Labour's problems are far deeper than Jeremy Corbyn, tracing back to the mid-20th century. But things will get worse unless he goes. The great bulk of MPs should now walk awayby Ross McKibbin / March 10, 2017 / Leave a comment
Read a response from John Curtice, “Sobering Dismal Precedent: Why Labour shouldn’t split”
Unless something quite unexpected happens the Labour Party will be lucky to win a quarter of the vote at the next election—about half its vote in 1951. Neither the polls nor the recent by-elections suggest that it will be so lucky under Jeremy Corbyn, imposing an urgent conflict of loyalties on MPs and anybody else concerned to avoid the party’s outright ruin. Back in 1951 by contrast, despite falling just short of Winston Churchill’s Conservatives on Commons seats, Labour won more votes—almost 49 per cent of the total; the highest percentage it has ever won.
What was it about 1951 Britain that was so favourable to the Labour Party? There was its social structure. About 70 per cent of the male workforce were manual workers. Britain had, relatively, the largest industrial workforce in the world. Its traditional heavy industries had been given a new lease of life by the Second World War—nearly two million people, for instance, still worked in the mines and were ineradicably Labour in their loyalties—while the newer industries, aircraft, automobiles, light domestic industry were still flourishing, not yet undone by international competition. Britain was a country that made things.
The institutions and culture of industry still favoured Labour too. The trade unions, if not universally loved, were powerful and had a recognised standing in society. This culture, and memories of the Second World War, encouraged the development of a society used to thinking in bipolar terms: employers and employees, capital and labour, management and workforce, Protestant and Catholic, middle class and working class, public school and state school. Although “affluence” and its language were in the air, Britain was not yet a particularly affluent society. On the contrary, it was still a rationed one. Rationing did not finally disappear until 1954. It was out of this culture that the two-party system, Labour and anti-Labour (Conservative), emerged and had its brief life. Labour and the Tories each represented about half the electorate.
Furthermore, the state was active in ways now thought illegitimate. A substantial part of the economy was state-owned; significant areas of consumption, like food, were subsidised; the state exercised a close control over credit as well as the exchange rate. It was understood that taxes could rise; and that the raising of taxes was an important part of economic management. The UK had a full employment economy, and both major parties were committed to maintaining full employment—partly because it was thought electorally necessary, partly because the unemployment of the 1930s weighed heavily on the political class. One consequence was that the preservation of the industrial economy was thought indispensable. The economy, therefore, was a kind of social-democratic economy which sustained the Labour Party.
In one other important way, 1951 Britain was visibly different from today: it was overwhelmingly white. The 1951 census suggested that there were about 20,000 “coloured” people in the UK. Immigration did happen. Britain needed more labour but the labour after 1945 tended to come from Poland, the Baltic states, Germany (ex-POWs) and, above all, Ireland. The new arrivals were not always made to feel welcome, but they were not visibly different, and they assimilated fairly quickly. The United Kingdom remained overwhelmingly Anglo-Celtic; and that is probably how many Labour voters and MPs wished that it would stay, a significant difference with both contemporary “modernisers” in the Blair mould and the Corbyn left.
Britain in 1951 was also plainly the United Kingdom. There was little or no talk of devolved government; the Scottish and Welsh national parties were small and seemingly going nowhere; there was little serious thought of constitutional or electoral reform. There was no sense that the UK was under strain. The ceremonies of the British state and monarchy were as they had been for as long as anyone could remember; and—in another contrast with both New Labour, which initially spent a lot of energy on constitutional changes, and today’s leader who is deemed unenthusiastic about the national anthem—the Labour Party of the time was happy with that.
Labour was unusual among social-democratic parties in its neglect of constitutional or institutional reform. Indeed, its view of the state was much the same as the Tory view. It declined, for instance, to interfere in Northern Ireland, though everyone knew that it was run under a kind of apartheid, to reform a notoriously unrepresentative electoral system, or to do away with the unelected second chamber. Labour’s neglect of constitutional reform was based on a pragmatic assumption that the electorate was not interested, and on a real cultural and emotional affinity; a belief that the Labour Party was actually legitimated by this antique state system. Nor was the British state entangled in any European institutions, or the controversies that later surrounded them—controversies which became very damaging to Labour—and throughout the 1950s that is how Labour wanted it to remain.
Today much of that society and its politics has disappeared, and many of these changes have been very damaging to Labour—though they need not have been. Britain’s social structure has been profoundly altered by the effects of de-industrialisation. Scarcely 40 per cent of the workforce are manual workers and the unions have lost both numbers and authority. Britain is now predominantly a middle-class society—though it is a very diverse middle class—and Labour has struggled to adjust to that. In fact, it has never found a reliable alternative electoral base to the unionised manual working class of 1951. This has been something common to all western industrial economies and their social-democratic parties; all now have their rustbelts, their decaying industries and their jobs lost to Asia. But in Britain it went farther and faster because there was so much more to lose.
“The challenges are not new: Labour was aware its industrial base was shrinking in the 1950s”
The changes to the country’s ethnicity are no less profound. The number of non-white residents is now in the millions, and since the 1990s these have been joined by many migrants from Eastern Europe. Traditionally, more people have left Britain than arrived. Since the 1990s, however, Britain has become a net importer of people. Many more have arrived than have left. There are two reasons for this. First, Britain has a shortage of labour, skilled and unskilled, particularly in the now huge service sector, that can only be filled by importing workers. The second has been Britain’s membership of the European Union. Britain could not in recent decades, except with great difficulty, deport European migrants even if it wanted to. The effect is apparent in any of the country’s large cities, especially in London, where a majority of its inhabitants are no longer white British, and at least one-third of whom are not British-born. It is also apparent in those parts of rural Britain, such as Lincolnshire, that are dependent on seasonal agricultural labour. Scarcely anyone in 1951 could have conceived of all this. The scale of migration has been culturally unsettling to much of the native population, not because migrants have taken their jobs, or live off welfare, or exploit the NHS—there is no truth in any of those charges—but because many find it a challenge to an idea of Britain they have had since birth. Immigration and the EU have caused serious difficulties to all parties but more to Labour since its ideological and demographic mix is most resistant to simple solutions.
More than any other party, Labour in 1951 was the party of the state. It was tied to and believed in direct state action and state ownership—hence all those nationalised industries, large employers whose workforce, though not always tractable, constituted a large reservoir of Labour voters. The state today is not inactive—a higher proportion of national income is absorbed by the welfare state than in 1951—but as investor, industrial owner and manager its role has almost vanished. Much of what it did in the 1950s is now thought inconceivable. While, for instance, the electorate seems entirely sympathetic to renationalising the railways, to the political class that is an impossible policy: the best a nervy Labour Party could do in office—or even for a long time promise to do in opposition—was to tinker, if that. The inactivity of the state, the general assumption by all (including Labour) that direct state intervention is undesirable has not only deprived Labour of part of its traditional electorate but also much of its old raison d’être.
Finally, there is the UK. Just as Labour is (or was) the party of the state so it is (or was) the party of the Union. Although the Tories for many years called themselves the Unionist Party, in practice that chiefly meant that they were opposed to Irish independence. For them Britain was often England, and their Englishness was historically their most obvious characteristic—a card that could always be played, as it was at the last election. Labour, however, for much of its history was profoundly unsympathetic to anything that might undermine the Union. To some extent this was the hostility of a working-class party to “national” aspirations, fearing they would sear unhelpful political cleavages across the class divide. It was also the fear of a party strongly attached to a pan-British industrial economy that devolution or independence would undermine that economy. Devolution to Scotland and Wales after 1997 was eventually arrived at not out of any deep Labour conviction, but as a defensive measure designed to preserve the Union and the Labour vote. These measures, however, might have preserved the Union in a kind of half-life, but they have not preserved the Labour vote.
All these changes, profound though they are, were not sudden and the Labour Party either tried to resist them or turn them to its advantage. Labour was perfectly aware that its industrial base, and in parallel its core vote, had been declining since, and even during, the 1950s. The aim of the Wilson and Callaghan governments was to maintain and (possibly) strengthen the country’s industrial economy, and in the process to shore up the Labour vote. Indeed, the first Wilson government (1964-1970) was probably the last British administration to attempt to govern the British economy with any serious concern for balance, across regions and sectors. Both it, and its world-weary successors (Wilson, 1974-76; Callaghan, 1976-79) were ready to use state subsidies and nationalisation to prop up secondary industry, and in Wilson’s case at least this was partly out of conviction. Much of shipbuilding, aviation and motor manufacturing ended up in state hands.
As an economic-political strategy, this interventionism had mixed success. A number of the rescue operations failed completely, but some industries were kept afloat. In the election of 1979, not a good year for Labour, those parts of the country that felt dependent on state support stayed loyal. This did not, however, check the overall decline of the party’s vote, which was significantly lower by 1979 than in the defeat of 1970. The 1940s ideas of discipline and sacrifice, which had to a considerable degree worked then, did not work in the 1970s, especially among those who could not remember Dunkirk.
The 1974-79 government had little chance. For much of its time it had to cope with very high inflation, which is almost fatal to social cohesion, since some arbitrarily prosper from inflation while others arbitrarily fare very badly. Economy and society became a war of all against all in which the Callaghan government became a near-helpless spectator. It was increasingly dependent on the goodwill of a union movement that had never been much appeased by promises of social expenditure in 1974/75, and became more hostile once the government set on a course which mixed budget cuts with pay restraint. At the same time, the government faced intense opposition from an increasingly radicalised party membership. The effective conquest of the party by the left and the electoral disaster of 1983 was a direct result.
What emerged after Neil Kinnock became leader was a semi-reformed party, which looked like the old one without the blemishes. Particularly under John Smith, whose premature death in 1994 looks in retrospect to have been a disaster for Labour, it was a moderate social democratic party, which retained only a notional commitment to “socialism.” There still had not been, however, any fundamental break with the past. That came only when Blair succeeded Smith, with the creation of New Labour. Its proponents frankly argued that the changed class structure of Britain no longer permitted the existence of an Old Labour Party. Out went socialism and in came a form of progressive politics that would be acceptable to a predominantly middle-class electorate while also recognising the legitimate demands of what remained of Labour’s working-class vote. The Blair government was characterised by the lauding of “business” in general and finance in particular, but also by high levels of social expenditure and measures like the minimum wage. For quite a time, it looked to be a successful formula at the ballot box.
But as a durable political-electoral strategy, however, it is plain that New Labour was ultimately a failure. It failed for several reasons—because of Iraq, because it never adequately funded its programmes, resorting to wheezes like PFI, because it never devised a strategy for defending itself against fair-weather friends like the Murdoch press, because of its credulous belief in the wisdom of bankers and the City, which landed the country in the crisis of 2008. And because of immigration and the EU.
Immigration and the EU have always been difficult for Labour. Old Labour always believed, publicly or privately, that class politics worked better when not complicated by ethnicity. The Austrian economist-sociologist, Joseph Schumpeter, wrote a famous essay on social classes “in an ethnically homogenous environment”—an early recognition that conflicting ethnicities could frustrate class politics. Furthermore, right-wing parties are usually better at appealing to ethnic loyalties than left-wing ones, and are happier to do so. Labour therefore had an electoral interest in keeping migration off the agenda, and arguably in keeping migrants out; in keeping class politics pure. Labour, however, also has a strong liberal, internationalist tradition and a substantial middle-class membership sympathetic to this tradition. Among the New Labour leadership—particularly Blair himself—there was sympathy for the “rational” argument that migration met the real needs of the labour market.
In practice, therefore, the party has been ambivalent about immigration. In the 1950s it opposed the Conservative government’s legislative restrictions on Commonwealth migration but accepted and indeed strengthened them when in office after 1964. As a counter, however, it introduced anti-discriminatory legislation which, by the standards of the time, was strong. In the event many of the restrictions were futile. It is in practice difficult for liberal democracies to exclude immigrants when there is a clear demand for their labour—as there has been in Britain—and, in any case, though Britain can attempt to exclude Commonwealth migrants or Middle Eastern refugees, it has not in recent decades been able to exclude those who are citizens of the EU.
The trouble is that Britain has become an immigrant nation by stealth. Other Anglophone countries have their problems with immigration and asylum, but they cannot and do not deny that they are immigrant societies. The huge post-war increase in Australia’s population, for instance, has been driven by official migration programmes. The recent increase in Britain’s population has also been driven largely by migration. But it had not been intended; it has simply happened—and since the beginning of the 21st century, has happened very fast. There has not been much open hostility; rather there has been an atmosphere of low-level xenophobia, particularly in those parts of the country where there are not, paradoxically, many immigrants.
This inevitably has influenced attitudes to the EU. One of the more reasonable explanations for popular hostility to the EU is that in the 1975 referendum the electorate voted to stay in the Common Market, not the EU. It was not asked to vote for an ever-closer union, or unfettered movement of labour. The Blair government’s decision to adopt free movement immediately when the EU expanded east in 2004 and not make use of the seven-year transition, as Germany did, was always risky. It’s not clear why they did it. They appear to have been advised that the numbers coming from Eastern Europe would be comparatively small and that in due course they would go to Germany anyway. There was also the demand for more labour. The huge growth in the service sector—a result of economic policies deliberately adopted by successive governments since the 1970s—meant a need for labour that could not be met in Britain itself. For Blair a stance of openness to the world was of a piece with his avowed “modernity.” He believed in globalisation, the EU and free movement, and was not personally sympathetic to low-level xenophobia. The result could hardly be worse for Labour. It has a diminishing social base that is either hostile to the EU and immigrants or is strongly in favour of both. Some sort of acceptable compromise might emerge though it is far from obvious what it could be.
“A splinter which comprised the bulk of the parliamentary party is not a splinter”
The party’s present predicament is not, however, only due to structural changes in the economy or the slow disappearance of the industrial working class, but to the failure of both Old and New Labour to convince enough people that the ideology of social democracy was in their interests, irrespective of what they did or where they lived. Old Labour depended on an established class structure, and when that began to fragment it didn’t have a broadly accepted social-democratic ideology to fall back on. New Labour did give more thought to ideology. Its view of social democracy—that capitalism does what it does well, but that it needs an active state with egalitarian impulses to correct its mistakes—was surely fit for its times. Yet Blair made little attempt to entrench it. New Labour had scarcely any enduring effect on popular attitudes regarding the social expenditure that defined its time in office. The Coalition government, for instance, was able to convince much of the electorate that the 2008 financial crisis was due not to the banks but to Labour’s irresponsible spending. Its austerity programme won out over whatever memories people had of new hospitals and decent schools, New Labour’s endowment to the country, which clearly counted for little at the 2015 election.
It was the shock of that unexpected outright defeat that set the party on course for a fateful rupture between its parliamentary and voluntary wings, as the MPs leapt to one set of conclusions about what had gone wrong with Ed Miliband’s leadership, and the activists—very many of them convinced that the party was still paying a price for New Labour’s shortcomings in government—leapt to quite another. If Blair had ever taken the trouble to root or connect his social programmes in office with the traditions of his party, then not only would his legacy be more secure, but this fateful divergence of interpretations between the MPs and the activists might have been avoided.
While it helps us to know how Labour got itself into this historic predicament it does not, of course, help the Labour Party in its immediate crisis, which is one of leadership. The party is paralysed because it is led by a man who is disliked or despised by the majority of Labour MPs, distrusted by most of the electorate but who is now leader for as long as he wants.
This is a result of a slow process by which the parliamentary party was steadily disempowered—the party leader was traditionally picked by the parliamentary party alone, but activists and trade unions got a say in 1981, an evolution which culminated in Miliband’s “reformed” system of electing the leader, under which, among other things, people could buy a vote in the contest for £3, however vestigial their connection to the Labour Party, or however weak their desire that Labour should actually win an election. This was all designed to convince the world that the leader was not a creature of the supposedly out-of-touch unions, an ambition that will come to look ironic if the imminent threat of electoral disaster eventually persuades the unions to set themselves against an unelectable leader. Under Miliband’s system, a successful candidate does have to be nominated by some proportion of the parliamentary party, but this has proved something less than a veto.
The election of Corbyn has resulted in an impossible tension that can probably be resolved in the short term only by the election of a new leader acceptable to the majority of the parliamentary party—and the electorate. This could be enforced by the action of Labour’s National Executive Committee, but it clearly is not going to do that. The only remaining solution—other than to hope that something turns up—is the most drastic: that is, for the bulk of the parliamentary party, those who have made their views of Corbyn very plain, to leave the official party and set themselves up as an independent body (Parliamentary Labour? Sensible Labour?)
This is certainly not a step that can be recommended with confidence. The parliamentary party itself has hardly risen to the occasion. Many voters probably think it is filled with chancers who are in it for what they can get and who depart when they can’t get it. To leave the party would also be to abandon its organisation and its money: not something lightly done. The Westminster electoral system, first past the vote, makes party fragmentation also very risky, as John Curtice highlights in this issue.
The Labour vote, however, threatens to be so low anyway that it is not much more risky than doing nothing. The history of organisations which leave Labour is certainly not encouraging. But a splinter which comprised the bulk of the parliamentary party is not a splinter. It would be the official opposition and its leader would be the official leader of the opposition. These are real advantages. A split, or a threat of one, might indeed encourage the National Executive to act as though it did have the interests of the Labour Party (and the country) in mind.
What is intolerable is the present situation whereby a played-out party is not permitted at least the opportunity to restore its status in the country or to properly defend the interests of those it claims to represent.