When the Conservative Party is out of power nobody, except happy mockers on the left, talks about a crisis of the political right. There are no seminars entitled, feverishly: “What Is Right?” No recently dismissed apparatchik writes a lengthy, learned piece in a journal, purporting to distil lessons from far-flung nations. The political left does all of these things in earnest. It is a sign of the British left’s lack of confidence that, by thinking too much, it is able to redefine its defeats as crises.
This is a vice of being a doctrinal party. The Conservative Party is less biblical and, as a result, less prone to heresy-hunting. Blasphemy is an impossible betrayal in the Conservative Party because there is no book. The Labour Party, by contrast, always has a standard by which to measure its crisis. To be precise, Labour has three standards: its doctrine, its history and its sense of purpose. In all three, Labour is in a tangle. In all three, Labour is in a mess.
Doctrinally, the Labour Party is caught between its base desire and the country it seeks to govern. In A Strange Eventful History, Edmund Dell’s masterly history of the decline and fall of the left’s intellectual pursuits, democratic socialism always falls short of its objectives because socialism turns out to have no democratic warrant. The term is not the permissible compound Orwell thought it to be. It is an oxymoron. There is no evidence in the course of British history for the hope that the nation will vote for a left-wing prospectus of the sort offered by Jeremy Corbyn. The uncomfortable historical fact, which is true of Attlee, Wilson and Blair, is that Labour wins only when its left is tamed. A victory from the Labour left, though, is the fantasy that dies hard.
There is a specific instance of Labour’s doctrinal crisis which threatens the party’s very existence. Labour, like all political movements, is one part liberal and one part communitarian; cosmopolitan on immigration and yet pledging to defend the fortunes of those who do least well from the influx of new people. Labour finds the horns of its dilemma are sharper than those of any other party. The Labour vote is now comprised of the most committed advocates of these two contradictory positions.
Labour’s London redoubt is a gathering of its liberals. In provincial England and in Wales, Labour remains the party of the old working class, whose livelihoods are threatened by globalisation. Labour needs a prospectus that can carry both groups and a leader to embody it.
The search is hampered by Labour’s tendency to wear its own history as a story either of excessive pride or of incipient betrayal. The stone monument of Labour history is Attlee’s government of 1945-51, when, briefly, Britain seemed to become a left-wing nation. During the exceptional circumstances of the Second World War, the coalition had mobilised socialist-like economics for the home front. The Attlee government found its philosophy came to life and saved the nation. Ever since then, the Labour Party has been waiting for these circumstances to recur. They never will.
Besides, a closer reading of the time and, in particular, of Attlee’s part in it, yields a different interpretation. In his new life of Attlee, Citizen Clem, John Bew (writes from page 37) presents Labour’s favourite leader not as a visionary socialist but as a conservative pragmatist. Even his socialism was essentially conservative. Attlee thought socialism was the binding that would end division in Britain. Socialism was the method by which patriotism, his own higher calling, could be expressed. Major Attlee’s service at Gallipoli in 1914-15, and his time as deputy prime minister in the wartime coalition, gave him impeccable credentials as a patriot.
It should also be recalled that Attlee’s British patriotism expressed itself, as did that of his formidable foreign secretary Ernest Bevin, in the desire for the impregnable defence of the realm. The Labour memorialisers like to preserve in aspic the NHS and the welfare state, but the 1945 government was just as much about the nuclear deterrent and the formation of Nato. A Labour leader committed to dispensing with the former and refusing the invitation to say he would come to the aid of a member of Nato is flagrantly in breach of a vital and proud part of Labour’s record in government.
There, finally, is the third crisis. Attlee suffered terrible strictures during the coalition, from Harold Laski and Aneurin Bevan in Tribune on his left to the Beaverbrook newspapers on his right, but he never doubted that Labour was better off in than out. He always understood that the good was worth having even if the best was postponed to another day. To be in power was not the doctrinal purpose of the Labour Party – but the party’s purpose quite clearly could not be fulfilled if it was not in power.
This is stated explicitly in Labour’s constitution, the first clause of which states that the party is a body that seeks parliamentary representation with a view to taking power. It is an avowed commitment to the parliamentary road to somewhere in the vicinity of socialism. Labour now has a leader who does not truly believe Labour politics should be conducted primarily through electoral politics. Corbyn believes he stands at the head of a social movement that has primacy over his parliamentary forces. This is the basis, as he says repeatedly, of his mandate as leader. He does not seem to be aware, or does not care if he is, that this places him explicitly outside the tradition of the party he leads. He is tearing up his own party’s constitution, almost by accident.
The Labour Party’s mess is therefore doctrinal, historical and existential. It is better described by the demotic term “mess” than the marxisant grandiosity of “crisis”. The left should mimic the right and abolish its crisis by refusing to acknowledge the category. There is no need to overthink the doctrinal mess. Labour needs something to say to the country, a prospectus that can bridge its working-class and its bourgeois redoubts. This is always easier than it looks. The party will have to make its peace with fiscal conservatism and then, with a redeemed trust in its ability to run the economy, it will earn the right to discuss a more equitable distribution, a common wealth of the kind that features so frequently in the speeches of Major Attlee.
None of this is feasible without a settlement on Labour’s purpose. Labour has to train its sights on electoral victory. It therefore desperately needs a new leader. There are no conceivable circumstances in which Corbyn could become prime minister. The question Corbyn’s supporters need to ask themselves is not: “Is he right?” The question is: “Can enough people be persuaded so?” No matter that you agree with him so ardently. Can you bring the country with you? It is the first rule of politics: can you count?
Jeremy Corbyn is leading Labour off a cliff, accompanied by his lemmings among the membership. As weak a politician as he is, he is probably strong enough to kill off his own party. When a disaster has three aspects – doctrine, history and sense of purpose – it all adds up to a fourth, which is existential. Britain needs a centre-left party to be a viable not-Conservative government. It may not need the Labour Party.
Philip Collins writes for the Times
This article is part of a New Times collection of the future of the left. Read the other pieces here.
This article appears in the 15 Feb 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times