As the year turns, the political commentators are preoccupied with Labour’s apparent difficulties. It’s hard to remember that in any normal times it would be the Tories that would be on the ropes. There are three key issues on which the Tories are, potentially, in the most serious trouble:
On Europe, the Tories remain as divided as ever. Cameron’s “renegotiation” is clearly going to be nothing of the sort; nor could it ever be, since Cameron’s objectives would involve rewriting some of the most fundamental principles of the EU, like freedom of movement and even the single market; the sort of change he has promised his supporters is undeliverable, and the referendum promise – designed to one-up UKIP – is looking as if it is about to backfire. The Tories are likely to be deeply and bitterly divided.
Second, the economy remains in deep trouble. Not only is there no sign of a real recovery as living standards for most people of working age continue to fall and as austerity fails to deliver on its own terms; the recent row over tax credits has exposed the fragility and circularity of the Tories’ agenda, and the recent flooding has demonstrated the sheer short-sightedness of the cuts agenda. Moreover, the conditions that led to the 2007-8 crash seem to be back in place; soaring property prices and private debt, accompanied by a complete lack of will to reform the banking and finance sector. The hubris seems every bit as horrifying as in 2007.
Finally, from across the Atlantic, growing signs that the era of low interest rates is coming to an end. One of the lessons of economic history is that once rates start to rise, they do so far faster and further than commentators expect; and if it happens, rising rates will crucify a hugely indebted middle-class sustaining its lifestyle expectations on cheap borrowing – mortgage and otherwise.
In many respects, the scenario – a combination of Tory divisions over Europe and fiscal ineptitude – is strikingly like that facing John Major’s government from 1992-7; except of course that Labour is in a very different place now, apparently divided and with a leadership that is the very antithesis of Tony Blair and New Labour.
The first point to make is that appeals for a return to Blairism are just irrelevant; the economic fundamentals are completely different. The genius of New Labour was to bring the middle class on board for a project that used the fruits of economic growth to offer significant redistribution and public spending increases without raising taxes. Quite obviously, with a stagnant economy of rising inequality, low investment and falling living standards, that option simply isn’t on offer any more – and those who call for a return to Blairism simply lack any understanding of the depth of the economic crisis faced by the whole of the developed world. Things have changed, and it is now those who challenge austerity who are the economic realists; Blairite nostalgia is a deeply frivolous response.
Having said that, Labour’s only hope is to unite around a clear, powerful anti-austerity message; and in doing so to convince a sceptical public that it is a party of Government, ready to meet the huge challenges of a world that is far less benign that the one that gave Blair such an easy run as Prime Minister.
And that means the Labour right understanding not only that Corbyn won the leadership election by a mile, on a system designed to keep the Left out, but that the victory reflects a fundamental change – New Labour is dead because its analysis is no longer remotely relevant. The avowedly Blairite candidate, Liz Kendall, took 4.5% of the vote; the Corbyn campaign was the only one to talk about economics at all, the others offering no more than mild variations on the economic status quo. And the Labour right needs to understand that the economic position being crafted by John McDonnell is not, in any sense of the word, hard Left; it’s basically centre-left, based on a pragmatic approach of the current crisis and absolutely in the Labour mainstream in both its values and its analysis.
But there are challenges for the Left too. Peter Mandelson’s piece in today’s Guardian may be long on special pleading, but his central point is one that everyone on the left needs to address: the utter political and moral frivolity of a politics that is more about the integrity of a movement than about improving people’s lives. I live in a city where 12,000 people use food banks; a few miles away, communities in the Valleys that never recovered from Thatcher are turning increasingly to UKIP. They need to be brought back to Labour, and while there are those in positions of influence who see Labour as no more than a front for a wider ideological project, it’s not going to happen.
Moreover, I have spent a lot of time listening to some on the Left talking about party democracy – but nobody seems willing to talk about party management, and the disciplines of running a focussed organisation that can convince a sceptical public that we are fit to hold office. And that’s not anti-democratic or a suggestion that we return to the bad old days of Mandelson; simply that we have to recognise that gesture politics is a dereliction, and that behaviour (not least on social media) matters. We owe far better than that to the people who need us. If people want self-serving gesture politics, with a liberal side-order of social media misogyny, they can always join the Green Party. A mature democratic party has to remember that ultimately it stands or falls at the ballot box, its fate decided by voters who are not that much interested the party politics they see on the news from their sofas, but profoundly affected by its outcome.
This can be a year when the Labour Party makes a real impression, and can take on a weak and divided Tory party, offering a credible and radical economic alternative. And that is going to need a major outbreak of humility on both Right and Left.