One Nation LabourAs Ralph Miliband wrote: “There is a Tory way of carrying out Tory policies, and there is a Labour way of carrying out Tory policies.” Today we explore the scale and roots of the Labour crisis ahead of examining the new leaders victory over the weekend.

“The Conservative Party has dominated British politics to such an extent during the twentieth century that it is likely to become known as the ‘Conservative century’. Either standing alone or as the most powerful element in a coalition, the party will have held power for seventy of the hundred years since 1895.”
– Anthony Seldon and Stuart Ball, 1994 (1)

The main story of the 2015 UK general election was, undoubtedly, the remarkable victory of the SNP ending, as it did, Labour’s near 60-year dominance of UK general elections in Scotland. As significant as these developments in Scotland are, there is another (related) story to tell about the 2015 general election: the re-emergence of the Tories to electoral dominance in England in the twenty-first century after a brief period of being out of power. The other side of this story is the structural weakness of Labour in England, as this suggests, Labour’s weakness pre-dates 2015. But it is these two issues, together with the sea-change that has occurred in Scotland, which will shape the landscape of British politics for some time. More importantly, as the consequences of these developments are played out they will, in all likelihood, determine both the timing and the outcome of a second independence referendum. To make sense of these developments in England, though, it is helpful to start in the 1990s. There are two related issues here: first, the crisis of the Conservative Party after its victory in the 1992 general election, and second, the exceptionalism, in electoral terms, of New Labour.

It would be difficult to overstate the depth of the crisis of the Conservative Party in the 1990s. John Major’s signing of the Maastricht Treaty (the treaty which created the European Union) in 1991, provided a cause celebre for Tory Eurosceptics to rally around in the 1990s. Although Major had negotiated a British opt-out from the treaty’s Social Protocol he wasn’t able to sell this concession as a British ‘victory’ to the Tory Eurosceptics, who proceeded to intensify their criticisms of Major and his government after their election victory in 1992. Crucially also, after the events of ‘Black Wednesday’ on September 1992, when sterling was unceremoniously ejected from the ERM, the Tories lost their reputation for economic ‘competence’ in middle England. Importantly, it was also after Black Wednesday that the right-wing Tory press in England turned increasingly hostile to John Major. Tim Bale records how, on the night of Black Wednesday, the editor of the Sun was the first to put the boot in, when he told Major, “I’ve got a bucket of shit lying on my desk and tomorrow morning I’m going to pour it all over your head.” (2) Throughout this decade, the Tories also earned a reputation as the party of ‘sleaze’, after a number of scandals involving Tory MPs. Finally, in 1995, John Major took the extraordinary step of standing down as leader, issuing his famous ‘put up or shut up’ ultimatum to his Tory Eurosceptics. In the ensuing vote in July 1995, some 22 months before the 1997 general election, although Major won, over one third of Tory MPs, in a critical vote of confidence, couldn’t bring themselves to support their own leader and prime minister.

The 4 million votes which the Tories lost in England between 1992 and 1997 was the highest loss of votes of any political party in the space of two general elections. By 1997 the Tories, who’d been in government for 18 years, were discredited and divided. Struggling to deal with the legacy of Thatcherism, they had exhausted their agenda of neo-liberal reforms and it was clear in this election that the electorates, in all the British nations, just wanted them out of office.

The 4 million votes which the Tories lost in England between 1992 and 1997 was the highest loss of votes of any political party in the space of two general elections. By 1997 the Tories, who’d been in government for 18 years, were discredited and divided. Struggling to deal with the legacy of Thatcherism, they had exhausted their agenda of neo-liberal reforms and it was clear in this election that the electorates, in all the British nations, just wanted them out of office.

The most striking feature of New Labour’s electoral performance is that it was the first time in history that Labour had won three consecutive British general elections, and won them comfortably in all three British nations. Having said that, in England in 2005, although New Labour won almost 90 seats more than the Tories, the Tories won more votes than New Labour. Also, in 1997 and 2001, for the first time ever, Labour had won more than 300 seats in consecutive general elections in England. In fact, the only previous election where Labour had won more than 300 seats in England was in the 1945 general election. This indicates the source of Labour’s structural problems in England and one of the underlying reasons why the twentieth century was the ‘Conservative century’. That is, historically, and more pertinently since 1945, Labour has struggled not only to cross the 300-seat threshold in England, more importantly, it has struggled to cross the 250-seat threshold.

This 250-seat threshold in England isn’t arbitrary, for several reasons. First, in only one previous general election has Labour managed to form a majority government in Britain by winning less than 250 seats in England. That was in 1964, when it won 248 seats, and Harold Wilson had an overall majority at Westminster of four. Second, outwith the brief Attlee years (1945-51) and the New Labour years (1997-2010), Labour has crossed this 250-seat threshold in England in only two previous general elections, in 1966, when it won 285 English seats, and October 1974, when it won 255 seats. In contrast, the Tories have crossed this 250-seat threshold in England in 14 of the last 19 British general elections held since 1945. Moreover, not only have the Tories crossed this threshold more consistently than Labour, they have also crossed it more emphatically than Labour, winning more than 290 seats in England in nine general elections since 1945.

Finally, and most important of all, this 250-seat threshold has an added significance today because of recent developments in Scotland and Wales. Throughout the post-war period, Labour in England has been able to rely on winning a combined total of some 65-70 seats in Scotland and Wales (the average being 67 seats from 1945-92). While these Scottish and Welsh seats have rarely been enough to secure Labour governments at Westminster in the post-war period, they have partially compensated for Labour’s poor performance in England to the extent that they have maintained Labour’s status as the natural party of opposition to Tory governments at UK level. Any threat to this combined 67-seat average in Scotland and Wales will amplify the difficulties of Labour in England and, therefore, in the UK. Most obviously, any losses that Labour suffers in Scotland and Wales increases the seat threshold that Labour in England needs to cross if, at UK level, Labour is to have any realistic hope of forming a government.

Labour’s problems in Scotland are self-evident. But it’s important also to acknowledge the growing problem that Labour has in Wales. In the last decade since the 2005 general election, the Tories have won eleven seats in Wales, nine of them from Labour. Moreover, of the 25 seats in Wales which Labour held on to in the 2015 general election, the Tories are in a strong second place in seven of those seats. In all seven, Labour’s margin of victory over the Tories was less than 5,000 votes. It’s also worth noting that in 2009 the Tories, for the first time ever, won a national election in Wales when they were the largest party in the European Parliament elections. While all these results hardly constitute a Tory surge in Wales (they have only increased their vote by some 90,000 since 1997) it is the decline in Labour’s vote after 1997 that is most notable, all the more so since, from 2005 onwards, the Tories have markedly improved their position in Wales largely at Labour’s expense.

But as desperate as Labour’s predicament is in Scotland, and with its problems in Wales growing, the real source of Labour’s long-term problems are in England. Of course, there is nothing new about the Labour Party and crisis. For example, it was Ralph Miliband who drew attention to this point in his classic survey of the Parliamentary Labour Party, Parliamentary Socialism. Writing in 1961 he stated:

“The assumption is often made in discussions of the present crisis in the Labour Party that the latter’s difficulties are of recent origin. This is not so. Like Hobbes and fear, crisis and the Labour Party have always been twins…And explanations which begin with recent difficulties either mistake the symptoms of the crisis, or its aggravation, for the crisis itself. Much, for instance, has been made in recent years of the Labour Party’s supposed inability to ‘adjust’ to the circumstances and demands of the ‘affluent society’” (3).

What then, according to Miliband, was the source of Labour’s permanent ‘crisis’? The short answer is Labourism. From its origins, the Labour Party was dominated by an amalgamation of trade unionists, radical Liberals, Fabians and ethical socialists whose primary objective at the time was to achieve working-class representation at Westminster. It is this latter that, after 1918, became one of the defining characteristics of Labourism, the belief not only that working class interests should be represented in parliament but that this was the only pragmatic means of advancing ‘socialism’. In other words, Labourism is based on parliamentarianism as well as on a close institutional relationship between the Labour Party and organised labour. Hence the familiar criticism of the non-Labourist Left that, historically, the British Labour movement has been led by a conservative bureaucracy, consisting of two wings: ‘moderate’ trade union leaderships heading its industrial wing, and ‘moderate’ Labour Party governments heading its political wing. Both wings of this conservative bureaucracy have mediated the working class’s relationship with British capitalism, with the objective of containing and, where necessary, pacifying industrial, social and political discontent in the British state. Indeed, it might be said that, had the Labour Party not emerged when it did in the early twentieth century, the British state would have had to invent it, given the terminal decline of the Liberals – the Labour Party’s reformist predecessors in the British state – developing in the early decades of the twentieth century.

The origins of the Labour Party’s ‘permanent’ crisis, therefore, are to be found in the origins of the Labour Party itself. Labourism itself was then formally institutionalised after the party’s adoption of a new constitution in 1918. But it fell to the first, short-lived minority Labour government led by Ramsay MacDonald in 1924 to articulate the priorities of Labourism and of every Labour government (and opposition) ever since:

“The education of the Labour movement into the meaning of political orthodoxy and into a keener sense of the ‘national interest’” (4).

This has proved remarkably durable as a political remit of the Labour Party up to the present day. The ‘political orthodoxy’ speaks for itself. But in the one-sided competition between nation and class, many in the Labour Party, on both Left and Right, have had little difficulty laying their cards on the table. Nation ultimately trumps class, from Ramsay MacDonald right through to Ed Miliband’s hapless attempts to co-opt the vacuous ‘one-nation’ trope of the Tories, although in the past class did win a number of rhetorical victories.

The upshot is that, as Miliband argued in the second edition of Parliamentary Socialism in 1972, the Labour Party then, as now, was what it had always been, a party of “modest social reform”. England needs a party of modest social reform and, more important, the British state needs such a party. It needs this, not only to provide some respite (however irregularly and briefly) from the monotony of Conservative governments but, crucially, to manage social discontent as well as marginalise political dissent. While it would be much too simplistic to reduce the Labour Party’s historic role to these functions alone, that the Labour Party has, and continues today, to perform these functions for the British state is critical for the continued legitimacy of the latter.

In a postscript added to the second edition of Parliamentary Socialism, Miliband provided a brief survey of the Wilson government (1964-70). There is an insightful passage here which begins with Lord Cromer, then Governor of the Bank of England, explaining to Wilson the imperative of Tory policies in 1964. It is worth quoting, not only for what it tells us about Labour governments up to 1970 but also for its prescience, given that these words were written almost some five decades before New Labour left office in 2010:

“There is a Tory way of carrying out Tory policies, and there is a Labour way of carrying out Tory policies. It may readily be granted that the [Labour] Government carried out Tory policies in a Labour way, with heart-searching, qualifications, exceptions and so forth. But carry them out it did, all the same, and thereby cleared the way for the more drastic application of Tory policies by their Tory successors” (5).

“There is a Tory way of carrying out Tory policies, and there is a Labour way of carrying out Tory policies. It may readily be granted that the [Labour] Government carried out Tory policies in a Labour way, with heart-searching, qualifications, exceptions and so forth. But carry them out it did, all the same, and thereby cleared the way for the more drastic application of Tory policies by their Tory successors”

What Miliband is saying here is that Britain is, in effect, a one-party state. Not only because of the preponderance of Conservative governments in Britain, or because the twentieth century was the ‘Conservative century’ but because, even when the Conservatives have not been in government they have still been in power, and the ruling class interests which they protect in the British state have had little reason, whatever their protestations, to fear any Labour government. While it’s true that the British ruling class has often feared Labour governments more than Tory governments, that rather underlines the point that the main ‘progressive’ gloss that can be put on Labour governments is that they have not been as regressive as the Tories. But with the ‘progressive’ bar being set so low in Britain, that hardly constitutes its own recommendation, all the more so in Scotland where oppositional politics, for generations, has been lined up against a Tory party which last won a general election in Scotland in 1955.

In a helpful overview of Labourism written in 2010, Gerry Hassan makes the point that New Labour was the first post-Labourist Labour government (6). This is true and significant. For, ever since the late-1940s, Labour governments have been increasingly distancing themselves from the party’s reformist origins. New Labour was the political consummation of this lengthy process.

But the greater the distance the Labour Party attempted to create from its reformist origins, the more reliant it became on Labourism. As a consequence, Labour lost whatever substantive purpose it once had beyond competing (and cooperating) with the Tories as the defenders of Britain’s ‘national’ interest. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that with New Labour’s consummation of this process, the Labour Party today should find itself dealing with a more complex crisis than that identified by Miliband. For the crucial point here, is that when Ralph Miliband was writing Parliamentary Socialism (the first edition was published in 1961), Labourism was nearing its height, Labour Party membership and electoral support was high, trade union membership was growing and the broader Labour movement was powerful and growing. Moreover, England’s, or as Gaitskell called it, Britain’s ‘1,000 years of history’ had still not been threatened by its restless rapprochement with Europe, signed but not sealed in 1973, and finally, the union was secure. Over the last four decades, all of those pillars of Labourism have declined and the Labour Party, like Britain itself, now faces an existential crisis. Today, the Labour Party needs Britain more than Britain needs the Labour Party, or this Labour Party. Indeed, it is the Tories who now claim to be the party of ‘progress’ and ‘working people’, but they are only able to claim these terms because New Labour starved them of ideological content, rejecting not only the politics of class but egalitarianism, and adopting Thatcherite revisionism.

Is it a case then, as Richard Seymour argues, of ‘Bye Bye Labour’ (8)? We would do well to recall Miliband’s twinning of the Labour Party and crisis cited earlier although, to reiterate the point, that crisis, in a post-Labourist environment and in the twilight years of the British state, is more complex today than Miliband could have conceived. The Labour Party may live on as a party of modest social reform but unless there is a profound change in direction and fortunes it’s difficult to imagine that historians in the future will be reflecting on the twenty-first century as a ‘Labour century’ in England.

It has fallen to the unlikely candidacy of Jeremy Corbyn to begin the arduous and long-term task of providing a possible pathway out of Labour’s crisis. In the short term, of all the candidates for the Labour leadership, Corbyn provides the only hope of reversing Labour’s self-defeating strategy of targeting Tory voters in middle England. Unless Labour can provide incentives to a significant minority of the 13 million people who regularly don’t vote in England to participate in general elections then even its status as the party of natural opposition to Tory governments in England will be threatened. In middle England, the Tories are likely to be in a stronger position in 2020 than they are now, therefore much of middle England will remain impenetrable to Labour. The boundary review as well as the Tories’ proposals to equalise parliamentary constituencies (to some 77,000 constituents plus or minus 5 per cent) should provide the Tories with a net gain of some 20 to 25 seats. More pessimistically, Tim Smith of Democratic Audit suggests that, after 2018, the electoral system will be so loaded against Labour that it will require the kind of (exceptional) lead that it held in 1997 just to have a majority of one (8). Whatever the precise number of its losses, Labour will lose a number of its safe seats in South Wales, the North of England and, crucially, some of its marginal seats in the south-east of England should fall to the Tories.

Could a Corbyn-led Labour government save the union? That is most unlikely. Even if a Corbyn-led Labour government embarked on the kind of modernisation of Britain that would have horrified New Labour, starting with, for example, a no-holds-barred federal solution for Britain (including the creation of an English Parliament), the union is dead politically, all that it is waiting for now is a decent burial. In any case, far from saving the union, the Labour Party will have its work cut out just to save itself and its status as the natural party of opposition to Conservative governments in England.

There is an emptiness at the heart of the Labour Party today which isn’t just attributable to the legacy of New Labour – it has much deeper roots than that. But, contrary to the opinions of the right-wing Tory press, Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign is not a ‘throwback to the 1980s’. For, so emphatic was the defeat of the Labour Left in the 1980s and so quiescent has the Labour Left been over the last three decades that Corbyn’s campaign has, if anything, acquired a novelty value. Like a gatecrasher to a party who proves to be far more interesting company than the invited guests, Corbyn has stolen the show, leaving the invited guests to painfully exhibit their craving for popularity and respectability.

Like a gatecrasher to a party who proves to be far more interesting company than the invited guests, Corbyn has stolen the show, leaving the invited guests to painfully exhibit their craving for popularity and respectability.

But whoever wins the Labour leadership contest, the Tories (barring some disaster) look to be secure in government until at least 2025. It wouldn’t be advisable to speculate about what state Britain (or the Labour Party) will be in by then, after 15 years of the Tories executing their ‘long-term economic plan’, or whether the British state itself will still exist by then. But if this is correct, there is one thing we will be able to say with certainty. In 2025, the previous 80 years will have seen just 30 years of Labour governments, each of them, after 1951, less progressive than their predecessor. By that time, the Conservative twenty-first century will be well underway in England, that ‘most conservative of nations’.

 

(1)Anthony Seldon and Stuart Ball (eds) (1994), Conservative Century: The Conservative Party since 1900, OUP, p 1.
(2)Tim Bale (2010), The Conservative Party: From Thatcher to Cameron, Polity, p 44.
(3)Ralph Miliband (1972), second edition. Parliamentary Socialism: A Study in the Politics of Labour, Merlin Press, p 16.
(4)Miliband, p 105.
(5)Miliband, p 364.
(6)Gerry Hassan, ‘Labourism, the New Labour revolution and what comes next?’, September 23rd 2010, available online at: http://www.gerryhassan.com/long-journalistic-essays/labourism-the-new-labour-revolution-and-what-comes-next/
(7) Richard Seymour, ‘Bye Bye Labour’, April 23rd 2015, available online at: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v37/n08/richard-seymour/bye-bye-labour
(8)Tim Smith, ‘The UK electoral system now decisively favours the Conservatives’, Democratic Audit, June 2nd 2015, available online at: http://www.democraticaudit.com/?p=13516

Likes(0)Dislikes(0)