As Greta Thunberg says: panic is the rational response to a real emergency.
And the results of GE2019 is so bad that panic feels like the only rational response:
After 10 years of austerity and extreme Right-wing rule we have re-elected a Conservative Government that has now jettisoned its more moderate members and has achieved popular support by embracing English nationalism and social policies that are so vicious that they have provoked severe criticism from the United Nations. At a time when the world needs to be focusing on taking radical action to save the planet we have elected those least likely to take the necessary steps.
In these circumstance it is not surprising that the Left – Progressives – or whatever we choose to call ourselves – are dismayed, angry and confused. It is perhaps only natural that we look around for someone to blame:
- Labour Centrists blame the Left for its extremism
- Labour Leftists blame the Centrists for their betrayals
- Remainers blame Labour Brexiteers and the North
- The North blames Labour Remainers and London
- Labour loyalists blame those who voted for other parties
- Other progressives blame Labour for its contradictions
- We all blame the media – but carry on dancing to its tune
We live in a time when the powerful have perfected the art of scapegoating: the poor and disabled are blamed for a banking crash engineered by the super-rich. Refugees are blamed for fleeing wars engineered by world powers. A young woman with autism is blamed for making us feel mildly uncomfortable about a climate crisis created by our collective short-sightedness.
Our capacity to avoid facing the truth seems to know no bounds.
It’s an unedifying spectacle and the bile issuing from every side leads one to fear that the idea of Progressive progress is oxymoronic. Perhaps we’d all rather think we were right and carry on losing, instead of working together and winning.
We should learn something from our enemy.
Johnson and Cummings – despite all the warnings they received from the commentariat – were not punished for embracing the demands of their UKIP and Brexit supporters, nor for ejecting moderate Conservatives from the party. Instead they ruthlessly focused on building the biggest coalition of support they could – while exploiting the discord of their enemies.
Success came – not from drifting back to some fantasy centre-ground – but from doing what politicians are supposed to do: understand the conditions for success and act accordingly.
So what can we on the fractured Left do now?
Our first obligation is to be truthful. These are the facts as I see them:
- The current Government has a big majority and Johnson and Cummings care about staying in power. They are unlikely to split internally and they will use their power and their allies in the media to win a further election in 4 to 5 years time. The fact that Brexit will be damaging to the economy is irrelevant. Austerity has already been very damaging to the economy – yet the Conservatives have paid no price for this. The public’s frame of reference is the media – not reality. The chance of another decade of even more Right-wing rule is extremely high, unless something changes radically.
- The Left had comforted itself that media bias could be overcome by the use of social media. However it turns out that social media bias can be created at a very low price and with no negative consequences. The control of information is now effectively in the hands of the Government and their allies.
- It will make next to no difference whether the Labour Party elects a leader of the Left, the Centre-Left or of the Centre. It is as likely to lose as many votes as it gains with any choice. The imagined ‘centre’ ground has largely disappeared. This is not 1981. There is not going to be an SDP and the Labour Party cannot turn itself a new version of New Labour. The only reason that Labour’s modest social democratic 2019 Manifesto seemed radical was that we have no longer have any reasonable frame of reference. The reason that Change and the other centrist offerings collapsed is that there is no market for what they are selling.
- The Liberal Democrats are not going to sweep into power. Their support at General Elections is likely to remain around 10%. The Labour Party is going to struggle to get its support over 40%. It would take many years before the Green Party could replace Labour as the natural home for the Left. Nationalist parties may gain a little more support, but they can never win a majority in Westminster. No one party is likely to defeat the Right on its own.
- The current constitution of the UK is barely democratic and also very fragile. Rights are weak and poorly protected, the voting system is unfair, the House of Lords is ineffective and a means of undue patronage, power is over-centralised, the Union is under severe and growing stress, civil society and the media are unable to provide redress and – worse still – the current Government will increase central and executive power and the gerrymandering of the electoral system.
For the Labour Party in particular, my analysis may seem depressing. Since 1918 there have been 28 elections and Labour has only formed a majority Government 8 times (and often that has been a very narrow majority and a very short Government). The price of electoral success in the case of New Labour was a government that did nothing for the North of England which remains separated from the South by a gap in health and wellbeing that is equivalent to the difference between East and West Germany before the wall came down. The anger of the North will not be reduced by offering people New Labour Mark II.
It is also worth reflecting on the success of the SNP. They focused on the right of Scotland to determine its own future. The success of Scottish nationalism mirrors the success of English nationalism – despite the obvious differences. It turns out that people like the idea of deciding for themselves what they are going to do – and having the right to choose to do it. The nationalists show a clear commitment to democracy and popular sovereignty. The Conservatives have played the same trick and have successfully weaponised English nationalism, albeit under a UK flag. [Expect to see a lot more of this in the next few years.]
On the other hand the Labour Party is now hemmed in by a commitment to UK nationalism which once served it well (using Welsh and Scottish MPs to win it a majority in the UK). Today that advantage has become a burden; in Scotland a vote for the Labour Party is seen as a wasted vote and a vote for dependence on a Westminster dominated by the Conservative Party. It would make much more sense for the Labour Party to abandon its commitment to the UK and to make common cause with progressives in each of the 3 (or 4) countries that make up the (for now) United Kingdom. UK-nationalism has become toxic for Labour – it should renounce it now.
The one benefit of this analysis is that normal politics doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense for the opposition parties to keep seeking out shinier leaders and polishing up shinier policies. It doesn’t make sense to simply roll the dice again and hope for something better.
When a game is fixed, stop playing the game and change the rules.
The great opportunity of the current situation is that it helps to strip everyone of their illusions and makes the benefits of a different approach much more obvious. In particular, for the Labour Party the current crisis is full of opportunity.
If I was Labour leader this is what I would do:
I would invite all the opposition parties to join a united Shadow Government with Unity Shadow cabinet. When your constitutional role is to oppose the Government then your power comes from your unity and the clarity of your message. This would also help neutralise the media’s toxic coverage and help strengthen the legitimacy of all the opposition parties. Leaders would be seen to be putting aside petty factional differences in the light of the extreme threat that Johnson-Cummings poses to democracy, justice and the planet.
Any party who chose to not join the ranks of a united opposition would be deemed to have not risen to the challenge of the times.
I would agree with each opposition party to use the next 3 years to create a new constitution for the UK. From the very beginning I would commit to support the right to self-determination for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and to the necessary mechanisms for each country to independently exercise that right. I would also make sure the Labour Party in Scotland and Wales was free to support the case for independence if they so chose.
Further necessary constitutional reforms include:
- Replacing the House of Lords with an elected second chamber
- A written constitution, including a bill of rights
- Radical devolution of powers to counties, cities and neighbourhoods
- Reform of the media and civil society to protect truth and integrity
- Reform of party funding to end the abuse of power by wealthy and foreign powers
I would also commit to proportional representation in all elections and ensure a model was agreed between all opposition parties. We would also agree an electoral pact for the next General Election to ensure that the the United opposition would both win the next election and immediately put in place the agreed constitutional reforms.
The obvious advantage of this strategy for the smaller opposition parties is that they would finally be guaranteed a fairer balance of seats. The price Labour that would have to pay is that it could no longer dream of one day beating the odds and finally electing the transformational Government that could sweep to power and bring about all the social changes I and others desire. But this is a small price, because it is a dream, not a realistic option.
The Left should embrace this strategy because its policies are sensible and popular. It can still win support for its policies even if it cannot always win support for a majority Labour Government. Our true enemy is our corrupt and broken constitution, which will always obstruct or corrupt the achievements of even the best government.
If I am right then only one strategy makes sense: UNITE – unite to reform the constitution – unite to oppose Johnson and Cummings and unite to build a just and democratic society that can act with urgency to protect the planet.
Of course – I am not leader of the Labour Party – just one of half a million members. But I will certainly vote for a leader who behaves as if we should panic and that it’s time for a different strategy.
And I’m also a citizen of Sheffield. So I will wonder what it is we could do here to change the nature of politics and address the real problems we face. I will wonder what stops Sheffield from developing its own constitution and for building a new democratic politics without waiting for Westminster to wake up.
And on a personal note
I write this with no sense of my own wisdom. I backed Corbyn and McDonnell because they offered hope, instead of lame policies and weak resistance to the immoral policies of austerity that continue to pummel ordinary people. I believed that they could win and that perhaps even the stupidity of Brexit could be overturned, or at least blunted. I was wrong.
The Conservative Party’s failures did not damage the Conservative Party – instead their ruthless ability to undermine and then ditch their own leader and the centrist elements of their own party has been rewarded – not punished. They learned the lessons from the 2017 election and manipulated social media to strengthen their support.
Over the last few years it is Neal Lawson of Compass who has been making many of the points I have made above. I hope that their efforts to build a Progressive Alliance will be successful. The Centre for Welfare Reform will continue to publish ideas, research and proposals based on the work of our Fellows to reform the welfare state and improve our constitution. We will continue to support the efforts of local leaders to achieve justice, greater citizenship and respect for our fragile Earth in the UK and globally. We will continue to support the development of Citizen Network as a community to support citizen action around the world.