How Labour Can Win Again
This article was originally published in Tribune Magazine
It’s been argued that in order to win again, there is a simple panacea for Labour. Some say you need to change the way MPs are selected as well as the party leader. Others argue that you need a new voting process for the Commons plus a progressive coalition of parties. It’s worth discussing all such proposals. But the problem lies deeper than the suggestion of a few rules changes and one final heave. ‘One more heave’ was what they always said was the position of the Left.
The truth is that repeatedly Labour leaderships emerged whose commitment to maintaining the basic structures of the British economy meant that they were not able to satisfy the needs of Labour voters. Either you embraced the status quo and abandoned the needs of our voting base or you confronted and transformed the economy in the interests of working people.
Let’s recall that the labour movement historically was made up of what we might regard as three ideological traditions: socialists, social democrats, and trade unionists who sought the promotion of working class interests.
However, social democracy—the idea of ameliorating capitalism in the interests of the many through gradual reforms—effectively degenerated into what we may call ‘revisionism’. This revisionist strand emerged most clearly in the 1970s, when the long post war consensus broke down. By then it was clear that British capitalism once more faced a severe crisis of profitability such that financing the public services and raising wages and salaries could no longer be sustained.
The Labour leadership was left with a choice. Either it went to the IMF and imposed austerity and wage cuts or they adopted the socialist Alternative Economic Strategy. By the time of the mid-1970s, Crosland, in many ways the architect of the social democratic tradition, broadly accepted that it wasn’t working. The whole social democratic stream lost its intellectual impetus. It degenerated into various forms of revisionism, by which I mean the abandonment of the central Labour project whose objective was either taming or overturning capitalism in the interests of social justice.
Normally this meant at best seeking to raise tax from slightly higher paid workers in order to finance public services, which also had to be cut back severely, but also to allow incomes to fall among the broad and diverse ranks of working people. Simultaneously the revisionists left the overwhelming power and influence of wealth alone.
In retrospect, the history of much of Labour since the 1970s has been one of repeated attempts to construct a project that reconciled Labour to a failing economic system. The problem with this approach is that as British capitalism moved into its present phase, it was increasingly difficult to modify it in ways which worked for the very demographic groups who traditionally formed Labour’s vote.
Keir Starmer’s recent long essay, and the accompanying commentary from Lord Mandelson, is an attempt to reconstitute Labour into a revisionist project. Mandelson asserts that they are trying to reimagine social democracy. But this is not the case at all. It is revisionism pure and simple.
The social democrats had preferred piecemeal reform of capitalism. Back in the 1930s, in his magnificent essay on the Tasks Before Labour, and commenting on the idea that gradualist reform was the way forward, R. H. Tawney said, ‘Onions can be eaten leaf by leaf, but you cannot skin a live tiger paw by paw; vivisection is its trade, and it does the skinning first.’ And so it has proved.
This socio-economic dilemma lies at the heart of Labour’s electoral decline, which began not long after Tony Blair became Prime Minister. It led to disaffection with politics, alienation, and a sense of insurgency which among Labour’s leaders only Corbyn began to capture. Keir’s ‘contributory society’ is a further round of revisionism which will leave capitalism’s key structures untouched. It will not offer relief for the people who we want to vote for us. And it certainly doesn’t offer the prospect of emancipation. Only transformational change will do that.
So, let’s return to the central question facing Labour: how to proceed. Profound change is needed. Our primary task is to create the conditions in which a radical government can be elected.
There are two tracks which need to be followed in order to prepare the ground for a Labour government to be elected. These are winning the argument and then building a movement. Both of these need to represent a rupture with recent practice.
In order to win the argument, we should understand the radical Right who have sought to portray British society’s cleavages as the fault of minorities, of race, of sexuality, of ‘wokeness’, and then to mount an all-out attack by means of the culture wars.
The truth is that while our society is profoundly and wonderfully heterogeneous, there is a very different central cleavage. And that is between the interests of the many and those of the few.
Before Covid, the richest 1,000 people in our country had increased their wealth by £538 billion since the financial crash of 2008. Yet when we look at what has happened to the incomes of the 33 million people who work for a wage or salary over the same time period, the story is quite different. Since the crash, working people have seen a loss of income of about £433 billion.
It’s not difficult to see what is going on here. There has been a massive transfer of wealth and income from working people to the richest in society, and it is getting worse. During the pandemic, 11 million workers had a 20 percent reduction in their paychecks through furlough. A third of the key workers who kept this country going during Covid are earning less than the living wage. 14 million people are living in poverty, despite a majority of them being in work.
Yet the richest 250 people in the UK increased their wealth by £106 billion during the pandemic.
The system is rigged against working people precisely because the power of labour has been usurped by the arrogance of capital. But it need not be this way. It’s our job to win the argument. The analysis and policy details of Starmer’s contributory society simply fail to address the central problems facing the people whose interests we aspire to represent. We can make this argument if we have the courage to make it boldly. But I said that the Party’s task should be twofold. The second part of that task relates to how we build a movement which expresses the democratic, networked, horizontal zeitgeist of the times in which we live and which can win the argument for radical change in every community and workplace.
After all, the movement for social justice is not and can never be confined purely to an electoral battle every few years. It takes place in the workplaces, in communities, in foodbanks, in the peace and women’s movements, in the fight for environmental justice, and in solidarity movements for oppressed and exploited groups.
Ironically, preparing the ground for a Labour government means understanding the limitations of using Parliament to build power. It also means acknowledging that institutions, such as the mainstream media, can limit how we communicate ideas.
The new movement we need to build therefore needs to develop new ways of organising at neighbourhood level and fostering links through new media. We must build power inside and crucially outside Parliament, the party, council chambers, and elsewhere. But it cannot be done in the same old ways. The days of command and control top-down politics are over. We must develop a future for the many, but also by the many.
Under Corbyn, we pursued the right strategy by creating the Community Organising Unit, but we weren’t able to go as widely or as deeply as we needed to to build those foundations.
What is clear from Starmer’s essay is that he plans to deliver none of this. He will instead rely on a revisionist strategy which, if history is anything to go by, is sure to fail – both intellectually and electorally.
We should be proud of how far we came in 2017, but we cannot live in the past. We must build on what we started under Corbyn and learn from the mistakes we made. It will be hard work, but we cannot give up the fight.