Labour is sterile, soulless and, unfortunately, still too important to reject entirely
Having spent the last 17 years relentlessly whoring itself to the conservative-leaning floating voter, the Labour Party that fell from power last year was a shambling, indebted, rudderless wreck, practising a soullessly managerial politics that was as vacuous as it was uninspiring. The Westminster culture it helped shape was more insular and self-obsessed than ever, the expenses scandal revealing the extent of its detachment from reality, and leaving politicians more despised than they had been in a generation. Then there’s the minor issue of Labour allowing Dickensian levels of inequality, entangling Britain in two dubious and protracted Middle Eastern wars, encouraging the sort of reckless economic activity that brought about the financial crash, stoking the growth of the populist far-right by abandoning the interest of its traditional supporters, and keeping Peter Mandelson in work for a decade.
For those who think preventing the above is marginally more important than appealing to Daily Mail readers, the temptation is to utterly reject the modern Labour Party. Many left-wingers have done so. But while such robust reactions are very understandable from an angrily idealistic point of view, you have to wonder what good actually comes of such intense Labour-hate in the long run. Bitterly, constantly lambasting Labour, anyone who is a member of it, supports it, or is seen to associate with it in any way, regardless of their opinion of the Blair project and its conduct in power, effectively reduces the British Left to the level of a jilted soap character, chucking bin-bags of their ex-lovers old jeans out the window out of a top-floor window in a petty attempt to get back at them – scrambling at petty revenge that, while supremely satisfying at the time, is, ultimately, utterly futile.
Before we burn all our bridges with Labour, there’s a need for some cold, hard political consideration. First, there’s the effect of our constantly frustrating electoral system. When the Tories and the Lib Dems formed the coalition last year, hubristic pundits tried to portray it as some epoch-breaking ‘Dawn Of A New Political Age’. Bat aside the journalistic hyperbole, and you see that two-party politics is clearly here to stay. The Lib Dems have entered government via a very rare electoral anomaly – for the first time in decades, First Past The Post failed to give one party an overall majority in the Commons and thus didn’t produce a clear winner. The last time that happened was in 1974. The time before that was in 1929. And, after the next election, it’s highly likely that normal service will be resumed, leaving the Liberals languishing on the Opposition benches for another 30 years.
First Past The Post is an dismal electoral system, but, after the country’s emphatic rejection of the Alternative Vote earlier this year, one that’s unfortunately here to stay. The power-pendulum will continue to swing between Labour and the Conservatives. And, even in its current debased state, Labour is still more favourable to left-wing perspectives than the Conservatives ever are. A New Labour strategist might take the suggestion that their Party support progressive taxation like a kick in the key marginals, but there’s still considerably more scope of Labour ever endorsing this kind of policy than either the Tories or the Lib Dems. Post-ideological consensus might render parties extremely similar, but they’re still not all the same.
The system is also very harsh on small parties. Under a sane electoral system, a group like the Greens could easily occupy the social democratic/democratic socialist terrain abandoned by Labour. As it stands, their influence is negligible. After thirty years of dedicated activism, party-building and general painstaking toil, the Greens greatest shot at electoral success came during the 2010 election. With 300 Green candidates standing, their strongest campaign in history coincided with profound public disgust at mainstream politics. The Greens won one MP.
This isn’t to suggest that those who have sought to build left-wing alternatives should immediately give up, join Labour, and learn to love Private Finance Initiatives and James Purnell. If they believe constructing a Party to challenge Labour is the best way forward, then they should obviously persevere. The very reason Labour can’t be utterly rejected is that, as yet, there’s no feasible alternative to it . In the short to medium term, though, totally shunning Labour and those trying to work with it is pointless. Until the Hailley’s comet of electoral reform swings round again, it remains the only viable outlet for anything vaguely left-leaning in so many areas of the country.
Acknowledging this requires the Left to be uncomfortably pragmatic in its relationship with Labour. It doesn’t have to mean joining it, voting for it, supporting it, or even liking it – it means accepting that not every Labour member who hasn’t thrown themselves overboard post-Blair is an ardent Thatcherite, that fanatical Labour-hate is a complete dead-end, and that, occasionally, working with Labour members is a better way of achieving left-wing aims than constantly haranguing it and them from the side-lines.
During campaigns to protect local amenities, public land et cetera, resist supermarkets or combat the BNP, we’ve found Labour councillors and members to be integrally important. Admittedly, the Labourites in question are a select few – distinct from those affectionately known as the ‘slugs and dinosaurs’ contingent of trenchant New Labourites and old time-servers. But more enlightened Labour councillors can provide crucial clout within the organs of local government. Without the ability to, for example, scrutinise and obstruct the decisions of wayward Conservative local authorities from within the council chamber, even the most dedicated community organisations can do little more than impotently vent anger.
Labour under Ed Miliband is only a mite left of what came before, a tiny improvement on the Blair/Brown era. Substantially, the Party has barely shifted from where it stood during the heyday of New Labour, and its leader seems content for it to stay there. But Old Labour was never the robust and level-headed beacon of socialism that two decades-worth of nostalgia and a lot of wishful thinking have Chinese Whispered into existence. Classically, the Party has been little more than a tool for chipping away at the grimmer aspects of industrial, then post-industrial society, nowhere near as quickly and effectively as would be ideal, but usefully all the same. As a progressive chisel, Labour is far less useful than it used to be. But, unfortunately, now and for the foreseeable future, it’s the best we’re going to get.