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22 September 2016

Does Labour want to win anymore?

Both sides in the leadership election are speaking a language the voters it needs barely understand, says John Denham.

By John Denham

A re-elected Jeremy Corbyn will apparently offer Labour support for an early election. Opposition leaders often make these calls, while praying to be ignored; they usually want elections they can win. A transformed Labour Party may no longer be following the same logic. For the first time in 100 years, Labour is conceiving electoral defeat as a potential strategic victory. The idea is growing that maybe Labour can’t win a majority, but perhaps it doesn’t need to. The dangerous political vacuum it leaves can only benefit the right.

The respected former Channel 4 economic correspondent Paul Mason has emerged as one of the most public theoreticians and strategists of Corbynism. He doesn’t speak for Corbyn but his inclusion in a recent conclave at Unite training centre confirms his closeness to the leadership. Writing in July he predicted that “Labour will become the first mainstream party in a western democracy to ditch neoliberalism and then take power”.

A crushing parliamentary majority would seem a basic prerequisite to overcome inevitable opposition to such a radical government. Mason’s ambitions are much lower. He calls for electoral pacts and deals with the Greens and Plaid – “and – if possible – the LibDems” to prevent the Tories getting a majority in the next election. “Taking power” turns out to be sharing power with those who recently supported the Tories.

This curious mixture of political optimism and electoral pessimism reflects the Corbynista belief in the power of social movements: limited but radical electoral representation couples with popular campaigning to transform the political environment. The problem is that tails – no matter how frisky – do not wag dogs. Social movements can set agendas and shape opinion, but transformational politics require political power. Many European radical parties have some parliamentary representation and links to active social movements. Without exception, they remain irrelevant or split when confronted with the realities of power.

The electoral pessimism is much better founded. Mason has an honest appraisal of the electoral appeal and ambitions of Corbynism: “Labour’s heartland is now in the big cities, among the salariat and among the globally orientated, educated part of the workforce”.  This may well be true. The party was moving in this direction a long time before Corbyn.  But the implications are profound. Many current Labour MPs don’t represent seats in the big cities and university towns. Huge numbers of their voters are not like Labour members. Many of Labour’s essential English target seats – particularly if it cannot recover in Scotland – have few of these voters either. They do have a lot who voted Conservative or Ukip in 2015.

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The gap between the well-educated salariat that dominates Labour and voters whose lives are very different is huge and growing. It is as much cultural as political – socially conservative, with a strong sense of national (and increasingly English) identity, concerned about immigration, worried about their own finances and those of the public. Many of them used to be Labour, more need to be. But to them, the urban elite is part of the problem, not the core of the answer. The ‘progressive majority’ that dominated the 1980s and 1990s has disappeared. Electoral reform – which I have supported all my life – no longer unlocks the left but boosts the right.

Labour members have every right to build a party that appeals to people like themselves. But it is leaving a deepening crisis of political representation. Millions of people have been on the wrong side of social, economic and political change for the past 30 years but don’t share the assumptions of the urban salariat. Who wants to speak for them? Across western Europe social democratic parties are losing the votes of the same sections of society, and it’s no different here. Tim Farron’s  “party of the 48 per cent” sounds like a declaration of war to largely Brexit voters; so did Smith’s “second referendum”. Ukip has tapped into “these voters” in the past; Theresa May would clearly like to. The left has itself to blame if they are successful in the future.

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