The party is in the doldrums. But, in a world of injustice, it can renew its purpose if it can only find a fair fight to pick. That is also the means to taking on populismby Jonathan Rutherford / March 31, 2017 / Leave a comment
In a companion piece, Ryan Shorthouse explains how populism can be taken on from the right
The Labour party is in deep trouble. The days of faith in Jeremy Corbyn have passed. The intellectual outriders of the new honest politics have deserted him, leaving nothing of originality behind. Bereft of ideas, incapable of change, and blinded by its own vanity, the leadership behaves like a passive bystander in the party’s decline. Hovering at a disastrous 25 per cent in the polls, it has become a gift to the Tories. As former Labour pollster James Morris notes, even after seven years of Tory austerity, Labour is now 15 points behind the Tories among working-class voters.
The party is estranged from the country and the Brexit referendum exposed the splits in its own coalition. Its socially liberal supporters in the cities are divided from its socially conservative supporters in towns. In Labour constituencies, Remain voters are divided from Leave voters. Labour no longer knows who it speaks for nor what it stands for.
In such moments of crisis, it is necessary for a political movement to return to its origins. The Labour Party grew out of the Industrial Revolution. The economic historian Karl Polanyi describes a double movement of capitalism in the early 19th century. Capital sought to establish self-regulating markets through free trade and laissez-faire principles. Its logic was to commodify land, money and human labour.
In reaction, a counter movement grew up to defend individuals, society and nature against commodification. This movement organised the labour interest which had been formed by two episodes. First by the 1832 Parliamentary Reform Act, which excluded the working classes from the political life of the country. And second by the 1834 Poor Law Reform Act, which established a competitive market in labour and dispossessed the people from their own labour power.
It took this movement decades of struggle before the trade unions founded the Labour Representation Committee in 1900 and secured its political representation in what became the Labour Party. Its support rose and reached 49 per cent in the 1951 general election. It then began to fall. Eric Hobsbawm in his 1979 essay, “The Forward March of Labour Halted,” forewarned that the party was heading for a crisis. Rising affluence, consumer capitalism and technological change were transforming the industrial working class.
In 1900, a tiny contingent of middle-class radicals had been in attendance at Labour’s founding. Today, it is the professional middle class that now dominate the party. The industrial working class has gone. Trade union membership is down to 25 per cent of the workforce and 14 per cent in the private sector. The more socially liberal the party has become, the more culturally exclusive it has grown, and so it finds itself estranged from the people it once represented.
Labour’s historical role was to redress the balance of power between capital and labour— and ensure the common good. It has lost this role. What and who now constitutes the labour interest? What are its aspirations? The membership are right to want change. But the answers do not lie in an exclusivist politics of protest and repudiation.
Labour must recast itself as the party of national renewal. It needs to construct a sociologically new labour interest and around it build a national popular coalition that practices reciprocity and values family, work and the places people belong to. This national popular politics marks the return of the nation after a period in which progressive liberalism and its supranational, globalist politics have been dominant influences.
Its task is to build a new political, social and economic settlement for England and Wales within a more federal model of the United Kingdom. A democratic settlement committed to reducing inequalities of power, wealth and opportunity will provide the foundation for a post-Brexit British national identity and a strategic approach to Europe and the world.
It is the means by which the Labour party can take on populism, transcend its own cultural divisions, and regain its credibility as an opposition and a government-in-waiting. The alternative is to retreat back into liberalism and a public sector middle-class dominated progressive alliance. That path will secure Conservative hegemony in England.
We are not witnessing the end of the Labour party. The idea lies in the Whiggish belief that history progressively unfolds toward human perfection. Things don’t always get better. In its history the Labour Party required sacrifice, struggle and conflict in order to give working people a place at the common table. It will require them in the future. It is not over yet.