Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The problem with the Labour Party

The party transformed, cartoon from Progress
This could be a short blog. The problem with Labour is it is now a left wing political party. In itself that is the problem, but it doesn't answer the point as to why that's problematic. But this phase will persist. The party of Attlee, Wilson and Blair is no more.

Over the summer Paul Mason said, quite rightly, that this is a left wing party now, it is Jeremy Corbyn's party and that anyone who doesn't like it can go. Here's another Corbyn loyalist, Claudia Webbe, demanding not just unity, but surrender. George Eaton in the New Statesman writing on how the left triumphed still doesn't answer the question about whether the solutions they offer will work, but it speaks to the paucity of sensible, practical ideas in the centre of British politics and instead the triumph of easy answers that worked for Donald Trump and the campaign to Leave the EU.

But it's not just a left wing party, but something worse: a home for those who revel in it as a truly nasty party. I literally run out of examples on a daily basis, but this is bad enough. For a significant part of the membership and the Corbyn fans, the story of a BBC journalist needing a bodyguard for her personal safety isn't something to be ashamed of. This betrays not a kinder gentler politics but a world in which there aren't journalists and opponents, but enemies. The comments and tweets under the line on this piece by Gaby Hinsliff are horrific, as is the call for the Jewish Labour Movement to be expelled from the party. That this is even being discussed, applauded and tolerated at the conference fringe of a mainstream party is a stain on our democracy.

But for me one of Labour's biggest problems right now is that many in the party seem to think it won the 2017 election and that the giveaway manifesto was a work of unimpeachable genius.

Here's Bridget Phillipson, a thinker, and the Labour MP for Sunderland, on the manifesto and where the party is at: "The shopping list feel to the manifesto reflected a second, deeper problem: there was no vision or strategy behind our electoral offer to engage in any detail with the context in which we find ourselves. Last year I wrote an article highlighting Labour’s failure to properly come to terms with the transformation of our economy, culture, and society since we last won an election. There was little in our manifesto to give me confidence the leadership is rising to that challenge."

The events at Labour conference in Brighton have proved her right. But constitutional party matters are deemed more important than Brexit, while there was no platform for the Labour politician with the second highest personal vote of any politician in the country, Andy Burnham. You can draw your own conclusions about why that might be.

Having nothing to say about Brexit sits high on Labour's charge sheet, save for kicking the can along the road again. Thirty senior Labour MPs write a letter calling for retaining Britain's membership of the single market and Jeremy Corbyn just laughs at them. His priority, effectively, is that state control of the commanding heights of the economy is more important than sustaining jobs dependent on the European single market.

Labour also has next to nothing to say on foreign policy challenges of the 21st Century, the instinct from the leadership has been to support anyone but the west, and to unleash some fairly unpleasant tropes about Jews and the only functioning democracy in the Middle East. For the most part though the line is to wisely keep quiet about past alignments and hope that no-one notices, or remembers.

There are clever and forward thinking people in the Labour Party. The most innovative local government leaders amongst them, including Nick Forbes in Newcastle, Andy Burnham closer to home and Sadiq Khan. These are grown-ups, as are the diligent back benchers who are prepared to debate Brexit and think about the future, whether that be Caroline Flint saying we just need to get on with Brexit, or Alison McGovern arguing to stay in the single market and customs union. But it is an illusion to think they are representative of the party now.

How will this end? The British people punish hubris and overreach. John McDonnell has displayed traits of epic self-delusion in his pronouncements on the nationalisation of the railways, utilities and the construction industry. It is always a mistake to assume that the adoration of the rally, the snarling mandate of conference and the support of the membership is the same as a country that is ready for full-throated socialism. The British people don't like it when their support is taken for granted. Just ask Theresa May.

Next week: The problem with the Conservative Party.

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