The New Statesman this week has a special section devoted to ‘the crisis in Labour and the future of the Left’, with contributions from all twelve remaining members of Britain’s centre left. It’s not exactly a diverse group of contributors: with the exception of Paul Mason, who, since he left Channel 4 News has come out as a Corbynite radical (he writes about his working-class grandfather drinking pints at the pub to prove he’s a proper man of the people), they’re all men (and a couple of women) of the metropolitan liberal soft left. In other words, my kind of people.
So kudos to Philip Collins – formerly an advisor to Tony Blair and now a columnist for The Times and therefore, in the eyes of the Corbynite Labour Party, Satan’s poodle twice over – who manages to stand out from this most homogenous of crowds. He does so by employing a trick familiar to anyone who did an essay-based arts subject at university: he challenges the premise of the question. ‘When the Conservative Party is out of power,’ he writes, ‘nobody talks about a crisis of the political right… It is a sign of the British left’s lack of confidence that, by thinking too much, it is able to redefine its defeats as crises.’ Labour’s current predicament, he continues, ‘is better described by the demotic term “mess” than the marxisant grandiosity of “crisis”.’
On the basis of this refusal to accept the “crisis” narrative, Collins gets my vote for most interesting contribution. But interesting and right don’t necessarily go together. Does the evidence back up his assertion that the doom-mongers are laying it on too thick? The essence of the distinction he makes between a mess and a crisis is about agency. Did Labour get itself into this mess as a result of its own ineptitude or is the rug being pulled out from under it by deeper structural shifts in the electorate?
Curiously, given that this special edition was timed to coincide with Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election as Labour leader, the contributors mostly write him off as an irrelevance. He’s more symptom than cause of the malaise on the left they say. Same with Brexit. The true cause of Labour’s crisis, which Brexit has merely dragged from under the carpet and shoved into the spotlight, is the now irreconcilable gap between the social values of the party’s traditional white working-class base in Wales and the North, and its other base among middle-class metropolitan liberals in London. Corbyn may be particularly ill-suited to the task of bridging this divide: he lacks appeal in the working-class North because he’s a “champagne socialist” from Islington, while, at the same time, many liberal Londoners (myself included) feel his failure to sound remotely convincing as a Europhile means he isn’t really one of us either. But it’s hard to imagine another candidate emerging who could win over both sides of what used to be the Labour electorate. A Tristram or a second Miliband might appeal to me, but I’m not sure either of them would go down well in disaffected, Leave-voting Sunderland.
Pan out from our little archipelago and the picture gets yet more discouraging. According to last week’s Economist, ‘since the late 1990s support for social-democratic parties has fallen by about half in Germany, two-thirds in the Netherlands and over three-quarters in Poland.’ They borrow George Dangerfield’s memorable line about the end of the Liberal Party, suggesting that, perhaps, the “strange death of Labour Britain” has arrived. But maybe even that is an under-statement. What if we’re actually living through the strange death of European social democracy?
Across the Atlantic, the picture is more mixed. If Clinton wins in November, then a North America led by her and Justin Trudeau could become a beacon of hope for the centre left elsewhere. If, god forbid, Trump wins… I can’t even bring myself to finish the thought.
Back to Collins, then, and the argument that Labour’s in a mess not a crisis. Is he right? Despite the fact that Labour’s slide can be seen as part of a much bigger trend afflicting European social democracy, I’m inclined to say he is. The reason is that the comparison with the Tories is apt. As John Lanchester pointed out in The London Review of Books in July, the Brexit vote showed up a split within both parties. ‘The Tories,’ he wrote, ‘are a coalition of nationalists, who voted out, and business interests, who voted in; Labour is a coalition of urban liberals, who voted in, and the working class, who voted out.’ Why, then, is it only Labour that seems troubled by internal divisions? There are personality clashes at the top of the Conservative Party too, but these are seen for what they are: the petty wranglings of individuals with outsized egos; not as symptoms of some deep-seated ideological rift.
So where do we go from here? Is it time to fall in line behind Comrade Jez? Not quite. I think the New Statesman gang is broadly right to treat him as an irrelevance. The centre left needs to renew itself – first and foremost, intellectually. It needs to grapple with the issues of the 2020s and 2030s – the potential mass obsolescence of the human workforce in the face of ever-more-sophisticated machines, the fate-of-our-species-defining struggle to transition to a zero carbon economy (to name but two) – rather than re-running the arguments of the 1980s. This intellectual renewal requires institutional support, but not necessarily from Labour.
Collins concludes his essay as follows: ‘Britain needs a centre-left party to be a viable not-Conservative government. It may not need the Labour Party.’ I think this is right. On the basis of this week’s evidence, I’d say the survival of The New Statesman is now of greater importance to the progressive cause in Britain than the survival of the Labour Party. Let’s hope, therefore, that NS editor Jason Cowley’s choice of title for this week’s special issue – ‘The New Times’, a reference to a seminal edition of Marxism Today published in 1988, three years before that magazine ceased to exist – is not an omen.