Jeremy Corbyn is riding high after an unexpectedly successful election campaign. But his party has more to do to attract Middle England
The Labour Party escaped what might have been a thrashing in 2017 through a combination of factors: a misconceived and maladroit Tory campaign; the simultaneous collapse of all the third party alternatives — UKIP (whose fox has been shot), the SNP (too much indyref2) and the Lib Dems (still paying for coalition blues) — and, of course, a well-managed and genial Labour campaign. But fundamental problems remain.
Above all, the collapse of Labour Scotland means that the party has to completely reorient itself if it is ever to achieve majority status again. Labour has only won a majority of English seats in 1945, 1966, 1997, 2001 and 2005 but that is exactly what it needs, routinely, to aim at from now on. Even its traditional predominance in Wales is no longer safe: a poll at the beginning of the campaign showed the Tories winning over half of all Welsh seats. In fact, Labour held on comfortably but there is no doubt that broader social forces (and the M4) are slowly incorporating much of Wales into Southern England, with predictable political results.
The proposed boundary changes, involving the loss of 50 parliamentary seats, would tighten all these screws. Wales would lose 11 of its 40 seats and Scotland six of its 59, while in England many small inner-city seats would be lost. All told, 35 of the 50 seats threatened with the axe are currently Labour held. Labour’s net loss would be around 30 seats and many safe Labour seats would become marginal as rural and suburban areas are added to urban seats.
So Labour’s problem starts with the fact that its current leadership is dominated by old-fashioned class warriors of the Corbyn-Seumas Milne variety, and yet it must move at speed to refashion itself as a broad social democratic alliance able to appeal to the lower 75 per cent of the English populace. This means embracing not just the barely managing but a large slice of middle-class England. This is by no means a wishful project: there is widespread resentment of growing inequalities and the capture of almost all the gains of economic growth by the top few per cent. Indeed, while Theresa May tried to make this the Brexit election, Labour’s surge was far more about the natural pressures caused by a lengthy period of Tory austerity and its effect on incomes and public services (the NHS, police, social care, tuition fees and schools). This made George Osborne’s gloating at May’s discomfort all the more tasteless, for Osborne was the man most responsible for that austerity.
Labour did launch itself towards capturing Middle England once before. That is what Tony Blair and New Labour was all about: hence those three consecutive elections (1997, 2001 and 2005) with a Labour majority in England. Yet Labour’s current leadership abhors Blair and has no wish to learn lessons from him. But that is, of course, exactly what it needs to do. The truth is that Labour has never really faced up to the task of working out where New Labour went right and where it went wrong: typically Blair is written off because of Iraq, and Brown because of the banking crisis.
Despite the current euphoria in Labour circles and the belief by the likes of Diane Abbott and John McDonnell that they have been “vindicated” and must “prepare for government”, such fantasies need to be batted away. One has to start from the fact that the old industrial working class is now a fraction of what it once was and that the class cleavage has been steadily weakening for 50 years. (A straw in the wind: the Sunday Times breakdown of the election result gave tables by gender, age, and other variables — but not by class.) The SNP’s ascent showed that this was true even in Scotland, where the Labour movement began; and even now the SNP has fallen back, the new cleavage revealed is not class but attitudes to the United Kingdom, with the Tories prospering as the main pro-Union party.
This was the reason why Blair wanted to shift Labour towards embracing “aspirational” values: accepting that most people wanted to own their own homes, upward social mobility and higher education for their children, and also accepting Tony Crosland’s point — made some 40 years before — that nationalisation was only a means to an end and by no means always the most effective. Secondly, Blair laid enormous emphasis on improving education, not only because many of Britain’s schools work poorly (why should one accept that South Korea or Singapore should be so much our superior in this regard?), but because we need a better and better educated populace to remain competitive in a knowledge-driven economy. These central aims met large and repeated public acceptance.
Where New Labour went wrong was that, dazzled by their own success, Blair and other New Labour leaders too much enjoyed their new acceptability to economic and international elites. They liked having rich friends, holidaying on their yachts and being popular with American opinion in a way that no previous Labour leaders had been. Meanwhile a long boom was mainly enriching the already rich while New Labour failed to redistribute economic gains to the majority.
In the end it all ended up very much as it did with the Clintons in America: Clinton and Blair had won power by making promises to poorer people in, say, Pittsburgh or Newcastle. On the completion of the whole experiment, the poor of those cities were as badly off as ever, while the Clintons and Blairs were multi-millionaires. It was as if they had merely surfed off the misfortunes of others and turned that into a way for becoming rich far beyond the dreams of any previous leaders of the Left. It is hardly surprising that this has produced anger and cynicism, although neither Blair nor Hillary seem to understand quite why they are so deeply unpopular.
Yet the fact is that ultimately, if it is to remain competitive, Labour will need to revisit Blair’s strategy, as well as learn from his mistakes. But nothing remotely as constructive as that is likely while Labour remains as badly split as at present. Indeed, the election has, if anything, set back Labour’s longer term hopes by entrenching in power a far-left team at the top of a parliamentary party which strongly disagrees with it. Worse still, the calibre of the Labour front bench is poorer than at any time since Labour became the official Opposition in the 1920s. The disastrous — and quite evident — failure of both Diane Abbott and Emily Thornberry to master their briefs is eclipsed by, on the one hand, Abbott’s immediate and laughable attacks on the media for reporting her blunders, and by Thornberry’s almost theatrical impersonation of the Hectoring Labour Woman. Even Bessie Braddock was a lot more practical and focused than that. One only has to look back to the days of the Wilson front benches — Healey, Castle, Crosland, Jenkins, Crossman, Gordon-Walker, Lever, Soskice — to see what a huge falling-off there has been.
In 2017 none of this mattered much because Labour attracted support simply as the main alternative to an austerity Tory government that had already been in power for seven years. In effect Labour merely offered to end austerity with a lot more public spending and a promise of higher growth. The Shadow Chancellor making this offer, John McDonnell, is a man who has told one public meeting that he would have liked to assassinate Thatcher and who was foolish enough to read from Mao’s Little Red Book in a parliamentary debate. For now, nobody cared. But if Labour is to be taken seriously as an alternative government, then matter it does.
The Left, like the Right, will also have to face up to three demographic problems. The first is the growing number of old people, the higher dependency ratio and the consequent financial problems (considerably exacerbated by the effects of low interest rates on pension funds) which society as a whole must face. Theresa May was hounded for her own maladroit stab at this problem — the so-called dementia tax — but at least she was thinking, as a real government must, about this mounting problem.
Second, there is the simple fact that Britain is an overcrowded country. We already have one of the highest population densities in the world and the population continues to mount. At root this fact lies behind the issues of immigration, access to schools and hospitals, transport, the housing shortage (and thus exorbitant house prices) and even the endless difficulty over situating a third London airport. Reducing or at least stabilising our population should be a top priority.
Third, there is generational inequality, now at an extreme level due to house prices and the decision to load students with massive debts. To be sure, it is hard to see why the children of upper and middle class parents should be subsidised to gain an education likely to improve their earning power. But Britons should realise that simply to load students with debt is to follow a failed and dangerous American model. There student debt is now $1.4 trillion (more than double the total of all credit card debt). This figure frightens Wall Street, where it is understood that many ex-students will fail to repay that debt. The same is doubtless true here. Corbyn’s offer to abolish all tuition fees would add at least £11 billion to the annual education bill — a lot of it going to already privileged young people — when he was only offering the NHS an extra £3 billion. That is not the answer either. Across Europe the lesson of free universities is that they soon become shabby and down-at-heel, and fall in the academic rankings. There needs, in other words, to be some really serious thinking about this problem, not just crowd-pleasing promises.
Over and over again one keeps bumping into the intractable problem of high house prices. Cambridge University is currently developing subsidised housing on a large scale as the only way that it can hope to attract the young academics and researchers on which its future relies. If such schemes are in Cambridge’s corporate interest, why are they not, many times multiplied, also in our national interest?
These are the themes around which a modern Left could be organised. But will it be? At present the Labour leadership offers only a vague populism, brewed in the 1960s, if not long before. The party is divided and its leadership is, in the main, incompetent. The only ray of light derives from the large infusion of younger voters in 2017, including many of the best-educated among them. This at least creates the possibility of a much-needed transformation.
It should be remembered that after losing power in 1979 Labour went through a long series of nightmares: the years of Foot and Kinnock, of Derek Hatton, Arthur Scargill, Tony Benn and Ken Livingstone. These were locust years of false prophets and pied pipers, while all the time the real initiative lay solely with the Right. If Labour repeats that script, it will be out of power until 2028. This perspective needs to be kept firmly in mind now that Corbyn is being hailed as if he had won the election. In fact we are only in the early stages of the prolonged contortions that the Labour Party always goes through in the wake of losing power. There is much more to come. Essentially what happens after a Labour defeat is a prolonged convulsion which splits the party (Bevanism in the 1950s, Bennism in the 1980s) before it gradually comes back to the reality that only a moderate form of social democracy will make an effective Labour government both electable and workable. At the moment the Labour leadership is till playing with extra-parliamentary fantasies and the party is badly split, which is to say that we may still be some years (and many leadership changes) away from Labour’s re-emergence from its traumas, routine for each generation.
In assessing Corbyn’s achievement one must remember what sort of man he is. Having done very poorly at school and failed to complete any higher education, he seems to have imbibed at an early age the full agenda of the Guardian-reading London lefty: sympathy for a wide gamut of Third World causes, instinctive solidarity with all the enemies of bourgeois Britain (the IRA, Hamas, radical Islamists, etc), and a passionate opposition to Toryism. He has spent his life banging on about such causes to small audiences as a Labour activist and perennial rebel. With his beard, his vegetarianism, abstinence from alcohol, his failed marriages, his love of cycling and almost Dickensian passion for faraway causes of little relevance to the lives of those he represents, he is a type of idiosyncratic Englishman that Orwell liked to dwell upon, along with the figure of the middle-aged Catholic spinster cycling earnestly to church.
If one thinks about the sort of life that Corbyn lived for many years — ignored, even despised as a hopelessly eccentric and too-left backbencher, talking all the time of mass popular struggles elsewhere but doing so to tiny audiences in draughty halls, occasionally donning a scruffy duffle-coat to march with other CNDers on stirring but hopeless demonstrations — one realises that it has been a somewhat odd existence, led almost entirely among a small band of kindred spirits who keep up one another’s spirits by constant reaffirmations of how much they are against this, that or the other. For it is in the nature of such folk to be mainly against things and to be somewhat vague and wishful about what they are actually for.
Imagine then such a person suddenly and magically transformed into the Labour leader, faced with the need to rally the Labour vote in an election from an apparently hopeless starting point. The masterstroke — the decision to hold big meetings in safe Labour seats — happened quite by accident. The idea was at least to hang on to these bastions amidst a Tory landslide. In fact what it allowed was a series of TV images of Corbyn greeted by large, enthusiastic crowds, mixing genially with lots of ordinary people who sometimes chanted his name and always applauded him to the echo. For Corbyn it must have been an apotheosis. All his life he had spoken of the masses and wanted to be with them: now it had all come to pass. And not with guerrillas in Palestine, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela or crowds of other bearded vegetarians on Easter marches, but with hordes of ordinary folk in England’s green and pleasant land.
This experience not only confirmed Corbyn, McDonnell and Milne in their belief that they had been right all along but, buoyed by the rapidly-improving polls, encouraged a sense of wild euphoria — hence such extraordinary phenomena as McDonnell’s call for a million-strong march on London in order to “force” another election which, it is assumed, Labour would win. This is pure Chavismo.
For Corbyn personally the experience hugely increased his self-confidence. Everything was coming right and, Pied Piper-like, he was leading his movement to triumph. This too helped him for he was so evidently cheerful and at ease, a man happy in his own skin, that this could not but impress interviewers and TV audiences — especially contrasted with Theresa May’s rigidly-controlled performances, in which she would keep a tight smile on her face even when being bludgeoned by harsh questioners. But here too, the effect was euphoria — hence, for example, Corbyn’s “revolutionary” demand to requisition nearby luxury flats in Kensington to house refugees from the appalling Grenfell Tower fire.
Corbyn may as well enjoy his moment of triumph, but the realities of his situation will soon press in on him again. As will be seen, the party needs to make a very cool and hard-headed appraisal both of its own past and its current situation. It then needs to remodel itself to win a majority in England, taking lessons from Blair where necessary. This may seem a tall order — and it is certainly beyond the likes of Corbyn, McDonnell and Milne. But the price of failure, despite the election result, will be to leave the political initiative securely in the hands of the Right.