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UK Politics: Jeremy Corbyn and the Atomisation of the Labour Party

July 28, 2015


With apologies to all who have no interest in British politics, I can’t resist commenting on the current struggle within the Labour Party to find a new leader.

First off, I don’t wander down any corridors of power. But I listen, I read and I keep my eyes open. I’d describe myself as an interested outsider. I don’t know much about Jeremy Corbyn beyond what is in the public domain, but I know enough about my own country to say this: the Labour party have lost their traditional constituency and the Conservatives haven’t. Which is why, much as Mr Corbyn and his friends would have it otherwise, it’s futile to talk of Labour as a movement.

The word movement suggests going from one place to another – in other words, not standing still. And in the words of politicians that movement is usually forward, not backward, even if it involves rolling back conditions they see as undesirable – the UK’s membership of the European Union, for example, immigration and multiculturalism.

The trouble is, the Britain from which the Labour movement emerged more than a century ago was very different from what it is today. Not because the causes espoused by Kier Hardie are any less relevant now: elimination of poverty, social equality, workers’ rights and so on. But because the common interests that coalesced to produce a coherent political platform have shattered into a plethora of minority interests, often competing against each other.

From its foundation to around thirty years ago – the date of the last miners’ strike – the bedrock of Labour’s support was to be found in the industries that employed the majority of workers: mining, shipbuilding, steel-making, manufacturing, transportation, dock-working. Underpinned by the trade unions that provided much of the funding and in so doing strongly influenced the political agenda, the Labour Party knew pretty clearly what it stood for and what it opposed.

Today, thanks largely to globalisation (and less thanks to Margaret Thatcher than the hard left would like us to believe), those industries have largely withered away. How many miners are there left in Britain? Shipworkers? Dockers? People making things on which our well-being depends? Their power has gone.

These days the people with clout – in terms of organised labour – are those who work in transportation, services, health and education. We curse when the tube drivers go on strike. We get mad when a small union across the channel uses its bargaining power to disrupt our easy passage to the French hinterland for our holidays. We’re pissed off when striking teachers force us to look after our kids. We’re outraged when the police get uppity, or when the fire fighters decline to work. Unless we happen to belong to one of the groups making a stand, the many are united in resentment at the disruption of our everyday lives by a relative few.

What single causes today are likely to engage enough people to vote down a government? Would we join together in sympathy if beneficiaries of food banks tried to emulate the Jarrow March? Unlikely. Encouraged by the Daily Mail, we would rant about how come these people need food handouts when they sit around at home watching Sky Sports on their big LCD TVs. Or else we would blame the immigrants. For everything.

What’s more, I suspect that if there are issues that cause a majority of people to look beyond the narrow confines of self-interest, it’s those over which we have the least control. Global issues, such as climate change, epidemics and the threat of terrorism exercise us far more than the plight of those who live on Benefit Street.

So take away the power of the unions and the driving anger at poverty, exploitation and social injustice, and what are we left with? Anger fuelled by envy, by blame, by inequality. Vested interests prepared to disrupt the lives of others to maintain their position in the economic pecking order. Opposition to something called austerity, which means vastly different things to different people depending on what affects who, and by its nature is likely to be a cyclical phenomenon.

There are virtually no more houses in the UK without indoor toilets. Poverty-related medical conditions like rickets and TB are relatively rare. These days most of our health issues arise out of plenty, not abject poverty: obesity, alcoholism, even Alzheimer’s – the latter because our health and benefits system is letting us live longer, thus increasing our chances of  bumping up against dementia in old age.

Yes, there are a zillion big issues yet to be solved. And when to a greater or lesser extent they are solved they will be replaced by a zillion others. Take the cost of housing. A hundred years ago did we all expect – as opposed to aspire – to own our houses? And how about the millions of people (of which one of my daughters is one) living on the minimum wage, just getting by? The cleaners, baristas, farm workers, cooks and bottle washers are replaceable, and most don’t have a union to stand up for them. Yet in the 1930s, just getting by would have been considered highly desirable by an equal number of millions thrown out of work by the Great Depression. Different problems for different times.

As for another old rallying point of the left, nuclear disarmament, may have brought together a large, though up to now unsuccessful, alliance who in the fifties and sixties would gather in their duffle coats at Aldermaston’s Atomic Weapons Establishment, seeking to ban the bomb. But how many people today think of Trident more than once in a blue moon?

Iraq and Afghanistan? How many of those who were happy to sit in the seats of power, or voters who rejoiced in that power supposedly being exercised on their behalf, stood up at the time and said “not in our name”? A significant minority, for sure, but still a minority.

So what does Labour stand for today?

Workers’ rights? Which workers? The bankers, the civil servants with their generous pensions, the council workers? The community coordinators, the diversity champions, the communications officers? Or the baristas, the Latvian fruit pickers, the Chinese cockle harvesters, the call centre agents?

Equality? Since the dawn of recorded history there has never been such a thing. There will always be some people who are luckier, smarter, more successful and more motivated than others, and their success is not always down to what school they went to, what degree they want, and who gave them a leg-up. The gap between rich and poor will only ever be a matter of degree. And that gap in the UK will not be significantly narrowed by petty measures like the mansion tax, designed to impress those voters who have no mansions, and feed the animus against the “rich bastards”.

It seems to me that the Labour party is an amalgam of micro-policies with no sufficiently compelling big picture to bind those policies together. In one sense it’s lost its founding DNA and replaced it with anger, envy and self-interest. Not to say that there aren’t lots of idealistic people who support the party. Jeremy Corbyn is certainly one of them. It’s just that those ideals don’t always seem to mesh into a coherent whole as they did a century ago.

What’s more, the political machine Labour created to make itself electable – the marketing, the branding, the grid, the spin – turned many of those idealists, and a few less altruistic careerists as well, into frustrated, bitter, jealous infighters. Think Gordon Brown, Alistair Campbell, Peter Mandelson and the fictional Thick of It crew. How many of those who rode the wave in the nineties and noughties would look back at those times and think “happy days,” I wonder? And for how many of us voters is the abiding image of the most recent Labour years the scowling Chancellor and his praetorian guard of bruisers?

The Labour Party’s rituals and the platitudes remain – the mock solidarity and the formulaic expressions of anger over the wrongs of the country and the damage done to it by the nasty Tories. But it’s almost as if they have inherited an eggshell, robbed of its original embryo, into which the acid of discontent has been poured, dissolving away the structure at the areas of least resistance.

In case my readers in Britain get the impression that I’m a crusty old Tory laughing at the current discomfiture of the opposition, I should mention that I’ve voted Labour several times, but never for the Conservatives. Usually I vote against, not for, based on a lifelong conviction that no political party should be in office for more than ten years. I’ll leave you to figure out why that should be.

Labour’s dilemma is not, as I said, a shortage of principled people with sincere, well-meaning aspirations for their country. It’s that ultimately, through their achievements in government over a hundred years, and when not in government through their influence on the political debate, the party has won most of its original battles.

Thanks to its efforts, no political party today can get away with the patronising attitudes towards the “lower orders” shown by the parties that Labour disrupted and frequently shamed during the first fifty years of the 20th century. Since Macmillan’s government in the early Sixties, the Conservative party – whether or not with good reason – has always been on the defensive against accusations that it doesn’t care about the working person, the welfare state, the poor and the underprivileged. And that defensiveness has informed its policies. Hence “One Nation” and “The Big Society”.

You could argue that Labour is the victim of its own sophistication. By identifying the individual fragments of our society to a greater extent than ever before, Tony Blair’s electoral machine devised messages targeted at as many as possible of the diverse interests of the population. In this it followed the lead of the United States, where special interest groups and lobbyists have shaped the policies of the two main protagonists for many decades.

In the United Kingdom we have many “segments”, as the marketers say, to satisfy. The LGBT vote, the Asian vote, the Afro-Caribbean vote, the rural middle classes, the Scots, the home owners, the unemployed in sink estates, the super-rich. The list is endless. We have the social media, sophisticated market research technology and targeting tools. We have TV debates, staged rallies and tablets of stone. Thirty years ago, electioneering was simpler. Does anybody today remember the “Party Political Broadcast”? The game seems to be to stock the political supermarket with the biggest possible number of own-brand products, and not to forget to put the sweeties near the check-out.

So the problem facing all the parties is that being elected seems to be about reconciling the unreconcilable. About finding the lowest common denominator that unites the most people. How, for example, can you appeal to the significant number of people who are convinced that we should leave the European Union without alienating those (in Scotland, for example) who believe that membership of the EU is key to their personal futures?

Amidst all the posturing and the tailoring of messages to what the maximum number of people want to hear – as opposed to what they should hear whether they like it or not –  the Labour Party seems to have lost its bearings. It has failed to find a core unifying purpose as compelling as its founding principles. If Jeremy Corbyn, who still believes in those founding principles, is elected as its leader, some say that the party might split. Likewise, the Conservatives face a similar fate if it’s torn apart by the debate on EU membership. So it’s not inconceivable that in five years’ time we might end up with a large centrist party, opposed by the far-right Tories in common cause with UKIP, and the hard-left rump of the Labour party, with the Scottish Nationalists as a third significant grouping – with none of the opposition parties in sufficient numbers to challenge the centrists other than via a series of transitory alliances.

Unlikely perhaps, but if one or two catalysts – another financial collapse perhaps, a series of terrorist spectaculars or a major health emergency – were to shake us out of our relatively contented self-interest, not inconceivable. In that case, though, the electoral drivers will not be what people are for, but what they are against.

Whichever way things go over the next five years, the majority of voters are unlikely to be inspired by movements, only interests. Which does not bode well for Labour. And if Labour fails, the country will be the weaker for the lack of a strong, challenging opposition to keep the government honest – or at least as honest as our political systems allows. But I doubt whether any political alignment will succeed in assuaging the bitterness many feel about the country they are living in. Take this reaction in a Facebook post by a friend on the morning after the last general election:

If I were younger, I’d emigrate – somewhere not dominated by posh boy spivs and their corrupt friends. Somewhere where there might be a house and a decent job for my kids, somewhere where the poor were not made the eternal victims of austerity. Desperately disappointed this morning. And knackered.

We can all look forward to the disintegration of the UK, Scotland struggling economically and inevitably exiled from Europe, and England an ex-European decadent offshore trading post known as London with a dismally depressed hinterland. No one has thought this one through.

As for Mr Corbyn, if it turns out that greatness is thrust upon him, he deserves our best wishes and, perhaps, our sympathy. The last thing I would want to do at the age of sixty-six would be to chuck myself into the political snake-pit that he will inherit.

  1. Andrew Morton permalink

    Who’s that person you’re quoting at the end? Must be some kind of genius. But will you allow me to pick up on just one aspect of your article: social mobility and more specifically, Alan Milburn’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission,

    The fact is that social mobility on any large or even medium scale is, and has always been a myth. There is no society and never has been to have seen this phenomenon. The pernicious thing about what Milburn stands for is that the idea of social mobility is used as a justification for laissez-faire economic theories. It is the only way you can justify the kind of vicious society or non-society that has existed ever since Thatcher. It just does not make sense to see society mobile on a large scale, and even if it did, there would be as many losers as winners. People often cite the 50s and 60s as an era of social mobility, usually taking the name of grammar schools in vain, but really the good thing about this era was relatively full employment and many genuine choices of career paths. I know- I was there. (Milburn should be ashamed of himself, dheading up, as he does, a totally bogus organisation and having the cheek to link it with child poverty -always a guaranteed tear-jerker.)

  2. I was waiting for that! Hope you didn’t mind my using your passionate words… On social mobility, I agree with you. I was there as well, although the dice that were loaded in my favour didn’t help me with a career as such. Perhaps in other ways. I wouldn’t describe what we call society as vicious, but certainly fragmented – there are many societies, and generally few of them look out for any others. Difficult to promote solidarity in those conditions.

    Hope you’re enjoying Cornwall despite the weather!

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