Labour must be bolder as the storm brews

Despite Miliband's fine words, the party still clings to a busted economic model.

"There is a storm coming." It’s the last line from the first Terminator film.  It’s a quote that haunts me.  Its been gathering for a while now – not just in the economy but physically in the environment and emotionally in all of us. A palpable fear of a world going far beyond our control, in which we become lonelier, more isolated, anxious and insecure. We have lost the shoreline and there is, it seems, no captain to steer us home or lighthouse to warn us away from danger.  

Of course the presence of a broken economy looms over everything. It’s not just that times are hard but the best we are offered is a return to business as usual – the booms and the busts, the inequality and the endless slog of the earn-to-spend treadmill – but our politicians cant even deliver on that miserable promise. There is pain but no gain as child poverty rises, health inequalities widen and the budget deficit grows. Poverty is returning to Europe – not my words but those of Jan Zijderveld, Unilever's European boss, on why the company is using marketing strategies designed for developing countries to sell their goods in Europe. A tunnel with no light at the end is a disorientating place to be.

Before you think I’m going to say something cheery we have to face an even bigger threat: that of ecocide. We all know something bad is happening to the planet. The scientific evidence stacks up but we can all see, hear, smell and touch. The weather isn’t right just as the sight of bees in the winter is alarmingly wrong. An economy out of control triggers a planet out of control. The ice melts at record rates. Serious water shortages await. Food prices rise as crops fail because temperatures soar. Energy and mineral prices go through the roof as both become scarcer. The poor are hit first and hardest.  But we all will be hit eventually. No gates can be built high enough to thwart what’s coming.

Is this just more leftie doom and gloom? Maybe. You decide. But bad news usually tends to be even worse news for the left. Lenin is long rumored to have said "the worse it gets the better it gets", in the belief that from misery will come revolution. History doesn’t bear this out. The left thrives on hope and optimism. Caution and conservatism are more likely to spring from hard times.  This is especially the case if the left fails to meet the challenges that confront us.

Fredric Jameson tells us what we already know to be true "that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism". Which, as the new political season is about to kick off, brings us to our own backyard and the gaping chasm between what is and what needs to be in British politics.

There is a double arm lock in place. The crash revealed not just the weakness of the financial system but the incredible hold of neo-liberalism on our national psyche. It has become a truly "hegemonic project" in the words of Stuart Hall, recently interviewed in the New Statesman. To suffer such a potentially fatal blow as the biggest crash ever, but get up and carry on, reminds us of the Terminator films from which this article began. It is a system held firmly in place for many reasons but one is the British electoral system of first past-the-post – which purposefully denies the space for viable alternatives to grow as all the focus remains on a few swing voters in a few swing seats. To secure office means nothing must change.  Surely something has to give between the epochal change taking shape all around us and business as usual at Westminster. But when and how?

Here we turn to Ed Miliband, Labour’s underestimated but still under-performing leader. His instincts are to be bold and radical. But his actions are too timid and cautious. Understandably, he feels hemmed in by his shadow cabinet and the PLP,  too many of whom want just want one more heave - but without any heave. He has been proved right in his attack on "predatory" capitalism but has so far failed to either develop the concept or build the alliances and forces to make it happen.  Labour, in effect, still clings to the same-busted economic model of trickle down from the City. And on public service reform, from welfare to the NHS, Labour paved the way for the Tories to do the same, only worse.  Unless and until Labour breaks from its past, no one will believe it will be any different in the future.

It is still early but look across the channel to France and François Hollande.  Yes, the left can find itself in office when right-wing governments contrive to lose but unless you go through the long hard process of renewing your political ideas and organisation then you never find yourself in a position of real power.  As things stand, coming a close second to the fear of losing the next election is the fear of actually winning it. What would the left do about an economy and an environment that are out of control?  To rebuild Britain we must rebuild not just Labour but a much wider and deeper political alliance for change. That is not just Miliband's job but that of everyone who wants a good society.   

Gramsci advised us to live without illusions, without becoming disillusioned. In these grim times, we must look for the cracks in the system and find inspiration, hope and a toe hold for a better society. From Transition Towns to Community Links, from Citizens UK to 38 Degrees, from Greenpeace campaigners to UK Uncut, from the soon-to-be-launched pressure group  Own It to UK Feminista, from Danny Boyle’s soft progressive sentiment to Joseph Stiglitz's hard new economy by way of Jon Cruddas running the Labour policy review and even, yes, the Liberal Democrats calling for a tax on wealth – a better way can and must be found.

Neal Lawson's column will appear every Thursday on The Staggers.

"The presence of a broken economy looms over everything". Photograph: Getty Images.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass and author of the book All Consuming.

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses