I was asked by a German friend to explain what is happening inside the British Labour Party. This is what I sent him.
In 2011 I organised a conference in northern England bringing together top Labour historians and senior MPs from the 1980s like David Owen and Gerald Kaufman. It was called “Labour 1931, 1951, 1981” and examined why Labour when it goes into opposition after a period of government tends to stick there.
Today’s hysteria over Jeremy Corbyn is not new. He is exactly like George Lansbury, Labour’s pacifist anti-war leader in the 1930s, or Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock, two leftist orators of the 1980s. All three leaders were loved by the left when elected leader but failed to make any impression on the electorate.
In 1983, Labour won 27.6 per cent of the vote and, after Foot was replaced by Kinnock, Labour only managed 30.8 per cent of the vote in the 1987 general election. This was even after Kinnock had re-centred his politics, expelled leftists and hired Peter Mandelson as the Labour Party’s communications genius and election-winning strategist. Mandelson went to work for Labour in 1985 and had to wait a further 12 years before Labour won power.
In 2010 I nominated David Miliband to be Party leader but I told him that Labour had no chance of winning in 2015 unless for some reason this iron law that Labour always has to spend at least a decade in opposition, lose elections and change leaders was somehow no longer valid.
He grunted his reply: “Thanks” and I said: “Sorry, David but the same is true in Europe – look at Germany’s SPD 1982-1997 or other centre-left parties that usually have to wait at least two terms in opposition before voters renew their faith in social democracy or the Labour party chez nous.”
His brother, Ed, who became Leader instead, made three major organisational mistakes. First, he abolished the shadow cabinet elections. These allowed an annual vote each autumn for the MPs who would then be allocated posts by the leader as Shadow Chancellor, Shadow Education, Health or Foreign Secretary and so on.
To be sure, the elections were a contest between left and right factions, or between regional groups of Scottish or Welsh Labour MPs. Some duds emerged into the shadow cabinet.
But they did allow Labour MPs to select from amongst their number those they knew to be good and effective. And whatever MPs might think of shadow cabinet colleagues at least they knew they were validated by a vote of the Parliamentary Labour Party.
Instead, Miliband appointed personal favourites who were newly elected in 2010. They were nice men and women but had zero experience of national politics.
We need your support
Social Europe is an independent publisher and we believe in freely available content. For this model to be sustainable, however, we depend on the solidarity of our readers. Become a Social Europe member for less than 5 Euro per month and help us produce more articles, podcasts and videos. Thank you very much for your support!
In a sense they were clones of Ed and the generation of young aides who came straight from Oxford to work for Tony Blair or Gordon Brown and were quickly found safe seats and elevated to ministerial or cabinet rank.
Most top politicians start young and are helped along by patrons. That is the norm. But in the case of the Blair-Brown protégé(e)s they had zero experience of political work in opposition. They entered into senior positions in a Labour government where all the heavy lifting and dirty infighting had been done by Blair, Brown, Robin Cook, Harriet Harman, Frank Dobson and others as they worked to make Labour electable after 1987and 1992.
Ed’s second mistake was not to read the politics of how Nick Clegg’s vanity decision to prop up the Cameron government threw away in one day the 24 years of hard-won political attractiveness of the LibDems under Ashdown and Kennedy as a kind of soft-left but very non-Tory party.
Labour’s hegemony 1997-2010 depended on the LibDems holding 60 plus seats. Labour post-2010 failed to see that once LibDem voters saw their MPs ally with Conservatives they went back to the Tories as they had done 1950-1987.
Labour under Ed drifted incoherently a bit to the left, over-emphasised green and gender politics but failed to read how the economy would develop and began to alienate all those aspirational voters which had been won over to Labour after 1992 by Blair and Brown.
Labour found itself in the same bed as the Conservatives on the Scottish referendum and mis-read the depth of feeling behind the movement against London rule in Scotland exactly as it had in 2010 and thereafter.
Finally, Ed changed the rules to adopt the populist course of allowing anyone to join Labour for £3 without having to show any commitment to the party, its traditions and values.
So when the election for the next Leader happened in September 2015 there was a mass upheaval against the Blair-Brown-Miliband era. The same happened in the 1950s and 1980s when former prime ministers like Attlee, Wilson and Callaghan were seen through the prism of their failures and faults, not their achievements.
Many of the £3 joiners were open leftists, street activists, supporters of hard-line Trotskyist or Marxist sects, if not full card-carrying members. They had bathed in this politics as students, as green activists, as anti-globalisation, anti-war, anti-Israel or pro-refugee, pro-Muslim, anti-IMF, anti-EU activists.
It is not to decry the commitment that impels especially young people to embrace causes but this mixture of anger and disdain for the compromises of seeking to win government power was unlikely to propel them to choose anyone who could command electoral support.
Hence the arrival of Jeremy Corbyn who was as surprised as anyone to become Leader. He is a preacher, not a politician, a home to every lost cause – not a builder of coalitions with other political forces and economic power-holders to win power. He is a 1968-generation activist who became a 1970s Bourbon leftist who has learnt nothing and forgotten nothing.
To begin with, Labour MPs swallowed their disdain and accepted him as Leader. But very quickly it became clear that, whatever qualities Corbyn possessed, using the Commons to harass the government or to win support in the non-Labour voting parts of the electorate was not amongst them.
This became most clearly exposed in the referendum campaign which became in effect a general election in terms of the intensity of media exposure, the need to set and impose a national agenda, and the obligation to mobilise to win.
The argument over the extent or depth of Corbyn’s pro-Europeanism is irrelevant. He wants a EU of his dreams – socialist, pro-worker, giving power to unions, opposing free trade deals, stopping climate change and so forth. These are noble ideals but the EU is one of the most giant historic compromises ever fashioned in democratic political history and no-one gets all he or she wants.
While Corbyn did indeed campaign he was utterly unable to impose himself on the national debate. Compared to Boris Johnson or Andrea Leadsom he was like a Sunday park soccer player, trying to play against Chelsea or Manchester United.
It was this that triggered the revolt of Labour MPs. Many long for the days when they get or get back red boxes and ministerial cars but know there is no chance of winning in 2020 under Corbyn. Newer talent that arrived in 2010 or 2015 recognised that they would spend their 30s and 40s on the backbenches. Men and women Labour MPs in their 50s knew they would get to pensionable age before Labour was back in office especially now all of Labour’s seats in Scotland had been lost.
Hence the revolt by most Labour MPs who stood down as shadow ministers and propelled two of them, Angela Eagle and Owen Smith, to offer themselves as alternative candidates before the former dropped out of the running.
But, like Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham in September 2015, Smith is unlikely to win enough support from the £3 membership and also from many other Labour Party activists who sincerely believe that a rupture with the Blair-Brown era is vital for party renewal and self-respect. Smith is a new figure and an impressive orator but he did not impose himself between 2010 when he entered the Commons and today as a shining new Labour light able to make the kind of breakthrough of, say, a Justin Trudeau or Matteo Renzi or indeed a Tony Blair after 1992. Labour post-2015 wants something very different that is not yet on offer.
In the past by now the trade unions would have stepped in and provided organisational direction for Labour. But the unions have shrunk and shrunk in Britain as elsewhere in Europe and the world and the 20th century alliance of workers and intellectuals that propelled democratic left parties to power has died and nothing as solid has replaced it in the 21st century.
So Corbyn will probably be re-elected though even the strongest opponent of the Blair-Brown-Miliband tradition must ask if it is wise to select as Leader a man who cannot under any conceivable circumstances be elected to No 10.
Labour will be sad and miserable. It will not split. The cries from the LibDem leader, Tim Farron, fall on deaf ears as there is nothing but contempt for the LibDem decision to turn Tory in 2010. Ukip may proclaim it will win Labour votes but, unless the issue is Europe, it has no wider or lasting appeal.
Labour could make itself the anti-isolationist party and reach out to those sectors of the British economy and the City that are very concerned about the full impact of Brexit. But again Corbyn cannot do this as he is a man of the 1970s with a one-dimensional view of globalisation and Europe.
Theresa May is talking about fairness, workers on the board of big companies, curbs on excessive pay, rebalancing away from London, ending austerity budgets – all natural themes for a modern Labour party. She isn’t quite catching Labour bathing nude and walking away with their clothes but she is muddying waters as a Tory Party no longer the private property of Eton and the Bullingdon Club comes into being – at least in terms of the initial rhetoric of the new Middle England, Middle Class, Anglican woman prime minister.
Even if this faux gauchisme won’t last it allows a May government to position itself as centrist and push a Corbyn-led Labour Party further out to the left as we saw with his attacks on the UK’s national defence profile in the Commons.
In short Labour is back where it was in the 1930s, 1950s and 1980s. It is not, however, the end of Labour as many are predicting and/or hoping. It will not split as MPs, councillors, and local office-holders want a new Labour Party, not to destroy a hundred years of history – and almost inevitably hand the Tories perpetual rule.