The crisis facing Labour goes far beyond Keir Starmer and Brexit
No wonder Labour faces obsoletion. It was the voice of industrial workers who have all but disappearedJANET DALEY8 May 2021 • 1:00pm
Let’s get two things straight right from the off. The Hartlepool result was not simply due to the absence of a Brexit party dividing the fervent Leave vote – as the BBC repeatedly tried to insist – or even to the fact of Brexit. The UK’s exit from the EU is now a done deal as far as the electorate is concerned and is not – in itself – a determinant of how people vote except in a kind of totemic, symbolic sense. (I shall return to this point.) Nor is the collapse of Labour support just Sir Keir Starmer’s fault. Since the absence of a credible Opposition is a serious problem for democratic politics, we really can’t afford to waste time with pointless diversions.
Both Brexit and the Starmer leadership are symptoms of a much greater historical crisis for Labour which will have to be confronted if it – or any party of the Left – is to be a serious player in British government again. This is much bigger than the machinations and maneuvers of factions and individual personalities. Labour has not just, as everybody keeps saying, “lost touch” with its traditional supporters: it now holds them in open and quite febrile contempt. And that contempt is not accidental: it is not just a function of a metropolitan coup which could be transitory.Advertisementhttps://48ce69820a2d48ffbce773f410ea706e.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
This is where Brexit as a symbol of what the Left, in its glory days, used to call “working class alienation”, comes in. If you loathe the idea of leaving the EU, and regard those who voted for it as stupid bigots, then you are never, ever going to understand what has happened to the traditional Labour vote. Those people who feel very acutely your disdain and disgust, do not see themselves as traitors to the cause: they feel that they and their communities, to whom they are endlessly loyal, have been abandoned. At best they are patronised for their supposed ignorance, at worst actively disliked for their distasteful life choices. They are absolutely right to believe that there is no serious attempt from the Westminster Left to comprehend their values and their problems. Brexit is simply the most current and easily identified symbol of this breakdown of understanding.
What is more difficult to confront is the great historical shift which severs Labour from its own roots. Like virtually all the manifestations of the modern Left, the party was born as a response to the Industrial Revolution.Advertisementhttps://48ce69820a2d48ffbce773f410ea706e.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
In Britain, it emerged as the political wing of the trade union movement whose parliamentary function was to represent, perfectly legitimately, the interests of workers who were originally conceived as the industrial proletariat. This was then extended to presuming the right to speak for all employees (as opposed to employers who were thought to be represented by the Conservatives). There was always a rather uncomfortable tension over this latter assumption: not all employees saw their interests as being in conflict with those of their employers and the old industrial model of exploitation and the theft of workers’ labour by capitalism did not sit happily with much professional and commercial life.
But the frame of reference pretty much survived until the post-Industrial age which promises to be as disruptive of the existing political order as that original social and economic upheaval was in the nineteenth century. What is the point of a political party that began as the voice of the industrial proletariat when there is no more industrial proletariat? When the social problems of the age arise from the death of the old industries and the devastation this has brought to the communities that were built around them? What then?https://cf-particle-html.eip.telegraph.co.uk/0cd4d268-2a7c-4eb9-b554-436311d1dc12.html?i=0&ref=www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2021/05/08/crisis-facing-labour-goes-far-beyond-keir-starmer-brexit/&channel=news&id=0cd4d268-2a7c-4eb9-b554-436311d1dc12&isapp=false&isregistered=true&issubscribed=true&truncated=false<=false
Of course, you can still talk about inequalities of wealth, opportunity and social advantage but the solutions to those problems – as a great many ex-Labour voters understand – is not necessarily socialist or even Left-wing in the conventional sense. The Johnson government’s talk of new free market solutions like the development of green energy infrastructure in depressed parts of the country, sounds more readily practicable and rather less insulting than the old Labour remedy of wealth redistribution in which the permanently poor receive state-enforced assistance from the permanently rich.Advertisementhttps://48ce69820a2d48ffbce773f410ea706e.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
The horrendous replacement imported from the Left in the United States – identity politics – has only succeeded in alienating the traditional working class vote even more. Now Labour politicians aren’t even seen as the nice people (as opposed to the nasty Tories) anymore. Instead they are seen as siding with a cancel culture vendetta against their own country and their own history. In truth, the most important political shift of our time is the disillusionment with absolute truths – of fixed ideological systems.
The most important and difficult arguments of the next generation are going to be about reconciling economic freedom (which most people want) with social democratic values (which most people embrace). The relative attraction of those two sets of priorities will vary with circumstances: the last year of pandemic, for example, has seen a notable resurgence of a sense of communal responsibility. The relief and economic recovery that follows it might well bring a counter flood of individualistic “animal spirits”. The most successful political parties will be the ones capable of readjusting and calibrating the balance between these forces.Advertisement
But, importantly, there will be an end – already has been an end for most real people – to the idea of political principle as theology. If the twentieth century belonged to ideologues – sometimes with hideous consequences – the twenty-first will be the province of arbiters and mediators who will try to solve the moral equation. In times of national crisis, like a pandemic, unbridled competition and individual self-advancement won’t be allowed to let rip.
When the economy is stagnant, lacking innovative new growth and opportunity, it will be pushed into freedom. It isn’t Capitalism vs Communism anymore. That argument is over. The new Cold War with China is about whether democratic capitalism can defeat totalitarian capitalism on the global stage. The future of democracies – and their political leaders – depends on them being fluid, responsive and adaptable to people’s needs. By a fortunate coincidence, that is what most of their voters want.Related Topics
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