If Labour learns the lessons of 12 December 2019 (this is a big ‘if’), then the party is about to begin a familiar trek. Labour’s ‘moderates’ are already looking at the electoral mountain ahead and preparing to embark on the ‘Long Road Back to Power’ (we’ll call this, for speed, the LRBTP).
Sadly, the LRBTP is a well-trodden path. Underpinning it is a reasonable, partially true but insufficient social democratic argument. This says that we’ve strayed too far from the mainstream; that the far left’s goals are noble but unachievable; that principles are nothing without power. It aims to coax the party’s radical flank back to a position where we can win.
In practical terms, the LRBTP involves defeating the hard left incrementally and championing soft left leadership candidates. These figures lay the groundwork for change but lose an election or two. By this point the country is in a desperate state and the Labour membership grudgingly accepts reality.
What tends to happen next is that the new leader wins office and achieves progressive things but makes an electoral compromise or policy concession too far. They and their government are cast out as traitors and closet Tories, unfit to lace the boots of the socialist giants who came before. Labour loses. The loop begins again.
The LRBTP has been navigated on a near-continuous basis for a century – most recently between 1983-97. Even if the current trudge is shorter than the last one, it will probably be 2029 before a Labour prime minister walks up Downing Street.
This is the future faced by Labour according to the LRBTP convention. A political Groundhog Day, with the party holding office for 5-10 years in each 25-30 year cycle.
Many on the centre left have made their peace with the three-decade pilgrimage, and I respect their patience. But I was 23 when Labour last held office and may be 42 or even 47 when they next do. There must be a better way?
Why, after all, do we fetishize candidates who can’t win and policies that don’t work? Why do so many prefer fighting to winning? Why does Labour so easily adopt ‘us and them’ positions that become reactionary? Why, for prospective leaders, is there such mileage in trashing recent Labour Prime Ministers (Blair, Wilson and Attlee’s reputations were each undermined after they left office)? Why are we so bad at evaluating dilemmas from the perspective of a would-be government? Why, when we predictably lose, do we kid ourselves that a media conspiracy was to blame? And why, when we finally win, are so many so quick to decide we’ve sold out?
The LRBTP accepts these things as facts of Labour life. But there must be a way of short-circuiting the cycles of failure which currently define the party?
I believe there are three myths we need to take on if we want to do this. I call them the Dark Knight, the Puppet Master and the Golden Era.
The Dark Knight claims that the political spectrum is a moral one; the left is where virtue lies and the further right you go the more wicked you become. The Puppet Master describes the view that elites control society for personal gain. The Golden Era is the declinist belief that a once-great socialist arcadia has been polluted by modernity.
Between them these myths explain almost all of Labour’s moral and electoral failures. The Dark Knight, for example, means that the party too easily seeks out traitors when it fails. We turn policy differences into moral questions, narrowing the church and shrinking the tent at precisely the points when we need to reach out.
The Puppet Master let’s us misdiagnose the criticism we face, as the consequence of a plot against us by ‘elites.’ And it encourages us to imagine that power is easy – simply a case of getting our hands on the levers and thus fail the crucial test for the electorate, of looking like a government-in-waiting.
Meanwhile, the Golden Era allows us to take a myopic view of our history and of the country’s. We conjure a spirit of original socialism – a hearty world of brass bands and uncompromising values – to which mundane reality can never live up. Steady progress in office, such as that between 1997-2010, is dismissed as abject failure.
In different ways, the three myths allow Labour to regard struggle and loss as noble callings. For those of us who muttered ‘never again’ on election night, before shrugging helplessly and beginning the LRBTP, their retirement offers an alternative.
To pursue it we must first question the meaning and truth of pejorative and false terms. We should rigorously challenge words like ‘Blairite’, ‘MSM’ and ‘neoliberal’ – as well as the countless other assumptions and turns of phrase which imply bad faith or omnipotent control. These are currently treated as irritating by-products of Corbynism. In fact, they’re its defining feature.
Second, we mustn’t indulge the narratives ourselves, and should criticise those on the centre-left who do. The idea, for instance, that Tories are motivated by spite or self-interest is an easy grass-roots dog-whistle; but it ultimately feeds an In-Group mentality which eats itself and us. In the same vein, we mustn’t aim the myths back at the populist left. The suggestion that anyone sympathetic to Corbyn is a racist by association, for instance, is a Dark Knight analysis of its own.
Lastly and most importantly, there must be a real effort to stress that the present divide in the party isn’t about degrees of leftism. Even by accepting terms like ‘far left’ and ‘centrist’, we concede ground to the false idea that this is the real issue. We should instead show the many ways in which dismantling the myths enables rather than blocks Labour values – making a society based on equal rights, equal opportunities and fair outcomes more likely.
For instance, by abandoning the Dark Knight in favour of pluralism, we can avoid taking sides on trivial, ‘culture war’ issues which alienate Labour heartlands. By getting over our Puppet Master paranoia about ID cards, we could win the right to advocate higher immigration and take more refugees. And by dispensing with the Golden Era terror of globalisation, we could champion internationalist, supranational policies – which address climate change and regulate big business across Europe and the world.
Former Tony Blair aide Peter Hyman once arguedthat New Labour’s aim was more radical than Corbyn’s. It wasn’t to be merely ‘a good opposition party,’ but to attain ‘political hegemony: winning power and locking out the Tories, to ensure that the 21stcentury was a Labour century with Labour values, in contrast to a Tory-dominated 20th century.’
Everyone on the left can surely agree that this is a valid goal, whatever our views on New Labour. Yet unless we challenge the LRBTP cycle – and the tribal, conspiracist and nostalgic tropes that make it inevitable – life as a ‘good opposition party’ is the best we can ever hope for.
Chris Clarke is the author of Warring Fictions: left populism and its defining myths(Policy Network and Rowman and Littlefield). He tweets at @WarringFictions.