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8 June 2015

Is Labour dead?

Time is running out for the party to prove it can revitalise itself.

By Neal Lawson

Is Labour dead? You are no longer shocked by the question. But let’s quantify. By dead we don’t mean not living, not functioning as Her Majesty’s Opposition, instead we mean dead as a viable political project that caries our hopes of a much better and different society.  Is it dead in that sense?

The answer has to be – possibly.  And the evidence for such damning ambivalence on such a dramatic point of existence is not so much the election result, terrible at it was, but paucity of the debate since, how the world is changing so fast around Labour and the seeming inability of the party to self-reflect and therefore know how to renew.  The debate, as Labour starts to disappear in the rear view mirror of history, hasn’t been about how the party takes its place in a better vision of the future, but which version of the past it would most like to go back to.

On the one hand you have the 97ers, the Blairite tribune band wannabes, whose golden hits of aspiration, southern discomfort, Mondeo Man, Worcester Women and rights and responsibilities are now being reprised. Waitrose Woman anyone?

But a re-run of New Labour is no longer feasible even if it was desirable. New Labour was a onetime political move based on 18 years of Tory misrule and 60 consecutive quarters of growth that allowed the party to paper over lots of cracks and, for a short while, keep everyone in a big tent. That is until the contradictions became so great that 5 million shuffled out and it ended on a 35 per cent strategy in 2005 (sound familiar?) and the biggest financial crash since the 1930s.  And New Labour was only possible because, back then, there was no electoral competition from the left – no meaningful challenge from the Greens, the SNP and no Ukip. Finally, it was based around a model of party control and iron discipline that can’t be repeated in an age of social media and is impossible to imagine without the existence of a once in a generation political operator – Mr.  T Blair. There is no turning back to 1997.

But neither is there any turning back to 1945.  So it goes, if only we would stand up for our class in the way they stand up for theirs, then all would be well and the forward march of Labour could be resumed. But 1945 wasn’t only possible because of conviction, but the direct experience of the war, the looming presence of the Soviet Union, which offered a direct threat to western capitalism, and the existence of a large and well-organized working class.  But everything that once made Labour so strong was lost decades ago.  We have been living of the vapors and the scale of Labour’s political weakness is now becoming horribly apparent.

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But while Labour treads water the world moves on.  Technology, globalization, consumerisation, climate change and the rise of identity politics combine to force us to rethink not just our electoral tactics but our very nature – our very being. This is not a crisis of votes or seats or leadership – it is a crisis of cultural relevance to the 21st century.  And Labour is not alone in its plight.  No social democratic party anywhere in the world is on the front foot.

To renew itself Labour needs two things.  First the ability to look at itself and understand the depth of the hole it is in. Hope can only come from such painful self-awareness – otherwise it’s just wishful thinking.   Second, it needs to open itself up to new sources of energy and ideas.

And here we can learn from 1997 and 1945. In both cases Labour was renewed more from without than within. New Labour was the creation of different streams of thinking – from the old right for the party to Marxism Today, from big thinkers like Anthony Giddens to the influential figures around Blair like Roy Jenkins and Paddy Ashdown.  It was a rich political project.  1945 was even richer – the product of a 100 year conversation that included not just socialists but Liberals like John Maynard Keynes and William Beveridge and Tories like Rab Butler and Quentin Hogg who coined the term social security.  It was the product too of left book clubs and clarion cycle clubs and an array of cultural and economic alternatives to the dominant market orthodoxy. 

Today the bones of a new social democracy lie around us.  Yes, we must learn from the professionalism of New Labour and its ability to connect with more than the core vote – but always for a deeper moral purpose.  And we can learn from Blue Labour about reconnecting with the working class and faith groups.  More importantly we need to have a story about modernity and the future – the world of networks, of a Facebook culture not a factory culture. Compass, the organisation I chair, and others like the RSA and Nesta have been exploring how we must embrace complexity and trust people to run institutions and services together.    But to embrace ideas from within and without, more than anything, Labour must become an open tribe – proud if its history and its values but willing and excited about opening up and out to others – recognising that the party never succeeded electorally or politically in the past as a singular, insular and inward looking project.

Labour can go through the motions of opposition, bolstered by a voting system that is now a democratic farce – ending up once again on 30 per cent of the vote, or worse.  Or it can face up to the scale of the political challenge it faces and draw on ideas and build alliances way beyond its current comfort zone.    Is Labour capable of self-reflection? Can it open up and out? Is Labour dead? We shall see.

This is an extract from Downfall: is Labour and dead and where is radical hope? By published here by Compass today.