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26 September 2017updated 05 Oct 2023 8:45am

Labour must choose between two fundamentally different understandings of the human condition

Will members choose the pursuit of utopian dreams or the traditions of the party of labour interest?

By Jonathan Rutherford

Those who have defined themselves as Labour moderates have had to come to terms with two hard truths this year. The first is the unpredictable nature of political events and our own capacity to get things wrong, sometimes very wrong. The second is our political defeat by the hard left and its attempts to change the direction and character of the Labour Party.

Only time will tell whether this is the end of Labour as a mainstream political force. Much will depend upon the great majority of members who do not belong to the hard core sects and who on the whole don’t attend CLP meetings. Whatever the future proves to be, the Labour Party has changed irrevocably and the progressive politics of Labour moderates, inherited from recent decades is now redundant. The rules of the game have changed. I’m not sure if we have come to terms with this reality.

What’s happened?

Labour’s defeat in 1979 was the end of its post war electoral coalition built around an industrial working class. Defeat in 2010 confirmed this long term trend, and the trend continued, leading to an even worse defeat in 2015.

None of the candidates in the leadership contest which followed rose to this historic challenge. Instead the party membership voted for what it believed in. The union leaderships confronted with their left wing activists and unable to face their own political and institutional decay did likewise. Jeremy Corbyn was a leader who represented their values, and he was also the best candidate. He had what the age of artifice most longed for – authenticity. He broke Labour’s inertia. Tens of thousands joined the party, which in terms of its composition changed profoundly from the party of 2010.

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Corbyn circumvented Labour’s institutions and drew his authority from the plebiscite of the membership. A You Gov analysis described the new membership as “not remotely representative of the rest of the country”. For many this difference was a virtue to be celebrated. Labour was now a party of social liberalism dominated by the public sector and higher educated middle class. The trade unions, once a bulwark against the hard left, gave their money and support. A generation of graduates indebted by tuition fees and raised on identity liberalism provided energy and enthusiasm.

In 2017 Corbyn led the party into the election under the certainty of a heavy defeat. The 1980s had taught that hard left sectarian politics could not build a broad based coalition to win an election. National political culture punished political moves to the extremes. In the event the lessons of the 1980s proved correct. Labour was defeated by a Conservative Party running the worst campaign in its history. But against the low expectations the defeat was victorious. Corbyn won over young people, added ten points to Labour’s vote share and achieved 41 per cent of the total vote.

And so Jeremy Corbyn marks a revival of the Labour Party under the new class and sociological conditions of post-industrial Britain. After a long period of torpor Labour has energy and a sort of anti-leadership, if no strategy. It believes it can win. The sectarians of the hard left, a very small minority, have been buoyed up for their march through the institutions of the party. Corbyn’s summer Tour of Britain attracted large enthusiastic crowds. Like the music industry, politics has lost its old system for distributing product and reward. Corbyn is out on the road and his young supporters have gone online.


It’s time for those of us who identified themselves as moderates to reject the label. It was conferred by the media. To have one’s identity defined by others is a symptom of powerlessness. It persuades us that somehow we are in the right place politically in the country, in tune with the majority, when in reality we are in a state of acute political crisis.

Many of those who originally opposed Corbyn did so because they argued he was unelectable. Moral or ideological objections were trumped by tribal loyalty to Labour. During the election, local campaigns were fought on the basis that a vote for the local Labour candidate would not mean a vote for Corbyn. With a 41 per cent vote share this option is now closed. A future election campaign means a vote for the Labour candidate will be a vote for Prime Minister Corbyn and Chancellor McDonnell, including their record on defence and security, their historical allegiances and their foreign alliances.

The election of Corbyn as leader tipped the PLP upside down. Once the pre-eminent institution of the labour movement it had taken for granted an authority conferred on it by the electorate.  The role of the membership was to follow instructions and service it. The tables are now turned. The PLP failed to recognise the nature of the threat from the hard left. To use a military metaphor, it became the victim of an encirclement by the combined populist forces of leadership and membership. It might imagine itself autonomous. Its political resources might appear intact, but in reality it has been kettled and its authority within the party broken.

The PLP does not have the trust of a majority of the membership. It has had no collective sense of how to resolve its predicament. It has had no language, no conceptual framework and no distinctive corporate identity with which to challenge the sectarian forces that want to destroy it. It has never had to fight for its authority and hasn’t yet learned how to. And so its tactics – the mass resignations from the front bench, the second leadership contest – backfired.

The task of its sectarian enemies who do not believe in representative democracy is to destroy its institutional power. Within the PLP there has been a resurgence of machine politics from the right to defend its positions, but it has been more of a fighting retreat. Its goal of restoring the status quo was never a viable option. Having failed in the last two years to build a collective sense of political strategic purpose, individual MPs are left to battle for their own survival.

Where is Labour going?

Labour’s 2015 manifesto was full of technically competent and costed policies that had been tested for their popularity. But what it did not include was a compelling story about the country and the British people. Where was the hope? We had only a bleak story to tell. And what did Labour stand for? People no longer knew.

Labour’s manifesto in 2017 was a bolder more hopeful version. But it wasn’t “genius” as some have claimed. It suffered from the same limitations. It took little account of the participatory politics championed by Corbyns supporters. It opposed the dominance of the market but instead of devolving and spreading power through society, it gave more power to the central state. It settled for the same kind of command and control, tax and spend politics that had characterised Labour in the last century. In place of reform and innovation it promised very large sums of money and in spite of its accompanying costings the sums didn’t add up. Fortunately no-one seemed that interested in checking, least of all the Tories, a neglect unlikely to be repeated.  

Despite the surge of hope and optimism that has swept over the party, our 2017 manifesto showed an organisation still limited by its institutional conservatism and its failure to reform its centralising, top down approach to politics.

The excitement of Labour’s resurgence hides a more prosaic truth. At its heart the Labour Party remains intellectually threadbare. As a consequence all kinds of pseudo theories and ideas are sucked into its empty centre without being contested. In this ideological battle over the future character of the Labour Party the PLP has nothing much of interest to say. The right that was once New Labour has become irrelevant. The hard left and its Trotskyist allies are fit only to pursue their entryist tactics of taking over CLPs by boring them to procedural death.

The membership want power with purpose. Most are idealists rather than idealogues and many no doubt would have supported New Labour in 1997. The political system is broken and they want change: a more equal society and an end to poverty and homelessness. They want a properly funded NHS, a mental health care system, and respectful treatment of the disabled who cannot work. But as time passes the likelihood of a Labour election victory will start to fade. If the Conservatives succeed in muddling their way through Brexit the threat of a Labour election disaster that didn’t happen in 2017 will return. Labour will need to reassess its current belief that one more heave brandishing its 2017 manifesto will win it power.

Political power

Political power can be measured by breaking it down into three inter-related aspects: the conceptual, the moral, and the physical. The conceptual is the intellectual input – the why, the how, and the strategy. The moral aspect is the making of a leadership with the heart and determination to seize new thinking and build a broad coalition of support. The physical is the means to achieving political power – the necessary infrastructure and resources.

A political strategy for power can be defined by three elements: an intellectual project of ideas, a political project of leadership, and an organisational project. Tony Blair had the Third Way, New Labour and Clinton’s machine politics. He won three elections. Gordon Brown inherited it worn out, and lost. Ed Miliband had the beginnings of a subsequently abandoned one nation politics, no political project of leadership, and an organizational project around community organising that was discarded. He lost one election. Jeremy Corbyn has no intellectual project apart from the one inherited from Tony Benn and the insurgency of the 1980s. His political project is himself and the cult of personality that has formed around him. And Momentum, dynamic but small, provides a supporting role and a counter to the party machine. He also lost.

What is the future of the Labour Party? It is no longer the party it was fifty, twenty, or even five years ago, nor will it be again. It is now bigger and more dynamic, but uncertain of its purpose. Brexit will continue creating instabilities and division. Digital politics will generate new innovations as well as echo chambers of the like minded. Members will rightly win more participation in the party but in demoting MPs and councillors will find themselves still further estranged from the mass of voters. To survive Labour has to be more than a protest movement, and more than the party of sectional interests it is in danger of becoming. It has to renew its historical function which is to represent the interests of working people across the whole country. If it fails in this basic task its existence has no meaningful purpose.

Shaping Labour’s future

For a party in a such a state of upheaval, intellectual debate on big themes has been scarce. There are effectively two minority intellectual forces that form opposite poles in the argument over the future direction of the party. The first and dominant force is a counter-cultural left associated with Momentum and the World Transformed and which has gathered to itself a diverse mix of baby boomer libertarian socialists, ex-Eurocommunists, accelerationist theorists, and younger generations of identity liberals, feminists, and anti-colonialists. It is an alliance of the formerly exiled and the newly awakened left, and its progressive socialism is trying to shape a distinctive Corbynism for the long term.

The second and marginalised force is Blue Labour and a wider assembly of communitarians. Less well organised and fewer in number, it has a more robust intellectual pedigree and deeper roots in the common life of the country. It originated as a socialism critical of New Labour’s managerial politics and failure to reform the economy. It now forms a counterweight to the Party’s onward march into metropolitan identity liberalism and universalism.

The Corbynistas influenced by the ideas of accelerationism have larger ambitions than Labours conventional manifesto policies. They argue for a reinterpretation of Marx’s theory of historical materialism. Instead of class struggle driving the course of history the motor of change is technology. This theory of post-capitalism politics is about unleashing the boundless productive forces of capitalism in order to accelerate technological transformation and so achieve communism. The working class no longer has a historical role. The facilitators of this promethean politics will be the younger generations of digitally connected graduates. Horizontal networks will replace institutional hierarchy. The task is not to end neo-liberalism, but to “repurpose it”.

Blue Labour argues that men and women rather than unpredictable forces create free and equal societies. Technology does not determine history and history does not unfold toward a better future according to its own internal laws. Labour is the story of working people organising together in democratic associations to resist the commodification of their labour and nature. Labour did it once in the industrial revolution and now it needs to do it again in the new digital economy.

For Corbynistas automation will liberate people from wage labour. A Universal Basic Income will create the conditions to allow each individual to be and do whatever they want. For Blue Labour, work is how people create their lives. They contribute to society and in return receive esteem. Work fulfils the ethic of reciprocity which binds people together and by which we support those unable to work. A Universal Basic Income would undermine social solidarity by increasing the power of the market and state. Workers need more power and control not the promise of free money.

Corbynism rejects patriotism as jingoism. Blue Labour embraces love of one’s country as an essential part of internationalism. For one, nation states with their borders divide people against each other. For the other, nation states are essential for giving people democratic control and for managing globalisation. For one, immigration is a cultural and economic positive. Opposing it is xenophobic. For the other, the free movement of labour is the same laissez faire principle as the free movement of capital –  it has externalities that need controlling. For one, localism is folkish and backward looking. For the other a sense of belonging is a vital part of all successful societies.

These two competing forces contest the basic principles of politics. They offer fundamentally different understandings of the human condition. For one its belief in unlimited change echoes Jeremy Corbyn’s offer of free money, free movement, free university, more peace, less poverty.  Everyone will be their own musician and poet in a state of “fully automated luxury communism”. For the other freedom is human scale. History does not deliver it. People have to fight for it.  And freedom is always balanced by the constraints of living with others and with the natural world. The pursuit of individual freedom without constraint is a kind of promethean bourgoise version of Marxism. It is the other side of the coin to neo-liberalism and unwittingly represents the interests and preoccupations of a knowledge class. It would destroy the web of communal social relations and values that bind people together.

Politics now

Across the political landscape there are food banks, an NHS funding crisis, cuts in public services, more cuts to come, wage stagnation, a middle eastern crisis, Islamist terrorism, the stand off with North Korea and Brexit. And then there is the political class stripped of its integrity by the Iraq war, the expenses scandal, the 2008 crash, austerity, and the about face on tuition fees. The absence of a national debate about Britain’s future after Brexit reveals its inability to grasp the historical scale of the event. What is our vision of Britain in the twenties? What kind of political and economic settlement do we want? And what role for Britain in the world do we need to pursue? The leaderships of the political parties have nothing to say of any breadth or substance. One offers nothing the other promises the earth.

The Conservative Government has sunk into a chronic state of vacillating mediocrity. The Opposition with its underwhelming Shadow Cabinet and a leader focused on protest and campaigning, looks like no kind of government in waiting. Globalisation and the impact of the 2008 financial crisis combined to act like a centrifuge spinning politics to the extremes. First came the populist revolt that brought UKIP. Second came the revolt that chose Jeremy Corbyn to lead the Labour Party; third the vote to leave the EU. The old political hierarchies and their certainties have been torn down. Labour in its transformation from an organisation of the industrial era to something else has become a party without limit. Everything is possible so nothing about it can be trusted.

Labour’s members are a new political force. Will they choose the pursuit of utopian dreams or will they recognise the traditions of Labour as the party of the labour interest and undertake the hard and difficult work of national renewal and reviving parliamentary democracy? The past offers plenty of lessons for making this choice, but for now the left has vacated history. The centre did not hold. The populist revolutions have been of its own making. It will eventually return, but in a different form. The task now is to work out what that is.

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