The Future of the Labour Party
‘Power’ in British politics requires commanding the ‘interest' of 51% of the population. The movement called 'New Labour' in the nineteen nineties grasped the truth that our ‘first past the post’ voting system leaves no room for parties that appeal to minorities: to Trade Union members, Manual Workers, Recyclers, Climate Changers, or Liberals. To campaign honourably and passionately on behalf of the weakest sectors of society may inspire 30%; but not 51%. Climate change may worry 30% of the country. But unless these interest groups combine, and combine with others, till their consortium comprises a majority of the population, they will never have the power to form a government and change the law.
It may be that 'New Labour’ grasped the even more depressing truth that the biggest umbrella to cover the biggest interest group is money. If you can convincingly claim to have policies that will make 51 percent of the population richer, you will gain power. If you offer to raise disability allowance you may gain some respect, but will gain a mere handful of votes for your cause.
What New Labour did not grasp, however, is the importance of proportional representation. Had they introduced proportional representation when they had the power to do so, the forming of these alliances would have become a much simpler task. Parliament would have become more representative and more powerful (relative to Government). Our present electoral system is a system for generating disgruntled voters. With three or more parties we have the triumph of some 30% and the eventual despair of the 70%. The system disenfranchises the majority of voters and throws their votes away. Voting turnout falls. (In ‘Safe Seats’ voting is always pointless for supporters of the 2nd 3rd and 4th parties.) It is perfectly possible to devise a system where at least some account is taken of the 70% of votes that are lost in the present system. The first step would be simply to publicise the figures.
Labour surely arose as a class-based party. Its success doubtless stemmed from the fact that there were many more manual workers than owners. If the many little people combined and unified, they could take on the big guns. But automation has progressively eroded the manual work-force, and we have seen an enormous growth in the numbers of white-collar workers. Today the Labour Party probably attracts some traditional workers, and some others who are the loyal sons and daughters of former Labour voters. Labour’s support for the underprivileged, and the unemployed may appeal to another bunch of voters, and this altruism may attract further voters with ethical issues. But this is inevitably a weak alliance. Without the power to make law, it is hard to convince the electorate that Labour would reduce CO2 levels better than Green Party.
There is an enormously important factor in deciding the outcome of constituency elections which is barely touched on in the media, and that is the intellectual and moral quality of the candidates. Unless a party can field good quality candidates they will not win elections. And failure to win elections feeds back on the ability to attract good candidates. Unfortunately the hysteresis in this feedback loop is vey long — maybe extending to a generation. After a by-election, there is much discussion of the issues, and voter responses to those issues, but scarcely a mention of the candidate. However, in a general election it is possible to detect candidate-specific results as ‘results that buck the trend’. Though these seldom attract the attention of the press unless that candidate wins. However, it is quite clear that there are good candidates and weak candidates; and that voters can tell the difference.
In a two-party system the ‘official opposition’ can be seen as a government in waiting. The quality of the party in opposition will be judged very largely by its performance in the House of Commons. It may wish to oppose at every opportunity, or it may wish to appear judicious. But need we have a two-party system and an ‘official opposition’? We should think outside that box.
Any two-party system is divisive; it causes, exploits, and perpetuates a split in opinion. The original Right/Left nomenclature comes from the French Revolution when those wanting little change sat on the right side of the legislative chamber and the new radicals who wanted to change everything sat on the left. It was not in essence a Rich/Poor divide, but of course there is a tendency for those who are already well off to resist change, while the dissatisfied will seek it. In nineteenth century Britain the split was not based on wealth but on source of wealth; land versus commerce. Both sides of the house were wealthy, and all MPs were gentlemen. The issues included: free-trade, empire, education and the franchise. In the twentieth century the Labour party brought to parliament the clash between capital and labour, which had already existed for a hundred years on the shop-floor. Success was its undoing. Leap-frogging wage-claims forced Britain out of world markets, and annoyed the country, with Thatcherism as the result. New-Labour was hardly a Labour party. It adopted many capitalist concepts (and faults), among them the idea that money is the only motivator, and that every issue should be judged by 'the market'; but it won three elections. Since 2010, the Tories have run with the same baton, though surely the banking fiasco should have put paid to this discredited system. Unfortunately, economics is a complex intellectual puzzle and academic economists are as split as the politicians. The current Labour party, with a tenth of the expertise of the Tories, was just beginning to focus on economic fairness when a second divisive issue arose in the field of foreign policy. It gradually became clear to thinking people that our military adventures in the middle east were both immoral and damaging. Jeremy Corbyn rode into the ring on this latter issue, supported by a wave of disgust at militarism, elitism, and a feeling of grass-roots-powerlessness. But his appeal is not currently sufficient to win 51% of the country. The moral high ground, alone, is not enough.
The country was split more or less 50/50 in the nineteenth century on the issues of free trade and imperialism. The Labour/Capital debate of the twentieth century produced an unstable equilibrium (and needs further thought — see below). The present split of Self/Others will of course always be won by ‘Self’ interest, though there are now the issues of Europe, immigration, and ‘populism’ to divide us further.
Pending proportional representation there should be as much deliberate and courteous pre-election discussion as possible between opposition parties; like the Primaries in the United States; Labour waving a popular LibDem candidate through in one constituency should be matched by an uncluttered two-candidate fight in another where a Labour candidate has a good chance of winning. Scores can be kept, and there should be an explicit agreement to support PR at all times.
Quality candidates must be sought and cultivated. It is infuriating for the grass-roots to see resignations and firings of able front-benchers. The method of choosing ‘the party leader’ must be re-examined. Indeed the very concepts of 'party leader' may need re-thinking. I suggest that the Parliamentary Labour Party must be a team and have a unity of purpose; the 'official opposition' must be seen as ready to take office. Party Leader in the House must be agreed unanimously by the MPs, probably for his qualities as a chairman. He may not have the qualities of a cross-examining barrister required at Prime Minister’s Question time, but need these questions come from the Party Leader in the House?
The Party membership, and the trade unions can certainly choose a leader; a president perhaps, or Chairman of Congress, but clearly cannot foist their choice on the MPs.
The economy must be thoroughly and visibly understood by any party of government. A beginning was made in 2015 when John McDonnell, as Corbyn’s shadow chancellor, formed an economic advisory committee, but that has broken up and vanished. Why? Was it from faulty chairmanship, or perhaps from lack of funding? The Danish Labour Movement formed their "Economic Council of the Labour Movement" (ECLM) in 1936. Where is ours?
Post-war Germany developed a unique political philosophy they call Ordoliberalismus, believing that the state must actively protect and regulate the operation of the ‘free market’. “Ordoliberal ideals drove the creation of the post-war German social market economy”. We talk about the German Economic Miracle, but do little to understand and imitate; we suspect that it involves hard work and leave it at that. Why? (Word count = 1,452)