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Talk of 'vision' won't save Labour. Our movement faces international crisis

KEVIN OVENDEN says last week's Labour rout has deep roots – reversing it means rebuilding mass politics

THE extraordinary first year of Covid obscured the scale of the crisis facing labour movement politics. 

Now, like a dam breaching, the results of last week’s elections in England have unleashed a flood of realisation. The danger is this: sinking now or clinging to bits of driftwood only to sink later. 

Last week was not itself an epochal shift. It was the latest imprimatur upon changes that have been underway for two decades. It means some fundamental questioning about the state we are in as a labour and socialist movement. That is true not only in Britain but across Europe and elsewhere. 

The idea that a Labour leadership contest will answer this crisis is risible. I carry no brief for Keir Starmer and am among those who warned over a year ago that his determination to exorcise the Jeremy Corbyn years would bring disaster. So I find both hilarious and contemptible those commentators who talked him up from the left then, only now to call on him to shape up or ship out. 

And when he goes, what then? Peter Mandelson (who makes Iago look like St Francis) knows what to do with full-blown panic and despair, and through suppressing calm debate. That was how New Labour was foisted on a demoralised party in the early 1990s.

So those labour movement figures calling for the party to debate radical policies and a clear vision of what it is for are right. But even that underestimates the scale of the problem. A lot of the talk of “eye-catching policies” or of “vision” sounds so much like a retail offer or corporate mission statement.

When Labour and its sister parties were at their height people did not answer the question “what does this party stand for” with reference to the executive summary of a manifesto — even a good one as in 2017. They spoke in high political terms that were suffused with class antagonism — it’s for people like me, against the elites.  

That was combined with concrete things that those parties had done for them. A friend working on a polling station in a northern Greek village recalls at the election in 2015 an old woman seeking the ballot paper to “vote for the Papandreou party — he brought electricity to this village.” The Pasok social democratic party of Andreas Papandreou had in fact collapsed and even his son was not a member. 

The “mother party” of social democracy, the SPD in Germany, is currently polling 14 per cent in advance of September’s general election. That is despite having a fairly popular leader and adopting a sprinkling of traditional social democratic policies, such as a rise in the minimum wage. 

Anyone proffering solutions to the crisis facing the British labour movement – and it is a crisis – without taking into consideration such developments elsewhere is not addressing the hard issues. 

One part of the diagnosis on the left is becoming almost commonplace. The centre-left parties returned to office in the mid-1990s after having abandoned even notional socialist aspiration and instead aiming to be the progressive managers of capital. Thus, a string of Blairite administrations from Greece to Germany presiding over a liberal modernisation of society and economy but also of politics – abandoning the old welfarist compromise.

The sacked, deskilled and displaced workers in this period of rapid globalisation had nowhere else to go. The parties they had looked to for decades could carry on regardless. And so they did. The electoral payback came around a decade later but had been foreshadowed by the anti-globalisation movement at the turn of the century. Almost forgotten now is that it united truck drivers and environmental activists in Seattle. That ought to be recalled today. 

It was not inexorable restructuring of work or of settled working-class communities that severed those parties from their already loose moorings. It was that they were the governments driving it through. A further problem was a fatalism throughout the working-class movement that surrendered socialist transformation for technocratic administration. In the unions it abandoned extending trade unionism for holding on through social partnership. 

Now there is a debate across the British and European centre left about how to “reconstruct” the electoral coalition between working people and the progressive middle class that has been shattered. That old coalition cannot be reconstructed. It is dead. 

A new version will not be built either, unless we understand what produced the old one and what a similar process might look like today. Yes – this is the rebuilding of the working-class movement. 

It was not policy development or messaging that built left electoral politics. It was through, at moments of acute crisis and struggle, providing a leadership. It was often from a minority position. 

That is the history of the emergence of the British Labour Party. How did the left come to dominate the political thinking of working-class people in, say, Greece or Italy? War, resistance and revolutionary conditions. 

Dial down a bit. It was the extension of basic union organisation that meant that workers in the new industries in Western capitalism in the middle of the last century became solidly labour and militant, not the embourgeoisified Tory voters that sociologists predicted at the time. It was not until 1997 that teachers in Britain preferred Labour over other parties. You cannot separate that from an extension of white collar trade unionism — even if driven by a minority in those unions. 

We do not have the luxury of decades of development. Dawning now is that the British Tory government has a determined strategy to ride wider developments to secure a reconfiguration of politics. It is not Boris Johnson’s genius. It has been on the cards for 20 years. 

It includes the most pro-capitalist and crony-cartel form of Keynesian economic management. It will not reach this far, but if you want a model of high state involvement in the economy, right-wing national politics, reaction and corruption, then look to South Korea. 

The current Labour leadership is ill-equipped to deal with this. It manages the self-immolation of clinging to the false gods of the neoliberal period while not honing in on the frustrations of working people at a Tory government claiming to represent the people against impersonal global forces but failing.

Unfortunately, a lot of the instant reaction and pitched solutions for Labour also fail to grasp the scale of the problem. That is why there has to be a serious and wide debate on the left. By left I do not mean me or you and our mates. 

This is the whole left, the labour movement and without anathematisation. 

As a contribution to that discussion I offer this. It is not pretty. If anything the problem is greater than just pointing to the decline of the legacy parties of the social-democratic centre. 

What is annoyingly called “Corbynism” arising in 2015 was not unique. Recall the first half of that year. The Syriza victory in Greece. The advance of its sister radical left party Podemos in Spain. Then the horrible British election result producing a sudden campaign around Jeremy Corbyn that astonishingly won the leadership. 

When looked at this way the particular aspect is not the radicalisation. That was happening elsewhere. It was the peculiar circumstances in Britain that allowed for this to be expressed through the Labour Party — not through upstart parties as in Spain or hitherto also-rans as in Greece. 

What is most striking today is the retreat from the insurgent approach of that time. In all the Labour debate you hear no reference to transforming politics, state and society. Everything is instrumentalised to internal politicking or purported electoral genius. 

It is not just Labour. It is not just social democracy. This is true also of Syriza and Podemos — both of them born or ascending out of enormous social struggles. 

That is the biggest retreat that has taken place — and it includes what has happened to the mosaic movement around Bernie Sanders in the US. It is a rupture between the idea of political change and the necessity of mass political engagement and mobilisation. 

In a false and thin way all sorts of centre-right forces have found an answer to the “populist” revolt of the middle of the last decade by posing a performative, not real, state of popular mobilisation. The Austrian government and the Muslim question. The Madrid authority and “freedom.” The French and British government both over theatre in the Channel. 

The French government’s cack-handed antics make feasible a victory for the fascist Marine Le Pen next year.

So it could not be more serious. Let us have this discussion at a serious level throughout the movement and in forums that are of the left not the of anti-left. 

And we should do so with a practical commitment to actual struggles, without which there is no progress.

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