rose hips

This weekend, the British Labour Party will choose a new leader. Below is the full version of my article on Labour Party and the leadership election published last month in the International New York Times.

The Jeremy Corbyn phenomenon may be as baffling for those who follow British politics as the Donald J Trump phenomenon is to those who keep an eye on American politics. Both are running for the leadership of parties that have suffered traumatic electoral defeat. Both were regarded as joke candidates when they first entered their respective leadership races. But both have now emerged as front-runners, to great consternation in their parties.

More than the width of the Atlantic separates Mr Corbyn and Mr Trump, in terms both of politics and of personality. But the emergence of the two tells us something about the character of politics today. Mr Corbyn’s success also raises a profound but rarely broached question: Is there a role at all for the Labour Party in 21st-century Britain?

A Labour member of Parliament for 32 years, Mr. Corbyn has always been on the left of the party, embracing a host of causes, from Irish independence to Palestinian solidarity, that have set him at odds with the leadership. Party managers have long regarded him as an irritant, but one whose troublemaking could be safely ignored. That is why many of Mr Corbyn’s sternest parliamentary critics sponsored him to be a candidate. Having a figure like Mr Corbyn on the ballot paper would, they reasoned, give the illusion of a proper internal debate while protecting against real change. Yet, three months on, a Corbyn victory is a real possibility, with opinion polls placing him well ahead of the other candidates.

Mr Corbyn’s critics claim that a Labour Party led by such a left-wing maverick could never win an election. That may well be true. But would any leader be able to lead Labour to victory? And what is the point of the party in contemporary Britain?

The Labour Party was founded in 1900 by trade union leaders to represent their interests in Parliament. Its high point came in the immediate postwar years. There was a broad consensus for Keynesian policies and using the state as a lever for social change. There was an acceptance, too, that trade unions had a role to play in shaping public policy. This provided the Labour Party with its social base and defined its raison d’être.

Clement Attlee’s 1945-51 administration is etched in Labour lore as the one that laid the foundations of postwar Britain: the National Health Service, a welfare state ‘from the cradle to the grave’, large-scale public ownership of industry and a comprehensive state education system.

By the 1970s, that consensus had frayed — a process symbolized by the electoral triumph of Margaret Thatcher in 1979. Keynesian policies were rolled back, industries privatized and public spending checked. And Mrs Thatcher’s government took on, and crushed, the trade union movement.

Electoral disaster pushed Labour into a fractious civil war. The left was eventually defeated, and the party was reborn as New Labour. Under the leadership of Tony Blair, it won three successive elections, in 1997, 2001 and 2005.

Despite those victories, Mr Blair has become a divisive figure within the Labour Party. For some, he is revered as a man of moral courage who made the party electable, brought peace to Northern Ireland and delivered freedom to Iraq. Others revile him as the leader who robbed Labour of its soul and launched an illegal war. (Mr Corbyn himself believes Mr Blair could be indicted as a war criminal.)

In truth, Mr Blair is neither saint nor sinner. His election victories were as much the product of the exhaustion of the Conservative Party after 18 years in power as they were of his political acumen. And he did not so much rob Labour of its soul as recognize that it could no longer be the party that it once was — a party built on a trade union movement whose power had been neutered.

Labour had become a party without a social base or political foundation. Mr Blair’s solution was to transform it into a technocratic organization built on ‘triangulation’ — a strategy of stealing policies of one’s opponents in order to capture the middle ground, an approach borrowed from Bill Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign. The Blair strategy allowed Labour to regain power while the Conservatives were in disarray, but it failed to provide a long-term solution to the party’s need to create a new constituency and social role.

The current leadership battle reflects this dilemma. Mr Corbyn’s bid to recreate a Labour Party rooted in the power of the unions suggests a failure to recognize how much Britain has changed. Yet his critics offer no alternative political vision that would engage voters looking for social change.

With the dismantling of the postwar political system has gone, too, the old division between social democracy and conservatism. The new fault line — not just in British politics but throughout Europe — is between an elite, technocratic managerialism, governing through structures that often bypass democratic processes, and a growing mass of people who feel alienated and politically voiceless.

The new divide cuts across old distinctions of right and left. Many of the old parties of both right and left have embraced the elite, technocratic approach. At the same time, hostility to the established order has led to a rise of populist parties, from the far-right National Front in France to the left-leaning Scottish National Party. (There are signs of a similar process in the United States: Witness the popularity of both Mr Trump, among Republican voters, and Senator Bernie Sanders, among Democrats.)

Just as the postwar political system has unraveled, so have three key elements of any progressive politics become unstitched: a liberal view of individual rights, a progressive economic policy and a belief in community and collective action. The left today often adopts a reactionary stance on rights and freedoms: It is unwilling to defend free speech and is often hostile to immigration. The right, particularly its libertarian wing, defends freedom in an abstract sense, but is often hostile to the aspirations of the working class and the poor, and supportive of coercive economic policies from austerity to workfare.

A political party with progressive aspirations needs to build a social movement based on a defense of individual rights, an alternative to austerity and the championing of collective action. The trouble is, no one on either side of the Atlantic, or on any side of the  Labour leadership contest, seems willing or able to pursue such a strategy.


The image of rose hips is by Carolyn Jenkins.


  1. steve roberts

    The last paragraph is probably the most relevant and one could probably also ask if there ever has been – with the exception of limited and specific goals and achievements – such a mass social movement.
    In fact the very establishment of the Labour Party at it’s inception was to directly separate the narrow trade unionism activity which could really at it’s best only improve the economic activity at a workplace level while at the same time leaving the real power and social change possibilities in the hands of what were then called the Labour Aristocracy, primarily though not exclusively an elite section of trade union leaders . This effectively even at this very early stage left the working class as a stage army to brought forth as and when required for the needs of an elite.
    However, as the author points out the world has changed beyond all recognition and indeed there does remain today the task of building a new social movement based on true universalist principles .
    But there are lessons from the past that are relevant to keep in mind though the “radical” parasites within the Labour party today cannot let go of the host and are enjoying their moment in the sun with Corbyn though their politics show no signs of formulating or delivering the key elements the author describes in the last paragraph.

  2. Great essay, and I think you correctly diagnose many of the illnesses in today’s politics. Part of this statement left me scratching my head, though:

    “The left today often adopts a reactionary stance on rights and freedoms: It is unwilling to defend free speech and is often hostile to immigration.”

    I totally agree with the first part of this – with some happy exceptions, the left in Western liberal democracies has gone from defense and expansion of civil liberties, to, too often, the very opposite. The second part, however – where is the Left anti-immigration?? In the US, anti-immigration is generally a far-Right platform (currently the platform of Donald Trump), with the left supporting more or less open borders and (sometimes rigidly enforced) multiculturalism. I thought a similar alignment was the case in Europe, but I could be wrong.

    • The European left, whether social democratic or communist, has, with certain notable exceptions, a shameful record on the question of immigration. Currently, most social democratic parties, fearful of the growth of populist anti-immigration groups, have adopted increasingly hardline policy positions on immigration. They have played a central role in helping create ‘Fortress Europe’, shutting off legal avenues of entry to migrants, and hence driving them to use more hazardous routes, such as across the Mediterranean.

      Historically, too, the left has an atrocious record. In Britain, it was a Labour government that introduced perhaps the most nakedly racist immigration law of the postwar period – the 1968 Immigration Act, whose sole aim was to prevent Kenyan Asians with British passports forced out of Kenya from settling in Britain. ‘The Labour Party’, an editorial in the Time suggested in response, ‘has a new ideology. It does not any longer profess to believe in the equality of man. It does not even believe in the equality of British citizens. It believes in the equality of white British citizens’. A decade later, another Labour government presided over the infamous ‘virginity tests’, in which young brides from the Indian subcontinent were subject to humiliation to ensure they were ‘genuine’.

      The myth of the Labour Party as being ‘soft’ on immigration comes largely from the early years of this century when the Blair government did not impose ‘transitional controls’ – temporary restrictions – on migrants from Eastern European countries that had recently joined the EU. As a result, large numbers came, particularly from Poland. But even at this point, Labour continued to project the image of immigration as a social problem and maintained tight restrictions on non-EU migration. Asylum seekers in particular became the target of mean-spirited and demeaning policy.

      The record of communist parties, too, is atrocious. Consider France. As the BBC correspondent Jonathan Marcus has put it in his highly perceptive book, The National Front and French Politics: The Resistable Rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen:

      While the National Front has been the principal beneficiary of the political debate on immigration, it was not actually Le Pen’s party that first brought the issue on to the political agenda. It was in fact the Communists, who at the start of the 1980s, launched a campaign against what they saw as the over-concentration of immigrants in Communist-run municipalities… If Le Pen was condemned for fostering racism and division, then local Communist officials periodically expressed the sort of anti-immigrant attitudes that had helped to establish the issue on the agenda at the beginning of the 1980s.

      In the 1970s and 1980s, Communist-run councils throughout France routinely excluded non-European 
immigrants from municipal housing projects on the grounds that their numbers had to be kept below what was called a ‘threshold of tolerance’. The most notorious incident took place on Christmas Eve 1980. Paul Mercieca, the Communist Mayor of Vitry, near Paris, led a gang of 60 men, mainly PCF members and supporters, in a ‘direct action’ to stop 300 immigrants from Mali being rehoused in the town. The gang turned off the water, gas and electricity at an immigrant hostel, and used a bulldozer to smash up the building.

      Electorally, the anti-immigration stance did not help the PCF – it has been in terminal decline. But having so insidiously linked the problems of the working class with immigration, having given political legitimacy to bigoted notions such as the ‘threshold of tolerance’, having made acceptable discrimination in social policy, including housing allocation, the Communist Party helped clear the ground for the Front National.

      So, no, the record of the European left on immigration is not something that I would want to celebrate.

  3. People have been predicting the demise of the British LP for a long time.

    I even recall the first issue of a journal called ‘Confrontation’ back in the 1980s doing so. Mike Freeman made many good points in a feature piece on the ‘road to power’ but one foolish suggestion was that the RCP was going to rapidly overtake the Labour Party as the dominant party in the British working class. Uh-oh, I thought. This will end in tears.

    Thirty years on, the RCP is long gone and, unfortunately, the British Labour Party is still here.

    The thing is that capital in the imperialist West requires not one party to manage its interests, but two (at least). It needs to have an A team and a B team, for when the A team is exhausted or has pissed off too many people or is simply not up to doing what capital needs to be done.

    Capital also needs a big black hole to suck up potential discontent and Labour is that destroyer of hopes and souls.

    Labour will be around for a long time to come, then, because British capital needs it. The Labour Party is of absolutely no use to the working class or to anyone who has principles they’re not prepared to sacrifice and who genuinely wants fundamental change. But, so what? It’s useful to capital. The ruling class will keep them on.


    PS: Same thing is true in Australasia where I live. Check out some material on, for instance the NZ Labour Party:

    And our take on Corbyn:

    • rocket

      Being forced to work 35 hours a week for a private company to get JSA for, at best, the chance of an interview at the end of it all, is coercive. Having applied for thousands of jobs, having managed an office and a hotel, computer programming experience, and a good degree from a good uni, and still being forced to do that, yes, I would say from experience that workfare is coercive. I could get more money being a rag and bone man, which is what I’ve done. Bootstraps and all that right, or is that just another word for poverty?

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