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  1. Election 2024
10 August 2015

Labour’s choice: death in glory, or death in boredom

Caught between a choice of defeats, Labour is understandably attracted to Jeremy Corbyn, says Neal Lawson.

By Neal Lawson

The Corbyn Surge, whatever it is, is a resounding comment on what has become of the worst of New Labour; an unflinching belief that Britain is a “conservative country” and a “centre” that must chased not shaped. The 2015 defeat and the Corbyn Surge proves that Labour can no longer be the vehicle to carry such a narrow vision.  Surely it is time for the cleverer and more open people associated with that project  to stop looking with incredulity at the Corbyn Surge and  instead reflect on why New Labour has become such a marginal political force.  

Yes, New Labour did many good things but most of those are now being unpicked because it never put down deep political roots. It’s a trick that can’t be repeated.  It only worked when the party was desperate – on its knees.  Some believed that all New Labour had to do was wait until Ed lost and the party would be desperate enough again. But New Labour required other factors to make it possible, like a growing economy (based on debt, a ballooning financial sector, cheap imports and even migrant workers not paid even a minimum wage) to paper over the cracks of the deep distributional inequalities of global capitalism.   And in particular it needed the absence of political competition from the party’s left. The inability to deliver social justice because of a refusal to take on the interests of capital inevitably led to such competition and now the reawakening of the left within the party. Every political project carries with it the seeds of its own destruction.

But New Labour wasn’t just about Labour winning – it was about New Labour winning. The politics of elites, by definition, has to privilege the place of the elite.  It was the unique ability of half a dozen men to understand the times, to know how to win in terrain only they understood.  Its not that winning any other way was unfeasible, it became undesirable because otherwise that meant there was no place for them. Blair revealed this in his latest misjudged intervention when he said he didn’t want Labour to win under a Corbyn-style manifesto. Better the Tories than the sidelining of New Labour I guess.  Everyday since the late 1990s its been New Labour  Groundhog Day – forget the global financial crash, the rise of UKIP, the SNP or the Greens – just use an old playbook that has little by the way of a silver lining. When the modernizers stopped modernisng it eventually left the space open for a Corbyn-like Surge.

But so much has changed since New Labour’s halcyon days. Back then the project meant kicking away all the democratic and intermediary structures that made the party what it was – its activist base, its factions and links to outside campaigns – to leave the elite untouchable. But what was so easily destroyed by New Labour is now almost as easily reassembled given the speed and connectivity of social media – as we are witnessing around the Corbyn campaign. And is yet another reason why New Labour can’t be simply re-run.

It has surprised everyone, including Jeremy Corbyn, that his campaign has taken off.  In hindsight, its little wonder given how refreshing it is to hear someone say that we don’t need austerity, we can take the railways back into public ownership, that Trident is a waste of money and we can build more public housing. The spaces and opportunities being opened up the Corbyn Surge are exciting.  Labour and the country need this debate. People are hungry for alternatives.

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But, but, but!  It’s just not that simple.  There are real structural problems with the Corbyn project – and here I am trying not to personalise it around Jeremy – whom I don’t know but seems a good guy.  That said, some problems can’t just be wished away in a tide of relief that at least on some important economic and moral issues – someone is at last talking sense.  The Corbyn Surge in so many ways is necessary but the problem is its not yet sufficient.   And it’s the insufficiency that will be its downfall unless it changes. There are four problematic areas for the Corbyn Campaign.

The first batch of problems revolves around the idea of pluralism – crucially this entails the complexity of the new political terrain and the fact that the politics of the future will be negotiated not imposed. No single party or movement will, can or should dominate the political scene. The absolute bedrock of any new politics is support for proportional representation and the desire to trust the people and work across parties and movements to make and embed change. And there is another associated problem we can’t just ignore. Top down revolutionaries who circle the Corbyn campaign are no different from the top down revolutionaries of New Labour. It is politics done to people not by them. Politics that see’s Labour as vehicle for them.  And it will fail. Because the way you do politics matters more than what you are trying to achieve – means always shape ends.

The second deeply problematic area is what we might call modernity. The beauty of Jeremy is his authenticity – he isn’t pretending to be anything other than what he is – a 1980s leftwing politician with a deep sense of moral purpose.  But this isn’t the 1980s. And as attractive as it might seem – we can’t simply rerun the 1945 Labour government.

Read Paul Mason’s Post Capitalism or Compass on New Times, we live in an increasingly networked and globalized society and economy in which everyone can connect to everything.  This is as politically hopeful as it is challenging and the complex of it is unlike anything we have encountered before. There are strong reasons to believe a less hierarchical society can benefit the left but this ties us back to the need for a politics that is profoundly plural. The growth of civil society, the end of deference and the emergence of a new citizen/activist class is profoundly changing the way politics is done.  One aspect of that pluralism will be European and global agreements on corporate behavior and climate change, a critical area of policy that doesn’t seem to have figure much in the Corbyn campaign.

The third area is growth. Yes we need to sort austerity but only in a way that rebalances the economy and our lives.   The future can’t be about a 48 hour working week.  Life must be about having more than the biggest possible flat screen television. The planet can’t take it and neither can we. Full time work no loner guarantees well-being.  We need a post-material politics that is about how we redistribute the productivity gains of new technology – working less but sustained through social security in the form of some kind of a citizens income. Yes we need good work – but it has to be less work and less consumption too. 

Finally, we need an electoral strategy that builds a consensus for such a politics – an alignment between classes that will inevitably have to straddle different political parties and involve social movements in ways we are only just exploring. Here New Labour did teach us something about professionalism and messaging it would be foolish to ignore.  However exciting the Corbyn Surge is – and it is – these problems are deep, structural and cannot be ignored.  Any project which isn’t open, plural, modern and electorally strategic will fail.

So what do we know? The New Labour project is over, inside the party and out. But many people involved in the project must have a place and much to offer the party of the future. The Corbyn Surge has opened up a space, but it is ill-prepared for what is to come if its wins. The party is going to have to find a way for the right, centre and left to work together to build a new politics for the 21st century.

In so many different ways and places I feel we are experiencing our own version of the end of the Truman Show.  Like Truman, we have known for a long time that our world isn’t as it first appears.  Certainly the Westminster Bubble isn’t been working for us or the planet. In our search for something different and better we have bumped up against the edge of the film set. And like Truman in his little boat, we know there is no going back.


Neal Lawson is Chair of Compass and the author of Downfall: is Labour dead and how can radical hope be rebuilt?

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