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18 December 2019updated 09 Jul 2021 7:28am

The Blairites and then the Corbynites have led Labour into a dead end. But there is a way back

By Paul Collier

That Labour lost the Don Valley and gained Putney is emblematic of a larger problem. The crux of post-Brexit public policy will be the shift of power, money, productivity and attention from London to the North and Midlands. After years of divergence, provincial Britain is angry, and these are the votes that Labour has lost. Yet neither the Corbynistas nor a return to New Labour offer a viable pathway to recovery: the party needs a “third way”. Fortunately, there is one, but with the present process of leadership selection, Labour is unlikely to find it.

Of the Corbynistas little needs to be said. Their economic ideology of command is defunct; their political ideology of centralised power grotesque. Through negligence, Labour’s leaders exposed the party to capture by the hard left. They deployed their standard playbook: a motivated vanguard that follows instructions; fellow travellers who weaken opponents; and legions of useful idiots attracted by promises of whatever it takes to seduce them.

The training ground in the playbook is also evident: Alan Johnson’s swipe at Jon Lansman – “go back to your student politics” – nailed it. By 2019 the mission of capture was accomplished: Corbyn had a tighter control over the party than any previous leader. We are already witnessing its sequel: how to retain control in the face of failure.  All methods will be acceptable, since the ends justify the means. Their ruthlessness, mendacity and lame litany of self-righteousness will be wondrous to behold. I expect that unless the rules are changed, they will succeed.

The residue of New Labour is in no position to dislodge the Corbynistas, nor do they deserve to. Their fundamental weakness was, and is, ethical. New Labour was built on the argument of expediency – only by moving to the centre could Labour win. In saying that, their leaders ceded the moral high ground to the hard left. It was presented as a deal with the devil: only by embracing capitalism could Labour gain power, and only by gaining power could it increase welfare benefits for the poor. The same argument was used to justify being “intensely relaxed” about crass displays of wealth. New Labour’s ethics was utilitarian – transferring consumption and public services to “client” citizens would increase “utility”. To accomplish this goal, it was as hooked on centralised power as the Corbynistas. Brown built a power structure that centralised control in the Treasury.  A little circle of technocrats enthused about “maximising social utility”, and a little circle of celebrities enthused about bling-style virtue-signalling; but it did not speak to the party’s heartlands.

The real “third way” is communitarianism. The purpose of a communitarian Labour Party would be to restore community. Humanity is a uniquely pro-social species. We cannot be satisfied by being merely individual clients receiving consumption and services from government; we need to contribute to family and community. What needs to be transferred is practical agency and the capacity to be productive. Agency means being trusted, rather than the recent fate of the working class: scrutinised at work through monitored contracts, and at home by social workers. To be productive, jobs need to be brought to the places where people belong, and their populations trained in the skills that enable them to do those jobs.

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Community begins with locality; most people have a strong sense of attachment to place. A model here is Germany: decentralisation of power and money to strong city and regional governments, legally empowered citizen groups, banks kept locally based, and business given tasks that require it to be locally organised. The brightest youth of Hamburg, Frankfurt, Munich and Stuttgart do not uproot to Berlin.

But community is also about nationality: most people have a strong sense of pride in nation, and its corollary that citizenship brings mutual obligations. That spirit is what the SNP has tapped into, festooning Scotland with the Saltire while Islington was mocking the English flag.

Communitarianism is Labour’s natural home. It is where it started, with the cooperative movement, Methodism and municipal socialism, and it is still alive: Manchester, Oldham, Bristol. It is the agenda that most Labour voters want, and that neither the Corbynistas nor New Labour can credibly offer. But it can’t happen under the current rules: in the name of “democracy”, participation in the choice of leader has been drastically curtailed.

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Labour needs to win around 14 million votes, but 97 per cent of those voters no longer have any say. When leaders were chosen by MPs, most Labour voters had influence through their power over their MP. Since MPs have to win votes, they have an incentive to choose leaders that their voters want, and they know the qualities of the contenders.

The best predictor of past British elections has been the strength of support for each leader among their MPs. But if Labour really wants participation, it should propose a new national system. Everyone eligible to vote in a general election would receive a golden vote, to be used in one party leadership election.

Labour should use its “period of reflection” for major change. Boris Johnson reacted to his victory in the North by saying: “We must understand what an earthquake we have created. We have to change our own party.” Victory has given the Conservatives momentum for further change: they will shift their centre of gravity from Putney to the Don Valley. Must defeat condemn the Labour Party to paralysis in Putney? 

Paul Collier is professor of economics and public policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford

This article appears in the 18 Dec 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Days of reckoning