The Labour party faces a crisis of electability, but Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is the best – and maybe only – available route out.
The discourse of the right of the Labour party focuses almost exclusively on winning elections, and spends little time talking about what to do with this power. But while we on the left are right to focus on big political ideas we shouldn’t let electoral success become the right’s turf. Socialism is the politics of mass movements and it is only through socialist ideas that we can find solutions to the problems of the 21st century. There is a mass potential for our politics, and we can already see the beginning of it.
The historical context.
Labour’s crisis of electability is not caused by Corbyn. In fact, its climax was in 2015 – just before Corbyn’s election. By this point Labour had been in decline for at least a decade, losing seats at every election since 1997 – around 4m votes. This started quickly – by 2001 Labour already had fewer voters than in 1992. The loss of members was even more dramatic: from over 400,000 in 1997 to under 200,000 in May 2015. Worse still, Labour struggled to recruit young people. This decline was the result of Labour’s political decisions.
Neoliberalism and the crisis of social democracy.
The right falls into the trap of seeing politics as nothing more than a game played out on TV, void of all political and social forces. But crediting 1997 with Tony Blair’s ‘charisma’, and blaming Ed Miliband’s ‘awkwardness’ for 2015, cannot explain why this pattern was replicated across most of the western world.
In the mid-90s social-democratic parties shifted to the political centre and accepted the neoliberal consensus. The deal was simple: deregulate the markets and let the rich amass unimaginable wealth, and in return some of the spoils of economic growth can go into public services. The intention here is to ameliorate the worst effects of neoliberalism – gross poverty for instance – but not to tackle them at the core as part of a wider socialist or social democratic project. In the UK, inequality actually went up under the Blair administration.
The financial crisis of 2007 exposed this approach as a castle built on sand. Labour had not changed the underlying structure of our society or economy, so when the crisis hit there was no defence. One half of the New Labour deal was broken: we could no longer afford social spending. The other half, our commitment to neoliberalism, proved more durable. The offer was not appealing.
Chasing the centre-ground.
The neoliberal shift had political and ideological roots but it was, and still is, defended through an electoral argument. And this argument is not entirely invalid. But it was and is not a magic-bullet; it is a once-in-a-lifetime trick.
The strategy is relatively simple: you chase ‘swing voters’ in the centre whilst maintaining the traditional ‘core’ base. This is achieved through a process of depoliticisation. Instead of competing on the basis of different ideological visions, we instead claimed to be more competent managers of the state apparatus.
For one or two elections this might work, but it cannot be sustained. Eventually the core support becomes alienated and finds a home elsewhere – the SNP, Ukip, the Greens. More often still, they disengage from the political process completely. And the swing voters stay just that: persuadable, fickle and entirely uncommitted to the party. In the UK the climax of this was 2015. Despite Miliband’s meagre shift to the left the public perception was clear: Conservatives and Labour are all part of the same establishment. Is it any surprise we saw an SNP landslide and the highest ever votes for Ukip and the Greens?
Rebuilding a Labour movement.
When Corbyn was elected Labour leader, the party was in long-term decline as the result of the decisions of the previous leadership of the Labour right. It was always going to be a big task to turn this around but in Corbyn’s short 10 month tenure there have already been some impressive results. Of course, you wouldn’t know it listening to large sections of the party establishment.
Labour’s membership has trebled in the space of a year, becoming the largest socialist or social democratic party in Europe, with half a million members. The average age has dropped by over 20 years. The aim should be for a social movement of 1m members, all active and ready to fight for socialism inside and outside the electoral system.
London mayoral election
Labour’s most significant victory in over a decade was in London this summer, under Corbyn’s leadership. Of course, the right of the party claims this is due to Sadiq Khan’s moderate politics and not those of Corbyn.
This doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. There is of course an example on the other side: Ken Livingstone’s election under Blair. If mayoral elections are won on the basis of the candidate’s politics then Livingstone is evidence that the so-called ‘hard left’ is electable; if they are won by the party leader then this year is evidence that the ‘hard left’ is electable. Either way, we know at the very least that association with Corbyn/the left is not reason enough to lose an election.
What seems more likely is that the ‘coalition’ between Khan’s ‘moderates’ and Corbyn’s socialists mobilised more people than either could have alone. Ostensibly, this coalition is at the heart of the Labour party, but recent events show some on the right are only happy when the left are subservient partners in the coalition.
The councils Labour contested in 2016 under Corbyn were last contested by Miliband in 2012. This was the best election result in Miliband’s tenure, and was matched by Corbyn this year. Clearly this isn’t enough to win a general election – as Miliband’s trajectory shows us – but given the political context it is hugely impressive. Let’s compare:
- In 2012 the press story was about the Tories’ ‘omnishambles’ budget. In 2016 it was about Ken Livingstone’s Hitler comments, and anti-Semitism in the Labour party.
- In 2012 Miliband had had almost two years to build the party, produce policies, and set out his vision. In 2016 Corbyn had only had eight months.
- In 2012 the party was united (at least in public) behind Miliband. In 2016, Corbyn had already experienced a year of sniping, briefing, leaking and undermining by many Labour MPs and previous party leaders.
Matching Miliband’s best result in these circumstances is a staggering achievement.
The long road.
Does this record mean definitively that Labour is on course for victory in 2020? No it doesn’t. But it does weaken the case that Owen Smith, or whoever else, is better placed to lead the party, or that Corbyn is to blame for Labour’s electoral weaknesses.
We on the left should not be naïve. Social democracy is in crisis across Europe, and we face both a dominant neoliberalism and an insurgent populist right. These are political forces and we can only respond to them politically. It is not possible airbrush or spin our way into power. We need to build a counter-hegemonic social movement, which necessitates a lot of work over a long period of time.
This work has already begun under Corbyn’s leadership. It is right that we are self-reflective and critical, and Corbyn’s leadership is only valuable if it brings us closer to socialism. And Corbyn’s leadership is by no means beyond criticism – and there are plenty of things which could have been done much better. But the broad brush strokes are right. A defeat for Corbyn could put Labour back on track to oblivion, but a victory will keep us on the long rocky road to socialism.