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14 January 2016

Labour’s problems are bigger and wider than its leader

Labour's travails are part of a global problem.

By Ed Wallis

The Labour party has begun the new year much as it ended the last, riven with internal divisions and digesting worrying poll numbers. While the livebloggers debate whether Catherine McKinnell’s resignation as shadow attorney general marked the continuation of the neverending reshuffle or the start of a whole new saga, the turmoil that has characterised the party since its shock election defeat last May shows little sign of abating.

But it’s important to recognise that Labour’s travails are much more than a little local difficulty. For while the particulars of Labour’s strife may be parochial, the dynamics that are driving it are part of a much bigger story.

Right across Europe, mainstream political parties are in retreat. New currents on left and right have captured the post-crash mood much more effectively than traditional parties, who continue to struggle to respond to the rise in identity politics, the consequences of globalisation and the changing instincts of a fast moving society. From crisis-struck Greece to the social democratic mecca of Scandinavia, insurgents, populists and pirates are blowing a whirlwind through the political establishment. Recent elections in Spain, which saw the anti-austerity Podemos and the centre-right Ciudadanos prise apart the country’s previous duopoly, were but the latest instalment of this continent-wide trend.

Nick Pearce, in his new role at Bath University, recently pointed out that social democrats are coming off particularly badly as they “cannot rest on the conservative reflexes of an ageing electorate”. In Spain, Germany and the UK, Pearce notes the centre-right has fared better in recent elections than the centre-left. The core problem here is that, unlike their rivals, parties of the left are required to excite as well as reassure. The UK is now a political kaleidoscope and Labour has lost support across the spectrum, from the SNP and the Greens on the left, to the Conservatives and Ukip on the right. In Jon Cruddas’s succinct words: “we lost everywhere to everybody”. To recover, Labour must simultaneously appear a credible party of government and a compelling radical force. In Labour’s leadership contest, the suggestion seemed to be that you could only be one or the other. Labour’s future survival surely depends on finding a way to be both at the same time.

Solving this conundrum won’t be easy. But the search for answers must start by understanding the country as it is today. In the last parliament, various big ideas and transformational plans were mooted. But what Labour has lacked, according to the academic Alan Finlayson, is “a hard look at the present – the kind of sociological, economic and cultural analysis that might enable us to see clearly the predicament we are in, its causes and the politics the situation demands.”

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This is the same imperative that drove the revisionist New Fabian Essays in the early 1950s, which stressed the need for each generation to have “a new analysis of the political, economic and social scene as a basis for reformulating socialist principles”. The eventual outcome was Anthony Crosland’s The Future of Socialism and the 1964 government of Harold Wilson. It is in this spirit that Saturday’s Fabian Society New Year Conference will launch a new project, which will bring together a group of leading politicians, academics and thinkers from across the left, to diagnose and propose responses to some of the long-term trends reshaping our society, our economy and our politics.

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As we enter a new phase of globalisation and people’s working lives continue to change, what does the post-industrial landscape mean for political parties that were forged in the fires of industry? In an age of institutional mistrust and growing disconnection from the professional political class, can machine parties engage with a more fluid, less bureaucratic democracy? How can a left politics founded on working-class solidarity embrace and shape new social trends to build a shared citizenship?

Generations of Fabians have sought to revise the social democratic creed for contemporary circumstances. As GDH Cole put it, “socialism is not a set of fixed dogmas, always ready to be applied irrespective of time and place. It is a set of principles, which need continual reinterpretation in the light of changing needs and conditions.” Social democracy now faces its greatest existential crisis, of which the internal ructions of the parliamentary Labour are a symptom rather than cause. Developing a new argument about what role the political left can play in modern democracies must be the focus of our energy in a new political year.

Ed Wallis is Editorial Director and Senior Research Fellow at the Fabian Society. For more information about Fabian New Year Conference and to book, visit their website.