As the crisis continues, Labour just looks tired

If it's safety first and safety last, then the party is doomed to disappoint.

Shhhhhhhh. Quiet!! Labour is sleepwalking to the next election. Don’t wake it up. It might die of fright. Whisper. Don’t rock the boat. It's one more heave but without any heave. If it doesn’t move or make sound – then it might cross the finishing line of the election first without anyone noticing.

Next week, Labour is having its annual conference.  An event where nothing will happen. As I write, G4S or some other outsourcing behemoth will be putting up barriers around the Manchester conference zone to conceal nothing – absolutely nothing.

I’ve never known the run up to a party conference to feel so lame, so uninspiring, so flat and lacking in energy and vitality.  There are no rumours, no conflicts and little life.  Even the unions are silent.  I guess everyone must be happy. The election is in the bag. The next Labour government will sweep all before it and rule for a generation, creating Jerusalem in our midst. Oh, happy days.

Out there, in the wide-awake club, the ice caps melt, the eurozone teeters on the brink of collapse, the Tories rip the hope out of the lives of millions of young people, and the CBI calls for what’s left of the public sector to be privatised.  Neo-liberalism continues unabashed and untamed.

In fairness, Labour did have a half good idea about a British Investment Bank – but it was nicked by The Thick of It and then by Vince Cable. It's still got some other policies, like a five point-plan no one can remember, that would make virtually no difference to economic growth, and a promise to charge students £6,000 fees. Three thousand pounds more then they paid before but hey, £3,000 less than the Tories. Who says politics isn't about real choices? But it's giving little else away – that would be risky wouldn’t it?

Compare and contrast two things. First, Labour in 1994-97, when the party was last in opposition. There are no bigger critics of what became of New Labour than this happy scribe, but at least it had a sense of energy and ambition. Ideas frothed. New think-tanks bubbled up. Tireless work went into strategy and language. The "third way" was endlessly debated.  Of course, most of it turned out to be nonsense but at least the party had a go.

Second, look at the energy in the Tory party. Pushy backbenchers churn out tomes like Britannia Unchained that fizz with new policy ideas. Boris Johnson bounces round the fringes of the government – threatening a right-wing regime that is popular.  And Tim Montgomerie and chums set up Conservative Voice as an alternative government-in-waiting.  They all know where they want to take their party, the country and how. 

Labour, meanwhile, looks limp. Laid low to the level of a coma by an opinion poll lead that merely flatters to deceive. The decline of the Lib Dem vote just helps the Tories. The economy is bound to pick up. Of course, Labour might win – but what then? What do we do about the bond market, the public finances or the euro crisis? Labour is still hooked on the same political economy of setting finance free and redistributing the crumbs from the table. Hence its outright objection to a financial transaction tax (FTT) levied in Europe, making no attempt whatsoever to persuade the USA of its obvious virtue in stabilising markets and supporting essential social expenditure.

The party has nothing to say on public sector reform, nothing to say on welfare reform and nothing to say on climate change. If they have, then I, and everyone else, has missed it. Why not a genuine Green New Deal or an FTT? Why aren’t we pushing harder on a living wage, a German-style KfW environmental bank, real separation of retail and investment banking, new rules on takeovers, a national carers scheme, taxes on land and wealth and so much more?

This accidental or intended strategy seems to take its cue from the Australian Labour Party circa 1998-2001.  It was called the "small target" strategy. The party had almost been wiped out at the previous election and nervous shadow ministers decided the best chance to win was to stop rocking the boat and become a "small target" for Conservative attacks, on economic credibility in particular. If the party curled up into a tiny enough ball no one would notice and it might just win. But the ALP had no credible story that could capture the popular imagination or revive the party’s base. They lost even more seats.

I’m sure Ed will make a good speech – he might even make a great speech.  After all, he’s been right about responsible capitalism – but the age of the speech as a political lever is over. It’s now the age of emotion, action, campaigns and alliance building. Hope is loaded onto Jon Cruddas's policy review, but what if everything is vetted and stripped of any meaningful content? If it's safety first and safety last, then the party is doomed to disappoint.

The serious point is this. Capitalism has done two things – with devastating effect on Labour and the wider left. First it went up and then it went in. It went up to a global level– in so doing it cut itself free from any democratic accountability. Second, it went into our minds – as our identities and aspirations became steadily defined by what we bought.  The combination of financialisation and consumerisation destroyed the salience of class politics. Without a homogenous, organised and disciplined working class base Labour has become increasingly lost. It will stay lost until it finds or, better still, creates a new moral politics, new constituencies of interest and finally accepts that it's no longer 1945. The world has moved on and has become more complex and pluralistic.  Against the backdrop of the biggest crisis capitalism has ever suffered, Labour just looks tired.  

It's not as if the party is even being complacent – no one I talk to from the right or the left is under any illusion that winning will only be a slightly better disaster than losing.  Journalists and campaigners are gleefully calling and emailing me to express their relief that, for the first time in their lives, they aren’t going to conference. And who can blame them? Who wants to spend a week listening to Labour snore?

Sleep tight, my party.

Neal Lawson's column appears weekly on The Staggers.

Labour's annual conference opens in Manchester this Sunday. Photograph: Getty Images.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones. 

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.