Members Must Lead Labour's Transformation
The Labour Party is going through a painful period of change as world politics is rapidly reworking itself. The forces of right-wing xenophobic populism are stronger than they have been in decades, whisking Donald Trump to the White House and taking the UK out of the EU. The left have a huge task on their hands, but also the capacity to bring the country out of the current crisis.
Labour however is currently divided, broadly between those who favour a top-down, managerial style of politics and people who think the party must become a social movement to win power.
To resolve these divisions requires serious thinking about why Labour is in this position. The party’s problems were in evidence long before Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader.
This history is complex, but is rooted in the last Labour government’s policies. In essence, New Labour preferred to ameliorate some of the symptoms rather than change the fundamental structures of a free-market economic system that works on exploitation, disenfranchisement and neglect of the least powerful in society. Unhappiness in Labour’s so-called heartlands brewed through the Blair/Brown years; the party’s core vote grew tired of being taken for granted and angry at the inadequate, short-term measures of the politicians they voted for.
The party’s challenge is to speak to those people once again. To do that Labour must change – both the party’s archaic, labyrinthine structure and its vision. Yet there remains disagreement about how.
One of the ways the schism in the Labour party is understood is through the prism of electability: some care about office, while others are happy to be a protest party. But this caricatures those who are willing to take what may be a hard electoral route - at a time when the left in general appears to have few ideas - if it delivers the serious rather than superficial change they believe is needed. In any case, while Corbyn’s flaws are not difficult to pinpoint, the obstacles facing the party are formidable regardless of who its leader is. There is no easy antidote to public antipathy and anger.
But one reality is clear: Labour has to transform itself into a campaigning movement that breaks from the failed top-down model of politics. Its members should be the force for that change. But as the summer’s leadership contest showed, some remained unconvinced. The current divisions in Labour are not about the leadership alone but how the party operates in the future.
Beyond Labour’s internecine feuds, the party has to forge a clear narrative that goes beyond tactical positioning against the Tories or occupying a lofty moral high ground that speaks to few people.
Migration remains one of the biggest issues in UK politics. Xenophobic politics has slowly crept into the mainstream - with the help of centre-left politicians who failed to argue against the basic tenets of their rhetoric. Anti-migrant politicians are finding support in France, Hungary, Britain and the US where a racist demagogue is soon to be crowned the 45th President.
There will be a temptation to accommodate this form of racist politics but Labour must confront it head on. The party should unite around a pro-migration message, the beginnings of which Corbyn spelled out at Labour party conference. That doesn’t mean ignoring peoples’ economic concerns but realising that cutting migration will do nothing to address the real issues.
However, effective, transformative politics is not simply about saying; it is also about showing. Labour is the largest left-wing party in Europe. It can work with its hundreds and thousands of members to become a movement that gets out its message through local campaigning. There should be a Labour presence in food banks and libraries, with members providing services that the government have long since abandoned.
There is no point in simply lamenting Labour’s current state. Proper analysis will help us understand how we got to where we are and the tenacity to come back better and stronger.