Things can only get worse for Labour

While the government wrestles with intractable problems, Labour seems irrelevant. Is there any hope for the party?

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As the end of a dark year draws near it is tempting to hope that an accident of the calendar will usher in greater cheer. As Leonard Cohen, one of the lost men, sang in “Anthem”: “Ring the bells that still can ring/Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack, a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in.” It is also how the light gets out, and plenty escaped this year. Britain voted to end its 43-year relationship with the European Union and the prime minister was the first casualty. The hapless Jeremy Corbyn was confirmed as leader of the Labour Party. And then the populist surge delivered a presidential victory for the egregious Donald Trump. There is a crack; there is a crack in everything.

The instant school of commentary judged that everything solid has melted into thin air. The end of a liberal world order has been declared, perhaps even sounding the death knell of liberal democracy itself. The political strategies of the 1990s no longer work. Outsiders can win. The public is tired of ­experts. There are nationalists and populists everywhere. “Politics as usual” is over.

There is some truth in this, but not much. It is important to attend calmly to the numbers. After four decades in which hardly ­anyone said a word in praise of the European Union, Britain voted narrowly to leave it. The mechanism of the plebiscite, however, has an unfortunate gearing. A small margin – 52 per cent against 48 per cent – creates great ripples of effect. Even among the 52 per cent there is no singular view about what is wrong. It is a lurch in the course of the nation but it is not the 1688 revolution, despite what some of the sovereignty fetishists in the Leave team think.

In America, Hillary Clinton won more than two million more votes than Trump did. A peculiar electoral college has delivered a dangerous president-elect. The upshot is worrying but it may not be born of a revolution. If this is a problem that might have been averted if Joe Biden had been the candidate for the Democrats, then it can’t be that big. There has been no sudden structural shift. As with the vote on the EU, the US presidential race produced another slight victory with magnified consequences. The most important thinkers of 2017 might now be Montesquieu and John Locke, the application of whose principles separate the powers in America and deliberately hamper the president.

As a rule, we should be conservative about making grand parallels between nations. The British political class is obsessed by American politics, which is a terrible guide to anything that happens here. Likewise, just because there was a populist surge in Greece doesn’t mean that Basingstoke is on the cusp of chaos.

There is, however, one trend we can trace across borders, which is that the steady collapse of Western manufacturing has eroded the status of the working man. The postwar political bargain was that heavy industry provided tough but decently paid work for men of few skills or none; it did the same for men of considerable skill in the same industries. But most of these jobs have gone and the rewards have not kept pace with economic growth, while capital takes more of the bounty than labour.

Across the developed democracies, the consequences are apparent in every nation’s politics. The Trump and May governments will each essay a response to this, though fixing it will be hard. The old manufacturing jobs, which fled to lower-cost producers, won’t be coming back.

The changes will be excessively analysed, particularly on the left. There will be granular scrutiny of segmented populations and minutely worked-out programmes written in deathless prose. There will be a search for a grand idea and the ritual scourging of invented leviathans such as “neoliberalism”. None of it will matter one bit. When recovery comes for the left in Britain it will not emerge like a chrysalis from a policy document. It will attach itself, drawn as to a magnet, to a brilliant leader. The average American worker had not had a pay rise for four decades, but that did not  stop Barack Obama from achieving two victories. Obama won because he embodied a sense of change.

Successful political leaders do not begin with specifics. They rarely come with a “vision”. Rather, they embody a virtue that the people can see clearly. Obama’s flavour was hope and change. Theresa May’s flavour is stolidity and stability at a worrying time. Donald Trump’s flavour is that he talks straight and doesn’t let politics get in the way. A leader offers the sensation that he or she has the answer to your problems. It is no more specific than that. It is therefore true that the Labour Party may be one fine leader away from victory; but it is also true that there will be no victory without that leader.

Whether Theresa May is such a leader is an open question. The early signs are not encouraging. Central control without a sense of direction is a poor combination, especially as May’s government has been landed with the most complex administrative problem of postwar British politics. Her premiership will be defined by the European question but there is still a country to run. It is too early to enter a judgement on her plans for a modern industrial strategy, reform of the justice system or the end of austerity policies at the Treasury. The toughest problem is back in May’s old bailiwick at the Home Office, where Amber Rudd has inherited the task of bringing down immigration which proved too much for her predecessor.

While the government wrestles with intractable problems, Labour seems irrelevant. Whole weeks pass without any senior Labour person being part of the nation’s story. If there is a lesson at all from America, it is that any Labour MP in an industrial heartland whose constituents voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU ought to be worried. If a populist surge arrives, the Labour Party will not be the beneficiary of it. It will be its victim.

There is a crack in the Labour Party and there is no light getting in at all. If, at the end of 2016, it’s already bad for Labour, we should be worried that things, I am afraid, can only get worse.

Philip Collins writes for the Times

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump