As the Rev I M Jolly used to say: “So that’s the old year over.” Indeed it is, and as even the good Rev might not have added: “The worst year in the history of the Labour Party. Except for 1931.”
The list of disasters is quite short, but each of them was devastating:
• losing a General Election that was there for the winning
• in that election suffering losses to the SNP on swings of up to 30%, indicating a permanent loss of traditional support
• electing Jeremy Corbyn as leader, despite his having no experience of running anything since the Public Works Committee of LB of Haringey Council in 1982
• Corbyn’s election having set the Parliamentary Labour Party in direct conflict with an expanded and radicalised party membership
And what was even worse than these: the manner of the way in which they came about: a General Election programme and campaign conducted in the prose of government rather than the poetry of opposition; and a leadership campaign where the most competent candidates avoided inspiration and idealism, and capitulated to Jeremy Corbyn, the least competent and least electable candidate.
The combination of these disasters appears, as the New Year begins, to signal catastrophe for Labour, and potentially our extinction.
It is wholly possible that Labour has had its century of history and it is all over. The original programme set out by Keir Hardie has been largely achieved (Home Rule/devolution, welfare state including free healthcare, shorter working hours, pensions) or have been superseded (temperance) or are now repugnant to socialists (anti-vaccination hysteria, anti-immigration prejudice.)
If this is the case, the Labour Party may be suffering not just from a slump in support, but from what management theorists call “Programme Exhaustion.” If so, and if all of the great battles have been largely won, it is also possible that voters in future will wish to see someone else running the services and institutions which we fought for and established.
For example, one of the features of the General Election in Scotland in 2015 (and in the independence referendum which shaped it) was the ownership of the National Health Service by the SNP. The NHS may have been born out of the Labour movement (the miners’ mutual arrangements in Tredegar), established by 1945 Labour government, and saved by the Blair/Brown investments following the 2001 Labour win with a mandate to increase NI contributions to double and triple investment, but it was the SNP to which the people of Scotland turned at the ballot box to protect it.
The conclusion to be drawn is that people may value what Labour has achieved, but do not see us as the best party to actually run things. This has long been the case with the Tories, who even if they were intensely disliked in the Thatcher-Major years, were seen as more competent than Labour. This is of course ended with Black Wednesday and the loss of their economic reputation, coupled with the emergence of Tony Blair’s New Labour and Gordon Brown’s burgeoning authority at the Dispatch Box.
Seen in this light, the Cameron-Osborne administrations are the resumption of business as usual: the public see the Tories as the party of competence in government, or once more as the natural party of government.
This position has been periodically challenged, and it is useful – especially for Labour – to see how political progress has come about over the past century or so. This has not been a steady and sustained linear progression, but a series of cycles: an up-spike of reform and progress has been followed by a longer period of consolidation and assimilation, when the radical and the innovative become the bipartisan norm.
This is what happened to the achievements of the Asquith-Lloyd George administrations either side of the First World War; to the Attlee-Beverage settlement post 1945 (later becoming Butskillism); to the enlightened liberal innovations of Wilson and Jenkins in the 1960s; and finally to the Blair/Brown revolution, which has now been adopted in part by Cameron and Osborne.
In this last case, we can see that the big achievements of the Labour governments from 1997 are intact: the centrality of the NHS, the value of pensions, the National Minimum Wage and redistributive Tax Credits. In the end, the aims of the Tory/LibDem coalition and the current Tory government may be seen as “Small State Blairism.”
The other conclusion which we can draw form this analysis – sort of a modified micro-Schumpeter/Kondratieff thesis – is that although things seem entrenched at the moment, they will not stay so forever. I can recall the late Professor Bernard Crick describing the fall of Gladstone’s Liberals when it appeared they would be power for ever; likewise it seemed that the Tories would not capitulate in the Thatcher Years; and Tony Blair’s mastery of the political scene appeared at last to have established Labour as the natural party of government.
At the same time, however, there is no guarantee that Labour will be in any position to benefit when the current cycle ends. The bottom line is whether we will even exist as a major party by the time 2025 or 2030 comes around: we have no right to existence, and there is a real and present danger that we will be a vestigial remnant like the ILP or non-LibDem Liberals in 15 years’ time.
Even more worryingly, there is no guarantee that the baton will pass from one progressive force to another as it did from the Liberals to Labour in the decades after World War One. The current trend, as seen in Scotland and in the increase in UKIP’s votes in Labour seats in England, is that we would not be supplanted from the left, but eclipsed by identity-led populism and xenophobic chauvinism.
Such is the state in which Labour finds itself as 2016 opens. We need to fight for our lives. Just why and how we might do so will be the subject of my next blog.