The Regressive Alliance may not go easily: Corbynism needs to grow an additional political style

Ken Spours

Tuesday, 01 August 2017

Study your political adversary

While the Conservatives have driven UK politics for the best part of a decade, the Left has spent precious little time analysing the strategy and condition of the political adversary. Moreover, the Tories are still in power, albeit it weakly and, conversely, Labour has yet to win an election. While some think the next one is a done deal, unfortunately it is not.

But the tide certainly looks like it has turned. Labour pulled off a surprise in the June general election, polling nearly 40 per cent. What appeared in early 2017 to be Labour’s crisis, rapidly turned into the crisis of conservative political hegemony and that of the Regressive Alliance – a hard Brexit-orientated formation comprising the Tory Right,UKIP, DUP, anti-immigrant organisations and sections of the media such as the Mail and Sun.

The main achievement of the ‘Corbyn Surge’ was to deny the Conservatives a working majority and to force them into an unstable parliamentary pact with the DUP. But one of the less talked about effects of the ‘June surprise’ is that the electorate are not yet used to the idea of a Corbyn government. The current situation could thus be seen as one of volatility, as well as a desire for change. In this ‘equilibrium’ context the study of the adversary becomes very important.

Mayism is in crisis but the Conservatives will try to regroup

The significance of Theresa May and ‘Mayism’ was, that in the wake of the EU Referendum, a new and distinctive form of Toryism was created. It emerged from a number of small but significant ideological shifts towards a more traditionalist, interventionist, nationalist and small ‘c’ form of Conservativism, marking a superficial break with the cosmopolitan neoliberalism of Cameron and Osborne. The main function of Mayism has been to unite different Tory factions in the post-Brexit context while drawing UKIP voters into the Conservative orbit. This strategy was, however, thrown into disarray by the unanticipated 2017 general election result.

Nevertheless, while the Conservatives are in deep political trouble and Theresa May looks like a ‘dead woman walking’, they are still in power having polled an almost record 43 per cent in June 2017. A notable achievement of Mayism has been the bequeathing to the Tories of a great many working class votes. Even following a disastrous election result, the Regressive Alliance in its wider social form remains broadly intact.

The Tories will now use the parliamentary pact with the DUP to mire Corbyn’s Labour in ‘normal politics’ away from the campaign trail; to buy time to regroup and adapt and to assert control over the Brexit process. Sooner or later they will find a new leader.

But the Conservative Party is now split into three distinct groups:

a.The Full Fat Brexiteers (e.g. Johnson, Fox and Davis).

b.The Neoliberals (previously Osborne and Cameron and now Hammond and the Treasury).

c.The Tory Liberals (e.g. Soubry, Morgan and Davidson).

The political momentum within the party is shifting away from (a) towards (b and c) and it probably here where the next Tory adaptation will lie. However, they may be so fundamentally split that an effective change cannot take place. Herein lies the road to defeat and they know it.

We could be heading towards new stalemate situation

So it would be foolish to bank on the political collapse of the Regressive Alliance, allowing Labour the opportunity for ‘one more heave’ to victory. Much of the political initiative still lies with the Tories – the timing of the next general election is for them to call and they will play for time. They will not run such an incompetent campaign like the last one, taking Labour far more seriously and picking apart its manifesto. They will ask the electorate whether they really want Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister – a question that was not seriously asked on the doorstep in June 2017. And they may well have a new and more communicative leader. Less than two months following the general election, the Conservatives still are polling around 40 per cent, which is sufficient to prevent Labour forming a viable government. We could, therefore, be entering the land of political stalemate in which Labour further advances its position, but still falls short of becoming an effective government.

The challenge for Corbynism – from a party of hope to building a modern Progressive Bloc

If progressive politics are best enacted through the Gramscian dictum of ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’, Labour should now assume a protracted ‘war of position’. In addition to the strategy of ‘permanent mobilisation’ that assumes a quick dash for socialism; it also needs to engage in patient alliance building. This is not only the basis of a sustainable progressive government but an important means of travelling the final electoral mile.

While Corbynism is complex, comprising different political strands, the dominant political style nevertheless looks sectarian. And this is despite the fact that Corbyn himself says that building bridges is preferable to building walls. But if Corbyn’s Labour is to take advantage of a moment of historical opportunity, it will have to grow a more open political and intellectual persona and do this quickly. This means building a series of progressive alliances (the Progressive Political Bloc) in which it plays a leading role:

● Within the Labour Party itself to win social democrats to the internal socialist bloc and to head off the formation of a new centrist force that could spell electoral disaster.

● With other progressive political parties (the electoral dimension of the Progressive Alliance no less) to further erode the Regressive Alliance. Support for PR would be the most convincing signal of its commitment to political pluralism.

● Between social groups; localities and nations (e.g. young people; cities; small towns; the countryside) to broaden its social appeal; which means confronting the issue of local and national identities.

● Between the national and the local; encouraging the latter to build a flourishing civic socialism from below.

It will also require an intellectual openness to address some of most pressing problems of the era – notably how to develop a sustainable and fairer economy and a new relationship with our European neighbours.

But above all, Labour has to prove that it is genuinely democratic. This will involve a degree of political modesty. Rather than seeing itself as the only answer, it should see its role as ushering in an era of vibrant democracy at all levels that provides not only the sea in which it sails, but z means of travel for all the other small craft of civil society on which our progressive future also depends.

An extended version of this blog can be found in our new publication – Mayism without May? The crisis of the Regressive Alliance and the challenge of Corbynism

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  1. Posted by DAVID WOLVERSON

    More than just the realigning of parties, I think the positive agenda of Labour should be built on to paint a different vision of what society could be like built upon neighbourliness and social cohesion and away from the ugliness of a fractured society that neoliberalism creates

  2. Posted by Stuart Campbell

    To be truly progressive the UK must take up the federal model if it wants to remain united. Give the devolved countries power to govern properly and power over their own economies. Central government from Westminster is an outdated model and will always be resented. More respect for Scotland and Wales and no underhand deals with extremist parties.

    Right wing politics and austerity have to go. People before parties.

  3. Posted by Shirley Gaston

    I’m so scared of us losing hope of a better and fairer society, I think the average person is really wanting to stick their head back in the sand to get away from the whole current mess (and I count myself as an average person :() Reading this article has helped me keep my head just out…

  4. Posted by Judith Joy

    I am not a member of any political party but am interested in politics. I believe we should not be seeking to negotiate a hard Brexit and find JC’s intentions difficult to support or understand. Similarly whilst we have our current electoral situation surely the broad centre and left of centre parties should cooperate fully to defeat this right wing government? Why are we not hearing full blooded exposure of the government’s destruction of our NHS and clear policies designed to restore it immediately upon gaining office.

  5. Posted by Bob Knights

    I find it impossible to align myself with any party that has a legacy from the current political position. Such is my distrust. We need a complete change of faces that represent the majority of the electorate, clean, non tribal and therefor completely transparent. Whilst I will monitor Compass, I don’t see that happening with any future party with connections from past. Such is my distrust.

  6. Posted by Denis Smith

    I agree with a lot of what Ken Spours writes, but let’s not forget that it’s not only the Conservative Party which is disunited over Brexit. I also have a problem with those in the Labour Party who appear to want to destroy capitalism. History shows that capitalism is the only system that works, though that does not mean it cannot or need not be implemented in such a way that it works better, for the many rather than the few.

  7. Posted by Stewart Hillen

    HS2 and Heathrow expansion should be shelved – the Tory Heartlands would have voted Labour and would have been in power now – Teresa May would have lost not only her majority but also her parliamentary seat! Too late contracts have been awarded and millions are being spent while the poor get poorer. What Labour does now? I haven’t a clue – I do not think there will be another election for the next 5 years and by that time Jeremy will perhaps be have retired.

  8. Posted by Leo Aylen

    The problem confronting us is that we can all see a straightforward solution.
    1.It is now obvious that Brexit is a disaster. Soft Brexit less of a disaster than Hard Brexit. But a disaster nevertheless. The first priority must be to campaign for a second referendum, and then put the case for Remaining so powerfully that the second referendum reverses the decision of the first.
    2. Corbyn, whose passion for social justice we admire, is wobbly about Brexit, and seems to be falling into the trap of wishful thinking, saying he wants membership of the Single Market to safeguard jobs, but does not understand that membership of the Single Market means accepting freedom of movement. Corbyn needs to confront the reality, and should no longer fear the brexiteers of UKIP.
    3. During the 2017 General Election, the Labour Party insisted on putting forward candidates in constituencies where they had no chance of being elected, instead of rallying behind Liberals or Greens, with the result that in these constituencies a vote for Labour was a vote for the Tories. In some constituencies Liberals stood down in favour of Labour; in many more constituencies the Greens stood down. Nowhere did a Labour candidate stand down. This rigidity may well have given the Tories their fragile victory.
    4.The Tories show themselves willing to destroy the country, provided they can keep the Tory party united. The Labour movement was never utterly monolithic. And now, without the massive power of unions like the old NUM, it will only gain power by taking in people with different political backgrounds.
    5. Build the Progressive Alliance, as an Alliance, not a Party.

  9. Posted by John Connolly

    A great number of people share the suspicion, if not downright distrust, of party politics. There are so many instances both locally and nationally where the party system can be seen to pervert democracy for party benefit. A Progressive Alliance needs to mobilise very large numbers of voters and this cannot be done under the present party membership system. We need to get through to, for example, those millions of people who are part of the Co-operative movement. Many folk use The Co-op, not just for convenience, but as a conscious decision to behave in a recognisably ethical way and must therefore be in favour of a progressive movement.

  10. Posted by John Sheard

    Labour needs to recognise now that most of its supporters do not want Brexit. A soft Brexit is simply not a compromise worth following as we will pay for essential market access without the influence we must continue to have over EU policy. I am a labour member but Brexit could be the straw that breaks me and many others away from supporting the party, no matter how much we admire most of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and policy. Labour will pay a big price at the next election if policy does not shift to maintain the closest possible relationship with the EU to maintain our prosperity, our rights and future peace.

  11. Posted by Simon Norton

    I would like to recommend that people read Naomi Klein’s latest book “No is not enough”. This ends with a “Leap Declaration” which seems to me to be an archetype for a progressive alliance in the author’s home country (Canada). How could we adapt it to UK circumstances (we have no equivalent of Native Americans here, but issues such as the need for powerful local government and for housing that is not only affordable but also avoids car dependence, are of greater importance here.