Labour Pains

Two emotions contend with each other when I think about what has been happening with the Labour party over the summer, depression and exasperation.

We live at a time when inequality is spiralling out of control, when technology is providing a challenge to employment way beyond what any self respecting luddite could have dreamt of, when the demographic time bomb has stopped ticking and started exploding and when climate change threatens the existence of the planet. Worse, in 2007/08 we had an object lesson in the frailties of neo-liberal orthodoxy when the financial markets imploded.

Given all this it is astounding the main party of opposition cannot engage the public with an effective narrative of the need for radical change. Why is this? I think there are some deep-seated issues but also some very practical matters. Starting with the latter.

Why was the Tory rewrite of history not contested after the last election? How did the massive increase in public debt become a result of Labour profligacy and not the complete failure of the banks due to a combination of derivative hubris, non-existent governance, inappropriate risk management, avarice and downright law breaking?

The tone and seriousness of the Tory position was set from the moment the Liam Byrne letter was released and used in a carefully crafted and constantly repeated barrage of misinformation. Perhaps an exhausted administration felt opposing the line given by a newly elected government might alienate voters for the future. It was a mistake, as trying to oppose a picture, which has had 5 years to sediment into the popular mind, is very difficult if not impossible.

But what are the more deep-seated issues to be addressed. This is more difficult and no doubt there will be theses written on this in due course however there is clearly a problem with the level of engagement with the core labour vote. One picture of this is that floating voters are scared of “the left” and “socialism” and in order to win and be able to do anything at all it is important to tack away from policies perceived as “extreme”.

Mr Mandelsen and other New Labour adherents talk about the need for “grown up” politics where the focus has to be on the need to win an election. It is difficult to disagree with that. On the other hand if the focus is on winning as an end in itself then it may actually become the biggest handicap to achieving success.

From a distance unfortunately it looks like a London centric cohort of Labour leaders are so busy trying to suppress the radical agenda of yesterday they have failed to notice that there is the need for what might be an even more radical agenda for today.

Much of Jeremy Corbyn’s agenda might be caricatured as old left. It has however excited and engaged many who have been turned off by politics and politicians. It perhaps says something about their appetite for something more than the half digested and regurgitated pap that is the stuff of focus group politics.

The spectre is raised that Labour will never get elected under Mr Corbyn. This may be the case, but what makes people think that Labour can get elected with leaders offering austerity-lite? Austerity–lite is always vulnerable to the charge that it is not austerity at all and if the country is convinced that austerity is the solution why vote Labour when you can have the party that does austerity really well.

There are a series of issues which have been evolving over the past 30 years, inequality, demographics, info/techno-automation, globalisation and perhaps most significant of all climate change. The responses to all these have so far ranged between inadequate and totally inadequate. They all raise profound economic challenges that go to the heart of the current model of capitalism. They are increasingly recognised by a wide range of economists, political theorists and social commentators far beyond the “workers revolutionary” fringe that some might try to imply.

Whether Mr Corbyn gets elected or not his success to date in galvanising a very broad spectrum of people needs to be recognised. The Labour party needs to rethink its policies across the board and consider whether it is addressing the needs of a) the people that have traditionally relied upon it, the poor, the weak, the powerless; b) those whose opportunities are starting to become more and more constrained, the 90%, and c) the population of planet earth.

If this sounds a touch apocalyptic it is meant to. We seem to be heading into the perfect storm at the moment with Mr Magoo at the helm. There is a very radical agenda to be addressed and articulated for the challenges of today. The Labour Party should be doing it. It has failed to do it to date. It needs to gain the courage of its historical convictions and do it now. Not because it is an election winning strategy (although I think it is) but because it is right.

Mr Corbyn, whether he becomes leader or not, may have acted as midwife to a reborn Labour Party. If he does then he has done us all a great service.


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