The election of Jeremy Corbyn as Leader of the Opposition is to many of us a sign of the decline of the Party as political force. He has achieved what so many giants of the past failed to do: not his mentor Tony Benn, not Healey nor Hattersley, nor Barbara Castle or Roy Jenkins or George Brown, nor Crosland or Shore, nor Bevan or Morrison. This list is instructive historically in its demonstration of the relative depth of talent available in the past, but is also useful if we examine it in terms of what we remember about what those figures achieved.
With one notable exception, the Labour giants of the past were figures of government. The exception is Benn whose sole legacy in a long ministerial career was Concorde, and who will be remembered as an opposition figure, just as Corbyn will be.
So there is clearly something fundamental happening in politics in all parts of the UK. Labour has been overwhelmed in Scotland by an SNP tsunami, and moderate government-oriented Labour likewise by a resurgent left. The question is whether there is a connection between the two, and what the implication might be for Labour and future politics.
The experience of Labour is not unique: it is the fate shared with other social democratic parties in Europe which have also lost support. The left analysis of this is that this may be because they have not been successful in challenging the orthodox capitalist economics of the European Union and in turn the austerity that followed the financial crisis which threatened the entire world economy in 2008.
However, there is another explanation which is both more profound and in its way deadlier to social democracy: the defeat of the Marx-Engels political project and the triumph of Utilitarianism.
The Communist Manifesto envisaged in 1848 the victory of the Proletariat. When we look around in 2015, we can see that not only has this not come about, but there has been the opposite outcome: the degree of overall prosperity and security which is enjoyed by the majority of the European population represents the victory of and a de facto Dictatorship of the Bourgeoisie.
Moreover, this may represent the triumph of another and earlier philosophy: Utilitarianism, as expounded by John Stewart Mill and Jeremy Bentham – the pursuit of greatest good for the greatest number. Since the 1940s, in the UK as elsewhere in the developed world, the structure and nature of the world of employment has changed beyond recognition, first away from insecure employment, then away from low paid and unskilled work, and increasingly towards better paid and more knowledge-based occupations, as manufacturing industry has been first subject to automation and then to offshoring to economies with lower labour costs.
At the same time as working conditions and incomes have risen, so the social conditions of UK and European workers have improved: council and other affordable housing, national and other socialised healthcare schemes free at the point of use, good educational opportunities, adequate and even generous retirement pensions, and reliable welfare benefits have reduced to a hitherto unimaginable level absolute poverty, its associated diseases and the misery and insecurity suffered by every other generation before.
The key here for social democrats is that benefits have been shared by the majority of the population: which begs the question of the minority.
It is the paradox and dilemma inherent in the principle of Utilitarianism: if certain policies achieve their aim of creating the greatest degree of happiness for the greatest possible number, what about the smaller number of people which that formula excludes?
Former Labour leaders have sought to address this issue, most notably Neil Kinnock (“…what we all know: that we cannot help the Have-Nots without the support of the Haves…”) and of course Tony Blair in his successful strategy of planting the New Labour flag firmly in the centre. Likewise, in an earlier time, Harold Wilson sought to define Labour as the natural party of government, owing more, he said, to Methodism than Marxism.
Both Wilson and Blair also saw the aims of addressing the problems of poverty as integral to but not central to their vision of UK society. In introducing Urban aid in the late 1960s, Wilson saw Urban Aid as the mechanism to address those needlepoints of poverty not eliminated by the rising tide of prosperity. Likewise, the emphasis of the Blair/Brown New Labour project was on overall national prosperity complemented by targeted support for the poor in forms such as Working Family Tax Credits and Pension Credit.
The landscape that we have in the UK (including is Scotland) is now one of general prosperity: for most of the population, the battles for safe, clean and well-paid work have been won. Between 1997 and 2010, Labour secured the future of the NHS. State pensions are protected by a triple lock. Most people live in better homes and with more possessions, and enjoy more leisure time, culture and entertainment than their parents could have dreamed of.
In short, in 2015, we have, for most people, a better than tolerable society and quality of life based on what is objectively a mildly social democratic model. This is true even under David Cameron’s Tories, who are clearly not in the business of abolishing the NHS or slashing pensions. (It is no coincidence that these are of course the state institutions which benefit the fortunate many: the Tories do not suffer from the social democratic Utilitarian dilemma in their approach to the unfortunate minority – they just clobber them.)
So it if it is the case that the tectonic plates have set themselves in place anew, how does this relate to Labour and our position politically? The key may lie in the position of the SNP, in that it has begun to appear that Scots may want independence, but they do want the Nationalists to represent them in Westminster.
That this wish is almost exclusive – in all parts of the country and amongst all groups in society – can be interpreted as a sign of its apolitical nature: what people want is not socialism, or conservative capitalism, or a liberal agenda, or communism or far-right nationalism, or indeed possibly independence. Left-right politics have been overwhelmed by identity politics. Voters appear to be taking the gains of earlier political struggles for granted: the heavy lifting has been done.
It seems that what Scots want is what was promised by Nicola Sturgeon at the General Election: they want their voice heard – and it does not matter to them that it is a voice of opposition.
Likewise with Jeremy Corbyn’s “new politics” Labour Party: the emphasis is on principle in opposition rather than on celebrating the achievements of the party in government. The centrist and social democratic achievements of the thirteen years of government are at best ignored and in many quarters derided. The fact that neither Jeremy Corbyn himself nor many of his senior colleagues were part of the great reforming Blair and Brown governments is celebrated as a virtue.
It may be that the UK – like some other comparable European countries – has reached a position where the majority of the population is content with their current levels of prosperity and security, even if to the more sceptical of us this may not be the case (for example regarding pensions). Therefore they have turned away from parties – like Labour – whose purpose has been to set up systems and institutions to secure this prosperity and towards those – like the SNP – give them what they see as their “authentic” voice.
In the absence of such a voice in England (although there is much to be feared from Ukip from that quarter) the choice of the voters appears to be the party which they believe will run the country and with it those systems most effectively – the Tories.
The risk is that from that moment when the Party abandoned the Blair/Brown project, it also set in train a series of events which has now led to our vacating the ground occupied by Labour (mostly) since the party’s inception: that of a party of government.
The growth of the SNP shows that there is an appetite for a voice of opposition (albeit one based on identity rather than politics in that case) and it is possible that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour can capture that ground at Westminster.
But for many of us, that will be scant compensation for the surrender of the possibility of holding power and changing the UK for the better – above all for the minority that Utilitarianism does not serve.
Like voting for the SNP, a future Labour vote may make people feel good about themselves, but will not help the minority being left behind as the majority prospers. We will be again the party that Neil Kinnock (again) warned against that “prefers the indignation of defeat to the challenges of power.”
That may suit sad cases who embarrass themselves by wearing Yes badges in Scotland a year after their defeat, but it really is no position for the Labour Party. Sooner or later, we will need to recruit the Haves to the cause of progress once again.