Electoral politics, especially in a two-horse race or First Past the Post system, is perhaps politics in its crudest form. They can lead us to uncritical cheerleading, to the politics of ‘lesser evilism’, and putting-up while shutting-up, rather than making nuanced arguments, offering critical support, or demanding policies that are not yet on the table. Resisting this ‘with us or against us’ mindset under Ed Miliband was what brought the Labour Left in from the wilderness, staking out our opposition to austerity, to the legacy of Iraq, and arguing for another way forward for the left. It is in that spirit of rigorous debate and criticism on the left that two articles this weekend, by prominent Labour-supporting (indeed, Corbyn-supporting) journalists, are to be welcomed.
In a lengthy piece on Medium, Paul Mason set out his proposal for a ‘Progressive Alliance’ of anti-Tory parties, along with a larger set of recommendations to the party, to see Corbyn’s Labour win in 2020. It is a strategy similar to that of Compass’s Neal Lawson, who is far less supportive of the current leader.
Yet the other article, attracting much more media attention than debates on the Labour Left usually do, was from Owen Jones. Titled, “Questions all Jeremy Corbyn supporters need to answer”, Jones argues Labour are heading for a disaster due to a lack of strategy from Corbyn’s team, and asks supporters the following: How can the disastrous polling be turned around? Where is the clear vision? How are the policies significantly different from the last general election? What’s the media strategy? What’s the strategy to win over the over-44s? What’s the strategy to win over Scotland? What’s the strategy to win over Conservative voters? How would we deal with people’s concerns about immigration? How can Labour’s mass membership be mobilised?
All of these are valid questions – they deserve carefully thought-out answers, and in time I’ll come to offer my thoughts on all of them. It’s also important to stress that Jones has not ‘sold out’ or ‘betrayed’ anyone on the left, and that his intervention is a well-intentioned and honest contribution to further the prospects of the socialist left in Britain. Yet in a leadership election in which, though Corbyn can be expected to win comfortably, the result is not yet known, what are the stakes? In other words, what happens if you aren’t yet convinced of the answers to some, or all, of Jones’s questions?
At one point early in the piece, Jones argues:
Some are claiming that Labour’s current plight is like the Miners’ Strike. You just have to pick sides. You may have reservations with the strategy being pursued, but voicing those concerns achieves nothing but playing into the hands of the enemy.
This is where Jones misses an important point. For many on the Labour Left – the current leadership contest is like the Miners’ Strike – there are two clear sides, and while one might disagree with the way a political battle is being conducted, you still rally behind your side, because defeat and capitulation to the other side is still much worse. In fact, just as Thatcher (aided by Kinnock’s reluctance to support the strike) used the dispute to smash Britain’s most powerful union, Blairites are using the Labour coup to smash the left within the party, to regain control over the leadership, and shut us out – permanently.
It is not just a fight, as the Guardian’s Gary Younge put it, ‘as a battle for the soul of the Labour party’, but more a fight as to ‘a battle to see whether Labour should have a soul at all.’ David Wearing laid out the alternatives, the ‘side’ against Corbyn brilliantly, when he argued the battle was not simply Corbynites v. Blairites, but whether we should even stand for progressive change.
One question Owen Jones actually poses in his article without stating it explicitly, is, what should the left do in the leadership election? Offering critical support to Corbyn and concluding the Corbyn project as beyond salvation are two very different things, and many readers have been left wondering which side Jones is on, with his article lacking a final conclusion as to what we should do with our ballots, faced with the choice before us.
Perhaps this is because the Labour Left has not been vocal enough about what is at stake. While there has been plenty of analysis of Smith, and before him Eagle, and the coup plotters, and the political trajectory they would set the party on, a key argument has too often been missed. It is not at all that these self-styled “electables” are insufficiently radical in their politics, that they would compromise on policies to leave people in poverty through cutting their benefits, nor simply too close to business or tainted by an illegal war which killed thousands. Nor is it that their way, the ‘Third Way’, is simply splitting the difference between Left and Right, between Labour and Tory – it is that such a strategy, over time, leaves wealth and power intact, hardens public opinion against welfare claimants and migrants, and enables more radical right-wing politics from the Tory government that inevitably supersedes them. It is more than a capitulation – it is a losing strategy.
Should the unthinkable happen, and Owen Smith be elected Labour leader, the party would lurch to the right ahead of the 2020 General Election in an attempt to triangulate both the Conservatives and UKIP, being tougher on welfare than the Tories, being tougher on migrants than the Tories, accepting the economic consensus as it is – regardless of how many people it left behind. There is no conceivable way that such a bankrupt strategy would secure Labour 323 seats. But were the party to be elected, we could expect a re-run of what happened under New Labour. The party would shift to the right in government, the electorate would shift with it, with the terms of debate redefined further onto the right.
Writing a year ahead of the 1997 General Election, the author David Coates argued that were Labour to go into government under Blair, and on the terms he was proposing, it would lead to a ‘revitalised, right-wing conservatism’, where Blair’s policies would act as trailblazers for further and deeper privatisation of the state. Coates was remarkably prescient, as Cameron took Labour’s PFI and turned it into the Health and Social Care Act, looked at Labour’s welfare reforms, such as the Work Capability Assessment, and made them even more brutal, and noted their fiscal rectitude, but argued it didn’t go far enough, so gave us austerity. All the rhetorical groundwork for Cameron’s Britain had been fashioned by New Labour. I would make a similar prediction were a Labour Party led from the right once more to secure power, with compromise quickly giving way to outright conservatism.
This is the battle being played out in the party right now, those are the stakes, those are the ‘sides’ that we are forced to pick. Engage in constructive debate about Labour’s strategy – Left Futures is happy to play host to that, and I’ll respond to Owen Jones’s points in full in good time – but let’s be clear about what the current alternatives to supporting Corbyn really are: a massive step backwards not just for the left in Labour, but for any progressive politics whatsoever.