Tories now the favourites

Fabian Society general secretary Sunder Katwala argues Gordon Brown and his cabinet need set out a d

At least Labour has got the first thing right – not trying to talk up the result. The mood in the Labour Party has been very choppy after the 10p tax row. These results should persuade MPs that they can not afford the indulgence of a headless chicken tailspin.

Everybody knows there will be no change of leadership. Nobody serious wants to reopen the question, and the party’s big hitters will make that clear. The political challenge which Labour faces arises from the accumulated grievances of having been in power for eleven years, exacerbated by an economic downturn. None of that would change with a different personality in charge.

Labour must show it is not fatigued by power, but that its ambition remains rooted in public service. An instinct for self-preservation is not enough unless the party can also get across that it sees the country through the voters’ eyes. The party should get out of the Whitehall mindset of defending past achievements, to think like an opposition party in describing Britain as we see it and what we want to change.

How?

1. Brown’s USP is that he is the Prime Minister best placed to lead Britain through difficult economic conditions. That needs to underpin the fleshing out of the ‘change’ agenda he ran on.

2. We need to hear much more from the Cabinet. Not just ‘getting on with the job’ – but being political too, setting out the ‘why’ of a distinctively Labour agenda so there is a clear political choice.

3. The party needs to break out of discussing the false choice about whether to now appeal to super-marginal swing voters or to disaffected ex-Labour voters. Both arguments are half-right.

It would help if the starting point of the various Westminster post-election debates (being held by Compass, the Fabians, Progress and others), whatever the differences of emphasis, is that everybody knows we can only reunite the coalition of voters we need if we do both.

The Southampton result highlights the need to make Labour’s case to the South. (John Denham, who revisited Southern Discomfort last year will set out an argument for how to do that next Thursday. At the same time, there is also a heartland vote needed to get past the line in every marginal seat.

The election will be in 2010. The Conservatives will be the favourites and Labour the underdogs. Labour must use that to construct the central political choice. Right now, fairly or not, too many voters say they would struggle to spot the difference.

Conservative morale is high. But their success is not yet based on more than being ‘not Labour'. What is David Cameron’s case for the Conservatives?

But it is also true that the Labour case is not yet clear enough to put the core question to progressive (if sometimes disillusioned Britan). When it comes to the choice, do you have a stake in a Labour, not Tory, government or not?

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times