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IS the party over? Is the Labour Party just one big waste of time — an energy sponge that exhausts anyone who wants to change Britain?
Many thousands of people seem to feel that way and have resigned their membership.
The turnaround from a growing party that felt like a social movement to Sir Keir Starmer’s bland, beige leadership is too disheartening.
Unable or unwilling to take on the government, Labour’s MPs try to demonstrate they have some power by taking on their own left wing.
It’s a displacement activity for MPs with the spirit of middle managers, which impresses media pundits but leaves voters uninspired and members demotivated.
Labour’s Establishment — its MPs and officials — reacted to the Corbyn-era influx of new members and new enthusiasm for socialism like an infection.
They developed a mad fever and high temperature trying to get rid of every germ of political passion. But Corbynism wasn’t a disease, it was the cure.
The centrists promised Labour would be “20 points ahead” under “any other leader” and needed to drop the ballast of principle so their balloon could surge into the sky.
But it is becoming painfully clear that recreating a big party standing for real change actually helped Labour recover, as in the 2017 election.
With years of determined self-sabotage Labour MPs were able to drive down the Labour vote in 2019.
But as we see now, under centrist leadership, the party’s balloon isn’t in the sky. It is grounded, making embarrassing noises as it slowly deflates.
Was it all a waste of time? I think we should see that the Labour Party always has two aspects.
Like other “social democratic” parties, Labour used the political power of universal suffrage to create a movement aiming to use the state to force or persuade the capitalists to give the workers a fairer share and to regulate the bosses’ bad behaviour.
But there has always a pressure to reverse this conveyor belt — for the capitalists to use the state to force or persuade the party to tell the workers to limit their ambitions, to tell them they can’t have the change they want, or they might even have to accept worse conditions.
This is inherent within reformism. Some members of reform parties have always found it easier to join the pushback from the big money men rather than the push forward against them.
Reform parties are a battlefield as well as a weapon in the battle.
It’s harder for “reform” parties to win elections than “conservative” parties — because reform parties have to take on the rich and powerful, who, unsurprisingly, use their riches and power to resist change.
Many people with influential positions in society are invested in keeping things the same.
It’s also sometimes hard to win over “reform” parties to genuine reform, because they are themselves integrated into the existing system — but it is possible.
The world around us — the welfare state, basic (though often undermined) safety standards, universal education up to 18 — was shaped by the Labour Party.
Which is an argument for persistence in trying to change Labour, while understanding no victory will be complete or permanent.
This isn’t an argument for only focusing on Labour: don’t underestimate the influence of grassroots campaigns on Labour or even Conservative governments.
Even at the height of Thatcher’s powers, grassroots campaigns could stop unjust laws or break down prison walls and free innocent people, as the anti-poll tax battle or campaigns for the Birmingham Six, Guildford Four, Tottenham Three or Cardiff Three showed.
Equally union and grassroots campaigns shaped the “reform” party: Labour would not have repealed Section 28 or created the minimum wage if people only fought for reform within the Labour Party.
That said, I do worry Labour may becoming sclerotic with age — Starmer’s stultifying, insipid politics represents the overwhelming leadership of choice of Labour’s MPs and party Establishment.
The last century saw the growth of social democratic parties across the world, and then saw their “professionalisation,” as these parties recruited pollsters and PR managers, and drew more MPs from the elite universities and think tanks and less from the trade unions.
The ratio between full-time staff and members has skewed over time towards the staff and away from the rank and file.
“Professionalisation” needs to be in inverted commas, because it implies doing a job well, with skill and experience.
But the more these parties have professionalised, the less real reform they have delivered: Labour’s big breakthroughs happened in its earlier days.
So “New Labour” had a long period of rule, but delivered far less permanent reform than the short-lived 1945 government, while many of its “reforms” — like NHS privatisation or PFI — actually reversed previous Labour advances.
Does this “professionalisation” mean reform parties have, as they’ve got older, developed a thicker skin of people who represent the system rather than want to change the system?
Across Europe we have seen “Pasokification,” where “socialist” parties like Pasok in Greece have first become Establishment parties, then seen their votes collapse.
Even losing millions of voters has not stopped these parties drifting to the right.
Is Labour going to Pasokify, and was the Corbyn moment just a blip on this journey?
I’d say this is possible, but still not fixed — this future is unwritten.
Joana Ramiro, a journalist who has reported extensively for the Morning Star, has a very useful article on the Novara Media website on Pasokification, making the point that some reform parties have escaped from this dismal fate.
In particular the Spanish and Portuguese Socialist Parties have formed governments by tacking left.
These are not fully radical governments, but have embraced some of the post-2008 crash left, and have both managed to get elected and deliver some reform.
While we are in a much worse place in Britain right now, it gives me some hope that Labour’s “centrist-approved” leadership is so uninspiring, even to their own supporters.
The claim that moving rightwards would save the party is so clearly being proved wrong, that it provides some opening for the left to rebuild.
I’d say there are still opportunities to push Labour some way back to the left. We will only find out by trying.
Follow Solomon Hughes on Twitter @SolHughesWriter.
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