Forum for Debate

SCT’s Forum for Debate provides protagonists on either side of an issue or public debate  –  including think tanks, commentators, academics and campaigners – with an opportunity to set out their well-considered, rational arguments and then allow a limited number of exchanges between them. Rather than then hosting an open forum or blog, the debates are designed to encourage visitors, guided by links provided by the British Library, to seek out further information about the issues and engage in face-to-face debate themselves. The  debates could also provide material around which Speakers’ Corner Committees can organise their own local events.

The latest in the series appears below. Previous debates can be found in the archive.


Whither Labour?

At the turn of the 21st century, the Labour Party seemed to be the natural party of Government in the UK. That has changed. It lost power in 2010 to a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition and in 2015 was unable to prevent the Conservatives from forming their first administration for 23 years.

Worse still, it lost votes and seats in areas – particularly in the North and Midlands – traditionally regarded as its heartlands. In Scotland, it lost all but one of its 41 seats. Now, with the polls showing the Conservatives with a double digit lead, the pundits have all but written off Labour’s prospects at the 2020 election.

lp-logoYet since its 2015 defeat, the party’s membership has more than doubled and, at over 500,000, is now greater than all the other UK parties combined. This exponential increase coincides with the election and recent re-election of Jeremy Corbyn as party leader and with the growth of the Momentum movement which supports him.

Corbyn’s leadership has split the party. In the summer of 2016, 21 members of his Shadow Cabinet along with 31 Shadow Ministers resigned their posts and Labour MPs passed a vote of no confidence in him by 172 votes to 40. But, with 62% of the vote, his re-election by party members and supporters was resounding. For some, the party faces oblivion; for others, the future is full of hope and promise.

Where does the party go from here? Can the rifts be healed? Are the aims of winning elections and growing and sustaining a mass political movement reconcilable? Can common ground be found between the left and right? What would a united party look like in 2020 – and, if unity is achievable, how?

Richard Angell

Progress

Richard Angell is the director of Progress. He is the founder of Labour’s three seats challenge (#Lab3seats) and has run marginal seat campaigns for the UK Labour party and its sister party Australian Labor. He is elected to the TUC’s LGBT committee.

Richard is a former trade union official for Community Union and worked for the All Party Parliamentary Group on Combatting Antisemitism.

He served on Labour’s National Policy Forum (2010-15), as secretary of LGBT Labour (2008-11) and chair of Young Labour (2007-2009).

Progress aims to promote a radical and progressive politics. Founded in 1996, it is an independent organisation of Labour party members.

Through its national and regional events, website and regular publications, it seeks to promote open debate and discussion of progressive ideas and policies.

Maya Goodfellow

LabourList

Maya Goodfellow is a journalist and political commentator.

She is a columnist for LabourList and Media Diversified (though the views expressed here are her own.)

She has also worked as a researcher for a think tank.

Maya writes about British politics, international affairs, with a particular focus on conflict studies, and gender and race.

LabourList was launched in 2009 as a leading place for news, views and debate about the centre left. With 12 million page views a year, its readers and contributors come from across the labour movement and range from MPs and peers to grassroots activists.

LabourList is supportive of but independent of the Labour Party. There will always be a fierce debate within Labour and our purpose is to provide a forum for the full range of views rather than to take sides.

Proposition

Permission Politics Is The Way Back For Labour

Labour's current predicament is not a new phenomenon. Since 2007 Labour has moved away from its vote-winning formula. Gordon Brown, desperate to take over in No 10, began a process of 'one stepping' – being just to the left of your nearest internal political rival – that has subsequently stepped Labour off the political cliff.

Issues like immigration, crime and sensible welfare reform were parked because they were considered too difficult. In each case, the voters noticed and responded angrily to Labour’s abdication on big and important issues.

More than any other group, working class voters expect Labour to be the ‘security party’ – and these issues are central to their identity and why they vote Labour. But they are often the polar opposites of the issues that compel many people to join the party.

So to win the selectorate for the party’s leadership in 2010, Ed Miliband one stepped his former boss and brother and forfeited the economic credibility the government in which he served had earned with its response to the global financial crash. With this forfeiture went the 2015 general election in which seats like Gower – Labour since 1910 – fell into Conservative hands.

Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters like to see themselves as the break in the line of New Labour leaders. This is not true; there was only one. Corbyn is the logical extension of Miliband's five years of anti-Iraq, pro-Occupy movement, ‘predators and producers’ leadership.

Corbyn’s uncompromising policy positions are Labour’s profligate, soft-on-security worst instincts taken to the extreme. His anti-imperialist fixation would be anathema to the party of Ernest Bevin and Nye Bevan who helped found the UN and Nato and gave Britain a nuclear deterrent. Those working class leaders of the Labour movement knew peace was secured by strength. Corbyn and his director of strategy and close confidant Seumas Milne pronounce the opposite.

After Corbyn’s re-election as Labour leader, he was presented with an opportunity to unite the party behind him. He did not even try. The treatment of Lillian Greenwood, Heidi Alexander, Sharon Hodgson and Thangham Debbonaire in his first 10 months testifies to this.

The fact that neither of his speeches at Labour’s annual conference in Liverpool spelled out action on online abuse, sexist bullying or antisemitism brings it home. Nor did he rule out the deselection of MPs or rule in shadow cabinet elections. At times he goes out of his way to divide party members and put Labour further at odds with the voters – on issues ranging from immigration numbers to relations with Vladimir Putin's Russia.

His supporters suggest that his dire poll performance is due to Labour MPs voting for a no confidence motion in his leadership in June, but YouGov’s Anthony Wells says this is ‘disingenuous claim at best’. In 2010 Brown won back those who abandoned Labour in 2005 for the Liberal Democrats but lost more to the Tories. In 2015 Miliband's job was to win these swing voters back to Labour and he did not. In 2020 Corbyn's first challenge is to win back the 2.5 million voters who favoured Miliband over David Cameron in 2015 but now, according to the polls, prefer Theresa May.

It is not all negative. The explosion of new members can only be a good thing. Some may be bad apples. Some may even have stood against Labour in the past or remain loyal to far-left groups like the Alliance of Workers Liberty. But the vast majority want to change the world. Every Labour member should both share their experiences in what they know about how change happens and listen to new ideas about how it might be done better.

Equally, Corbyn's election has given 'moderate Labour' the intellectual kick up the proverbial that it needs. Social democrats across the world seem bereft of big ideas and solutions to the growing wage gaps, the hollowing out of the economy and unprecedented levels of immigration. This predicament must mean we moderates stop one stepping each other and step up to face the future.

Proposition

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.

Response

The Trump phenomenon is truly horrifying. Those who appear to be enjoying his victory as some kind of break on neo-liberalism or Third Way politics, or both, should never forget that he directed Second Amendment supporters to aim their fire at the first woman to be selected by a mainstream party for the position of president.

While Hillary Clinton will regret her email server decisions forever, she should hold her head high. For all the voters who regarded the Clintons as 'establishment', there were as many who found her too radical – for being a woman, for her dogged pursuit of universal healthcare and childcare and for her support for minorities, immigrants and Muslims. This has been totally lost in the debate on both sides on the Atlantic.

Maya’s excellent opener falls into a tried and tested trap. The logic that Labour should be a grassroots, even social, movement is compelling – but it is no replacement for parliamentary socialism.

I entirely agree: the party should be on people's doorsteps, in their workplaces and community groups, making change between elections.

But you cannot 'listen' to working class communities and when they raise legitimate concerns about the effects of immigration – and there are some – conclude they are racist. It closes them off to the left's argument. It would be the worst of the 'top down model of politics' Maya abhors. It is Labour 'occupying a lofty moral high ground that speaks to few people' against which she also cautions.

Community action must be the start of real dialogue, not stunts. Labour does not have to ape the voter’s views but seriously engage with them. It can then decide where they are right and wrong and seek to persuade people of its own position. The alternative is not a 'harder electoral route' but a gift to the Conservatives and the guarantee of a third term they do not deserve.

Response

Labour’s problems did not begin when Gordon Brown took power in 2007. Tony Blair won three elections but the party lost four million votes between 1997 and 2005. It shed just less than one million under Brown. In many places, unhappiness set in over these years as confidence in social democrats and their lacklustre answers to some of society’s big problems began to wane.

Yet Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader is not simply about a break with New Labour. To craft its vision for the future, the party does have to understand problems from this past. But a coherent analysis of this history should not maintain Labour’s obsession with Tony Blair and all that he represented.

Neither does Corbyn’s leadership symbolise a continuation of the Miliband era. To blur the two shows a misunderstanding of the ideological underpinnings of Labour’s left. Under Miliband there were too few clear policy offers and an unwillingness to provide a clear challenge to neoliberalism. A reoriented Labour should not contain such vagueness and timidity.

But there is little point in merely rehearsing these old arguments. Across Europe, social democratic parties are in crisis and the left must adapt. Labour is still ironing out its policy offer – and it should get its messaging nailed down soon.

That must include, as Richard suggests, clawing back trust on the economy while at the same time breaking from an economic model that fails to make life better for most in society.

Few are saying there isn’t significant work to do but so-called ‘moderates’ are not the sensible thinkers on the left (a mistruth this very label seems to suggest). Labour has long been in trouble. Corbyn’s leadership is not about this one man but changing the Labour party in the long term.

Conclusion

Considering that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour has lost the support of well over two millions voters since 2015, raking up the ‘Labour lost five million votes’ while in power myth might just be a cul-de-sac - mainly because it is just not true, as YouGov’s Peter Kellner has pointed out.

Expecting Tony Blair or his successor to win the support of 3.5 million dead voters is probably a step too far. Labour did however, fail – as most incumbent governments do – to replenish its support over those 13 years. But what those serious about our return to power cannot avoid is that 900,000 people who voted Labour in 2005 voted Tory in 2010 and Labour lost power.

But I agree with Maya that Labour has considerable problems and that they are not just to do with Corbyn but are longterm. Indeed, social democrats across the world have similar problems. She is right to say that 'a reoriented Labour should not contain such vagueness and timidity' as Ed Miliband's did. But that is exactly what the current frontbench provide. The National Education Service which was proposed in both of Corbyn's leadership campaigns has amounted to nothing. The same is true on rail renationalisation, anti-austerity economics and creating a ‘kinder, gentler politics’.

Maya and her colleagues have to realise what the rest of the world knows: that the Corbyn project has failed. Its ideas have failed, it is failing against the Tories – with a double digit deficit in the polls – and it has failed within the party.

What is happening to Labour is exactly what is happening inside Momentum: a small group of Trotskyists parasites are taking down their host.

My current fears are best expressed by Momentum National Committee member Laura Murray in her recent article about its travails. She warns that because of its factionalism, a “generation of young activists — inspired and politicised by Jeremy Corbyn— will lose their only opportunity to change politics for the better, and consequently become permanently disillusioned”. As neither Corbyn nor Momentum can fulfil those hopes, it is for the moderates and the modernisers to do it.

So we must refresh our offer. Key to this is relinquishing our historic attachment to 'centre-ground politics'. The term suggests that politics is a game of Risk with territory to be fought over. Instead, we must return to an idea of 'permission politics' – winning consent for a programme of the left by first meeting the concerns of the voting public.

Hillary Clinton arguably avoided this approach in favour of a cosmopolitan strategy. She could not have been more pro-minorities, immigrants and the dispossessed. But her strategy failed in the electoral college. We cannot repeat her mistake, instead we must seek permission, appeal across class divides and own the future.

Conclusion

There is little point in spending the limited space I have here trying to draw extensive parallels between Donald Trump’s victory in the US and Brexit in the UK. There are similarities but the specific contexts are evidently not identical.

But it would be incorrect to assume from my initial contribution that I think Trump’s win merely symbolises a backlash against the neo-liberal economic model or that Hillary Clinton didn’t experience a significant amount of sexism, which factored into her loss.

Trump mobilised white Americans with a message that their future success lies in impoverishing African Americans and other minorities. For some, he wasn’t appealing in spite of his racist politics but because of them. This is often overlooked in analysis that reduces his win to symbolising a roar of discontent from the “left behind”.

In the UK too, race is often swept to one side by the Left. Brexit is boiled down to economics: it was a working class revolt, goes the common analysis. But evidence cited by David Wearing in a blog for the Centre for Labour and Social Studies shows the Leave vote “correlates much more strongly with social attitudes than with social class”. For instance, 81% of those who think multiculturalism is a force for ill voted Leave. Yet this is regularly ignored.

Recognising this is not simply to call everyone who wants to reduce the level of immigration into this country a racist. (Of course not all Leave voters are anti-migration but the result was largely driven by opposition towards immigration). Rather, acknowledging this reality is integral to crafting an appropriate response: Labour’s policies must include an explicit anti-racist message.

Richard says that the Labour party should listen to peoples’ concerns and “seriously engage” with what they are saying. I agree. But to do this the party can’t simply abandon facts. All the evidence shows that immigration is not the causal factor for low wages, insecure jobs, the severe housing shortage or the crisis in our public services. And abandoning freedom of movement, a policy many in Labour are now suggesting, would only make people poorer because it would mean leaving the single market.

It does not amount to occupying a “lofty moral high ground” to make these points and to find a way to address the causes of poverty, disenfranchisement and community collapse across the country without buying into anti-migrant ideas. In fact, to assume that people will not listen to an alternative if framed in a clear way risks becoming patronising.

I also agree that Labour should not abandon or give up on parliamentary democracy: for the party to effect change it is vital that it wins seats in the Commons. This can be done with a strong, grassroots movement that speaks to, interacts with and complements the Parliamentary Labour Party.

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