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Labour Party conference

Labour Party conference, Photo: Adrian Scottow / cropped from original / licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0, linked at bottom of article

As the right strengthens its grip on Labour, Chris Nineham looks at the context of of Labour’s crisis.

The crisis in Labour is part of the wider problems facing social democracy.

Social democratic parties are facing very serious challenges across Europe. In some places like France, Greece, Italy the traditional social democratic organisations have been completely marginalised.

In the case of Greece, PASOK was famously outstripped to its left by Syriza in 2015. In Italy, the once mighty communist and socialist parties have effectively disappeared. In Austria and Germany, and in most of Scandinavia, they are in big trouble with no obvious route back to office outside of deeply compromising coalitions. Things look better in Portugal and Spain, where the centre left has managed to gain some autonomy from the right by allying with radical left parties but in general the situation for social democratic parties is bleak.

Compared to this, the situation in Britain looks less terminal. Partly this is because of the first-past-the-post electoral system but it is also because of Labour’s very deep historical roots in the British labour movement and beyond. It is obvious however from the Tory wins in the last four general elections, despite widespread political discontent, that UK Labour too faces very serious problems.

So, what is going on? The right’s explanation is broadly speaking that workers have broken their allegiance with the left and either accepted that there is no alternative to neoliberal capitalism or embraced various forms of nationalism or right wing populism.  In Britain of course the commentariat condescendingly tell us that the new divide is a cultural one exemplified in the Brexit vote between a xenophobic white working class and a wider cosmopolitan city-based left.

In fact, we have to look at the problem the other way around. Recent defeats for Labour have been as much a product of abstentions and votes for smaller parties as they have a working class shift to the Tories. Evidence suggests that where minorities of working class voters have been persuaded to vote Tory, they have not done so with any great enthusiasm, or switched their allegiance permanently.

Embracing neoliberalism

The fundamental problem is that over the last few decades, social democratic parties, never particularly radical, have responded to the neoliberal offensive by more and more accepting its values and approach.

The Labour Party always had at its heart an alliance between the trade union leaderships and more right wing reformists, including the middle class Fabians, with the left in a permanent minority. In the period after the Second World War, popular sentiment was such that this alliance was pushed to pursue a programme of major welfare reforms including nationalising sections of industry, boosting welfare, building social housing and most famously setting the National Health Service. 

In the boom period that followed, when profits were high, the establishment, in Britain as in many other countries, was reluctantly prepared to continue to allow these programmes to be funded out of taxation.

With the onset of economic crisis in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the ruling class’s attitude changed. Huge pressure was put on social democratic governments to change course. Under attack from the banks, big business and the international markets, Prime Minister James Callaghan made a speech to the 1976 Labour conference arguing that the traditional Labour option of tax and spend in a mixed economy ‘no longer exists’.

This followed a famous article by the leader of the German Social Democrat leader, Helmut Schmidt, arguing that a turn towards free market policies was the only way forward for the centre left.

This attitude was progressively adopted by social democrats across Europe. It involved not just abandoning a programme of reforms benefiting workers but often actively attacking workers' conditions. French socialist leader, Francois Mitterand, came to office in 1981 on a radical manifesto committed to bucking the markets but capitulated dramatically with a round of vicious austerity measures in 1983 after bond and currency markets moved against his fiscal stimulus.

In Britain, Labour’s new leader Neil Kinnock refused to back the miners during their great strike in 1984 and 1985 and spent the rest of the 1980s attacking the left in Labour and pulling the party away from traditional social democratic policies of renationalisation and supporting trade union rights. ‘Them and us are gone now’ he insisted, ‘we are all in it together’.

As neoliberal dogma hardened in the later 1980s, even minimal direct state intervention began to be questioned by social democrats. What was laughingly called the ‘New Macroeconomic Consensus’ recommended that governments and central banks should refrain from intervening actively in the economy at all and limit themselves to creating the conditions for deregulated labour markets to find their ‘natural’ equilibrium.

Blair’s Labour party led the way by discarding fiscal policy activism in favour of rule-based austerity, handing over the levers of monetary policy to unelected central bankers, continuing the deregulation of the financial markets and unconditionally supporting financial globalisation. Peter Mandelson’s statement that “we are all Thatcherites” said it all.

The result of all this has been that over the last forty years Labour in office has presided over cutbacks, privatisations and wage cuts at both national and local levels. Meanwhile, Labour councils have followed suit by passing on Tory cuts and austerity measures across the board. You can’t attack workers' livelihoods and expect to hold on to their votes come what may.

Centrists like to trumpet Blair’s electoral record of three consecutive victories, but the 1997 landslide was more than anything an outpouring of anti-Tory sentiment. Subsequently, both turnout and Labour vote fell under Blair, slumping dramatically in the 2005 election after the the Iraq War when Labour’ vote fell by a million.  

A ‘loyal opposition’

This doesn’t mean that it is game over for the social democratic parties. In the absence of plausible alternatives, it is possible to have reformism as a political phenomenon without actual reforms. In direct contradiction to the arguments of the commentators, such is the basic class consciousness, hatred for the Tories and desire for progressive change among working class people that many will vote Labour despite its poor record, simply because of its organisational and ideological links to the working class, however tenuous.

All sorts of events can create even deeper crisis for the Tories making Labour look much more electable. Major social upheavals can force Labour some way back to the left and make it look more relevant again.

Labour’s problems run deep, however. It has a very unpopular unionist position in Scotland and faces growing disillusion in general. It struggles against an aggressive Tory party that is adept at taking on a left that lays claims to progressive politics without actually delivering for working class people. There are a number of reasons why Johnson has survived the Covid catastrophe so far. Probably the most important is that Starmer took the dreadful decision to position Labour as a ‘loyal opposition’ from the start of the crisis.

Again and again, the leadership has accepted government priorities and failed to attack its rampant cronyism and contempt for working people. More generally, the leadership accepts the mainstream interpretation of events, including the myth that working class people oppose left wing policies. The tack right on social as well as economic issues disorientates working class activists and only encourages the Tories. 

Politics beyond Parliament

Once again, in direct opposition to the commentariat, the electoral evidence shows that the period of the Corbyn leadership offered the party its best chance for recovery, precisely because - especially in 2017 - it looked like it was committed to real improvements for working people and breaking the mould of neoliberal policy.

There is, however, another lesson from the Corbyn period. The turbulent events of those years showed that the Labour machine and the PLP are so embedded in the establishment and so signed up to neoliberal ideas that they would rather Labour lose than mount a real challenge to the status quo. Corbyn was destroyed before he even had a chance to get into office and post-Corbyn, the right are taking measures to make sure that no insurgent can possibly even become leader again.

The very thing most likely to save Labour is being categorically ruled out by a party now firmly in the hands of the Blairites. And this leads us to a very important conclusion for the left. Whatever the party’s exact electoral fortunes, what can be predicted with certainty is that Labour will not be a vehicle for any kind of radical challenge to the status quo for the foreseeable future.     

The crucial thing here is that we understand that there is politics outside of parliament, and that this is in fact the most important kind of politics. Tony Benn, the leading figure on the Labour left in a generation, left parliament in 2001 to, in his words, ‘devote more time to politics’. Amongst the most important things that have happened in Britain in the last twenty years have been the anti-war movement in which he played such an important role, the anti-austerity movements, the Black Lives Matter protests and the massive campaign in solidarity with Palestine.

It was in fact out of these that Corbynism itself arose. If we want to develop a politics that can really channel the anger that millions of people feel at what is happening to this country it needs to be one based on these movements, on the wider working class movement and the struggles that are starting to take place in the workplaces. 

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Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.

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