Life's journey: pilgrims arrive at Mena in Saudi Arabia, carrying stones to throw at pillars symbolising Satan. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Birth of a religion

An interview with Tom Holland, author of In the Shadow of the Sword.

How much do we know about the birth of Islam? Much less than we think, argues the popular historian Tom Holland in his new book, In the Shadow of the Sword.

In Holland’s opinion, the Quran was written long after the death of Muhammad, Mecca is not necessarily the birthplace of the Prophet and modern Muslims’ reverence for their holy writings stops them from confronting the texts’ dubious historical origins.

Bryan Appleyard has described the conclusion of In the Shadow of the Sword as “seismic”; he wrote in the Sunday Times that “Holland’s book leaves almost no aspect of the traditional story of Islam intact”. Another reviewer likened its treatment of the Quran to Dan Brown’s Christianity-as-conspiracy in The Da Vinci Code, “though with a little more class”.

The religion that emerged as Islam by the 8th century was, Holland would argue, just one manifestation of the furthest-reaching moral and ethical metamorphosis in history. Other expressions of the phenomenon were what we now call Judaism and Christianity – faiths that he suggests had taken on something like the form they wear today by the time of Muhammad, but similarly were once swirls of beliefs and doctrines.

Holland’s tale of how Islam came to define itself and its past is only one part of a much broader panorama: one that is ultimately about how Jews, Christians and Muslims all came by their understanding of religion. Does he present a bold new account that undermines Islam’s grip on its own past, or, as I argue, spin out a rich but speculative tale of the possible birth of three religions as novel tools to grapple with an era of geopolitical conflict and rivalry?

Nabeelah Jaffer

Nabeelah Jaffer Your chapters on the ambi­guity of early Christianity and Judaism have slipped under the radar amid the general buzz that you “rubbish” Islam and the expectant wait for some sort of backlash. How doyou feel about the assumption that Muslims are more likely to respond to challenging ideas with violent anger than followers of other religions? And do you think there will be a few far-right attempts to appropriate your ideas?

Tom Holland I think it is one measure of theeffect of the [Salman] Rushdie affair in this country that it is now widely taken for granted that writing anything about Islam will make angry men with beards – and probably hooks as well! – come to kill you. Whenever I have told people what the book was about, the word “fatwa” has invariably surfaced.

That being so, it was probably inevitable that the most eye-catching chapters in the book would be the ones about Islam. But why should any Muslim be offended by what I have to say? Mine is a non-believer’s attempt to explain a puzzle that Muslims, if they have faith, would deny was a puzzle at all. As an adult, I struggle to square my absolute conviction that Abraham and Moses never existed with the occasional flaring of a residual Christian faith. I hope that the resulting tension has been good for the book. Yes, it is sceptical; but no, it is never contemptuous of the longing of people to know God.

NJ I agree. I think both upset Muslims and pleased “Islamophobes” perceive in revisionism a threat to the religious narrative where none exists. The questions that you set out to answer only appear when you take a divine presence out of the equation.

You wrestle, for example, with the “bewilderingly eclectic array of sources” in the Quran, Abrahamic and otherwise. A Muslim would take this as proof of divine input and a revelation which encompasses Judaism and Christianity as part of a prophetic tradition. As a non-Muslim, you rule out this answer and search for an alternative scenario. Presenting a potential secular alternative to the “God” story doesn’t negate the narrative upheld by believers. So, turning to your secular alternative, how does it differ from traditional accounts?

TH All three religions, it seems to me, emerged out of the same melting pot – and yet all three have constructed backstories that aim to occlude the fact. In the first three centuries after Christ, Jews and Christians may have had a consciousness of themselves as peoples with distinct identities, but they remained unclear where precisely the border between them lay.

There were Jews who believed that Jesus had been the Messiah and there were Christians who followed the Jewish law – and it took an unacknowledged alliance between bishops and rabbis, in the centuries after the emperor Constantine, to ensure that what had previously been an open frontier became a no-man’s land. Similarly, a lot of Muslim historiography seems to me to have been composed with the aim of spiking the possibility that either the Quran or the sunna [laws] might conceivably have owed anything to infidel precedent.

NJ Of course, one of the first things you learn as a historian is to interrogate early chronicles for motive using context, whether geopolitical, religious or otherwise. But it is equally dangerous to lean towards the hypersceptic idea that texts cannot be relied upon except to tell us about their writers, meaning the document-free gaps in the past must always consist of near-impregnable darkness.

You don’t go quite that far in your book, but you do apply something of this very sceptical view to early Islamic sources which first appeared in the 200 years after the Prophet’s death as written accounts of oral testimony. You suggest, for example, that hadiths [sayings of Muhammad] targeting the rich were concocted to unsettle the rotten imperial elite. Your argument that “the dry rot of fabrication . . . was endemic throughout the sunna” is much more radical than the traditionalist, more common academic approach, which recognises the importance of testing for fabrication, but values the hadith as a body of secondary sources. I’d disagree that uncovering fabricated elements in these early sources undermines everything that they portray as authentic.

TH I think there’s a particular problem with the sources for early Islam. Some of the sayings attributed to Muhammad must surely be authentic – but even if we could identify them, their value as a source for his life would still not be greatly enhanced as a result.

Context, for the historian, is all – and no Muslim scholar or lawyer who cited the Prophet ever had the slightest interest in establishing what the original context of his sayings might actually have been. To quote him was to take for granted that the advice he had to give was timeless and universal. That Muslims in the heyday of the Caliphate were living under circumstances unimaginable to Muhammad never crossed their minds.

The real problem for the historian is that we lack what, for instance, [the 1st-century Roman-Jewish historian] Josephus gives us for the background to the life of Christ – a control. The consequence is that we can only hope to arrive at a sense of what might have happened in the early years of the Arab conquests by looking at the much later Muslim source material in the light of the late-antique world.

NJ In which case, no explanation of the origins of Islam is ever going to strike the mould for an authentic secular narrative. You rightly point out in your introduction the provisional nature of your own retelling of early Islam: “on a whole range of issues . . . there can only ever be speculation”. While you use Christian and Jewish traces in the Quran to suggest their influence on Muhammad, direct evidence remains elusive.

There’s a wonderful analogy in the book about it being similar to noticing that the eastern and western coasts of the Atlantic Ocean match like a jigsaw puzzle. There seems to be a link, but without clues as to how the two came together, it’s impossible to know for certain how to explain the gap. Historians are just replacing one take on an uncertain past with another.

TH The hypothesis I give in the book as to how and why Islam might have emerged is only that – a hypothesis. Patricia Crone, one of the most brilliant and innovative historians of early Islam, once memorably described the Muslim historical tradition as “a monument to the destruction rather than the preservation of the past”. That being so, it is hardly surprising that there should be such a breathtaking range of opinion, ranging from devout Muslims, who accept the tradition in its entirety, to radical sceptics who doubt that Muhammad so much as existed.

My own take is that the evolution of Islam can only really be made sense of in the light of the civilisations and religions of late antiquity. Partly, that is because it genuinely seems to me the best way to try to understand what might have happened in the 7th century; but I am sure it also reflects a subliminal desire on my part, in love with antiquity as I am, to feel that Islam, like Christianity, was bred of the ancient world.

NJ This debate has, until now, been limited to specialists, for the good reason that it requires a vast amount of study and a good knowledge of Arabic, at least, in order to draw authoritative conclusions from the available sources. Revisionists are few, and those such as Patricia Crone and Michael Cook who argue that Islam was born after the burgeoning of the Caliphate and the Arab conquests do so with the authority of their close understanding of the period, albeit little concrete evidence.

While you obviously draw on the work of such historians and are enthusiastic about the period, is it fair to present a narrative not grounded in direct engagement with the available sources?

TH In writing this book, I am standing on the shoulders of giants – or, to mix metaphors, rushing in where angels fear to tread. My justification is that if a generalist is not prepared to attempt it, then no one will. Perhaps, somewhere, there is a scholar with Latin, Hebrew, Syriac, Arabic and Coptic, doctorates in Talmudic studies, patristics, Christian theology and Quranic studies and an ability to write accessibly for the general public – but if so, he or she is yet to write the book on the subject that I strongly felt merited being written.

Even the greatest historian of the decline and fall of the Roman empire, Edward Gibbon, had to profess his “ignorance of the Oriental tongues, and . . . gratitude to the learned interpreters”. Where I had the advantage, perhaps, was in having a brilliant research assistant, a native Arabic speaker with a specialisation in Syriac, and the incredible generosity of a wide range of scholars.

NJ Locating religious construction in the centuries that followed the death of Muhammad involves saying some particularly challenging things about the Quran and the Prophet himself. For example, you accept that the Quran seems to date from around Muhammad’s time, and certainly recent carbon-dating research suggests an early-7th-century date for indicative Quranic fragments.

When the German Quranic scholar Gerd Puin was allowed to examine the ancient manuscripts recently discovered in Sana’a, Yemen, he found possible evidence of minor changes to verse order and spelling, but uncovered no hint of deliberate fabrication. In the light of all this, proposing that figures such as the 7th-century caliph Abd al-Malik, whom you suggest put the Quran through an “editing process”, and the historian Ibn Hisham constructed a retrospective religion centred on a man named Muhammad, whom they situated in Mecca, seems a little extreme. There are direct mentions of Muhammad in the Quran itself, among dozens of other allusions to his life.

TH The problem for any non-Muslim trying to explain the origins of Islam is what to make of the Quran. It seems to me clearly to derive, in the form we have it, from the lifetime of Muhammad – which makes it, a few other brief and enigmatic documents aside, our only primary source for his career.

The problem is, I cannot possibly accept what Muslims take for granted: that it originates from God. And yet Mecca, so the biographies of the Prophet teach us, was an inveterately pagan city devoid of any large-scale Jewish or Christian presence, situated in the midst of a vast, untenanted desert. How else, then, are we to account for the sudden appearance there of a fully fledged monotheism, complete with references to Abraham, Moses and Jesus, if not as a miracle? You can only answer that question by asking yourself whether Muslims, at some point in the evolution of Islam, might not have situated the origins of the Quran deep in a desert for the same reason that Christians cast the mother of Christ as a virgin. In both cases, what is presumed to be an intrusion of the divine into the dimension of the mortal is being certified as an authentic, bona fide act of God.

NJ I don’t argue that religious practices shouldn’t be understood as firmly within their political and cultural contexts as possible. But religions are necessarily a human phenomenon in their practice, however divine we believe their inspiration and aspiration to be. “Monotheistic revolution” is a misnomer: the evolution of faith didn’t end with the melting pot of Byzantine.

TH I think in the early history of what emerges as rabbinical Judaism, of Christianity and of Islam, you see a near-identical process: the gradual fashioning, out of a great swirl of often inchoate rituals, convictions and scriptures, of a distinct religion that is coherent, in terms of both doctrine and institutions. Watchtowers and barriers go up, the aim being to keep the faithful inside set limits and to keep non-believers out. Histories are then written which make it seem as though the religion has always existed in the form that it now possesses, right from the very beginning – that Moses was a rabbi, that Jesus would have signed up to the Nicaean Creed, that Muhammad was truly the fountainhead of the sunna.

The concrete, initially so soft and malleable, by now has set. This does not mean, of course, that the various religions do not continue to evolve – but they do so within parameters that by now are irrevocably rigid, and exclude contributions from peoples of other faiths. It is in that sense, I would argue, that Jews, Christians and Muslims all today worship different gods.

“In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” by Tom Holland is out now (Little Brown, £25)
Nabeelah Jaffer is a journalist who specialises in Islamic culture and feminism

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

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David Cameron shows Labour how to do it

Leftwing rhetoric masked rightwing reality in Cameron's conference speech.

“The tanks are in the kitchen,” was the gloomy verdict of one Labour staffer to a speech in which the Prime Minister roamed freely into traditional left-wing territory.

But don’t be fooled: David Cameron is still the leader of an incredibly right-wing government for all the liberal-left applause lines.

He gave a very moving account of the difficulties faced by careleavers: but it is his government that is denying careleavers the right to claim housing benefit after they turn 22.

He made a powerful case for expanding home ownership: but his proposed solution is a bung for buy-to-let boomers and dual-earner childless couples, the only working-age demographic to do better under Cameron than under Labour.

On policy, he made just one real concession to the left: he stuck to his guns on equal rights and continued his government’s assault on the ridiculous abuse of stop-and-search. Neither of these are small issues, and they are a world away from the Conservative party before Cameron – but they also don’t cost anything.

In exchange for a few warm words, Cameron will get the breathing space to implement a true-blue Conservative agenda, with an ever-shrinking state for most of Britain, accompanied by largesse for well-heeled pensioners, yuppie couples, and small traders.

But in doing so, he gave Labour a lesson in what they must do to win again. Policy-wise,it is Labour – with their plans to put rocketboosters under the number of new housing units built – who have the better plan to spread home ownership than Cameron’s marginal solutions. But last week, John McDonnelll focussed on the 100,000 children in temporary accomodation. They are undoubtedly the biggest and most deserving victims of Britain’s increasingly dysfunctional housing market. But Labour can’t get a Commons majority – or even win enough seats to form a minority government – if they only talk about why their policies are right for the poor. They can’t even get a majority of votes from the poor that way.

What’s the answer to Britain’s housing crisis? It’s more housebuilding, including more social housing. Labour can do what Cameron did today in Manchester – and deliver radical policy with moderate rhetoric, or they can lose.

But perhaps, if Cameron feels like the wrong role model, they could learn from a poster at the People’s History Museum, taken not from Labour’s Blairite triumphs or even the 1960s, but from 1945: “Everyone – yes, everyone – will be better off under a Labour government”.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

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In the valley of death

Labour and the disintegration of social democracy.

When Fenner Brockway, the Labour MP, lifelong anti-imperialist and peace activist, recalled his early involvement in the Independent Labour Party, he wrote, “On Sunday nights a meeting was conducted rather on the lines of the Labour Church Movement – we had a small voluntary orchestra, sang Labour songs and the speeches were mostly Socialist evangelism, emotion in denunciation of injustice, visionary in their anticipation of a new society.”

Fast-forward a century or so, and Brockway could be describing a Jeremy Corbyn leadership rally: the same joyfulness, fervour of conviction and ecstasy of expression, only this time clothed in the self-belief of the Labourist left, rather than Nonconformist millenarianism, and playing to a larger crowd. Corbyn’s campaign reinvented the party political rally, a form of British politicking long since presumed dead. He created a space in which the lost tribes of the British left could reunite, and new followers join the throng. Suddenly a “surge” was under way, a democratic explosion within the mainstream body politic, not safely contained outside it.

Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour Party is undoubtedly a seismic event. But it does not herald a wider political transformation. For although the left of the Labour Party is not a sect, it is sectarian. It inhabits a world-view, culture and practice of politics that is largely self-referential and enclosed. Save for brief moments of popular experimentalism – such as the two occasions when Ken Livingstone governed London – its reach has been minimal. Corbyn’s policy platform is an unreconstructed Bennite one, defined by nationalisation and reinstatement of the postwar settlement, given a fresh lease of life by revulsion at foreign wars and the social consequences of austerity. While his campaign tapped into discontent with the decrepit state of mainstream Labour politics, it did not give birth to a new social movement, rooted in popular struggle, like those that have sprung up in southern Europe. His improbable leadership of the Labour Party is another symptom of the crisis of social democracy, not the incubator of its future.

That social democracy is in crisis across Europe is indisputable. Few parties of the democratic left now register more than 30 per cent in national elections. In its northern European heartlands, social democracy is either besieged by populist anti-immigrant parties or marginalised by a dominant centre right. Even in Germany, where a recognisably social-democratic culture still exists, the SPD is reduced to junior-party status, topping out at 25 per cent of the electorate. Elsewhere, austerity has either destroyed the mainstream left, as in Greece, or cut it back to its core, as in Spain and France. Only in Italy, where the right has been discredited by years of corruption and abject economic performance, does the centre left have any energy.

Britain’s first-past-the-post system has protected the Labour Party from the full force of these currents, but the pull of their logic is at work here, too: political loyalties have fractured, immigration has split the core working-class vote, and the financial crisis has ushered in a politics of economic security, not reform.

The last time the death notices of social democracy were written in the early 1990s, a wave of Third Way revisionism brought it back to life. Then, social-democratic parties expanded out of their working-class electoral heartlands and public-sector redoubts, forging new coalitions of support. The freshly modernised centre left won power across Europe and in the United States. But the breadth of its appeal was not matched by depth. Over time, centrist voters proved fickle and the core vote started to abstain or desert to the anti-immigrant right. Centre-left parties began to shed votes and lose power. The financial crisis provided the coup de grâce, punishing incumbents and passing the baton of energetic opposition to new parties of the left such as Syriza and Podemos.

Today, it is clear that Third Way modernisation relied on historical circumstances that cannot be repeated now: principally a long wave of growth, in which a build-up of household debt and government transfers maintained living standards, despite rising asset inequality and the sundering of the link between productivity increases and wages. “Globalisation plus good schools” is no longer a plausible formula for winning back working-class voters, and the fiscal headroom for binding the middle classes into an electoral coalition built on investment in public services has shrunk. Nor can the rise of identity politics, whether of the civic nationalist or the anti-immigrant kind, be properly understood, let alone contested, within a political strategy that gives pride of place to individual social mobility. Even the crowning achievement of the New Labour era – the rescue and revitalisation of public services – would now require a very different set of tools from the centralism of the turn-of-the-century delivery state.


In the early 1990s, New Labour thinkers looked across the Atlantic for inspiration and renewal. Bill Clinton’s insatiable curiosity for policy ideas rubbed off on Blair and his advisers, but the most important lessons were strategic: how to win back voters in the mainstream of politics and push the right off the centre ground. Today, the transatlantic cable is broken. Latino migration to the US has replenished the Democrats’ vote base and refreshed its politics, while immigration has done the reverse to European social democrats. The White House cannot be won with older white voters, but, in Europe, ageing societies have become more conservative, making it harder for the reformist left to win. At the last general election, Labour won every age group up to those aged 55 and over, but haemorrhaged support among pensioners. The party’s Russell Brand moment never arrived. Inequalities of turnout between young and old, prosperous and poor, are such that it likely never will.

The conservatism of ageing societies, the cultural and political fracturing of the working class, and the structural dysfunctions of debt-laden western economies all pose grave challenges to social-democratic parties. The task is magnified for Labour by the break-up of the political unity of the British state, and the collapse of its support in its Scottish heartlands. Unlike in the 1980s, it cannot fall back on the ballast of a centrist trade union movement and cross-national solidarities of class.

More serious still, its intellectual resources are depleted, left and right. Those who have sought to renew Labour at critical moments in its history have always had to battle against a deep strain of anti-intellectualism in the party. Because it famously owes more to Methodism than Marx, it has never possessed a theoretical tradition. In the 20th century, it borrowed heavily from Liberal giants such as Keynes and Beveridge, and turned to the Fabians and the London School of Economics for technocratic expertise when economic planning and the construction of the welfare state demanded it. But it only ever produced a few big thinkers of its own, such as Tawney, G D H Cole and Crosland, and even their influence on the course of Labour politics was limited. When it last faced the prospect of terminal decline, in the 1980s, it had almost no intellectual resources to fall back on. Instead, it was the Gramscian thinkers grouped around Marxism Today who furnished it with an analysis of Thatcherism and a route map towards re-election.

New Labour’s openness to wider currents of ideas – at least in its early, formative phase – allowed it to draw on fresh thinking from academia, think tanks and elsewhere. But the Labour Party’s intellectual revival in the late 1980s and 1990s owed much to a cadre of soft-left MPs, epitomised by Robin Cook and Gordon Brown, who could act as receptors into the labour movement of the thinking that was taking place outside it. No such cadre exists today. The soft-left tradition was weakened by defection, desertion and (tragically, in Cook’s case) death, and what remained of it in the parliamentary party at the turn of this century had become a Brownite patronage network. Ed Miliband failed to revive it, despite being suited to the task. The reductio ad absurdum of this decline was reached in the desperate political gymnastics of Andy Burnham’s leadership campaign.

Labour’s anti-intellectualism would be less of a problem if the party were well attuned to public sentiment and capable of intuiting the sources of change in British society. But it is not. Like other mainstream political parties, it has become hollowed out, professionalised and state-centred in recent decades. As the class structures that gave birth to Labour politics declined in the second half of the 20th century so, too, did the party’s roots in civil society begin to shrink. Its forms of popular culture, its institutions and its membership base all withered, leaving it with leaders drawn from a professional caste, possessed with all the skills and networks necessary to navigate Westminster and Whitehall, but with not much underneath or around them in the wider society.

This decline has been apparent since the late 1970s – certainly since Eric Hobsbawm wrote his celebrated essay “The Forward March of Labour Halted?” (1978). And yet, despite significantly broadening its electoral appeal in the New Labour era, Labour has not created social and economic bases to replace those lost with the passing of industrial society. It has become caught in what the political scientist Peter Mair diagnosed as the trap facing all centrist parties: the one between responsibility and responsiveness. Parties aiming for elected office seek the patina of responsibility, fiscal and political. They set out credible, carefully crafted programmes for government, mindful of its constraints and compromises. Instead of representing the people to the state, they increasingly represent the state to the people. This leaves the field open for populists, who eschew responsibility in favour of responsiveness, unmediated authenticity and the articulation of an anti-politics. In recent years, only the SNP has sprung this trap, combining broad appeal with seriousness of governing purpose.


Corbyn’s surge did not reverse this decline. The number of trade unionists voting in the 2015 leadership election was lower than that in 2010, and even the addition of registered supporters did not push the selectorate back up to where it was in the mid-1990s (he is also now learning that leadership itself can’t be dissolved into networks, and that the task of leading demands considerable skills). Yet Corbyn’s campaign held up a mirror to the Labour Party, showing it how shrunken, uninspiring and detached from society it had become. Over the course of a few months, he mobilised 16,000 volunteers, pulled in thousands of new activists, and showed the Labour high command how to do digital politics. Some of his supporters are day trippers who won’t stick around. But many more are for real, with decent intentions; and they have changed the party irrevocably. Corbyn used Labour’s new internal democracy to open the party up, and in so doing placed the cadaver in full view. There is no going back.

Is social democracy finished, a relic of 20th-century class society, as John Gray and others predicted three decades or so ago? Its twin historic tasks – to tame and humanise capitalism, while harnessing its dynamism – remain as valid and pressing as ever. But in this post-crash era, it needs to equip itself with new economic reform agendas. Croslandite and Third Way revisionism were both creatures of eras of economic moderation, and shared a conviction that capitalism had overcome its contradictions. The great financial crisis of 2007-2008 destroyed those assumptions, and threw into sharp relief the challenge of stabilising highly financialised economies while reducing the inequalities and imbalances to which they are subject. Despite his political failure, Ed Miliband was undoubtedly right to see this as the most important challenge facing contemporary social democrats. Without being able to offer more widely shared prosperity, generated from within market economies, and not just by redistribution, social democracy is purposeless.

The intellectual resources for this renewal are readily to hand, in both new Keynesian and heterodox economic thinking, as well as a welter of empirical analyses of central policy challenges, such as productivity and wage growth, household indebtedness, and so on. Indeed, far more original new economic thinking has come from the centre left since the financial crisis than from the right of politics, where think tanks and commentators rehash comfortable Thatcherite nostrums. Politically, however, the story is reversed. Labour’s economic credibility has been shot to pieces since the recession and the party shows no signs of knowing how to restore it. Simply opposing austerity will not do the trick, and arguments about the deficit – let alone quantitative easing – will be otiose by 2020, unless the global economy tips back into recession (and relying on that eventuality would be unwise, if not reckless).

More fundamental still, Labour and its sister parties in Europe have yet to work out how to build broad coalitions for economic reform, in the absence of the strong trade unions and organised workers’ movements that they had at their back in the postwar period. The growth of self-employment, the spread of automation, and the decline of public-sector jobs are all making labour itself more disorganised and therefore harder to mobilise politically. Meanwhile, older voters turn a deaf ear to labour-market concerns. If they are on zero-hours contracts, they are likely to be content with them. If not, they are concerned about savings, asset prices and stable inflation. Even in countries with strong trade unions and large manufacturing sectors, there has been a substantial growth in flexible service-sector employment, and a concomitant decline in the political muscle generated in the workplace.

If nothing else, Corbyn’s victory is a dramatic forcing mechanism for the mainstream of the Labour Party to confront these challenges. A generation of Labour MPs and activists grew up in the shadow of Blair and Brown, and now must shoulder the burden of rebuilding the party without the intellectual and political leadership they once took for granted. They are now freed from the narcissistic feuds and rivalries of that era, but this liberty comes with the heavy responsibility of toiling hard to haul the party back. The scale of their defeat is such that cosmetic change will be wholly inadequate. Corbyn’s campaign showed up the profound individual organisational and intellectual weaknesses of the old-right, New Labour and soft-left wings of the party. The soft left vacillated hopelessly and the old right, deprived of the unions and the power of its MPs, had little, if anything to offer. Blairite standard-bearers were blunt and unforgiving in their analysis of Labour’s 2015 election defeat, but they had no answer to the mobilisation taking place in front of their eyes, nor did they have the magic ingredient that had once made them so successful, of what Hobsbawm in 1988 called “having the future in your bones”. They cannot now retread their old path to power.


The character of the Labour Party that emerges from this tumult will tell us whether it has a future as a serious political party. Corbyn’s paradox is that he harnessed democratic energy to a familiar statist and dirigiste project. Labour can only hope to renew if it embraces the democracy and ditches the dirigisme: if any part of 20th-century social democracy needs consigning to history, it is the preference for centralist standardisation and bureaucratic public administration. There are strong currents of both liberalism and conservatism in contemporary Britain, but each shares a hostility to remote, dominant power, whether in the state or in the market. Many of the most liberating contemporary social and economic trends, not least the diffusion of digital technologies, point in the direction of individual empowerment and political decentralisation. Labour has been too slow to grasp this.

Importantly, political and economic dynamism in capitalist economies today is increasingly concentrated in our cities, and this is where progressive politics is strongest. Although national elections cannot be won with cosmopolitan voters alone, city leadership is a vital source of energy, and many of Labour’s best politicians are now found in the town halls and civic offices of Britain. These leaders will be a critical building block in Labour’s renewal, whenever it comes. But that will require the party to understand and embrace the devolution of power, rather than tolerate or, worse still, reject it.

Class reductionism on the Corbynite left gives it a tin ear to the claims of territory and patriotic identity, as well as the demands for power currently swelling across the UK, not just in Scotland, but in England, too. Unchallenged, this will place Labour on the wrong side of one of the most important vectors of British politics: the reconfiguration of the UK as a federal (or quasi-federal) entity. The rise of the SNP cannot be accounted for as an expression of anti-austerity
politics, any more than the demands for greater recognition of English identity can be reduced to anti-immigrant sentiment. Both are expressions of deeper underlying historical changes in the Union, as well as the importance of culture and identity in politics. Without sensitivity to these claims, and an awareness of their democratic potential, Labour will become marginal or irrelevant, when it should be transformative.

There are grounds for optimism on the centre left. Economic reform, meeting the challenges of climate change and ageing, and the promise of digital technologies – all of these hold progressive potential. Social democracy could be just as well placed as any other tradition to capitalise on what the 2020s will bring; it doesn’t need to remain trapped between hollowed-out centrist technocracy and revanchist state socialism. But the depth of the crisis it faces demands deep and sustained rethinking, as well as political reorganisation. The rupture that Corbyn’s election has forced must be a catalyst for that change, or it will never come.

Nick Pearce is the newly appointed Professor of Public Policy at the University of Bath and the outgoing director of the Institute for Public Policy Research. He writes here in a personal capacity.

Nick Pearce is the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research.

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Revenge of the Left