Julian Glassford is a UK-based multidisciplinary researcher and social entrepreneur.
2016 should have been the year the left cleaned up. Instead it was a veritable annus horribilis for Labour. The party leadership could have made an emphatic case for the UK remaining within the European Union, in solidarity.
They could equally have taken a political gamble: if not in robustly critiquing the EU then, at least, in more earnestly communicating (palpable) ambivalence over continued membership. In the event, they did neither.
Jeremy Corbyn picked a fine time to forfeit his enviable badge of honour as the “principled man” of politics. Having dithered and equivocated for some time, the Labour leader eventually found himself hypocritically endorsing the very organisation he had theretofore railed against, with grudging pro-EU performances varying between limp, lacklustre, and lukewarm.
And so it fell to a comical metropolitan luvvie in a pink beret – a runner manifestly high on stamina and low on substantive arguments – to be Labour’s talisman for Remain, or “the status quo”.
Having survived the near-inevitable attempted coup that followed, despite the intervening ‘traingate’ controversy, the party is now “collapsing like a flan in a cupboard” – to coin a phrase of the above-mentioned comedian, Eddie Izzard.
The pair of awkward and unexpected by-elections Labour have just endured mark only the beginning of their woes in the post-referendum era. The troubled movement finds itself writhen by disconnect and discontent, and facing further dissent provoked by attempts to whip the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) into shape on Article 50 and Brexit.
Worse still, it finds itself more fundamentally split four different ways. Alas, even the wiliest of wispy, wise old political wizards cannot seem to reconcile pinko Islingtonistas with traditional working-class voters; nor too, the retrograde Momentum of edgy, anachronistic Marxists with “intensely relaxed” champagne quaffing ‘socialists’ of the (ex-Blairite) centre-left.
It is in the above context that trade union bigwig and “critical supporter”, Len McCluskey, recently indicated that Corbyn would consider his position should the party fail to recover in the polls by the next general election. (The loss of a historic safe seat, in Copeland, to a party that hasn’t held it in almost a century, does not bode well.)
According to YouGov, only one in four Brits currently intend to vote Labour in 2020, and just one in ten think it likely the party will win an outright majority. Surveys further reveal that this is indeed chiefly down to a distinct lack of confidence in a perceptibly ineffectual and demonstrably obstinate party leader who simply refuses to fall on his sword.
Other significant electoral barriers revealed by recent polling include concern over Labour’s capacity to form a competent government, willing and able to represent the views and interests of regular constituents. Contrarian (and republican) as ‘Mr Principled’ may be, clearly Her Majesty’s Opposition cannot be reduced to little more than a rambunctious protest movement.
So, what can be done? The only option open to a besieged leadership – dug in and determined not to abandon their posts – is to endeavour to respond to the dizzying array of political threats and opportunities with a principled, pragmatic, and ideologically consistent strategy.
Handled correctly, “socialism of the 21st Century” could capture the considerable demand for a revival of economic justice and social reciprocity. Mounting discontent felt by the growing number of households either ‘just about managing’ (JAMs) or ‘not even managing’ (NEMs) render the concept an automatic vote winner. That is, provided Labour seizes the opportunity with both hands: presenting a suitably distinct, cogent, and congruent vision of a flourishing future “shared society”.
Theresa May has, so far, masterfully managed to stay on top of some utterly unpredictable and fairly unwelcome developments. From Brexit shenanigans and the fresh imperative for a new economic approach, to the ascension of a capricious neophyte to the White House, her Government has taken ‘curve balls’ in their stride.
If Labour leaders are not to be outshone, not to mention outfoxed, by a savvy and adaptable Prime Minister and her rebranded “party of workers”, then they too must demonstrate responsive versatility. There is, however, a fine balance to be struck between tapping into the socialistic groundswell and playing to the self-defeating Trotskyite caricature, as the recent wage cap controversy aptly illustrated. Credibility is key.
On the opposite side of the equation, excepting some brave rear-guard action being fought by the likes of Alan Johnson MP, the party appears to have all but given up the game. Suffice to say that endemic pseudo-progressive political correctness, advanced to the point of endangering public safety (e.g. Rotherham and Rochdale scandals), has not gone down well with community-minded voters. Nor has snobby and contradictory ethnographic denialism to boot.
As Joan Williams recently put it, writing in the FT: “being British is one of the few high-status categories [still] available to working-class whites”, and post-patriarchal males in particular. Cluelessness about class and national identity will no longer wash with ‘the great unwashed’. Nor too, the ‘post-truth’-style elitist condescension and anti-democratic machinations of the likes of Tony Blair. Westminster Villagers take heed.
Ed Miliband, Corbyn’s predecessor, was quite right to concede that Labour has become “too disconnected from the concerns of working people”. In refusing to pick up where ‘Red Ed’ left off and engage with certain unpalatable ‘populist’ sociocultural realities, the party risks remaining obscure and “out of touch”.
Clearly Labour are not about to become “UKIP-lite”. To attempt such a knee-jerk transformation would be too radical and conspicuous a departure from the party’s present course – if not wholly inconsistent with its historic guiding values. Instead the PLP must rededicate itself to keener (local) community engagement and representation, and help plot a route out of the morass left in the wake of an unremitting tide of myopic “like it or lump it” (neo-)liberalism.
Any positive changes in personnel, posture, or policy are likely to amount to little more than damage limitation for the time being, however. Even the most ardent supporters by now understand this, as the Labour-affiliated Fabian Society recently illustrated, in branding electoral victory for their horse in the race “unthinkable”.
Short of simultaneously reconnecting with their core vote, recapturing the centre ground, and reconquering half of Scotland, at this juncture Labour’s only realistic prospect of power hinges on some kind of ‘progressive alliance’ (in the short term) and/or electoral reform (thinking longer term).
Whilst other key party figures have been less bashful in countenancing such marriages of convenience, Corbyn has kept his cards fairly close to his chest. Quite sensibly so too, for to play such wild cards would, after all, not be without risk. But circumstances may yet force the Labour leader’s hand, compelling him to reveal it in time for 2020. That is, assuming those upping the ante don’t prompt the unfortunate soul to fold before then.