Jude Wilkinson writes that the Labour Party must remake itself or follow in the footsteps of the French Socialist Party's decline.
It’s a curious contradiction that politics, in spite of the bleak road ahead, is more exciting and dynamic, in many ways than it ever has been. Young people have never been more politically engaged; people are more politically active than ever before, the environmental movement has gained enormous traction, innovative social experiments around the world illuminate the path for future policy development.
At the same time, though, Labour is reeling from disastrous defeat, environmental catastrophe looms large, and we could face five years (or more) under the sage leadership of Johnson and Cummings. Even worse, the government’s legislative power will allow it to transform the post-Brexit UK economy well into the 2020s; in a sign of things to come, the latest version of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill removes the provisions relating to workers’ rights. There are further legislative implications for every other conceivable policy area.
The next decade may also bring unprecedented influence from think-tanks such as the Institute of Economic Affairs, the Legatum Institute and the Initiative for Free Trade. Their American affiliates have for some time maintained close links with the highest echelons of the Republican Party, and indeed the Atlas Network - a collaboration of over 450 economically liberal think-tanks, has established close relationships with several cabinet ministers including the Chancellor (1).
Aside from these (quite depressing) thoughts, commentary has not really addressed the ways in which the most electorally successful force in history has once again reinvented itself to devastating effect. There are several questions that ought to be addressed. For instance, when England has the most severe regional inequality in Western Europe, and when austerity most affected those already in post-industrial hardship, how could the party of austerity appeal to those worst affected by cuts?
Given public concern over tax havens, deregulation and unaccountable financial self-interest, how could the party most associated with big business credibly claim to challenge those interests?
In what will doubtless be a year of political soul-searching, I would draw upon ideas previously cited by some commentators. As countless historians have observed, economic and political crises are seized upon either by those in power, or those aspiring to it, who may produce lasting change. In this way, the last election saw how the party of the establishment used economic insecurity and resentment to win popular support against the ‘political class’. In convincing an electorate who had seen high-street closures, precarious employment and the stagnation of their communities that they were held in contempt by an ‘elite’, the party of the establishment became an anti-establishment populist movement.
As we reflect on what went wrong, to descend into internecine conflict won’t get us anywhere - but this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be uncritically honest. This brutally effective Conservative strategy, combined with intransigent issues on the left, were among the factors that pulled apart the historic Labour coalition between metropolitan cities and post-industrial areas.
We ought to remain under no illusions about the difficulties involved in rebuilding this historic alliance. The challenge is surely to build a movement which both channels the anger and frustration of those let down by a decade of broken promises and the optimism and energy of young, metropolitan dynamism; which appeals both to aspiration and economic justice; which builds a diverse, inclusive movement whilst listening to the concerns of voters who feel left behind.
If Labour can’t resolve its internal tensions and recapture the terms of political discourse, it will fade into irrelevance. Across Europe, parts of the traditional centre-left have crumbled. The German SDP, the Dutch Labour Party, Pasok, to name but a few, whilst the former HQ of the Socialist Party in France has recently been converted into luxury flats. Onwards and upwards!