Sunday, 19 March 2017
British social democracy in crisis
Most politics commentary is impoverished in two ways. It is geographically parochial and temporally anachronistic. It can see neither the big view nor the long view. It is obsessed with the latest rivalries, the newest personalities, the most novel ups and downs. So the Labour Party's deep travails focus on the struggle between its MPs and leader. On the latest reshufflings within constituency parties or in the National Executive Committee. Whatever today's latest bit of shouting involves.
But zoom back, and Labour is actually in the grip of an acute crisis within social democracy itself. And these apparently-insoluble dilemmas are not happening in Britain alone. The Greek Socialists were wiped out by that country's financial crisis. The Dutch Labour Party took a tremendous beating last week. The French Socialists are about to lose the presidency, either to a charismatic centrist or to the far right. At its base, social democratic coalitions have always tried to reach out to everyone (above) - professional people, working people, the young, the old, men and women, all nations within a state - because social progress is thought to benefit everyone. More recently, this has increasingly come to mean finding the glue that will stick the instincts of liberal urban dwellers to more socially conservative voters in small and medium-sized towns. For a number of reasons - large-scale immigration, rapid cultural change, a yawning age gap in the attitudes of the generations, stagnating wages, you name it - those links are coming apart. It may not be possible to hold them together for much longer.
That's just the start of British social democracy's many crises. The Scottish National Party has routed it in its historic fastnesses of urban Scotland. The English nationalism encoded within the United Kingdom Independence Party has tempted away many voters in England's provinces. The rise of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland is another challenge that the entire British state - and its generally redistributive alliance of four unlikely economic partners - is struggling to meet. Okay, the Welsh Nationalists of Plaid Cymru have made but little progress recently (opens as PDF), but Wales is the only part of the UK where political nationalism seems still relatively weak. If it does not serve as a lobby for the poorest parts of the UK - Northern Ireland, say, South Wales, or the Eastern fringes of Glasgow - it is far from clear that Labour has any mission anyway. Want to see how a Labour Party does when all politics is a struggle within and between different visions of 'the nation'? Look no further than the Republic of Ireland, where it has only ever come third.
Labour is also faced with a terrible, tragic dilemma over Brexit, not so much because Labour constituencies were particularly divided between Remain and Leave (Conservative seats were nearly as split), but because so many of the voters Labour has now were Remain, and so many they need in the future were for Leave. Last but not least, Labour has essentially evolved into two parties, which seem to know as little of one another as if they are two nations. The first, made up of long-standing members who joined before 2015, are loyal to a certain idea of the party as a receptacle for progressive, reforming, legislative hopes for incremental change. They want to make the country better gradually. The second, constituted mostly of more recent members, hopes to totally remake at least the party - and, perhaps in some hopeful future, Britain itself - in the heat of a charismatic tilt at social justice at home and peace abroad. They should probably split. They can't, because the electoral system means that they would both suffer more than if they stay together. So both sides have to tolerate a flatshare from hell. There really does now seem little to bind them together. The great trade unions, and in particular the mega-union Unite, would once have formed one bridge across which ideas could cross: but with Unite in the hands of one side of Labour's ongoing civil war, that now seems impossible.
Keep in mind that parties die. Remember that Britain entered the twentieth century with a great, radical, reforming and established party to the left of its centre: the Liberal Party that had done so much to forge Britain's route to modernity itself. It renewed itself during a 'New' Liberal phase of novel ideas about social reform in the run-up to holding power between 1905 and 1916. It struggled to reconcile the competing claims of Irish nationalism and English conservatism. It puzzled over Scottish land reform and the future of the Welsh church. These constitutional issues in turn drained its energies from facing the economic and social questions: forces quietly starting to break up the base of its support among both suburban householders and the urban working classes.
There are troubling echoes there for the way in which 'New' Labour in Opposition and in power found itself increasingly uncertain about the correct balance of forces within the political system, and how its record in power gradually came to seem inimical to sustaining a united, widely appealing programme. It did take the First World War to really sweep the Liberals away, for they had done creditably up until then at combining social reform with rearmament, and economic change with constitutional reform. Reconciling personal liberty with the needs of the state during the age of total war proved to be beyond them. Complex as Brexit will be, the state faces nothing like the challenge of 1914 now.
In a way, though, that's not the point. The lesson is: events can just conspire against you. The atmosphere can change. Sometimes, the work you've done - the work any group or party was designed to do - is over. At the risk of over-determining, any movement can surmount one or two crises. But there's just too many coming at Labour, from too many directions, to see this as anything other than a perfect storm that will leave it out of power for a very, very long time, if not crippled on a semi-permanent basis.
Okay, you could try to speak in a new way (for Labour) - in the language real people use every day, rather than the cod-outraged sub-Marxian jargon than the party's press office uses these days, full of 'revolving doors', 'elites' and 'establishments' that properly reside in the 1960s and 1970s, if they ever existed at all. You might be able to find an answer to the rise of the United Kingdom's many nationalisms by splitting into say, English, Welsh and Scottish Labours - and having your own policies in each jurisdiction. You could meet the challenge of Brexit by moving more strongly in one direction, just as the Conservatives have - though that would need a touch more discipline and self-awareness than all wings of the Labour Party have been demonstrating in recent months. Maybe you could broker a deal between the Soft Left and the Old Right, excluding Blairite and Momentumite extremes from policy-making and administration. Perhaps you could really, really clamp down on the abuse and fury that rains down on even the meekest on social media - all the better to start looking outwards, rather than at the party's own navel.
But at the moment Labour is in more lines of fire than you'd find in a Tarantino film. It's trying and failing to deal with triumphant nationalism, the overarching crisis of Brexit, the increasing gap between social democrats and the blue-collar working people they've always relied on, cities and exurbs that are drifting apart, the bitter and probably irrevocable split in the party between the 40% of more long-standing members and the 60% who've just arrived (or come back), the development of tight-knit but cramped social media communities who are impervious to news or views from outside their own moral universe.
It's too much. It can't be done. We've looked at the data many times (and we'll be taking another in-depth look again next month). That's bad enough. But when you take a really cold look at the structural, intellectual and political elements - when analysis is pressed into use, to explain the report of mere numbers - the picture looks even darker. The situation for reformist social democracy - the rock on which the Labour Party historically stands - is bleaker than it has been at any point since the Second World War. Parties mostly shy away from the brink. They usually find some way to come back. It took just seven years for the Conservatives to recover from the chaos engulfing them under Iain Duncan Smith. But as the 'New' Liberal example shows, sometimes political parties are pitched into extinction. Labour is hesitating between the two options. Its many crises do not make for optimism.