Is it time to rethink Labour?

The differences and attacks become personal when we view those we oppose as traitors to the party and its history. This passion destroys our ability to work together and produce a clear message. While we cannot nor should not have a party without dissent or discussion, we need one where such disagreements can be productive and civil. 

The Labour party means many things to many people. Our history of infighting is testament to this. It manages to embody both progressive ideas and socialist traditions; grand social change and support for local communities. It even allows for both Blair and Corbyn. When we step back and look at the myriad of contradictory positions and interpretations, we cannot help but wonder as to how such a party exists. It subsists only through emptiness.  

It has embraced different leadership philosophies and the subsequent factions; the Blairites, Corbynistas, and even the Milifandom. Forced names aside, such factionalism embodies the empty nature of the Labour party. The party is so undefined that any group can claim to have ideological superiority within its frame work, by appealing to tradition, innovation, or pragmatism. This is possible because Labour’s identity is so bare. It is simply the Left Wing party of the United Kingdom. Nothing more, nothing less.

When I ask whether the Labour Party needs to die, it is this party, whose existence is in question. It is a party that is trying to cover the entirety of the left whilst also having no specific ideology beyond that. While Labour maintains its core principles in its charter, the principles are not placed at forefront of Labour values. Labour is presented just as the leftwing party; a party of social principles and focused on supporting those worst off. While this is clearly admirable, it is in essence, non-descript.  

This is mirrored in the Tories; they are simply seen as the right-wing party. Alongside this they are presented as the party of stable economic growth and vague nationalism. The Tories have benefited from this blandness because it encompasses values that many people have. In general, the people are proud to be British and desire a strong economy. As individualism and a fetish for personal responsibility have become dominant in the social climate, Labour has not benefited like the Tories. The notions of social responsibility and large scale funding for social programs fly in the face of the prevailing attitudes, even when we take the last election into account.

It is tempting to view the election as a seal of approval for the current party, especially when we myopically view it from inside the party. We didn’t win. The Tories lost. We gained ground with certain populist policies, in which the content was broad and bland enough to be interpreted in a multitude of ways. That leaves a problem for when we face an organized Tory opposition or when we attempt to govern with continued support. A lack of detail in policy may attract some people, but it is useless in the face of strong opposition or the need to function as a government.

We can compare Labour’s situation to that of the American Democrats. They are as non-descript as Labour; they are just the opposite of the Republicans and represent vague leftwing causes. They however have wedge issues that can unite people. The democrats can appeal to pro-choice, gun control, and climate change legislation, in an effort to unite disparate left wing and centrist positions. Labour does not have that luxury.

There are no easy issues that we can unite behind. The different factions of the UK left all have nuanced positions on important issues. Some want mass redistribution, others want steady economic development, while others are focused on the development of local government. The point is Labour lacks distinctive issues to unite its membership and voters. We may agree on what are general problems, such as austerity or the dismantling of the welfare state, but we have no specific or consistent solutions or positions in response to said problems. This then leads to massive infighting and a factionalist party.

When I call for a more defined ideology, I do not do so with one in mind. This is not an advocacy for the extreme left or tepid centrism. It is rather, an argument simply for a specific position; a real ideology for the party. If it is on the far left, then we allow for the likelihood of party splits and the creation of new centre left and centrist parties, and vice versa.

A coalition of left wing parties has the possibility of being far more productive than a factionalist single party. Each party can focus on different constituencies and produce more nuanced views, specific for local government levels. When such parties disagree, it need no longer been seen as a betrayal of party politics but as legitimate disagreement between parties; disagreements that can be adjudicated and settled fairly and without ego.

I know the optimism which oozes from this diatribe, but I ask you to consider the current infighting within the party. We all hold vaguely similar beliefs and yet we attack each other with such venom. The differences and attacks become personal when we view those we oppose as traitors to the party and its history. This passion destroys our ability to work together and produce a clear message. While we cannot nor should not have a party without dissent or discussion, we need one where such disagreements can be productive and civil. One way to do this is to give a real definition of Labour. A thick definition can give the party a touchstone which can form and regulate debates. Such security entails the possibility of becoming a smaller party and being open to working with others, but this is not an inherently bad idea. 

 

Angus Ryan is a Young Fabians member.

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