As Labour MPs pick up the pieces after their battle with the left wing extremists led by their leader and his enforcer John McDonnell, it may be time to take stock and assess where to go from here.
The (second) election of Jeremy Corbyn (to his supporters, the second coming of the Messiah) demonstrates a deep shift in party politics. The question is whether this transformation of the Labour Party heralds a fundamental change in the attitudes of the wider electorate as well, signaling the long expected ‘move to the left’ once announced by Corbyn’s predecessor Ed Milliband.
There can be no doubt that societies in the developed world have undergone a significant alteration of the political radar since the economic crisis in 2008. What used to be an attitude to wealth and income inequality best described by Tony Blair as ‘relaxed’ made way to a vibrant debate on social justice. At the forefront of this debate is the issue of wage stagnation since the 1990s in the US and as Thomas Piketty argued, the growing income inequality fuelled by rising income from assets.
Where the picture veers into the strange is when we look at the responses to the crisis by the individual parties. Centre right parties moved gradually to the centre and tried to develop policies to counter wage stagnation, broadly trusting in the power of the economy to lift everybody’s boat at some time.
The left of centre parties, many of which were in fact in power when the crisis hit, showed a staggering lack of ideas. Gordon Brown’s inaction at the moment of economic disaster was symptomatic. Tired of Brown’s dithering, his chancellor, Alistair Darling, had to take the reigns and protect the banking sector by bailing out some of the largest lenders. The next two years were largely wasted with inactivity by the Labour government. Not a single policy was launched by the Brown government to counter the growing wage gap. It was as if Labour politicians who had started their tenure in 1997 with so much gusto were frozen like rabbits caught in the headlights before the car bumps them off the road.
Following the 2010 election, the Conservatives continued to move into the centre with modest welfare reforms under George Osborne, the introduction of the national living wage and fiscal consolidation. The next five years are generally acknowledged to have been a wasted opportunity for the Labour Party. Under Ed Milliband’s leadership an endless number of policy reviews was conducted with very little outcome or impact. As the next election was nearing, Labour struggled to put a manifesto of pledges together that amounted to a coherent programme for government. Instead it opted for an oversized tombstone inscribed with several vacuous statements that prompted ridicule and laughter in the wider public.
Thus, in a sense, Jeremy Corbyn’s election to leader was actually the first proper response of the Labour Party to the economic crisis and its related problems such as wage stagnation and income inequality. And this is where the story assumes surreal proportions. Instead of embarking on a profound reassessment of Labour policies and a wider debate on how to tackle social injustice under conditions of low productivity, how to address the disappearance of low skilled jobs and the rise of the professional classes under conditions of a fiscal straightjacket that is likely to continue for the next decade, Labour members opted for a type of unrestrained sloganism, a simplistic populist left wing version of Donald Trump. The most notorious aspect of this move to populism is the striking absence of any hard thinking about policies, the slavish adherence to abstract slogans, and a determination not to let reality impinge on the simplistic worldview those slogans purport.
An important side effect of this return to the 1970s is that Corbyn’s ideas show little traction with the working class voters he pretends to represent. As so often before, the proletariat appears to refuse to play along with the Marxist leaders. Corbyn acolytes appear to be mainly young middle class voters who should have little investment in a Marxist worldview that assigns to them a diminishing political role as the proletariat ‘gains class consciousness’. But then, as so often, paradoxes abound in English Socialism, once led by an aristocrat, Tony Benn, who virulently campaigned against the very educational standards he benefited from.
Where does that leave the political landscape in England? Labour’s move to the extreme left may just open up some electoral space for moderate social democrats and liberals. LibDem’s leader Tim Farron seems to sense that when he appealed to disenchanted moderate Labour voters to join the Liberal Democrats. It is customary in the British media to write off the LibDems but the party still has a significant number of councillors and some parliamentary representation (at Westminster and in Cardiff), more than other fringe parties such as the Greens and UKIP. Councillors are usually the knights in shining armour when it comes to trudging through the English rain to deliver leaflets to potential voters or placing calls to the ‘pledged voters’ to go to the polling booths. So, the LibDems are electorally in a better position than the Greens and UKIP.
The biggest threat to Conservative rule is however amy come from inside the Tories themselves, through a prime minister who ditches the moderate compassionate Conservatism that served David Cameron so well in the last 6 years. Part of the reason why Labour shifted to the extreme left was that the Conservatives firmly occupied the centre ground with progressive policies once popular under Labour, such as national minimum wage, welfare reform and the academy programme. The biggest mistake Theresa May could do is to vacate this centre ground and encourage moderate Labour politicians to formulate their own policies. Let’s hope she is a closet Cameroonian.