Though the Labour party is in desperate need of a new leader, its real problem is that since Blair it hasn’t known what it is as a party.
For Labour supporters or just anyone left of centre, the current state of the party is enough to make you weep. It has a leader wildly out of his depth and without the support of an overwhelming number of MP’s (not just Blairites as the Corbynistas keep insisting). More troublingly there is no obvious leader in waiting with any chance of unifying the deeply fractured party. Angela Eagle, the likely unity candidate would be unlikely to fare much better then Jeremy Corbyn in a general election.
Furthermore the party is losing support in key areas. The north, once a Labour heartland, is becoming increasingly hostile to the free movement of people and there are signs that vast swathes of traditional working class Labour voters may prioritise immigration and start voting for UKIP. There were already signs of this during the EU referendum. Polling suggests that 37% of Labour voters voted to leave, and Sunderland, a Labour powerbase, voted to leave by an astonishing 61% to 39%%.
Though Jeremy Corbyn’s apathy towards the Remain side and his general incompetence as a campaigner explains some of why Labour voter were swayed to Brexit, the blame cannot be laid squarely at his door: working class concerns over the effects of mass migration (long swept under the rug by the parliamentary party) and the well packaged lies of the Leave campaign were what really clinched it for leave.
Labour’s predicament in the North is eerily reminiscent of the Democratic party in America. The Democrats swept the ‘solid south’ as recently as 1960, but lost it to insurgents like the Dixiecrats and Barry Goldwater after Democrat Presidents John F Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson supported civil rights legislation that alienated the racist, staunchly segregationist south. Today, the South votes overwhelmingly Republican.
The parallels between this situation and that the Labour party is facing in the North is uncanny: a working class power base lost by a left wing party because it began to favour more socially liberal policies. But the similarities run deeper than that. One of the reasons why Lyndon Johnson (a Texan Democrat) wanted the South to accept civil rights was not just that he saw their implementation as the moral thing to do, but he also saw the South’s obsession with opposing it as a barrier that prevented the much poorer region from joining the prosperity and progress of the rest of the United States.
If the north allows immigration to be the biggest factor in deciding how it votes (ie for UKIP) it will only become more impoverished and economically deprived, and the economic north/south divide will only become more pronounced. UKIP is not the party of the working man, in the past it has advocated for a flat tax, and Nigel Farage has openly called for an insurance based health system to replace the NHS.
But the loss of support in the north is just a symptom of the party’s wider issues, the core of Labour’s problems is that it can’t work out what it is as a party anymore. While the MP’s and electorate have made it clear it could not win elections (and would therefore be obsolete) as a socialist party , the alternative, a return to Blairism, seems equally bad. While Blair achieved some legislative gains during his time as prime minister, he was largely a ‘Tory-lite’. Abandoning genuinely left-wing principles and embracing neo-liberalism just to win an election would be a disservice to a party with such a proud history, and would leave it electorally vulnerable in the north that the Blair/Brown administration let down so badly.
To win back support in the north labour must do three things:
Unite around a credible leader – Jeremy Corbyn cannot and should not lead Labour into the next general election, that much is clear. The problem is that there are no obvious leaders in waiting or viable alternatives waiting to succeed him. Potential candidates like Chuka Umunna or even a resurgent David Miliband are too far to the right of the party membership and would struggle to appeal to the northern vote labour so desperately needs to regain.
Listen to concerns over immigration – Labour cannot ignore the issues its core supporters have with immigration. It must show it cares about people’s concerns and provide real solutions, by promising an actual living wage and enforcing labour laws to stop the slave-like exploitation of migrant workers.
Labour must continue to be a liberal and accepting party that makes the case for immigration and explains to its voters that key public services like the NHS are sustained, not overwhelmed by the taxes EU migrants pay and the job vacancies they fill. Though it may be tempting to adopt a ‘pull up the drawbridge’ rhetoric, that would not only be a destructive policy in practice, but adopting it in a campaign would kill its support in more metropolitan places like London and Scotland.
The issue of immigration, may, oddly enough, be settled sooner than it would appear. Theresa May is the most likely person to succeed David Cameron, and though she has expressed a strong opposition to current levels of immigration, she would be unlikely to receive a Brexit deal restricting the free movement of people. To do this would almost certainly require an exit from the single-market, something which even the most anti-immigration Tories know is economic suicide.
That would leave a situation with both major parties having to accept free-movement, even if it was the issue that ensured Leave their victory.
Find its soul – There is no point in power for power’s sake, Labour is not as pragmatic and power hungry as the Tories, it must know what it is before it appeals to the British electorate. This may involve a split, with a socialist party under Jeremy Corbyn and a separate, Center-Left party under different leadership. But there is a viable alternative. If Labour becomes a Social Democratic party, as it was under Attlee and Wilson, it could not only unify the party, but also win it an election. A member of the party’s soft left could appeal to both the socialists on one extreme in the party and the blairites on the other. This was a position that Ed Miliband tried, and failed to adopt. But though he didn’t have the leadership or timing to bring the party together, a lot of his ideas were sound.
And, though he was branded as ‘Red- Ed’ by a largely hostile media, polling shows his positions on key issues like nationalisation and a higher top rate of tax were far more in line with the opinions of the electorate then David Cameron’s. Although Ed Miliband feared rejecting austerity would lose him the election, it was probably his lukewarm middle of the road approach that lost it for him; to beat the Tories Labour must offer a distinctly different plan for governance.
Though Corbyn offers that, he does so in a divisive and electorally suicidal way. To keep the party together and win an election Labour must replace Jeremy Corbyn with a Social Democrat. Unfortunately, they seem in short supply at the moment. It is bleak times ahead for the Labour party and with it, the left as a whole.
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