During the highly creative early phases of its existence the Labour Party did some pretty impressive things. For my recent book, Contrast and Compare, I visited and researched the huge Downham Estate on the edge of Lewisham and Bromley. Dedicated local party members spent years of their lives making sure there were good quality council homes available for people who had previously lived in squalid slum conditions. The reaction of stuck up neighbours was to build a ten foot wall to keep the poor in their place. The reaction of those who secured one of the new homes was much more positive because their lives had been transformed for the better by simple practical politics.
The Labour Party has many other things to be proud of. Equal rights at work and equal pay legislation. The National Health Service. Comprehensive schools. The Open University.
There is, however, a stage in the life of any political party when it begins to be become distant from the people it set out to serve. It becomes all too easy for those who are interested in a career and in personal ambition to take over from those who were prepared to dedicate lives to a cause without expectation of personal gain.
During the Blair era the party badly lost its way. He and his acolytes were brilliantly talented. They could deliver a professionally researched sound bite with remarkable sincerity. They could sit in the halls of power and make very effective deals. What they couldn’t do well was morality. And we are all suffering as a consequence. So we got the Iraq war as a direct result of an outright lie from a British Prime Minister who decided that his political judgement was more important than the truth. And we got the financial crash despite a very clever Labour Chancellor telling us he had put an end to boom and bust and that his party knew how to help the City Of London make us all rich. Instead it gambled £ trillions, pocketed the bonuses and walked away leaving us all to cope with the debts, the chaos, the bitterness and the decade of public austerity to pay for private excess.
By the end of the Blair era trust in politics was at an all time low. So it is a touch surprising that so many modern Labour MPs think that if we just go back to the ways of that era that all will be well. It won’t. Soft social democratic parties are being wiped out across Europe despite having some very decent people, some decent policies and being praised as sensibly centre ground by the media. Losing touch with your base and doing your politics in separation from the people that you claim to want to help is fatal. The reason hundreds of thousands of people joined the Labour Party a year or so ago was that they felt inspired by the possibility that the squalid era of careful machine politics might be over and we might see a Labour Party that is more in touch and more rooted in the needs of the communities it serves.
How disappointed those people must now be. Principled opposition to Brexit and clear honest leadership is what they expected. Instead they have seen squalid manoeuvres to try and make sure that the only motion on a second referendum passed at the party conference was a complex one that meant different things to different people. Then Corbyn proceeded to weaken even the weak commitments in that motion at every opportunity. Now he is seriously talking with Theresa May about how best to deliver Brexit. That is not clear and principled leadership on an issue of critical importance.
The core reason for this is that political parties don’t just have a nasty tendency to house opportunists and to gradually lose touch with their roots. They also have a nasty tendency to get ossified in their theories of what the world is like and what issues matter. So the Labour Party has always had good strong links with the trade union movement and has its roots in speaking up for factory workers, miners and ship builders in industrial towns. The ideology that goes with that doesn’t adapt well to a world of small business, rapid change and an easy flow of people, ideas and products over borders. Nor does it always respond well to the needs of all sections of the community or grasp the scale and the meaning of the environmental crisis.
That has left Corbyn very reluctant to campaign for the EU. He fears it will stop him nationalising the commanding heights of industry. He fears it will stop him subsidising steel works. He knows he needs access to its market. He knows that it has been one of the few forces protecting what precious little is left of workers’ rights. But he doesn’t easily and naturally get the concept that the far right want Brexit because they know it exposes us to the full force of unfettered free market forces. More importantly he is scared stiff to face down the prejudices of white working class voters in neglected inner city locations where many people both voted for Brexit and usually vote Labour.
Faced with the choice of championing the voice of his young new members or trying to placate the traditional Labour vote he has given in much too frequently to reaction and fallen back on his old worries that the EU is really just a capitalist plot.
So we are faced with the choice between a Labour Party looking too strongly to a nostalgic past and 8 MPs representing an Independent Group that seems to think the only thing that ever went wrong is that Tony Blair left office. Neither inspires. Nor does the insipid quality of the opposition the Liberal Democrats have offered since the soul of their party was eaten out by going into coalition, imposing tuition fees and paving the way for a referendum on independence that they now regard as a disaster. Almost the only thing you can say in favour of any of them is that they are better than a rump Conservative Party under the increasingly strong control of far right infiltrators.
We are now being told daily by Labour Party folk that their victory is at risk and we must all line up behind their one true party of the left or there will be electoral disaster. Actually, the complete opposite is true. Now that Labour has split there is going to be a variety of progressive parties standing in almost every seat in the country. Put together an alliance of progressive forces and the electoral numbers are crushing for the Conservatives. Insist that the Labour Party must stand in every seat and must never compromise and the mathematics of a victory are much harder.
The Labour Party can win seats in its traditional heartlands but it is going to really struggle to win enough seats in and around London and in Leave supporting constituencies to secure a majority. First past the post elections with a complex variety of progressive choices will not win the next election. Or probably any other. Single transferable vote or proper proportionate representation or even a genuine give and take progressive alliance almost certainly would. But none of those will be on offer from Labour. The message is the same as always. Parties with different progressive visions like the Greens should just go away and stop talking about silly little issues like the climate crisis or plastic pollution because the big boys are doing politics.
Political parties this short sighted don’t last long. The Greens now significantly out poll the SDP in Germany and the equivalent of the Labour Party in France is now a really weak and sidelined force. Only one thing is really propping up the tired old forces of a Labour party that has run out of new thinking and let down its wonderful new and enthusiastic members. That is the appalling incompetence and appalling attitudes of a Conservative Party that has been captured by far right extremists. If you think the Labour Party has run out of ideas and is badly split try looking at the Conservatives. Open contempt has now broken out between factions that have absolutely nothing in common with each other and it is a matter of time before that party also splits.
Britain could well be entering a new era rapidly changing competing smaller political parties representing a wide spectrum of genuinely held and passionately expressed views. That may turn out to be very much for the best. Are we seeing the end of the party machine and the last of two party set piece political battles and the emergence of something more complex and more flexible that can be endlessly and easily renewed?