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UK left in pieces? Well… October 21, 2016

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.

Here’s an odd one, a piece by David Marquand in Prospect which after a bumpy start winds up – unexpectedly, for me at least, in a place where I think he may be correct. So we here the ritual stuff about Labour’s unloved leader. But clearly only unloved by some, that being a fair tranche of the PP. Yet Marquand notes that:

The Jeremy Corbyn surge that transformed the contours of Labour politics a year ago was undoubtedly powered by revulsion against the ideological vacuity of the Tony Blair-Gordon Brown New Labour regime of 1997-2010. Blair’s insistence that Labour now stood for a preposterous “Third Way” designed to turn Britain into a “young country”; the contempt for civil liberties that pervaded a series of “anti-terror” laws; and, above all, the unlawful folly of the Iraq War stank in the nostrils, not just of the so-called “hard left,” but of idealistic progressives of all ages. Brown’s assiduous courtship of the City and insistence that financial regulation would be “limited touch” and not just “light touch” were less obvious, but another affront to traditional social democracy. Meanwhile, the Gini coefficient, which had measured a sharp climb in inequality under Margaret Thatcher, stubbornly refused to fall. Against that background, Corbyn’s election and now re-election are not just understandable; they were predictable. The shock and horror with which the Westminster village greeted them only shows that its denizens have lost the plot.

I think that’s correct.

He then continues:

Unfortunately, the Corbyn remedy has proved to be poison. The civil war between extra-parliamentary Corbynites and the New Labour retreads in the parliamentary party has made Labour unelectable. If a general election were held tomorrow, Theresa May would sail to victory. Almost certainly, Labour would suffer a crushing defeat—perhaps as crushing as 1983, conceivably as crushing as 1935 or 1931. All the signs are that the party I joined at 20 is in terminal decline.

The problem is that that is nowhere near as clear cut as he presents it. Terminal decline? Hardly. In a problematic place, without question.

In fairness Marquand notes having looked around Europe at various examples of social democracy that are in serious decline, or worse:

To a political class accustomed to taking class and ideology for granted this new landscape is both incomprehensible and alarming. Some are in denial. Labour politicians as varied as Lisa Nandy and David Miliband have suggested that the old show can be kept on the road if Labour adopts a revamped ideology, more appropriate to the new world order which has emerged since its last winning streak, and appeals more energetically to the insecure, “left-behind’ working class which flirts with Ukip and voted “Leave” in the EU referendum. Labour, in short, can flourish again if it makes modest changes in order to stay the same—a tactic sometimes known as “dynamic conservatism.”

And he does make a fair point here too:

Activists of the left, including Momentum may convince themselves that traditional politics of ideology and class is in rude health, because they have recruited many hundreds of thousands of members. That, however, is deluded, because the numbers they will need to prevail in a general election run into millions, rather than hundreds of thousands, and there is no sign in local elections or opinion polls of them making any progress at all. Other progressives recognise that the emerging landscape is indeed new, but find it so distasteful that they can’t bring themselves to grasp its inner meaning or grapple with the emotional dynamics which brought it into being. A good example is Vince Cable, the most perceptive front-rank politician of recent times. He has realised that the old politics of class and ideology are under threat from a new politics of identity and ethnicity, but he assumes as a given that these new politics are inherently irreconcilable with the historic values of social liberalism and social democracy.

But I, personally, don’t believe it is anywhere near time to make that assessment that the energy unleashed by Corbyn cannot make inroads in the medium term. This idea of political projects as being immediate, next election things, is far too short-sighted. It takes years to build and consolidate. Indeed the trajectory of New Labour itself suggests precisely that. And if New Labour was played out – as even Marquand admits, then for a successor to simply step in to fill the breach was unlikely, if not indeed impossible. Similarly with Toryism after Thatcher.

But where Marquand becomes particularly interesting is in what follows:

If his assumption were valid, the outlook for progressives like me—who have spent a lifetime trying to figure out how best to marry and promote these two progressive traditions—would be dire indeed. Fortunately, the assumption is awry. True, some movements which fly the flag of identity are patently hostile to liberal and social democratic values: Ukip and the motley crew of Tory Brexiteers who did the heavy lifting in the “Leave” campaign rank among them, as do Poland’s Law and Justice Party, Austria’s Freedom Party and Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom in the Netherlands. But some movements which have abandoned the old politics of class-based ideology in favour of the new politics of place and identity are as committed to liberal and social democratic values as parties of the traditional left.

This is true of the Catalan separatists who are steadily gaining ground in what is still north-eastern Spain, less certainly of the Basque nationalists in the north-west and of the 30-odd regionalist and/or separatist parties in the European Free Alliance. Some are distinctly exotic, if not eccentric—Mebyon Kernow in Cornwall, the Occitan party in France and the Schleswig party in Denmark. But in the two non-English nations of Great Britain—Scotland and Wales—the story is more auspicious.

And he points to the SNP and Plaid Cymru as examples of social democratish parties that have locked into a progressive left nationalism.

He admits:

Where all this leaves progressives in England is far from obvious. If solidarity could somehow be engendered by new movements at the regional level, then one can imagine an analogue with the inclusive nationalism that has developed in Scotland and Wales. Unfortunately, with arbitrary and ahistoric borders, the big regions—such as the north-west, or the East Midlands—scarcely touch identity at all. Indeed, John Prescott was humiliated in a 2004 referendum in which he tried and failed to persuade the citizens of the north east to back a new assembly.

But discussing London and other big cities he notes more hopeful signs. Labour in London for example, and the mayoralty:

It encouraged Londoners—who increasingly identify as such—to believe that the capital could go its own way. As indeed London did in both the EU referendum, in which it broke heavily for “Remain,” and the last general election, when it swung to the left despite the nationwide Conservative victory. With new metro-mayors for Manchester and other conurbations in prospect, it may be that Labour parties (or radical independents, like the first-term Livingstone) in other great cities will be able to develop agendas that go with the grain of their citizens’ identities, just as Sadiq Khan is now doing at City Hall.

By the by that point about London being Remain is hugely important, as were most other metropolitan centres. He concludes:

Make no mistake, though, the political mechanics of allying the metropolitan social liberalism that might thrive in the cities, with the more conservative Labourism that might still stand the best chance in small-town England, where very different identities are salient, will be fraught indeed. Who knows what sort of pacts or institutional innovations may be required? What is certain is that it will take a politician of rare creativity to find answers.

But for progressives who are lucky enough to live in Scotland or Wales, the reconciliation of the politics of identity with social democracy need not be so fraught. Like the SNP, Plaid Cymru practices the politics of ethnic identity, but in a distinctively Welsh and less abrasive fashion. Both parties offer more hopeful paths for their respective nations than does the played out Labourism of yesteryear. I shall vote accordingly in the next Westminster and Assembly elections.

I don’t know whether in England it is possible at this point to reshape politics to that direction. It seems to me that currently there is such an entrenched hostility to the left – even the mild left, that achieving a measure of state power is going to be deeply difficult. Whether the LP – the British LP – can present itself as a standard bearer of SNP style mild progressive leftism (and some would question that last quite justifiably, though the SNP is ironically more clearly rhetorically left wing than the Blair LP) is hugely open to question. As to a successor, well, can’t see that happening.

Perhaps I do an injustice to Marquand, but at least he seems to be engaging with the reality as it is now of a Corbyn led LP.

The other pieces are intriguing, not least Andy Beckett who is a fraction more optimistic than I am. What do people make of the last piece by former LP MP Gregg McClymount who lost his seat to the SNP at the 2015 GE? He seems to believe that the LP could vanish entirely. I’m sceptical, but…


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