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28 May 2015

Labour’s left flank must ask itself: is it time to walk away?

The choice for Labour's genuine left may be between walking out or fading away.

By Michael Chessum

Watching the prospective leaders of the Labour Party jockey for position, you could be forgiven for thinking that a great debate over the future of social democracy was about to take place. The emphatic nature of the call for debate masks its lack of political content: three weeks on from Labour’s worst election result in almost a century, the debate over the future of the party is essentially over. Even without their preferred candidate in the race, the right wing of the party has won; the Labour left must now decide what to do – and act decisively.

There were two lessons that could have been drawn from Labour’s collapse in England. The first was that Labour lost the argument over the economy because it failed to offer any real alternatives or arguments. The strategy of leaning into the centre ground meant that Miliband and Balls were committed to arguing from the same premise of austerity and fiscal restraint as the Tories, even abandoning their own record in government, but desperately trying to reach different conclusions. In the eyes of a majority of the electorate, including a large chunk of Labour’s working class base, these conclusions were either incoherent and unconvincing, or so weak that they would not make much difference.

The other lesson –established by a carefully choreographed set of interventions from Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and co – was rather simpler: that Labour, having run on a broadly social democratic platform, was too left wing or “stuck in the past”. Some in the liberal left will be coaxed into this version of events in the shallow hope of some kind of intellectual revival, but in terms of policy, the conclusions will be ugly – that Labour was not anti-immigrant enough, not pro-private sector enough, not Euro-sceptic enough, not hard enough on benefit claimants.

Under the new one member one vote election rules, any attempt to beat back this emerging consensus in favour of a more centre-left option is very unlikely to succeed. Even worse, without 35 MPs, the left cannot even get onto the ballot paper. There will be no Ed Milibands and no Diane Abbotts in this election, let alone a John McDonnell.

For many on the Labour left, the only fruitful response to the dire internal situation in the party is to turn outwards into grassroots campaigns – through already-existing campaigns, or through new forums bringing together leftwing CLPs, trade unions and local communities.

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Though this emphasis may well be correct, and the bringing in of Labour activists into local campaigns may well provide a vital new energy and resources into various campaigns, it does not really answer the question facing the Labour left. The reality is that, following decades of erosion, the Labour left is simply being muted. Since the abolition of Clause IV and the wave of reforms that ended much of the internal democracy in the party in the 1990s, many Labour left activists have quietly given up hope of seriously influencing party policy via the official structures. Now we must assess whether remaining in Labour is really a good use of anyone’s time.

The attachment of so many socialist and other leftwing activists to the Labour Party was never about an affinity for the policies of its leadership –as is so often, and so naively, implied by some newer members of the various left-of-Labour surges (namely the SNP and the Greens) that have characterised the past 12 months – or even a belief that the party could be “reclaimed”. They were, firstly, that without electoral reform no other party could achieve anything other than splitting the Labour vote and, secondly, that leftwing activists should align themselves to, and agitate within, the organised working class, who are still, despite everything, largely affiliated to Labour. After this election, both of those rationales need to be urgently re-examined.

The prospect of a Unite split, which has been heavily trailed for a variety of motives across the mainstream press, would change everything. It would mean that one of the largest, and from the left’s point of view one of the best, unions in the country would either establish or be looking for a new political home – and would mean that less than half of the TUC would be Labour Party-affiliated. More than numbers, Unite’s organising capacity – in the low wage private sector and among the precariat – is exactly the membership and demographic that the left so desperately needs to convince and recruit.

The effect of the electoral system has not changed fundamentally as a result of the election –and in fact under a Tory government it is more likely than ever to remain first past the post. But the real question is posed by Ukip, which is now capable of seriously challenging the working class and ‘left behind’ Labour vote. If Labour shifts further to the right, and in doing so loses even more traction with its core, then its core will go somewhere. The lesson of Scotland, although taking place on much more fertile ground, was that even under first past the post, a hegemonic political party’s position can be inverted in favour of another – and that goes for parties of the left and the right.

There is much to be cautious about in terms of a split on the left of the Labour Party. If it is led by Unite, as it likely would be, there would be questions over whether a new party of the left could fully develop if it was immediately dominated by the Unite leadership. But if, after the left has stayed in the party to argue over its future, Labour lurches back to the right under a new leader who promises to further erode the union link and any commitment to social democracy, the Labour left will have a duty to consider whether it can seriously provide a leftwing alternative from the inside, or whether it should split now to prevent itself from simply fading away. 

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