Dear Labour

Neal Lawson

Monday, 01 August 2016

Dear Labour,

B.B. (Before Brexit), I started writing constructively critical letters to other progressive parties; the Greens, the SNP and the Liberal Democrats. You can find them here. The reason was frustration about their lack of strategic direction and the structural weaknesses of all of them. And now we get to my own party – Labour. Where to start?

Let’s go with the flow and take the leadership election as the way in and this opening observation; the answer to Labour’s existential crisis does not lie on the leadership ballot paper. Yes, people will make a least-worst-case choice but neither Owen nor Jeremy will succeed if we define success as a real and lasting shift in power from the few to the many. That isn’t because they don’t mean well or try hard, but because despite their different approaches, neither of them understands how transformative change happens in the 21st century.

Let’s start with Owen Smith because the analysis is easier. It seems to me that what Owen and his campaign represent is the desire to turn back the clock to a mythical soft-left moment that never really existed – and probably never will. Put simply, if Ed Miliband couldn’t secure victory in 2015, before Brexit and before the rise of Corbynism and the meltdown of Labour – how on earth do we expect Owen to do it now – a left-wing version of Ed whom most people hadn’t heard of two weeks ago? This is tough I know, but Owen has never said or done anything that suggests that he understands the global crisis of social democracy or the particular meltdown the UK is experiencing. Where are the books, pamphlets, speeches, articles – where are the campaigns and the movement building which would begin to show he is offering something more than merely an echo of previous failures? If you want to lead a party out of an existential crisis then you must have the experience and the plan.   The party has to stop pretending that its saviours simply exist within its ranks and that all we have to do is elect the ‘right’ person. It’s not that what Owen says isn’t in part attractive, it’s that he has little idea how to make it happen.

Here Labour is hidebound by the ‘1945 Myth’ that all transformation took then was a few good leaders – Clement Attlee and the rest. But 1945 was based on a 100-year conversation between socialists and liberals and on the most incredible rich cultural, intellectual and organizational basis. And it rested more than anything on the strength of the working class, the experience of the war and the presence of the Soviet Union, the fear of which brought employers to the bargaining table and combined to make the post-war settlement within the nation possible. But all that has gone and has been replaced by globalization, financialisation, consumerisation and individualization. How on earth do we expect Owen to deal with all that – without the strategy, forces, ideas, narratives, networks, global alliances and movements that such a moment demands as a minimum?

In the corners of our minds we remember 1997 and some of us still hope against hope that we could at least get back to then. OK it wasn’t exactly perfect but at least the party won elections! But New Labour was a once-only move, made possible by the desperation of 18 years of Tory rule, the absence of any electoral opposition on Labour’s left and an unprecedented 60 consecutive quarters of growth which meant it could paper over the cracks of a failing economy and democracy. The roof was always going to fall in and it did. The social divisions opened up make a return to such a centrist big tent approach simply impossible – both economically and politically. But a soft-left version of such a big tent being offered by Owen is equally misplaced.

After 30 years of neo-liberalism the idea that Labour can simply legislate on high for a new golden era of social democracy is simply fanciful. Owen is swinging to the left to play to the Corbyn gallery – but how will he actually realise these left wing policies – his 20-point plan? Not just how will he persuade the electorate to vote for it, but how will he fend off the national and global forces of neo-liberalism who will look to destroy him at every turn? Again, I ask you to think back to Ed Miliband and what happened to him. Why will this be any different? It is likely to be even worse. Corbynite policies without any wave of support, only dressed up in a smart suit, is simply the politics of wishful thinking. It is Kinnockism in the 21st century and it is doomed.

So what then of Jeremy Corbyn? The first point is that it is exactly the (inevitable) failure of New Labour and then a soft left version of it that paved the way for the Corbynisation of Labour. Against the backdrop of widening inequality and the marginalization of so many people – Corbynism or something like it was always going to happen – either internally within Labour or externally to try and replace it. Unless and until all of Labour understands the deep-rooted economic, social and cultural reasons for Corbynism then there is no hope for the renewal of the party. Yes Jeremy was an accident, but it was an accident waiting to happen. Even if you replace him – you wont replace the reasons why so many people feel the need for him.

This time last year I said that I had no illusions in Jeremy but what mattered was the wave, I voted for the wave not the surfer. I stand by that view only, of course, I have fewer illusions now. Jeremy is a symbol, an avatar, a projection screen for the hope for something better and the fear of something worse. This is harsh too, but no one with any sense or insight believes he has the leadership skills to craft a majoritarian politics. But that isn’t the point. The point is that if the choice is losing by compromises you don’t believe in or losing by following your heart – then it’s an easy choice for the majority of Labour members. And that choice is likely to prevail. You only beat a wave with a bigger and better wave.

And at least some of the Corbynites have a semblance of a political plan. Against the might of the Tory Party, UKIP, the right-wing media, the CBI, the City and the consumer industrial complex that will look to destroy any transformative political project – the only countervailing force they see is a Labour Party of one million members – active in every community. And the only person who can help Labour recruit a million members is – yes – Jeremy. It’s a plan for change, it’s not a very good one as we shall see, but at least it’s a plan.

The problem with the plan is that it’s essentially a left wing version of what’s been tried and failed before. This time it is the mobilization of the masses, or at least some of them, in support of a purer PLP that will ensure change happens, largely from above. And to be fair, the Corbynites are interested in some social movements – but they tend to be the clunkier and more instrumental end of the spectrum – campaigns that get people onto the streets to get better legislation – not social movements that of themselves play a key and leading role in the transformation of society i.e., movements in support of left wing politicians with the right answers. Think Stop the War not Transition Towns. It’s the parliamentary road plus a bit of extra–parliamentary activity.

And while I have much sympathy for Jeremy, under constant attack from the media and his own backbenches, and hopelessly unprepared for the job of leader in anything but the carrier of hope (as vital as that is), at some stage you have break out and offer the possibility of combining power with principle. But there is no sign of either a policy or electoral strategy, no moves to democratise the party and no attempt to build European or global networks for new politics by linking up to the likes of Podemos or the Alternative in Denmark. But there is little point recounting what’s gone wrong in the hope that somehow it will get better. In my now long experience of them, Leaders come to office pretty fully formed and Jeremy is more fully formed than most. He will probably win this election, but he will probably not change that much.

Owen wants to take the party back. Jeremy doesn’t know how to take it forward. The Party is stuck. Is there a way out? Only if the Party can find a way to tap into the zeitgeist of the 21st century and help direct the energy, imagination and creativity of a nation that feels the hope and fear, the anxiety and the autonomy of the moment. It is a zeitgeist formed by institutions that are less and less hierarchical and top down, like they were in 1945, and more and more horizontal and bottom up – and therefore, because they are flatter, more amenable to an ethos that is egalitarian and democratic. Everyone can participate and be part of the transformation – but only if we get the politics right.

So the leap for Labour is cultural more than it is organizational or policy based. The leap is to be relieved from the impossible burden of believing that everything rests on Labour’s shoulders – that only one leader and one party can have all the answers and do everything for everyone. The leap is to be free of the myth that we can command and control our way out of inequality. The leap is from a world of the singular, the centre and the binary to the reality of a world of wonderful and rich complexity that can only be governed by equal complexity, a world in which the future will be negotiated not imposed. The small but telling litmus test to this new politics is this – do you see Caroline Lucas the Green MP as an ally to work with or as enemy to be defeated? Your answer is a clue as to whether Labour is to have a future, or not.

That is why the first port of call on any new journey for Labour must be proportional representation and a progressive alliance of parties and movements – what Compass calls 45 Degree Politics – the meeting point of the vertical and the horizontal – into a force that can make transformative change not just desirable but feasible. It is not the mobilisation of a single party, no matter how big, that will create a good society, but the active participation of a vast swathe of civil society that prefigures and sustains the journey to that society. Labour can either be the biggest tent in a progressive campsite or it can fall to its tribal, arrogant and insular death.

Just look at the success of Nigel Farage and UKIP. They never sought office to pull the rusting levers of change – but as a platform to build a movement that inspired an incredible transformation. They won culturally so they could win politically. Labour can be at the helm of a new politics of parties and movements – or it can hold out – try and go it alone and defy all the trends of the 21st century that are built, not of the rigid factory ethos of the last century, but the fluidity of Facebook that shapes this one. If it fails to leap, Labour will be the Kodak party in a world of Instagram.

There is of course much more to do. A party that helps shift power to the many from the few will be global in its outlook and heed the warning of Brexit that people want meaning in their life, not just money. It will be fundamentally committed to sustainability, not least because climate change hits the poorest hardest.   But more than anything Labour must recognise that the old game is up, that parliament is just one place where power now resides, that pluralism must be embraced as the best way to make and carry out decisions and that everyday democracy is the only tool we have to fix our broken society. The nation is hungry to hear this and hungrier still to be part of it.

But finally, back to the reality of Labour this summer and the impossible choice facing you on your ballot paper. If neither Owen nor Jeremy can help make the leap the party needs, then someone else must. The likely reality of course is not just that Jeremy will win, but that his successor will come from the same vein within the party. But people who want to leap to a new politics are scattered right across Labour, from Jim McMahon, Steve Reed and Jonathon Reynolds, through to Jon Cruddas, Lisa Nandy and Clive Lewis. Can a group like this and more fashion an open, plural, global and local, emotional, feminist and deeply empathetic way of doing politics? Will they dare to remake Labour, not as a voting machine for one heroic leader, but as a platform to help bring a radical and progressive 21st century into being because it allows all of us to create our world collectively? This is Labour’s only hope.

I’m sorry my letter was so long. The problems of the party are so deep and I am merely skimming the surface. The party has been defying gravity for a while – held aloft by a combination of the first past the post electoral which over inflates our MPs – and a working class affinity that has been amazingly loyal – but is no more. The Forward March of Labour was halted many decades ago. The party is now about to fall off the cliff – it must leap. Will it? Will you?

With great affection,

Neal

Neal Lawson is Chair of Compass

This letter has been published on Labour List

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  1. Posted by maxfarrar

    I agree. I want to share a tent with Caroline Lucas. And Plaid. But the letter is too vague on the crucial issues: which social movements, what unifying policies, how do movements interface with a parliamentary party?

    Reply
  2. Posted by Mick Hills

    Yes, the whole tenure of people flocking to Corbyn is that individuals, not particularly polarized politically are looking for a movement that seeks social justice in economics. Jeremy is indeed the light at the end of the tunnel but they all realise the political mountain to be climbed is massive and even if Jeremy wins the forces that will oppose will be powerful and vicious. That is why a coming together of like minded seekers of change is essential. The PLP has to realise this, that a leader now is only the start not the answer. Jeremy is without doubt the magnet that attracts the voices of change but then what? Labour is an easy single sitting target for the snipers of neoliberalism. Caroline Lucas is to me a brilliant politician with vision. I would say an alliance of left of centre parties is, as they say, a no brainer. Of course the only way we can achieve it is through a change in the voting system. I fully agree, but how can we get this message to our CLP’s. If I can help, count me in.

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  3. Posted by David Byrne

    Apart from an extreme reluctance to regard the LibDems now as in any way progressive and a much more nuanced and reserved view of the progressive character of the SNP – basically neo-liberal but with real tensions controlled by the very authortarian party structure – I agree with some of this but think it actually misses the most important point. Labour was created as a party to enable trade unions to resist the exploitation of workers. It has tried to use tax funded benefits to add to trade union power – although of course the greatest failure of New Labour alongside the complete absence of any sort of industrial policy was not repealing anti trade union legislation. I do not find any adequate treatment of exploitation in Neal Lawson’s commentary despite that fact that it is rife, getting worse, now hitting well into the top half of the income distribution although not perhaps into the top 5%, and is part of the essential real experience of every worker. This is not just about wages and conditions although those matter. It is also about coercive managerial authority. So I think that has to be central to any move forward. This is a capitalist society and progressives in politics have to focus on that and doing something to address what is happening to most people under that system – much harder in post-industrial capitalism than in industrial capitalism but the only way to go.

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  4. Posted by David Parker

    I know Neil’s letter was long but it is surprising that he could not find a few words to say about devolution that must surely go along with PR if Labour is to develop the sort of strategy he describes. The Labour Party has appointed Jom Trickett to oversee Devoltion policy but there appears to be none taking shape except to say that devolution must come from the bottom up whih does not get us very far at all.

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  5. Posted by Dan Broadbent

    Superb analysis of the current Labour situation. I came across this article via LabourList and have discovered Compass as a result. Count me in!

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  6. Posted by Jill Gree

    I am not surprised to find myself in complete agreement with nearly everything Neal says. However, I still have no idea how to get from where I am now as a member of the Labour Party with no idea how to vote in what I regard as a ridiculous leadership election, to the political place described with a new progressive alliance forming an effective opposition to the Tories at the next general election, committed to delivering proportional representation immediately afterwards.

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  7. Posted by margaret levy

    I agree with the analysis, and with the need to move to PR. However how do we persuade the PLP and LP to recognise the issues raised and then to take action.

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  8. Posted by Bill Redmond

    I agree with the broad principles of the letter. Like maxfarrar I think there is a vagueness there but I assume that is because this is only the starting point of a much more detailed strategy that needs to be mapped out. I certainly do not see Caroline Lucas as an enemy, I think she is inspiring, and I would like to see Labour co-operating with the Greens, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP and Plaid Cymru. Without an election win by some form of progressive alliance, there will be no end to first past the post, and hence no re-shaping of the political system. We should not be blind to the fact that the tribalism which gets in the way of such a realignment is not only on the Labour side, although it is undoubtedly strong within our party. There is a deep well of dislike of Labour within the SNP and Plaid, exacerbated in the case of the Labour/SNP relationship by the enduring bitterness of the 2014 independence referendum, and of course it is reciprocated by many within the Labour Party. All the progressive parties need to set aside our differences and rivalries in the single cause of reforming the voting system – much easier said than done. Perhaps what is needed is some form of Constitutional Convention, similar to that which evolved in Scotland in the wake of the failed 1979 devolution referendum, and which ultimately led to the setting up of the Scottish Parliament.

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  9. Posted by Max Velmans

    Dear Neal

    I enjoyed reading your in-depth analysis. One point that may be worth adding that might concentrate minds in the Labour party arose from an answer given by Nathalie Bennett to a question from the floor about who would be PM in the event of an electoral victory by a Progressive Alliance (of Lab, Lib Dem, and Greens) committed to proportional representation.

    As she pointed out, it would be from the party that gained the most seats – which, given the current arithmetic would be the Labour Party.

    So, within such an arrangement, one might have a real chance of a government headed up by a Labour PM, while without such an alliance there might be no chance of a Labour PM at all!

    Very best

    Max

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  10. Posted by Eric Walker

    As an ex-LP member, now in the Green Party, it seems to me that you do not mention that struggle which is going on right now in the L.P. to weed out supporters of Corbyn. I have mentioned one case I know of in Suffolk, to L.P. members from Yorkshire and they told me they had heard of something similar but thought it was an isolated incident. Some people in the Labour Party ‘Machine’ are going through the details of new members and looking for any sign that they might be the sort who would support Corbyn. A person I know who was accepted as a member last Autumn, had her membership cancelled later. She was never told this. It was by chance she found out. She was told to apply to the ‘legal dept’ to find out the reason for her membership cancellation. To her disgust the reason given, was that several years ago, WHILST NOT A MEMBER OF ANY POLITICAL PARTY, she signed a nomination paper for a Green Party candidate in a local election! It seems clear to me that the ‘establishment’ in the Labour Party would rather wreak it rather than let the ideas of Jeremy Corbyn become the bedrock of the party. My friend was told she could appeal this decision, but she is so disgusted she now wants nothing to do with the L.P.

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  11. Posted by Patricia Borlenghi

    Totally agree, especially re Caroline Lucas and left alliance. Green issues such as climate-change, pollution, clean energy plus Syria and plight of refugees must all be given more prominence.

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  12. Posted by Roy

    We’ll never get anywhere if we continue to fight each other in a fptp system – we’ll just leave the Tories looking like the cat that stole the cream. We desperately need a mechanism to allow the broad left to unite behind a set of agreed principles and policies and then a further mechanism to agree one candidate to represent these per Constituency. Not a hard job then! And when Labour can’t even settle on a leader around whom to cohere, what chance the rest? In Machiavelli’s words “there is nothingmore difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions” and that applies to many in the Labour Party, including Jeremy Corbyn (who hardly ever mentions constitutional reform) as much as to all the fat cats in the City, big business and the politicians who support them. I suspect that we just need to create a new movement and a new Party to represent that movement, but Labour won’t have a big part in it – too many vested interests and too much baggage there.

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  13. Posted by Peter Pink

    Corbin saving ammunition against Tory propaganda machine until election. Media not cooperative and biased so Corbyn may have to be controversial when appropriate. Owen misguided, Labour MPs must work with elected leader otherwise they will lose the election themselves plus their seats.
    Ed Balls may have lost election but Teresa May has adopted his words if not deeds.
    All Leftish parties must work together after election and resist fighting among themselves during run up to election. Attack the real enemy: Tories.

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  14. Posted by Neal

    agree – it needs more process and institution detail of how to build a PA – we are thinking about that. be great to get other ideas

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  15. Posted by John Blewitt

    A progressive politics allied across party lines is really important and certainly the way forward culturally and politically but unlike UKIP such a Progresive Alliance is likely to meet the full on hostility of those very powerful institutions that UKIP really didn’t have to confront – the corporations, the media, the consumer-industrial complex, etc. A progressive political strategy has to have a way of dealing with all this and I am not sure whether the inspiration provided by Transition Towns and the like are capable of offering a solution. Thus, the issue is how gain power, not necessarily a majority in the Commons, and then how and where to use it.

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  16. Posted by Phil Grierson

    A litmus test of how right Neal is, is that as a Labour Party member I don’t think I can even bring myself to vote at all in this Leadership election! I’m paralysed by the complete lack of any vision for the future from either Jeremy or Owen. Both seem completely bound up in the past of Labour and both seem completely wedded to the first-past-the-post parliamentary system, as, of course, are the Tories for whom it does still – just – work (though BREXIT thwarted expectations may bring even that to an end before much longer). We have to work more creatively with the Greens, and the Lib. Dem’s and Plaid, and others like The Equality Trust for example, to build an inclusive vision fit for purpose in this most uncertain age. If either Jeremy or Owen come out for PR I guess they’d get my vote, but at the moment I can’t see my way to doing anything other than abstain.

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  17. Posted by Brian Donovan

    Usual pipe dreams and illusionary talk of this new all inclusive movement of people across the political spectrum. Neal is obviously blind to the damage the last coalition of LibDems and tories inflicted upon working people, students and honest benefit claimants. This Compass dream has been running for a few years now but never once has there been any concrete suggestions let alone actions to demonstrate how this new promised land can be achieved. I am afraid that Compass is simply indulging in too much navel gazing and very blinkered wishful thinking.

    Brian Donovan

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  18. Posted by Alan Bailey

    My conclusion after the 2015 General Election was that Labour will never again win a FPTP majority. I’d love to be wrong but events since have only reinforced my view. I respect those who want that not to be so but an unjust prejudice against Labour by centerist voters almost certainly means Labour needs PR as much as Lib Dems, Greens and UKIP. Without PR all Progressives are doomed to opposition.

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  19. Posted by Anna

    Do you have minus illusions now?

    I actually think this a great piece. The best I’ve read on summing up Smith, Corbyn and how Labour have reached sorry state. I really hate the PLP tearing lumps out of each other. I also find the intransigence and sometimes delusions of supporters of either side on social media depressing too. Some of the attacks on Owen Jones for writing his blog of questions for Corbyn supporters were ridiculous for example.

    I totally agree that a progressive alliance and PR are the way to go. And kudos for all those in the public eye and on the ground who are trying to work towards it. But I am not optimistic it will take off. Maybe it’s just going to take a long, long time. I am unable to get involved in doing anything myself due to ill health.

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  20. Posted by Chloe Abbatt

    The print used for this article is too small and when I zoom in it enlarges the size of the page but not the size of the print. Please either use larger print or at least print that can be enlarged with the zoom!

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  21. Posted by Andrew (Andy) Crow

    I don’t have a vote in the Labour leadership election, but I’m hoping there will be an overwhelming vote for Jeremy Corbyn and for a number of reasons.
    (1) Above all it might just shift the perspective of the ‘dark suits’ in the Current PLP and persuade some of them to consider which political party (if any) they philosophically belong to and whom they purport to represent.
    (2) Corbyn’s election as leader exposed a deep popular dissatisfaction with the Labour party and its drift in recent years towards a market orthodoxy which leaves far too many of the population adrift and feeling unrepresented. UKIP has capitalised on this and picked up a lot of support from disaffected voters who as ever find simplistic right wing arguments persuasive. Donald Trump is appealing to a similar ‘left-behind’ constituency in the US and right wing parties in Europe are experiencing similar encouragement. And this is before the excrement hits the extractor and the global economy collapses – not a given, but an outcome with high probability.
    (3) Corbyn offers the possibility of a somewhat more consensual style of politics. Churchill didn’t win the war, Thatcher didn’t defeat the unions, Blair didn’t …..What did Tony Blair do? (He made a political party electable, but it wasn’t the Labour Party.) None of these great presidential-style leaders acted alone. They captured and articulated a mood. To some extent they shaped that mood allowing deeper stronger forces to shape the world. Jeremy Corbyn represents a constituency which would like a more humane world. Whether he can take us there is entirely dependant on the size and strength of that wave of feeling and whether enough people want it and want it badly enough. Cometh the hour…..?
    TINA (There is No Alternative) is not quite dead yet and has a residue of rather desperate supporters, but as Yanis Varoufakis puts it the new girl in town is TATIANA (That Astonishingly, There Is An Alternative). We’d better believe it.
    The Labour party was built from the roots of the communist manifesto which addressed the fault lines of a world which has largely disappeared. We now have a world with fault lines running just as deep, but they are creating different divisions and we need a new manifesto that reflects the new situation. Binary left/right no longer comes close. So maybe we do need a new progressive party and we certainly need a more representative voting system if we wish democracy to be more than a pretence. In the meantime, by default, a Conservative government will attempt to bridge the cracks or at least paper over them.

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  22. Posted by Suzanne Stephenson

    Now that Jeremy Corbyn has been asked the “litmus test” question about Caroline Lucas and “The Labour leader said he did not support the idea of progressive pact with the Brighton Pavilion MP and insisted he was “absolutely” confident of winning Brighton back for Labour in 2020 and repeating the party’s landslide in the city of 1997”, where does that leave us?

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