Saturday 8 September 2018

Can Blairism Win Back the Labour Party?

The world is a complicated place, so pity those who do not possess the tools to understand it. That Tony Blair for instance is one of many from the politics of yesteryear having a hard time adjusting to our polarised times. As you've probably heard, in conversation with Nick Robinson he cast doubt on whether moderates (sic) could ever win back the Labour Party from the left. With politics dominated by Jeremy Corbyn's Labour and (he assumes) a Boris Johnson Tory party, he said "I just don't believe people will find that, in the country as a whole, an acceptable choice. Something will fill that vacuum." This is because most people are "socially liberal" and believe in a "a strong private enterprise sector alongside a state that is capable of helping people". If Tony paid a bit more attention to politics, he might discover Labour has scooped up the lion share of the socially liberals while those who are wedded to his wonky rendering of pro-business, share-holding and home-owning constituencies, they are gathered about the Tories. Silly Tony.

Nevertheless, he does ask an interesting question. Can the Labour right make a comeback? To answer that question we need to briefly look upon Labour Party history. It's true enough that Corbynism represents a break with the past because never in the party's history has the left been so dominant. In the intervals when pacifist leftism and Keynesian revanchism led the party, the right still held the whip hand in the trade union movement and the party apparat. By way of contrast, the left now has the leadership, the membership, the unions, and is slowly working its way through the machinery of party administration. Blairism at its imperial height had the PLP and council groups, the bureaucracy, and had a very unsure grip on the unions (who tended to accept Blair because he looked like an election winner) and the membership (ditto).

They don't like to admit it, but a set of contingent circumstances allowed Blairism to arise. The most germane of which were the factional battles of the 1980s that saw the right win and the Labour left reduced to a rump, the decline of the labour movement as a weighty force in wider society, and the overturning of the post-war settlement. All three compounded, resonated with and drew into alignment certain milieux, certain union general secretaries, and certain occupational groupings. The long and short of it was the severe weakening of the left and the labour movement under the impact of Thatcher's attacks, particularly the defeat of the miners and later on the Wapping dispute, which profoundly disoriented and stunned militant trade unionists, driving many out of politics altogether. Yet the defeat wasn't just felt by the left, it accelerated the decline of the labour movement - a consequence we've yet to recover from. This meant as unions of the right, left and centre merged, diminished and faded so their influence in the Labour party fell. The pathways from the the shop floor and union office closed down, and as lay officials and MPs weren't coming forward in as greater number the sorts of links with union bureaucracies that were once crucial to the running of the party were not getting incorporated into the apparatus of rule underpinning the party leadership. Likewise, as the unions declined so Kinnock and later Blair went out of their way to recruit nice, shiny middle class people. This was about putting distance between Labour and its horny handed son of toil image as much as recruiting a new base for their so-called modernisation project. Sure, the middle class had been part of the party from the beginning but the decline of the labour movement allowed it to become even more dominant. One of the most obvious consequences was the party's moving from a canter to a gallop to the right in the 1990s. Without a political base in the communities heavily hit by Thatcherism, politics for this coterie - Blair included - was less about articulating the interests of wage earners and more about adapting to the political landscape divined by the front pages of the mass market tabloids. Therefore "what works", a mantra beloved of the Labour right, is never a pragmatic consideration: it is always an abrogation, a fetishisation of their inability or unwillingness to provide political leadership. They accommodated Thatcherism and once in office they deepened the reach of the market and capital further, because it was the easy thing to do.

Blairism then would not have been possible without the defeats of the 1980s. However, the same alignment of forces of which it is a product cannot come around again. As we have seen, the current wave of radicalism is largely confined to the party. Sure, there are lots of things going on below the radar and public debate has shifted so feminism, alternative economics, socialism and, gasp, even communism have re-entered the mainstream. Then again, so has racism, misogyny, xenophobia and fascism. But the unions have not enjoyed an up tick of rank-and-file activity nor a flood of new recruits. Indeed, contrary to how the Labour left thought its path to winning was the long, hard slog of gradual movement building on a constituency-by-constituency basis, the 2015 leadership victory was as sudden as it was unexpected. It appeared to bypass developments in the unions, though trade unionists were an important component of the Corbyn voter coalition. This was demonstrated in the failed Corbyn coup, which collapsed because the parliamentary party only organised among themselves and didn't bother to even try and get union leaders on side. To have stood a chance of succeeding, they needed to be in the plotters' pockets.

That said, drawing them into Blairist PLP intrigues wasn't possible either. Weakened as they were, under Blair's governments unions in general began taking a turn to the left. This was a response to the arrogant and high-handed manner with with New Labour approached unions, more or less openly regarding them as embarrassing relatives, and because of repeated attacks on workers' living standards, particularly around privatisation and cuts to public services. So when the mood of workers who actively engaged in their unions shifted, so did the political colouration of their leaderships. Therefore not only were they ill-disposed toward MPs who wouldn't give them time of day otherwise, it would have been career suicide for any union general secretary to back them.

The unions then are not a route back for the Labour right. Neither is running to the press, which is only weakening the right further while strengthening and emboldening the left. Four CLPs have no confidenced their sitting MPs, how many more? It seems then there are three plausible scenarios in which the Labour right can make a comeback. The first would be a sudden move away from polarised politics. No, the formation of a new "centrist" party won't break up the left coalition, but what would would be an egregious betrayal of one of Labour's key lines. Imagine Jeremy Corbyn coming out for NHS charging, the increasing of tuition fees, or getting chummy with Benjamin Netanyahu. Not going to happen precisely because getting Labour to attack its class base means disposing the meat and gravy of what Corbynism as a movement is. It's like expecting the Tories to champion the cause of the workers against business. Therefore any strategy dependent on a deus ex machina demobilising the membership and causing hundreds of thousands of them to flee the party isn't going to happen - despite the best efforts at scorched earth by some Labour parliamentarians.

The second is if anything happens to Jeremy Corbyn at this stage of the movement's development. If he was to retire or fall under a bus (I mean, the PLP have thrown him under one enough times), Tom Watson takes over in his constitutional capacity as party deputy. His power certainly wasn't what it used to be, particularly in the old WestMids region, but there is no doubt he would use his position to try and dial back Corbynism. If you think you've seen infighting these last three years, it could easily get much uglier. The hope for the Labour right would be Watson using the position to undertake mass purges, slinging out left Labour MPs, and sacking dozens of party staff. But he would not have the unions nor the membership nor the NEC in his corner, making a bloody task next to impossible, unless somehow fortune smiles on him.

The third avenue for the right is the one the left were saddled with for 30-odd years: patient political struggle. This means less shenanigans and more debating, more recruiting. Unfortunately for the right, they have no arguments. Blair doesn't offer a critique of Corbyn's Labour, more sound bites about it. Neither do our Chuka Umunnas, Mike Gapess, Ian Austins, and Jess Phillipss. They say Labour is this, that, and the other without making a case nor seeking to persuade their opponents. Fine, they don't know how to and are too busy being very important people, but their wing of the party continues to be all at sea. How many of them, how many would-be careerists can honestly look down the barrel of a possible 30 years of struggle without any guarantee it would come good for them in the end? What ideas and principles can they cling to in the coming years of sparsely attended fringe meetings and a studied disinterest in what they have to say by the membership and, indeed, anyone else? To use the management language of Blairism, what is their "offer" to a left-moving Labour Party, their strategy for taking back the country, and their solutions to address long-running. complex environmental, economic and social problems?

Predicting politics is a fraught activity, but one that isn't entirely impossible or fruitless. The old certainties are gone, for sure, but it's very difficult to see how a rebooted Blairism or a New New Labour politics can make a comeback any time soon.


Marie Roget said...

There was a little girl

There was a little girl
Who had a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead.
When she was good,
She was very, very good;
But when she was bad -
She was horrid.

After your piss-poor personal attack on sweet, inoffensive, white-haired Craig Murray, it is encouraging to see you back to your usual good form: stimulating, thoughtful, rigorous analysis.

Jeremy Corbyn (Parody) said...

Members: membership's up, funding's up, polling's up, and seats are up.

Blair: "There are lots of people associated with me who feel that the Labour Party is lost."

David Timoney said...

The party membership have always been to the left of the PLP, though not necessarily particularly radical. Most Momentum members today would historically have been considered "soft left". The right didn't win in the 80s so much as the left lost (albeit narrowly), largely because of union clout.

The right have traditionally relied on the support of the unions and control of the apparatus. Their own "realism" has undermined the one while democracy (itself stimulated by the decline of the unions) has tamed the other. The point is that the right has never really commanded the support of the membership. The only way they have been able to win in the past has either been by rigging the contest or by subterfuge (e.g. Blair himself claimed to be a socialist and CND member to win the Sedgefield candidacy).

What Blair is mourning is the end of Labourism, not the Labour Party.

Anonymous said...

Well, to be fair to Blair on this one occasion, it does seem that in the first half of the 1980s he genuinely was "soft left" - and was even willing to use Marxist analysis on occasion.

I think what is totally beyond dispute is that, whatever his precise positioning back then, he was nowhere near as right wing as he is now.

Speedy said...

The Labour right is finished at least for the foreseeable. However, I think Blair's point about a choice between Corbyn and Johnson is to the point - except that middle vote could go to the Lib Dems.

I think the anti-semitism row has damaged Labour (although I don't think there's anything to it) and I think Corbyn will get a much tougher time the next time round, now the papers know an election is not a foregone conclusion.

In this case, I think there is an opportunity for a Lib Dem pro-Europe "sensible" party to become the third force and take their place in a coalition government, possibly with Labour. I'm not saying that's a good thing, simply an observation. Oh, and that's where the Blairites will go, too - neither the left Tories or right Labour need to invent a new party.

Anonymous said...

Though I am intrigued, Speedy, exactly how the press in particular could make it "much tougher" for Corbyn than they did last year.

And some of us still dream of another "Gestapo" moment ;)

Unknown said...

Labourism has been dead for 20 years surely. This was the subject of Gregory Elliott's excellent 'Labourism and the English genius'.

Unknown said...

One of the key constituents of the original Project Blair was the media in its wider sense.The c. Thatcher era emergence of a pseudo class,TV execs,star journalists, the Commentariat,PR,Pundits, Think Tank pimpery,et al. LWT was a New Labour breeding ground (Mandelson, Phillips, Wills etc), BBC political hacks were virtually on the New Labour payroll (eg Lance Price). They all saw their own personal future in the brave new world of Blairism and loathed the "old dated class politics" of Labour. Their power is now much diminished, deeply suspect and scorned They are no longer the "reality shapers", too many bridges have been burnt. It's a new dawn.

Ken said...

I’ve just seen Andrew Rawnsley with a headline about how a centre party is possible. You’ve saved me the bother of reading it.

Meme Means Meme said...

What are the best Blair memes?

"In Kuala Lumpur, after two years of investigation by the Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Commission (KLWCC), a tribunal (the Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Tribunal, or KLWCT) consisting of five judges with judicial and academic backgrounds reached a unanimous verdict that found George W Bush and Tony Blair guilty of crimes against peace, crimes against humanity, and genocide as a result of their roles in the Iraq War." 2011-11-22

neuropol said...

I think overall this is an accurate depiction of where the right of the party find themselves. And what is striking is how self inflicted this position is. Had they accepted that Corbyn's original victory should be a wake up call rather than treating it as an aberration that would soon dissolve away they could have spent the last 3 years coming up with their own analysis of the UKs situation and their own policy proposals. That would have been a hard task but they could now be prepared with their own policy agenda and be working to try and win over a membership that was probably softer left.

Instead their constant sniping has radicalised members behind Corbyn, left them with even less support than they had previously and convinced many that deselection will be less painful than retaining them as MPs

Tmb said...

The Blairite section of the Labour party never had any intention of reconciling with the left of the party, they would all rather have the Tory party in, than a Labour party in under Corbyn. They showed their true colours. Now, the argument goes far beyond partisan Labour party politics, it is about the very definition of democracy, economics and how the economy should work, the media, and so many more things. This is because for the last 35 years or so we've had a one track, hard right economic model, an increasingly right wing and propagandised media, unaccountable politicians and people in power, the casualization of labour, the enriching of the already wealthy and the affluent middle class, and the purposeful and systemic pauperisation of the already poor. We now live with the results of this, and most people are quite understandably fed up.

We've had wealth redistribution from the poorest to the wealthiest, now we need wealth redistribution from the wealthiest to the rest of us. They can certainly afford it. Funny how wealth distribution to the richest is called capitalism but the other way round is called socialism, isn't it? Moral hypocrisy and double standards?? Surely not under the good Christian Theresa May? Surely she isn't a double dealing, money worshipping politician??