Thursday 18 March 2021

Why Labour isn't Serious about Winning

At school, fashion just wasn't my thing. Not having two ha'pennies to rub together had something to do with it. But many decades later, words pour out from these fingertips and are arranged in semi-coherent diatribes and, well, despite myself they're consistently ahead of the curve. I never asked to be a politics hipster and will forever eschew the manicured beard to match, but today we learn the Labour leader has got his excuses in ahead of May's Super Thursday, which includes the ham-fistedly stitched Hartlepool by-election. If Labour don't do good, Keir Starmer argues it's because of the vaccine bounce. As it happens, this place discussed it, or rather the myth of the vaccine bounce a fortnight ago. Just call me Nostradamus.

Let's quickly recall the argument. Have the Tories lately enjoyed a poll boost that can be attributed to a speedy vaccine roll out? Yes. But is this why Labour is doing badly? No. Having recovered Labour's position by December time to level pegging, this has disspated and gone into reverse since the beginning of the year. You can pinpoint refusing to stand by core components of Labour's voter coalition, clumsy posturing, and dumping principles to explain how Dear Keir has demobilised part of the vote. More significant in my view, particularly among Labour adjacent/soft voters is a lack of opposition. The myth of the vaccine bounce is political cover for these reversals. It's not his fault. In fact, Keir is doing a brilliant job. It's just, well, the circumstances. Funny how the sorts peddling these lines were never as forgiving and attuned to wider politics when Jeremy Corbyn was operating in tougher conditions.

This failure is rooted in the kind of project Keir Starmer and the Labour right are trying to build: a prospectus of centralised, statist managerialism, but one that is doomed because it doesn't understand the Tory party. Whether this misunderstanding is innocent or wilful, we'll come onto in a moment. But it's obvious to anyone with a passing acquaintance to Stuart Hall's work, have read a bit of Gramsci, and paid any attention whatsoever to British politics that Johnson's Tories are in for the long haul. They already have mobilised a powerful voter coalition which, thanks to its age distribution, is more likely to vote. They have a policy agenda that responds to and articulates the fears of this bloc, and they have a helpful and suppine media that allows them to set the terms of debate. Furthermore, this isn't just about winning future elections: it's a matter of strengthening the class relationships that sustain the interests the Tory party is a container for, and ensuring the post-Covid settlement departs as little from the pre-Covid settlement as possible.

There are two ways to contest a hegemonic project. It can be challenged with a counter-hegemony, or one can choose to go along with it. This is exactly what Tony Blair did upon assuming Labour's leadership in 1994. It worked for him, so why not for Keir Starmer? Consider recent evidence. The Fabian pitch is better than what the Tories have on offer, but it would be a stretch to describe it as a qualitative break. Labour also routinely abstains on key authoritarian legislation, attmepts to steal the mantle of better pro-business managers of the settlement the Tories are building, it courts and refuses to take on the media, and is intent on putting distance between itself as a party of responsible Westminster-centric politics and the efforts Corbynism made to turn the party outwards. Nowhere do we see this capitulation to the Tory hegemonic project more than in Labour's response to the Coronavirus crisis. Tailing the government, focusing on process issues, challenging only when it's deemed politically safe to do so. It's a sad state of affairs when Boris Johnson cares more about the opinion of recalcitrant backbenchers than the official opposition facing him. To all intents and purposes, Keir's feeble opposition has assisted the Tories in striking their new authoritarian settlement. And they didn't even have to offer him a peerage.

In their own way, Keir and his little helpers aren't stupid people. They have reached the top of the second party of state, after all. They can see what's in front of them. They know the arguments pinging around Labour left discourse and why the Labour leadership aren't setting politics alight. And yet they persist. The Labour right have run the party for the bulk of its history, and they've never been made accountable for Westminster defeat after Westminster defeat, so we have to ask why they do keep failing. Crap leadership is only half of it, the other is the structural predisposition of the Labour Party itself. As a proletarian party, i.e. a party set up to represent everyone who sells their time and their labour in return for a wage or salary, the middle class and professional stratas have dominated the party politically and intellectually. Their world is one of organising capital, or selling specialist services to capital, or being placed in positions that oversees and manages the hoi polloi. Their top down being conditions their top down consciousness, which is imported unmediated into the Labour Party. The workers here are a populace to be led, and the establishment a partner to negotiate terms with.

Yet this outlook is entirely congruent with mainstream Labourism as it emerged from and continues to dominate the trade unions. Class struggle since the late 19th century has, in the main, been a ceaseless guerilla struggle. At times militant and noisy, but most of the time quiet and negotiated, improvements were wrung out of the ruling class in endless battles of attrition. How this appears is not as the truth of the class antagonism at the heart of capitalist society, but presents as isolated battles against employers who are short-sighted/greedy/bloody-minded. Trade unionism therefore has to be pragmatic, flexible, and patient. And with incremental steps, every wage and salary earner has benefited from workers so organised. This consciousness informs and conditions the union officialdom that inevitably emerges, and indelibly stamped the politics of the early workers' representatives who made their way to Westminster. The plodding velocity of compromise, talking, bargaining, and leveraging (latent) collective power not only fits the constitutionalism of bourgeois democracy like a glove, those who've risen within the labour movement have imbibed an outlook not a million miles from the middle class professionals. They were organisers of workers, and in all too many cases set themselves apart from the rest. Hence why Labour emerged at the very beginning as an alliance between the progressive middle class and the growing workers' movement: there was a fundamental meeting of minds.

Why is this relevant to the Labour right and Keir Starmer's leadership? The leftist appreciation of trade union organisation is always accompanied by critique: the fact trade union officialdom has a material stake in the persistence of the wage relation in the same way professional associations maintain status through enclosure strategies. The role of trade union bureaucracies after 1945, through the Thatcher period, and well into the Blair/Brown years were, with some exceptions, as bulwarks against the left. Some still are. They struck at trends, movements, entryists, and activists who were a threat to their authority over organised labour, even if it meant dividing our movement and giving the Tories an easier time. This preoccupation is where the historic roots of the Labour right lie. Their position is thanks to the labour movement, and can only continue by keeping the lid on the labour movement. Everything else is secondary. Hence the Labour right's scorched earth and scabbing during the Corbyn years, the greater enthusiasm they have for combatting the left than the Tories, and ultimately why the only power they're serious about winning and keeping is their own in the party and the movement.

The daft strategies, the wrong politics, the fetish for focus groups, the incompetence and ineptitude, contrast this with Keir Starmer's single-minded ruthlessness inside the party. The right's will to self-preservation is the Labour Party's death instinct in full doom drive, an insatiable appetite for defeat, loss and decomposition as long as their authority and privileges persist. High office is a nice bonus if you can get it, but not the be all and end all. Hegemony shmegemony in other words. Expecting Keir and his sidekicks to be serious about winning a general election is as naive as taking compassionate conservatism at its word.


Graham said...

When I started reading your blog your main point was the inevitable decline of the Tories because they were locked into the politics of an aging and dying generation.
Now you seem to have switched to the inevitable decilne of the Labour party.

Phil said...

I always write about what's happening in politics at the moment, Graham. The Tories are locked into a spiral of their own and that's not about to change, but what is a more urgent matter is how Keir Starmer is disassembling the Labour party and the party's vote. Hence the switch in emphasis.

Robert Dyson said...

Very fascinating ideas there. This gives me a lot to ponder.

Rob said...

"The Labour right have run the party for the bulk of its history, and they've never been made accountable for Westminster defeat after Westminster defeat, so we have to ask why they do keep failing."

So when was the last time the Labour Left won an election? 1950? Isn't it fairer to say the Labour Party, as a whole, has a poor electoral record?

Also if the Right is disliked so much, why don't the Left breakaway, start a new party with all the policies they hold dear and fight the Tories in their preferred manner?

PeterB said...

A fair summary of the class dynamics within the Labour Party, and the often reactionary nature of trade union officialdom. It matches my experiences. The only time I've been threatened with the sack was in the late 1970s by a trade union official, following a wild cat work-to-rule. I was told by the union convenor that he would 'have me sacked' and that I'd 'never work again' if we (warehouse workers) didn't go back to work loading unsafe lorries. The only time I've been aggressively 'closed down' in a meeting was during a local Labour Party meeting which was called to discuss Blair's rewriting of Clause 4. In both cases, the behaviour of the official led to the destruction of the very organisation they represented - i.e. the majority of my fellow warehouse workers left the union, and the ward Labour Party became moribund following a mass resignation of members.

You know, the disciplining of labour isn't just the preserve of the employing class.

Anonymous said...

You paint a convincing picture but back in the 90's the Labour right were determined to win, what in your opinion has changed?


Blissex said...

As usual my impression is that the Labour right is not simply fabian "aristocracy of the proletariat", still (barely) socialdemocrat, That's a component of the Labour right, but there is also the "whig" component who are not socialdemocrats or socialists, and while most of the shadow cabinet may be fabian, the "whig" ideology is what New Labour in the past and now New New Labour have largely adopted (plus "whatever it takes to win" like nationalist toryism).

Blissex said...

«back in the 90's the Labour right were determined to win,»

Not quite, they were desperate to win, and had no clue on how to win. So they fell for the temptations into "centrist" whiggish thatcherism whispered by the Prince Of Darkness.
They would not acknowledge how close Labour came to winning in 1983 and 1987 but for Falklands and the SDP. Eventually they won by default because the Conservatives crashed the southern property market, not because they were desperate or "determined" to win, or because of adopting "centrist" whiggish thatcherism, because the LibDems have and enduring faith in it and have not won an election in 100 years.

Jimbo said...

Although I admire much what you say the fact is labour need to do something to win in England if it has any chance of winning a general election. I'm pretty sure starmer has more chance of doing so than Corbyn did.

Going forward I think the main hope for labour is an electoral pact with other centre left parties in the hope of getting legislation passed to introduce a PR voting system. I wonder if the current leadership has the imagination in which to do this?

Dr Zoltan Jorovic said...

A very astute analysis, Phil. Have you read anything by Jeremy Heimans and his theories on the emergence of New Power? It seems to me that both labour and Tories are very much rooted in what he calls Old Power, and the real opportunity is not to try to wrestle control of that - its pretty well sown up as you suggest - but to bypass it. My view is that political parties as they currently exist are in inevitable decline. The surge of support from younger people for Corbyn was like a drought stricken tree flowering profusely one last time before it succumbed to slow decay. Heimans talks about Old power being like currency - hoarded, controlled and dispensed as required, whereas New power is like a current, directed and focused, but fast moving and not stored. His examples are of movements which emerge and have an impact but then tend to dissipate - e.g. MeToo, or BLM or even, to an extent, XR. They are built around not centralised, established organisations that you join and belong to for many years, but around ideas, issues and events. They channel huge amounts of energy very quickly and can have a real impact.

So, to answer @Rob, No, starting a new left wing party is pointless. It will simply compete for the same diminishing resource. It should be clear to everyone that serious electoral, constitutional and governmental (structural) reform is urgently required. Until that happens we are stuck with the dysfunctional setup that now ensures a permanent regressive dominance of (party) politics.

The alternative is to channel the underlying progressive majority through new structures and networks to force change. The mainstream media, the parliamentary system and the voting method are all captured by regressive forces that are too entrenched to challenge directly. We need to go around, over, under and beyond them to rebuild genuine deliberative, participative and authentically representative democracy.

Tober said...

Just wondering why you think Starmer has a better chance than Corbyn to win in England? Corbyns 2017 performance by vote share was close to Labours 2001 performance and I don't see how Starmer gets close to that given how he's alienated much of the left and the enthused membership willing to go out canvassing under Corbyn is now much smaller and less active. Corbyn was never as poor a general election performer (in England and Wales) as some would have us believe. Starmer has failed to give anyone a positive reason to vote for Labour under him and barely even articulated why you shouldn't vote for the Tories given how soft he generally is on them (compare his demand for Sturgeon to resign with his avoidance of demanding any Tory ministers resignation despite far worse indiscretions). Where are the votes going to come from? It all seems to depend on the Tories losing their otherwise rock-solid voter base somehow - which could only really happen if they crashed the housing market. And the Tories will do everything in their power to ensure that never happens.

Corbyns Labour were doing things to try and win in England and build a stronger voter base for the party as 2017 showed. It was then blown apart in the years after as we all know, but Starmer's strategy of pretending 2017 never happened and not trying to build on it or learn from it's successes (and failures) strikes me as utterly foolish (and I guess an example of how the Labour right doesn't want to win. The kind of politics that partly led to Labours growth in 2017 is anathema to them).

Also there aren't really many centre left parties to do any pacts with (I've no idea why the lib Dems are often described as centre left or progressive when they're nothing of the sort). Anything involving the nationalist parties will be pretty much impossible too (especially as Labour seemingly hate the SNP more then any other party). Plus it's debatable whether those other parties have enough votes in the right places to help such a coalition to victory anyway.

I don't know what the answer for Labour is given the massive structural advantages the Tories benefit from, but I'm pretty sure that Starmer and the Labour right don't have a clue and are heading in the wrong direction.

A. Pessimist said...

Dr Zoltan Jorovic said...

“The mainstream media, the parliamentary system and the voting method are all captured by regressive forces that are too entrenched to challenge directly.”



“We need to go around, over, under and beyond them to rebuild genuine deliberative, participative and authentically representative democracy.”

How, exactly?

John Smithee said...

Each morning, my neighbour two doors down, raises the St George’s flag up his flagpole. My mum’s cousin is chairman of the local St George’s dinner club which pre-Covid met once a month for dinner at our local Wetherspoon’s. At the same time, my brother thinks that Nigel Farage should receive a knighthood for services to Brexit.

To understand this growth in English nationalism I have recently been reading Gavin Esler’s excellent new book: How Britain Ends – English Nationalism and the Rebirth of the Four Nations. Gavin Esler was the was a main presenter of the BBC current affairs show Newsnight for 12 years until 2014.

As a soft Remainer, Mr Esler explains in his book how Brexit was an expression of English nationalism. His book is a warning to the ruling class of what could happen if that class does not take English nationalism seriously. Such nationalism was embodied in UKIP and now in the Tory Party under Boris Johnson which is now an English Nationalist Party.

Mr Esler’s solution to “How Britain Ends” is to call for a federal United Kingdom whilst keeping the monarchy. He also calls for an English Parliament with multi-member constituencies elected by single transferable vote. At the same time, as Mr Esler explains in his book, Brexit has done more towards the creation of a united Ireland than the IRA ever did.

Marxists must take English nationalism seriously and therefore neutralise the reactionary side of this nationalism by supporting the call for an English Parliament whilst also devolving power downwards from Whitehall to the regions and local councils. Marxists must also support the establishment of a socialist federal republic of England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, as part of a socialist united states of Europe.

John Smithee

Anonymous said...

Get more oomph for godsake Keir and win the election- yes you need that as well... it means risk or risk losing. I have left the LP. You have my vote and so many others if you do. The focus is on you. Do it- you can. Do you hear this? Worth a try... Why lose.

Lost Tango said...

The Labour left have only ever led the party once. They did preside over a massive increase in vote share. Didn't win, I'll grant you, but that's a big ask when you're up against not only the Tories and the mass media but significant sections of your own party.....