Where does Labour go now?
Parliament starts the new decade with Labour still in a state of grief…and anger…about its crushing election defeat. It’s a good place to start.
If we’re brutally honest, the real grief is not rooted in the depleted number of Labour MPs, nor in the personal tragedy defeat meant for Jeremy Corbyn. At its core is the damage done to the bigger dream that once surrounded Corbyn.
Addressing this offers little comfort to either Left or Right. Bigger picture politics will dominate the years ahead. Even Britain’s Defence and Security services recognise that the greatest threats we face (both domestically and internationally) will come under 3 headings
- our complete unpreparedness for climate shocks and ecosystem breakdown,
- unsustainable gaps between the richest and poorest, and
- the prospects of secular stagnation within the coming decade.1
As climate physicists continually try to warn us, ‘There are no small steps left’. Only systemic, transformative change might hold society together. This applies as much to a deeply divided Britain as to a Europe also in danger of disintegration. Even the US Army High Command belatedly recognise this affects them too.2
Beyond factional simplicities
The 2019 debacle leaves both the Left and Blairites facing some uncomfortable truths. For nostalgic Blairites, there is no cosmetic ‘middle ground’ that is relevant to the existential challenges ahead. Individualised, aspirational politics offers no answers to climate crises. Nor can we expect to shop our way through the upheavals to come. Only t h e s h i f t i n t o m o r e c i r c u l a r economics stands a chance.
For the Left, the problems begin with Labour’s failure to root its policies in the radical decentralisation regularly espoused by both Corbyn and McDonnell, but which never made it past control obsessions within the ‘Corridoriat’ of Senior Advisors surrounding them.
1 Understanding the ‘New Normal’—’The Challenge of Secular Stagnation: an economy that works.’ Briefing Paper Series, No 1, Tim Jackson, http://limits2growth.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/ 2018/07/AETW-Policy-Briefing-No-1-digital.pdf
2 ‘Implications of climate change for the US Army’. United States Army War College, https:// climateandsecurity.files.wordpress.com/2019/07/implications-of-climate-change-for-us-army_army- war-college_2019.pdf
Killing the dream
In 2017, hundreds and thousands were drawn towards Jeremy, not because of specific Labour policies but because he symbolised a different sort of politics; something open, honest, radical and inclusive; a politics that promised to be genuinely transformative. In 2017 Labour lost, but we felt like winners.
But even in 2017 it was clear that, for the following election, the technicolor dreamboat of values drawn to Corbyn’s Labour would need more specific pegs to hook itself onto. People also needed to know their own part – as players, not just passengers, in this transformative change. On both counts, Labour failed.
The 2019 electoral disaster was a combination of catastrophic misjudgment and ill-focussed organisation. Jeremy will inevitably carry much of the blame. But Labour’s deeper problems lie more in the cadre of senior advisors surrounding Corbyn. None should be allowed within a million miles of Labour’s rebuilding.
Blinded by Brexit
This was an election that should never have happened. Johnson only had one card – Brexit – and Labour allowed him to play it. Labour should have forced the Tories to wallow in the Brexit mess Johnson had wrapped himself in. A spring or summer election would have suited Labour much better…especially if the condition for agreeing to one was that Johnson’s Brexit deal should have been put to a public vote first.
Anything other than this was certain to end up as a Brexit election; with the inevitable bottom-of-a- barrel race into alienation and resentment that followed. The trouble is that many of those closest to Corbyn always looked as if they wanted Brexit anyway.
The fudge of Brexit neutrality made Labour look indecisive and Jeremy weak. It spurned Labour’s strongest card in favour of a public vote. This should have been championed as a demonstration of what trade union democracy always involves. National disputes routinely occur. Trade union leaders negotiate with national or international employers, hammering out the best deal they can get. But the actual deal always goes back to the members for their final informed decision.
Neither the Tories nor the Brexit party give a hoot about trade union democracy. But Labour does. It is the high ground of democratic accountability the Party should have stood on. Whatever the outcome it would have taken Brexit off the table. Any subsequent election would have had to address the bigger threats of societal and climate collapse already hovering around our doorsteps. It was self-deceiving to say Labour won the bigger arguments in the election. We never even got close to having them.
Labour’s manifesto – full of genuinely radical changes – was longer (and more expansive) than my mum’s shopping lists. These were policy arguments that had to be won before an election, not during one. Even candidates struggled to digest many of the manifesto details.
More decisively, Labour lacked a simple strap-line. We didn’t even have the wit to pinch the Tory one. Dumping the ‘Brexit’ part of their ‘Get it done’ and prefacing it with a succession of bigger issues; ‘Fix the planet: Get it done‘, ‘Tackle homelessness:…’, ‘Repair the NHS:…’, ‘End poverty:…’. would least have forced a proper debate on the more fundamental ‘Get it done’ challenges ahead.
Where it all went wrong
This criticism, though, merely puts a bow-tie on a corpse. Labour had been playing into Tory hands long before Johnson took control. This may be the hardest thing for the Left to face up to.
While Labour was still falling in love with Jeremy the Tories set about casting him as a man who couldn’t lead. Corbyn’s senior team helped with this, turning Jeremy’s campaigning zeal into an absence rather than an asset. Goodness knows how many rail-miles Jeremy clocked up, but it never became the ‘leadership’ peg the public were looking for. Within the LOTO comfort zone activity passed for strategy, when there was none. Instead of leading a mass movement, with a hugely empowered, devolved power base, Jeremy ended up with a corridor cabal. The opportunity to build a wider consensus (even within the PLP) got lost behind internal obsessions with control.
When David Cameron began his attempt to detoxify the Tory image he knew he couldn’t do so from within his parliamentary party. It was (and is) full of too many crazies. His answer was to set up a series of Commissions, bringing fresh ideas in from outside and (without ever formally endorsing them) associating himself with fresh thinking and openness. Post-2016, the Left failed to see it needed to do the same.
Corbyn inherited a PLP that wanted to lynch him and (to their credit) an office determined to stop them. Sadly, it also created a siege/control mentality that was never able to reach outwards. McDonnell brought in Lord Kerslake to oversee Treasury reform plans. No parallel Commissions ever got through the LOTO net. No national/international figures were ever brought in to raise Jeremy’s policy/leadership profile. No one who’d ever arm-wrestled in climate negotiations, trade deals or peace diplomacy came in to lead Labour’s transformation planning.
Instead, ‘corridor control’ came to dominate. Factionalism overtook radicalism. At the most senior levels, people who’d never negotiated anything more than an extended tea-break were left in charge of the policy sifting process. The most repeated Shadow Ministerial complaint was about delays in getting radical policy proposals through the LOTO soup. Sue Hayman saw a string of her Environment proposals get lost in this Never-never-land. Two years on, Alan Whitehead still awaits approval for publication of his Local Energy book (on radical decentralisation). Andy MacDonald’s pledge to set annual carbon budgets for every part of the transport sector never became the platform for transformative changes in aviation and shipping policy. His proposed ‘pendulum shift’ of funding from private to public transport infrastructures went the same way. Germany’s 10% cut in rail fares shows how popular such radical changes can be.
Beyond fairness or revisionism
If an appeal to ‘fairness’ was never going to win Labour the 2019 election, nor was Blairite revisionism. Technically, the Left could argue that Labour’s share of the vote (32.2%) was better than Ed Miliband’s 30.4% in 2015 and Gordon Brown’s 29% in 2010. In absolute numbers, Labour also gained more votes than it did in 2005 (10,269,076 versus 9,552,436) under the then leadership of Prime Minister, Tony Blair. But so what?
Labour also got trashed because the Blairite legacy finally caught up with it. When I entered parliament in 1992 Scotland was solidly Labour. So too were all the northern seats we’ve just lost. But in 1997 New Labour had different priorities.
Week after week, meetings of the Parliamentary Labour Party were offered policy initiatives based on New Labour fixations with competitive individualism and the ‘opportunity society’. Real power shifted from citizens to corporations; and from the public realm to the private. The pursuit of Mondeo Man and Worcester Woman became the New Labour mantras.
Those of us complaining that such policies offered little to Labour’s ‘core voters’ were told bluntly that core voters had nowhere else to go. One look at the Labour wasteland that is now Scotland, and the broken Red Wall of the North and Midlands, tells you how foolish the claim was.
Post-2010, the SNP wrapped a nationalist flag round Old Labour’s redistributive policies and took over our turf: 40 Labour seats were lost and have never been recovered. In 2019, the Tories did
the same in the North and Midlands; taking Labour seats where ‘the end of boom and bust’ and ‘enduring prosperity’ both looked more like sick jokes.
The Tories will try to hang on to these seats by throwing money at them, but almost certainly on terms that reward corporate backers far more than impoverished communities. So where does Labour go next?
Back to the Future?
The first thing Labour must do is avoid any retreat into centrism. Look at the fires currently raging in Australia and the floods in nearby Indonesia. Look at our own pre-Christmas floods or earlier fires that wreaked havoc from California to the Arctic Circle. Look at the ice melt. There is no ‘nice politics’ of the middle ground to return to. Business as usual will never return. Any wannabe Labour Leader who ducks the centrality of transformative climate politics is not worth following.
No less dangerous are any siren calls to patriotism. The Right will play this card, and do so divisively. Brexit will break Britain. The Left needs a bigger, anti-poverty, climate politics to hold communities, and the country, together. The real answers will be found closer to mutualism than patriotism.
Regionalised and localised approaches to flood prevention, food security, air quality, re-wilding, fuel poverty, clean energy and transport must form the backbone of a Labour commitment to re- found accountable, secure and inclusive democracy. It needs to go hand in hand with the radical re-empowerment of local government. There is no other way of delivering the 20%+ annual CO2 reductions needed to avoid the next tranche of climate tipping points.
In early 2017, John McDonnell, Jeremy and I began work on what was to be a Labour ‘Smart Cities’ Initiative. The plan was to open up conversations with up to 20 localities about the development of radically decentralised, clean-energy grids. Modelled on lessons from both Denmark and Germany, the plan was to put localities in the driving seat of strategies that made ‘climate’ the centrepiece of tomorrow’s economics. It needed rapid decarbonisation of the energy system, nationwide energy efficiency and waste reduction programmes, the use of smart technologies to localise, store and share energy, and a new skills agenda delivering full employment in a more circular economy.
The Party HQ balked at 20 pilot areas but agreed to a launch group of 3; kicking off on Merseyside, with support from the Metro Mayor. The Mayor was great. The venue, workshops and speakers were all agreed on. But the political penny began to drop that this posed a serious threat to existing fossil fuel interests and to centralised energy generation. Suddenly no one could find a common diary date for Jeremy and John. No one could agree which part of LOTO’s lap it should fall on. The 3-D commitment – decarbonisation, decentralisation and democratisation – became the first of Labour’s ‘corridor casualties’.
Climate priorities, as well as electoral calculations, dictate that this is where Labour’s repair work must begin. It means doing so in Scotland and Wales as much as in the newly lost heartlands of the North and Midlands. This is where tomorrow’s security, stability and democracy politics will find its roots. Labour doesn’t have to wait for Banksy or the Security Services to spell this out.
The last election should have been the Climate Election. What happens in the next decade will determine whether we tip from crisis to collapse. Labour needs to become the Party that ensures we don’t.