times gospel found its way into New Labour’s early thinking, and the “Third Way” that Blair touted around Europe in the mid-1990s. This was helped by Charlie Leadbeater, the Marxism Today contributor turned Blair advisor, and Geoff Mulgan, another MT alumnus who became a New Labour insider—as well as the former MT Editor Martin Jacques, who worked with Mulgan on the foundation of Demos, for a while New Labour’s favourite think tank. But the Blair and Brown governments seemed to understand too little of what the New Times thesis had said about the state. Though Blair’s devolution of powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland was significant (and, in the case of Scotland, much more so than Labour realised), the party remained wedded to the idea of a passive people being overseen by a bossy, monolithic government (there was perhaps no better illustration of all this than New Labour’s addiction to public sector targets).
In addition, New Labour extended its understanding of globalisation and disorganised capitalism into an insistence that some of the most exploitative aspects of modern economies were non-negotiable. Gordon Brown boasted that the United Kingdom had “the most flexible labour market in Europe” and resisted even the most modest EU regulation of insecure and temporary jobs, an issue which would later fuse with immigration to alienate Labour from a great swathe of its core vote. It was a similar story in Germany. In 2003, the then Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, introduced an array of liberalising measures to labour market regulation and social security benefits known as “Agenda 2010,” and his party also incurred lasting damage. That the measures were widely held to have benefited Germany did not count for much—the SPD’s bond with millions of its supporters was already fraying and the seeds were sown for the formation of a new “Left Party,” Die Linke, four years later.
“In most cases, centre-left parties still cling to the basic model of the postwar state”
Since then, angry populism has arrived at the heart of European politics. Ideas of nation, region and belonging are at the centre of political debate, while challengers on the left have enjoyed success: Syriza, Die Linke, Podemos in Spain, the Scottish National Party and even the English Greens. This political tumult affects the mainstream right too, although the most successful parties, the CDU and the UK Conservatives, are so far riding it out. They have powerful media allies who can make their case, and the confidence that comes from having found a way to use this tide of change to their advantage. The centre left, by comparison, looks feeble, still trapped within the mindset that defined its progress from 1945 until the end of the 1970s.
In most cases, centre-left parties still cling to the basic model of the postwar state. A single party—these days staffed by professionalised politicians who often know little of the people they claim to represent—wins power and uses it to help the grateful recipients of its largesse. Even in countries where coalitions are standard practice, the centre left tends to see pluralism and fragmentation as nuisances to be overcome, rather than things that might enrich its politics.
Labour presents a particularly glaring example. The first past the post voting system (FPTP) has just yielded what the Electoral Reform Society calls “the most disproportionate election in British history” (the Conservatives’ won a majority of seats with the support of only 24 per cent of the entire electorate; while although almost four million people voted for the UK Independence Party, it ended up with a single MP). Yet none of the candidates for the Labour leadership has put forward a proposal to replace it, and the vast majority of their colleagues in the parliamentary party apparently still accept the old argument that FPTP is their surest route to power, and a bulwark against cooperation with other parties—even if, as was the case in 2005, “winning” means getting the support of around a quarter of the electorate. Woe betide even the most humble party activist who threatens this model: witness the recent tale of a certain Mr McLean, a Scottish Labour member who was expelled by a party “compliance officer” for revealing on Twitter that he had voted for the SNP.
Talking to German SPD insiders recently, I was struck by the similarities between their accounts of their party’s recent history and what I hear from some Labour people. In both cases, the shrinking of the traditional working class has left the parties without a dependable base, and the recent desertion of much of their residual core vote to populist parties has jangled nerves further. Trying to sustain their age-old way of working, those at the centre have focused on (or perhaps imagined) new demographic and political categories that might come to their rescue. In the UK, we have heard about “Worcester woman,” “Mondeo man” and, most recently, the fabled “squeezed middle.” In Germany, Schröder came up with the “New Centre” and the SPD’s current leadership talks about the “working middle.” According to the party’s General Secretary, these are “people who work hard, who start families, establish their home, possibly also look after relatives, in whose lives therefore lots of things are happening at the same time.”
If such platitudes ever had any real use, the complexity of modern politics threatens to make them irrelevant. As Labour is starting to realise, fixating in this way on one part of the electorate risks alienating others: perhaps the party’s biggest modern puzzle is how to win the seats it lost in Scotland and at the same time advance again in the English south. Worse still, such language betrays a characteristic of the modern centre left that many of its supporters find distasteful: in place of its old intuitive grasp of “our people,” a patronising conception of the public that makes politicians look like marketing specialists.
All this speaks of a politics that is in a constant state of anxiety, and parties which communicate in a thin, transactional vocabulary (“Vote Labour and win a microwave,” as Ed Miliband’s American adviser David Axelrod witheringly put it). For the established centre-left parties of Britain, Germany and many other countries, an emotive politics of hope, common purpose, shared identity and participation seems to be a vain hope.
The final element of the centre left’s crisis centres on national finances. The vogue for balanced budgets, lately seen in the tactical games played by George Osborne and Angela Merkel’s drive for pan-European fiscal conservatism is one thing. But by 2050, 37 per cent of Europe’s population will be over 60. In May, the European Commission predicted that across the European Union, spending on long-term care would somehow have to increase by 67 per cent before 2060. Whether fairly or not, many people already associate parties of the left with levels of spending that the 2008 crash rendered untenable. The more people come to understand the financial burdens of an ageing society, the more problems these parties will face.
It is no accident that the word “resilience” has entered the modern political vocabulary, particularly at the local level. In 2010, the data company Experian released a “resilience ranking” of English local authority areas that was meant to show their vulnerability to spending cuts. Many councils—including those run by Labour—now habitually use the same word when thinking about how to manage ever-tighter budgets. To some on the left, that might sound like a sign of defeat, but it could also hold out the prospect of political revival.
For millions of people, the world does not look like the stereotypical left-wing meeting, where four people on a platform drone on ad nauseam and there are 10 minutes at the end for questions. It looks like Facebook, where you can move between an ever-changing array of groups and sound off about whatever you fancy. Collective self-organisation and advocacy are an in-built part of this new world, and increasingly run beyond the sharp-elbowed middle classes of media caricature. For instance, there are plenty of parents, from all kinds of backgrounds, whose children have special educational needs and who are organised online and offer mutual assistance and engage in robust campaigning. There are people with manageable illnesses who constantly discuss their care and make their case, as well as an array of other examples, from Mumsnet and Netmums and their locally-based equivalents to a fascinating tangle of networks formed by those at the sharp end of what the government is doing to the benefits system. If such examples seem a world away from the prosaic stuff of politics and government, one small story might point the way ahead: in the small town of Jun in southern Spain a socialist mayor has attempted to put Twitter at the heart of local life, and hailed a victory against “heavy, creaking bureaucracy.”
None of this entails a complete rejection of the social-democratic orthodoxy according to which centre-left governments pull on the levers of power in order to redistribute income and smooth off the rougher edges of the market economy. The central state obviously still has its uses—apart from anything else, one cannot talk meaningfully about redistribution and regulation without it. And any social democracy worthy of the name implies a strong attachment to sustainable welfare states, even if many across Europe are in drastic need of redesign. But among the deep changes the traditional left has not understood is an increasing tendency for people to join together and take action outside the structures of conventional politics or government. In an age of squeezed spending, this is something the centre left could turn to its advantage. But the problem is that it has only just begun to understand such an obvious point.
If the old grassroots have withered, what replaces them? If the age of class consciousness is behind us, might its successor be “civic literacy”—citizens’ understanding of themselves as part of a bigger whole, the idea that collective solutions can be of benefit to individuals? This cuts to the heart of the predicament in which traditional social democracy finds itself. With increasing frequency, centre-left parties are suffering convulsive crises of confidence. In tiny circles at the top, accusations fly of betrayal and sell-out: Liz Kendall and her allies are maligned as “the Blairite Taliban”; the SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel issues a strategy paper slammed by the head of his own party’s youth wing as “security, patriotism and neoliberal recipes… CDU-light.” Other factions claim that traditional values and policies can be kept alive. But right now, who really cares? Unless centre-left parties can root their ideas in society once more, these arguments will increasingly sound like the schisms of increasingly irrelevant sects.
So what to do? As the example of Jun in Spain suggests, part of the answer may be to go back to the kind of grassroots work from which many centre-left parties originally emerged, and learn anew. In the UK, for example, there is growing momentum behind the kind of shared ownership schemes that blur into so-called crowdfunding, whereby local collectives and cooperatives— whose founders often deeply identify with where they live—take control of shops, renewable energy projects, pubs, sports fields, and more. A recent report backed by the Departments of Energy & Climate Change and Communities & Local Government gave a regional breakdown of community share offers between 2009 and 2014. In two of Labour’s more dependable territories, the northeast and London, the numbers were miserable: four and 11 respectively. But in the southwest, where Labour holds only four out of 55 seats, the figure was 70 (in second place was the southeast on 36). The left surely ought to be engaged in exactly this kind of activity; indeed, in its early history, that was pretty much its central mission.
The forces threatening social democracy from the left have a much surer grasp of how to organise from the bottom up. Syriza, for all that it is governed by an old-fashioned central committee, was swept into office by the energy generated by a range of grassroots activity, from self-organised clinics, to food distribution cooperatives and education organisations. Podemos has its “circles,” self-organised groups that exist in many towns and cities and put forward candidates for elections, as well as policies and ideas for manifestos. In Scotland, the SNP might have a reputation for being arrogant and centralising, but its success at the general election was partly built on the grassroots activity sparked by last year’s independence referendum, much of it in the working-class heartlands of the central belt.
Some centre-left politicians occasionally show signs of beginning to understand what all this means. Ed Miliband’s time as Labour leader saw the arrival in his inner circle of the American community organisor Arnie Graf. But his work was short-lived and it was never clear whether he was there to pursue a kind of glorified electioneering or to achieve something more substantial and lasting. In any case, the imperatives of focus groups and voter profiling quickly took over. As part of its campaigning in the German elections of 2013, the SPD encouraged its activists to go out into the field and, as one insider put it, “try to get closer to what people really care about—not to tell them all about our politics, but listen and ask questions.” Yet voters could sense the electoral calculations behind this apparent reaching-out, and were sceptical.
“It could be that social democracy belonged to the 20th century and is beyond help in the 21st.”
If established centre-left parties are to endure—let alone win—they will have to adjust not just to straitened budgets, but also to a new expectation of participation and accountability, and a conception of politics that involves much more than time spent at the political centre in Westminster or Berlin, punctuated by bouts of electioneering. In some of the new social movements, moreover, they might find people more authentic and persuasive than the rather bloodless characters currently at the top of politics.
As my Guardian colleague Zoe Williams recently put it, “the problem with the modern Labour Party is that it can’t conceive of a movement that doesn’t start with a leader.” My guess is that in the UK and elsewhere, the breach between the new world of activism and organisation and the traditional centre left will last a long time, but that eventually it will either be healed or a new left-leaning party, emphasising popular participation and localism, will emerge and cause Labour new headaches. (The Greens could conceivably play this role, though they have their own problems, not least an amazing talent for self-sabotage). There again, even that last projection might be over-optimistic. Talking to people in Sweden, for example, what’s most striking is the way they speak about the far-right Sweden Democrats, who last year won 13 per cent of the vote. They are remarkably skilled at grassroots organising and the use of social media, and prove that social movements are by no means the preserve of the left. Here, Ukip, or something that grows out of it, may yet go the same way.
The centre left’s future is going to be turbulent. More than ever, globalisation means that any halfway ambitious social democratic governments in Europe will have to work through the EU if they are even to get close to taming business in the interests of their electorates. But the disarray into which the EU has fallen, and the growing political importance of nationhood, mean that making the argument for that kind of action will be extremely difficult. If place and identity are increasingly powerful elements of politics, one wonders how centre-left parties will get over their habitual discomfort about such things. As it stands, this is still difficult and dangerous territory—as proved by Sigmar Gabriel’s controversial discussions with protestors from the anti-Islamic Pegida movement in Germany, or Labour politicians’ attempts to sound “tough” on issues of migration and multiculturalism.
In Britain, whatever happens at Labour’s special conference on 12th September, whether it is Andy, Yvette, Liz or Jeremy will probably turn out to be a historical detail. The fundamental story, after all, is much bigger; so big, in fact, that it is understandable if most Labour politicians would rather look away. Society and politics are now so fragmented that the centre left’s old blueprint for winning power is in danger of irrelevance. It could be that social democracy belonged to the 20th century and is beyond help in the 21st.