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24 June 2020

How the Labour left must change if it is to help the party win

To win back socially conservative voters, the party doesn’t just need a new policy agenda – it needs a new activist culture. 

By Paul Mason

The Labour Together report on the 2019 election debacle was professional, tough and thorough – but it still minced its words. So before we move on, it would be better to spell out the conclusions shorn of euphemism. 

Labour faces the long-term and strategic fragmentation of its voting base. But it went into the election with a leadership that refused to recognise that fact. All the evidence of incompetence, disorganisation and factionalism revealed in the report stems from this essentially political problem.

If you deny the strategic challenge it becomes easy to deny everything else: that the HQ is dysfunctional, that the technology doesn’t work and that the leader’s -50 approval rating matters on the doorstep. 

We’ve got a hill to climb, says the report, but it is also euphemistic about the topography. To win 123 seats at the 2024 general election, giving Labour a one-seat majority, would require the party to make major inroads into the SNP vote in Scotland. Without Scotland, the report says, Labour needs a swing in England so large that it would unseat Jacob Rees-Mogg in North East Somerset.

Let’s face it: neither of these things is going to happen. At 54 per cent, support for Scottish independence is currently running higher than at any time since the polling in the aftermath of the 2016 Brexit vote. In the latest Panelbase survey – taken after Scottish Labour voted against supporting a second referendum – 62 per cent of voters aged below 35 wanted out of the United Kingdom. 

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But there is a route to a left-wing government in Britain – for as long as the Union lasts. It is for Labour to win enough seats to eliminate the Tory majority and to form a coalition government that delivers social justice and constitutional reform.

Chapter 8 of the report spells out what Labour has to do next. It calls for a new strategy that “builds greater public support for a big-change economic agenda, that is seen as credible and morally essential, rooted in people’s real lives and communities. This economic agenda would need to sit alongside a robust story of community and national pride, while bridging social and cultural divisions.”

The alternatives are for the party to move to the centre on economics while softening its socially liberal stance on crime, or an outright embrace of the Blue Labour agenda, which echoes the socially conservative values of the “Red Wall” towns while hoping that the young and ethnic minorities in places such as Bristol, Brighton and Birmingham don’t notice. These options are implicitly rejected in the report, leaving Labour with a strategy based on radical economics plus an effective truce in the culture war.

My sense is that’s what the party leadership wants and, to make it work, the left of the party has to engage with it. The left’s role can’t be to act as obsessive guardians of a manifesto and a narrative that failed: if we do that, we leave the construction of a new policy offer, narrative and activist models to the soft left.

See also: Paul Mason on why the UK’s cultural divide is forcing Labour to be cautious

We need to start by speaking the language of priorities which, as Aneurin Bevan said, is the “religion of socialism”. We need to spell out what a left government should do, and recognise with honesty that, though we are “socialists”, what we are trying to create is a more sustainable and socially just form of capitalism.

The task of a left government in the UK, then, is to end neoliberalism and to replace it with a new economic model that delivers radical redistribution, rising wellbeing and a net-zero carbon economy. It should do this by pursuing five overarching projects through a mixture of legislation, administrative decisions and grassroots activism: 

– Decarbonise the economy.

– End the dominance of global finance.

– Reduce inequalities of wealth, income and opportunity.

– Raise wellbeing across a wide range of indicators. 

– Radically redistribute power.

To deliver this, Labour needs to construct a policy offer, a narrative and forms of activism different from the ones it pursued under Jeremy Corbyn. It’s not about moving to the centre: it’s about improving left politics so that it works. 

On the policy offer, there needs to be an overt filter applied to all proposals. Will it decarbonise the planet? Will it enhance wellbeing? Will it redistribute power? If it does two of these things, the next questions are: do large numbers of people want it? And are we sure it will not alienate a key part of the electoral coalition we need to rebuild?

This filter needs to operate not only at the level of Labour’s semi-defunct National Policy Forum, and in the shadow cabinet, but inside the heads of activists themselves. Under both Corbyn and Ed Miliband, everybody from local party branches to trade unions, NGOs, pressure groups and think tanks have regarded the Labour manifesto as a kind of dartboard at which they can throw their arrows, hoping a few will stick and not bounce off. This has to change.

I’ve argued since the birth of Corbynism that it was a mistake to try to combine a radical economic programme with the pet obsessions of the post-communist left: nuclear disarmament, Venezuelan solidarity, anti-Zionism and withdrawal from Nato. This was the first lesson former Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras taught Syriza as it launched its initial bid for power and it is one Labour has now learned the hard way.

A smart way for the left to rebuild and – if possible after Momentum’s internal elections – unite, would be to have a collective discussion about the ten things a 2024-29 Labour government should do, to rank them in order of priority and to understand that we may have to abandon five of them if the electorate won’t buy them, or if our potential coalition partners won’t either.

But policy is not the main area where things need to change. If, as we are all agreed, it is essential to win back the Red Wall seats, and the socially conservative strata described by sociologists as the “traditional working class”, we are going to need a different narrative and a different activist culture.

The whole strategy of Corbynism was premised on what political theorist Chantal Mouffe – and before her Lenin and Gramsci – has called “economism”: the assumption that a shared economic experience of exploitation can, on its own, overcome the deep cultural differences that have developed between the old and new sections of the working class.

See also: What the Labour 2019 election report tells us about the future of Starmerism 

Large sections of the British left never accepted the idea, common to both structuralist and Gramscian Marxism, that politics and ideology can be autonomous from the clash of economic interests. Nor did they accept its practical implication: the need for a long-term political “war of position”, in which the progressive section of the working class fights for moral and intellectual leadership over the rest of society.

Indeed, for those on the far left who define “working class” only through socially authoritarian cultural values and low-skilled work, the entire Gramscian strategy looks nonsensical. But there is a way forward. The “new” and “traditional” sections of the working class do share something in common: powerlessness. And the values sociologists find they share in common – family, fairness, decency and hard work – are those from which our narrative has to start.

To me, “family, fairness, decency and hard work” sound like a survival strategy for people living under neoliberalism. To parts of the socially liberal left, these terms sound “Blue Labour” – but that’s because we’ve never taken seriously enough the job of owning the problems they represent.

If we want the socially authoritarian voter in Wigan to join, vote for and enthusiastically support a Labour Party that is also home to tens of thousands of Black Lives Matter protesters and Extinction Rebellion activists, then the stories we tell – through both our words, actions and priorities – have to be about these shared values and (here’s the tough part) almost nothing else.

Keir Starmer’s leadership pitch was light on policies but strong on principles: social, economic and climate justice. Among these it is no surprise that, for the conservative right, it is social justice that is seen as the dangerous concept. The right’s think tanks keep trying to equate it with communism because it knows it is deeply embedded, even among conservative-minded workers.

“We’re going to end free-market economics, so that you and your family are rewarded for their work; so that there is decency in our communities; and everyone gets their fair share” should be the mission statement of Labour under Starmer – and the job of the left is to concretise it in the form of grassroots activism.

That, on its own, won’t guarantee success: the combined impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, the worsening economic slump and a potential no-deal Brexit will create wave after wave of crises, which Boris Johnson and his army of behavioural scientists will exploit. Efficient parliamentary scrutiny will not be enough: the Labour leadership must wage a “war of manoeuvre” as well as a long-haul positional battle. 

But the Labour Together report spells out a plausible way forward, and my advice to everyone on the left of the party is to take ownership of it, deepen it and become its best practitioners.

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