Monday, 14 September 2015

The End of New Labour

Like José Mourinho blaming Chelsea's latest defeat on an IT failure, the combination of paranoia and chagrin among Labour MPs in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn's election has been a treat. That various shadow cabinet members have taken it upon themselves to ostentatiously decline to serve is a breath-taking example of their sense of entitlement. And to think that some of these guys get cheap media coverage by criticising FIFA. No doubt some will cite Edmund Burke: "Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion". This would be to confuse principle (e.g. voting against the party whip on a specific issue like Trident) with institutional loyalty (otherwise advancing the party's general interest rather than undermining it). There is a parallel here with football. As a Chelsea fan, you might refuse to applaud John Terry because you think he is a racist, but you wouldn't refuse to attend matches just because you think he's become a liability on the pitch.

The significance of the result is Corbyn's overwhelming mandate from full party members, nixing the claims made during the campaign that his popularity owed everything to the passing fancy of social media and that this would delegitimise his victory and justify resistance by MPs. Just as Mourinho previously deflected attention from his team's poor performance onto the club's medics, the obsession with entryism has served to distract the media from the gulf between the PLP and the CLPs, which is not just the traditional friction between sectional interests or the institutional conflict of activists and careerists, but reflects the reinterpretation of the role of party members under New Labour. The double movement of neoliberal populism has been to encourage superficial and selfish engagement while insisting on the privileging of a professional elite. The former emphasises a market-oriented vision of political consumers in which politics is limited to a narrow spectrum of material concerns and parties are reduced to expressive brands. The latter assumes a technocratic order that is beyond dispute, with policy debate limited to the state's role in facilitating efficient markets. It's been a while in coming, but "party says no".

One consequence of this double movement was that MPs and media alike focused on the social media phenomenon when the real action was taking place elsewhere. Even the attempts to derail Corbyn, such as trying to create a Twitter-storm over his occasional coincidence with Hamas or insisting his economic policy could be reduced to the word "inflation", betrayed a belief that the election would be decided by a herd of easily-led sheep. Having patronised party activists for 20 years, Blairites made the mistake of assuming that members could be addressed as if they were the wider electorate and vice versa (an error that the Tories made after 1997 and to which Cameron's emollient hypocrisy was the response). This in turn reflects the "heroic" assumption at the heart of the New Labour project: that an individual would lead the party by the nose rather than the party defining the direction of travel and acting as a conscience for its elected representatives. In other words, members would become mere supporters. As football clubs have found, from Man Utd to MK Dons, activism cannot be wished away, while the hyper-commercial model of the modern game encourages "loyal supporters" to believe that their investment entitles them to make intemperate demands.

It's also worth noting that Tom Watson secured 37% of party member first preference votes in the deputy leadership contest, which was almost twice as many as his nearest challenger, Stella Creasy, on 20%. The party appears to have a pretty definite view about the sort of leadership it wants, which the votes of affiliates and registered supporters have merely amplified, and this view is reflected not only in the scale of Corbyn's support among members but in the annihilation of Liz Kendall as the Blairite torch-bearer. Again, the reduction in influence of affiliates (mainly trade unions), which was thought to be the key structural alteration after the election of Ed Miliband, has distracted from the more profound change since 2010, which is that the number of voting party members has almost doubled, from 126,874 to 245,520. In combination with the abolition of the electoral college, this meant that a half-share of party member votes now represented 29% of the total electorate, whereas in 2010 it represented only 16.5%. The Blairites have been hoist by the democracy petard.

The leftward shift of party members, 44% of whom cast first preference votes for David Miliband in 2010, is being attributed to the increase in membership (i.e. entryism) however this only makes sense if you assume that no one who previously voted for Ed Miliband voted for Corbyn and that the latter's vote is therefore entirely down to new members. Clearly, there is as much continuity as change. It's also worth bearing in mind that this increase in party membership (or, more accurately, members who chose to vote) is still quite modest compared to the surge that saw membership increase from just over 250 to 400 thousand in the mid-90s during the New Labour honeymoon, and that the peak periods for the more recent increase were immediately after the general election defeats of 2010 and 2015. If the latter spurred entryism to the benefit of the left, then presumably the former did so to the benefit of the right, which doesn't sound altogether credible. Perhaps the simpler truth is that Labour members have been edging leftwards for well over a decade, though this may actually be a trick of perspective, reflecting the PLP's shuffle to the right during the years of government. Some Labour Party members clearly see Corbyn as a direct successor to John Smith, both in terms of a more traditional policy stance and personal probity.

The echoes of the disloyal behaviour of the Gang of Four in the early-80s are all too clear in the comments of some MPs, but I suspect the chance of another split and the creation of the long-heralded British Democratic Party is slight to non-existent. Though the implosion of the Liberal Democrats might suggest to some that a space has opened up in the centre of politics, the success of the SNP means that the prospects for a UK-wide third force are severely limited for the foreseeable future. While many in the PLP might consider a general election victory under Corbyn improbable, a party schism would almost certainly lead to continuing Tory government and personal defeat for many sitting MPs, not least because the big corporate donors will be preoccupied with keeping the Tories on-side over Europe for the next couple of years and many leading Blairites will themselves be busy on pro-EU advocacy (the contracts have already been signed). "Rescuing" the Labour Party will have to be put on the back-burner for the next two years.

The more calculating Blairites may be hoping that Corbyn makes sufficient anti-EU noises to justify the charge of being out of step with the national mood, assuming a positive referendum result in late 2017 keeps the UK in the EU, thereby preparing the ground for a putsch in early 2018. As his Blairness proved, two years would be sufficient time to carry out a counter-revolution ahead of the 2020 general election. The Blairites' nightmare scenario is that a more sceptical Labour Party might put the referendum result in doubt, or oblige Cameron to secure more pro-social terms to Labour and Corbyn's credit. Countering that can only be achieved from within the party, so big capital would best be served if the Blairites knuckle down and fight their corner, which makes the immediate promises of noncooperation all the more stupid. Neoliberalism's objective is hegemony, and that will not be achieved by pro-market MPs either flouncing off in the manner of David Owen or retreating into a backbench sulk in the manner of Ted Heath.

Though the election of Jeremy Corbyn marks the formal end of New Labour, it certainly doesn't mark the end of neoliberalism within the party, which has been making faltering efforts to reinvigorate itself since 2010 (as Laurie Penny acerbically noted, "The argument that Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable is being made by three candidates who can’t even win an election against Jeremy Corbyn"). The judgment of history may be that 2010-2015 marked the decadence of New Labour and a transitional phase, with Corbyn's election being the necessary "kick" to complete the process. The opportunity presented by Corbyn's leadership, and the threat it poses to neoliberalism, is the widening of the Overton Window in terms of permissible or conceivable policy. The question is whether Corbyn is inclined to push this towards more fundamental and imaginative areas, such as a basic income or educational quotas, that would wrongfoot the Blairites as much as the Tories, or whether he will retreat to the comfort of familiar positions and old battles.

I suspect the latter, but this will probably depend less on Corbyn himself than on the people he advances and on the extent to which he is willing to empower them. Ironically, for a man whose Breton cap is routinely mis-identified as a Lenin cap, it is a question of democratic centralism. To add to the irony, if Corbyn is insufficiently Leninist he will be derided by the media for lacking firm leadership and overseeing chaos. The BBC already appear to be adopting this stance, with simpering sympathy for the Blairite "big beasts" relegated to the backbenches. Contrary to the myths of electability, which invariably reduce to conservative notions of restraint and moderation, Labour has historically succeeded either when it proposed policies that captured the imagination of the electorate (1945), or when it offered a fresh alternative after years of Tory misrule (1929, 1964/6, 1997). The calibre of the shadow cabinet has not really mattered. Corbyn isn't the sort to push pabulum like "white heat" and "cool Britannia", or keep mum and rely on a Tory cock-up, so policy is going to make a comeback relative to managerialism. This will potentially make Labour the most interesting (and closely-observed) political party in Europe for the next few years.


  1. I reckon that the only thing that can save the Blairites will be their media friends, given their obvious lack of strength in the party and unions, and their relative lack of recognition from the public. That makes their non-cooperation even stranger, as the media is more likely to forget them on the backbenches and concentrate on comparing Corbyn to Stalin, or such like. The clear disregard for party feeling is also hardly likely to induce the membership to welcome them back even if things do go wrong.

    As a naive 17-year old member of Labour in 1996, I suspect the boost in membership was due to the £1 membership fee introduced at that time. I also suspect that most of the neophytes, like myself, rapidly let their membership lapse when it became clear what role Blair expected of us.

  2. Herbie Destroys the Environment14 September 2015 at 18:32

    The media are beside themselves with the fact that some people do not swallow their world view. They really are struggling to cope. But cope they are by the most outrageous propaganda methods. Any pretence of a free press is surely in ruins now?

    But this really isn't the time for reflection but action. Have you seen the trade union bill? That should have been the topic of this article.

    On that subject it has been quite amusing (if it wasn't so disturbing) to see one Tory after another justifying this totalitarian bill by conjuring up visions of non unionised low paid workers despairingly going about their business while being inconvenienced by striking workers.

    Of course the real inconvenience for low paid workers are the policies of this hard right government. While a strike may inconvenience a worker for a day (and in the long run actually help) the Tory governments policies inconvenience us for life!

    I am surprised a Tory didn't say,

    "These strikes are an inconvenience to low paid non union workers going to the food bank"