After New Labour: The Corbyn surge and the future of social democracy in Britain

All wings of the Labour party after Corbyn are forced to imagine themselves anew. Any viable social democratic politics for the future will have find a way to bring principles and power back together

Against expectations including their own and the consensus of the polls, the Conservatives won the 2015 election with an overall majority of 12 seats. They had a seven per cent lead over Labour (37 to 30) and two million more votes (11 million to nine million). A relatively small number of seats changed hands. The big losers were the Liberal Democrats who lost 49 of their 57 seats and Labour who lost a net 26 seats. The big winners were the Conservatives who won a net 24 seats and the Scottish National party who won an astonishing 50 seats, taking their tally to 56 out of the 59 Scottish seats. Despite it being such a close election, turnout only rose one per cent to 66 per cent, which meant that the biggest ‘party’ was once again the non-voters with 34 per cent of the electorate. By contrast the Conservatives won 25 per cent of the electorate and Labour 20 per cent.

The two main parties between them had less than 50 per cent support of the electorate. Labour’s vote actually increased by 1.5 per cent and it did win a number of seats, but its gains were overshadowed by its huge strategic reverse in Scotland where it lost 40 out of 41 seats to the SNP, and it failed to win most of its target seats in England. On almost any measure this was a very bad defeat for Labour. It failed to make any progress against the Conservatives and the hurdles it has to surmount to win in 2020 look considerably higher than they were in 2015.
The election victory was a significant one for the Conservatives. Although their share of the vote was still quite low, barely increasing from 2010, their success in winning a majority of seats in parliament was the first time they had done so since 1992. This ended the longest stretch in the modern history of the party without a parliamentary majority. It was also the first time since 1974 that an incumbent government had increased both seats and vote share at a general election, and the first time since 1955 that a government had done so after serving a full parliamentary term. It means that the Conservatives have once again after an absence become the default option in British politics. They have now won six of the nine elections since 1979, the beginning of the neoliberal era. They have confirmed how closely aligned they are with the main structures of interest, property, and media in the UK, and a further strengthening of their position is expected in this parliament with legislation to give effect to English votes for English laws and boundary changes. The Conservative share of the vote may be small. A mandate to govern from only just over one in three of those voting and one in four of the total electorate is weak, but the Conservative position is protected by the first-past-the-post electoral system, and they have no desire or interest to change that.
The reasons Labour lost have been subject to a great deal of analysis already. Powerful accounts include the reports by Patrick Diamond and Giles Radice (Can Labour Win?) and by Sally Keeble and Will Straw (Never Again). The immediate reasons for the defeat seem plain enough. For the five years of the parliament Labour trailed the Conservatives on who had the best candidate for prime minister and which party the voters trusted to manage the economy. The gap was generally 20 percentage points. Labour’s failure to win its argument on the economy and to establish Ed Miliband as an alternative prime minister was symbolised by the final TV debate in the election campaign, when a section of the audience reacted in disbelief to the answers he gave on the origins of the deficit.

But the Conservatives worried that these two advantages, normally so powerful in British electoral politics, were not persuading enough voters to back the Conservatives. Shortly before the election the Conservatives calculated that they were unlikely to win more than 290 seats, not enough to ensure they remained in government. Their response was to develop a third strand to their attack on Labour, warning of the dangers of a minority Labour government kept in office by the votes of the SNP. They questioned the legitimacy of this arrangement as they had questioned the legitimacy of the Liberal government being kept in office by the votes of Irish nationalists after 1910. Whatever the long-term consequences demonising the Scots in this way may have on the future of the union, it had the desired effect on England and was crucial in securing the extra votes the Conservatives needed to ensure they held off Labour’s challenge in key marginals and were victorious in so many Liberal Democrat seats. In the election Labour had to fight on three separate fronts: in Scotland, where it was perceived as not sufficiently anti-austerity by voters who deserted it for the SNP; in the north of England, where it was perceived as not sufficiently protectionist by voters who left it for the UK Independence party; and in the south of England and the Midlands, where it was perceived by voters who stayed with the Conservatives as not sufficiently New Labour.

In 2020 Labour will face a big challenge just to maintain the vote it achieved in the 2015 election. What should it do now? Perhaps a little humility is in order for a party that can only command the votes of one in five of the total electorate. In 2018 Labour will have been contesting general elections in a system of universal suffrage for one hundred years. In that time there have been 26 general elections. Labour has been in government after only 11 of these. It has been in government with a parliamentary majority after only 8, and with a majority of more than 10 seats after only five. Labour has had 15 leaders before Jeremy Corbyn. Only four of those leaders managed to win an election. Only three of them won a parliamentary majority. Clement Attlee twice, and Harold Wilson and Tony Blair three times. Only Blair won a majority above 10 seats more than once. This is a record which should make the Labour party pause. But apparently not.

The Corbyn surge

After its defeat much of the debate in the Labour party was on whether the priority of the party should be seeking to persuade the voters it had lost to the SNP, to Ukip and to the Conservatives, and whether any strategy could address all three. It also had to assess the way the party had moved under Ed Miliband’s leadership. Ed Miliband had argued that the 2008 financial crash and its aftermath had destroyed the consensus on economic policy that had been in place for 30 years and created an opportunity for moving the centre of gravity significantly to the left. At the same time many around him appeared to adopt an electoral strategy that suggested Labour could regain power if it was able to maximise its core vote, estimated to be 35 per cent of the electorate. If it could reach that level then Labour would likely be the single largest party and in a position to form a government either alone or in coalition. Both these strategic choices were shown to be mistaken at the election. Labour failed to convince enough voters that its economic policies were credible, and it failed to achieve 35 per cent of the vote.

In the leadership election which Labour held between June and September 2015 several candidates and commentators argued that the two strategic choices of the Miliband leadership should be abandoned and that the party should adopt a strategy that moved the party back to the political centre, addressing again the concerns of middle England. But the leadership campaign did not go in this direction at all. Instead the party witnessed an insurgency on the left, helped by the new rules adopted in 2012 for leadership elections. Corbyn who was only able to enter the race because 22 members of parliament who did not intend to vote for him were willing to nominate him to ensure that all points of view were heard in the campaign. From the beginning Corbyn was the only candidate who generated energy and excitement, attracting a huge number of young people to join the party as registered supporters, as well as encouraging many who had left the party because of Iraq and other issues to rejoin.

Corbyn fairly quickly established himself as the frontrunner, a position he never seemed in danger of losing. A rank outsider, with odds of 100/1 at the outset ended the campaign with odds of 1/16. He duly won the leadership on the first round of the ballot with the support of almost 60 per cent of the 423,000 votes cast. He had clear majorities in all three categories of voters, and a plurality among registered and affiliated supporters. This has given him a mandate no Labour leader has had since Blair. What Corbyn failed to win (unlike Blair) was the support of Labour MPs. Only 14 are known to have voted for him. His triumph has awakened fears that the party is heading back to a period of sustained internal strife. The relative peace of the Miliband years now looks like a phony peace, and the old divisions in the party and the wider Labour movement now appear to be as strong as they ever were. The risk of another convulsion and bloodletting of the kind which has struck the party every 20 to 30 years of its existence is high.
The surge of support for Corbyn caught everyone by surprise, including Corbyn and most of his backers. Several factors have been involved in his success ranging from the party rule changes which altered the selectorate in ways not predicted. 84 per cent of the new registered supporters voted for Corbyn for example. No one seems to have anticipated the risk of a leader being elected who did not have significant backing among MPs. In the British parliamentary system this has never happened before. Only six per cent of Labour MPs voted for Corbyn, compared to 60 per cent of members. Corbyn’s success owes much to the tide of anti-politics and populist protest movements which have become so marked a feature of European politics. What is novel about his victory is that it occurred within an established party rather than arising as an outsider challenge to it.
Corbyn’s success reflected the deep dislike many in Labour felt to being on the defensive for so long, and always tacking to the centre. Rediscovering the joys of full-throated opposition, of voting from the heart and on the basis of principles, proved very attractive to many who voted for John Smith in 1992, Tony Blair in 1994, and David and Ed Miliband in 2010. Jeremy Corbyn’s platform had little policy detail but its messages of anti-war, anti-austerity, and anti-inequality were very clear and resonated with many existing and returning members and particularly with the thousands of new recruits. Corbyn meetings were packed out and many who attended them spoke of how inspiring he was and of how good it felt to have a candidate who said the things they believed. Corbyn was authentic and unspun, and able to capitalise on the desire to reject the established politics and politicians, as well as providing a powerful new focus for a politics of emotion and identity.
The Corbyn phenomenon also draws on a pervasive sense that old models both of economics and politics have broken down, and old orthodoxies discredited. The new hard times of austerity and deflation, weak economic recovery and rising inequality have fuelled a powerful sense that there must be a better alternative. Many of Corbyn’s supporters reject the argument that Ed Miliband’s attempted move to the left shows that all moves to the left are bound to fail. They argue rather that Ed Miliband’s Labour party was still ‘Tory-lite’, still New Labour at its core, unwilling to break decisively from the austerity narrative and set out a radical alternative. This again relates to the authenticity of Corbyn’s message. His campaign slogan ‘Straight talking, honest politics’ captures a great deal of his appeal. In rejecting all the mainstream responses to the crisis Corbyn was able to position himself as the outsider speaking truth to power and offering an escape from the compromises and failures of the  past.
Standing back a little from the Corbyn phenomenon its positives and negatives are easy to see. The energy it has brought into politics is an undoubted positive. Just when all established parties appeared to be in long-term decline the Corbyn surge has reversed that. Labour now has more members than the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats, and the SNP combined. The enlarged full-time membership of 350,000 will contribute £8m to Labour in membership fees. If Labour were able to increase its membership still more it would free itself from the need to rely on any external funding whether from trade unions or individual donors. The influx of new members has brought a new radicalism, purpose and clarity to the party. It has raised the possibility of Labour becoming a movement again, developing a new creative tension between the party’s representative role and its movement role. It has drawn a definitive line under the New Labour era, ensuring a sharp break. Whatever comes after Corbynism will not be a continuation of New Labour in any of its forms. All wings of the party after Corbyn are forced to imagine themselves anew. This will aid the process of renewal.
But the negatives are also powerful. Jeremy Corbyn’s victory brings back an old Labour problem, the split between its membership and its MPs, which Richard Crossman reflected on in the 1950s. Crossman argued that the members were always much further left than the leadership and the majority of the MPs. The trade unions were a counterbalance to the membership which allowed the leadership to control the party and the conference and determine policy. Leaders were elected by MPs, which was a further safeguard. The MPs twice elected a leftwinger as leader: George Lansbury and Michael Foot were the two clearest examples, but no leftwinger has ever lasted long as leader or succeeded in being elected as prime minister.

Corbyn is novel precisely because his authority does not rest at all upon the support of his MPs. But in a parliamentary system that is a crucial weakness, and is already raising serious questions over the viability of his leadership and how long it can last. The difficulty for Labour is that under their new election rules if the MPs decided to trigger a new leadership election at some point in the next five years the membership might well just re-elect Jeremy Corbyn. The MPs may find it very difficult to work with him because of their disagreement on many fundamental policies, but they will be stuck with him until the next election unless opinion in the party shifts.

Now that he has won Corbyn’s problem is how to unite the party, bridge the gulf that has opened up between the MPs who have their mandate from the voters and the members who expect him to deliver a radical alternative, and at the same time reach out to all those voters who did not vote Labour last May. Two views can be discerned within the Corbyn camp. There are those who think the only solution to the split between the members and the parliamentary Labour party (PLP) is to change the PLP. The party rules must be amended to make deselection of sitting MPs easier, to purge the “Blairite virus” from the party as one trade union leader put it. At the same time policymaking would be made subject to the consent of all party members in a bid to win support for some of Corbyn’s policy positions and put pressure on MPs to support him.
For this to be possible Corbyn’s supporters would need to gain control of the national executive committee, the party headquarters and the party conference. The main obstacle to this strategy is that it would likely lead to a full-scale civil war in the party and could not be made to work quickly. MPs can be deselected but they would stay as MPs until the next general election in 2020. A party visibly at war with itself is likely to see its poll ratings drop sharply. Corbyn has appointed a broad-based shadow cabinet, but precisely because it is broad-based the majority of its members disagree with him on fundamental issues and he has already climbed down on several of them, including agreeing that the UK will remain in Nato and agreeing to campaign for Britain to stay in the EU regardless of the terms Cameron negotiates.
The alternative strategy is for Corbyn to seek to build a much more inclusive movement, embracing not just those who have supported him in the leadership election, but also the other wings of the party, and many groups at present outside the party. This pluralist strategy would mean that Corbyn would agree to compromises on policy to keep the PLP behind him, but would aim to shift the party on to a different trajectory in the long term. It is probably much easier for him to win broader support on domestic issues, particularly the construction of an anti-austerity programme, than on foreign policy issues. His problem is that there are some foreign policy issues, such as military intervention in Syria, and renewal of Trident, which he feels so strongly about that it will be very hard for him to compromise, and his authority will be undermined if he does. He already risks being seen as a prisoner of the PLP and his shadow cabinet, and it will be very hard for him to create a positive image of his leadership for the wider electorate. The first polls show him with the kind of negative ratings which Ed Miliband had to endure for most of his leadership. But Miliband at least started off with positive ratings. Corbyn has begun with negative ones. It will be very difficult for him to climb back from that.
Many of his supporters argue that this does not matter, because the aim of his leadership is not to win the election in 2020, but to stake out new ground, shift the political debate, and change the Labour party permanently. On this view Labour has embarked on a journey which will take at least a decade to bear fruit and possibly two. Behind this strategy lies a deep rejection of the representative politics which Labour has practised for a century, because it means giving up the ambition to win power in the British state and implementing policies and reforms that can improve conditions for the majority of citizens. Instead the goal becomes a long slow process of cultural transformation, gradually increasing the strength of social movements allied to Labour which are anti-austerity, anti-capitalist, and anti-war. Staying true to principles is more important than making compromises to win power. These are two very different conceptions of politics.
The future of the Labour party
Any viable social democratic politics for the future is going to have find a way to bring principles and power back together. Unless being leader changes him radically, Corbyn’s politics is a dead end for Labour and is likely to result in an even more decisive defeat than in 2015. But charting an alternative is far from easy, not least because of the structural predicament Labour finds itself in, along with most other European social democratic parties. The heart of this predicament is that Labour has come to be in a different place from most voters, and often appears as a relic of the industrial age. The party is measurably weaker than it was in the 1970s. Trade union membership has been halved, manufacturing industry and working-class communities have declined, collectivist attitudes have weakened. The ‘world of Labour’ which GDH Cole wrote about a century ago is a shadow of what it was. It is not coming back. Members of trade unions are only 25 per cent of those in employment and only 14 per cent of workers in the private sector belong to unions. In the public sector that rises to 55 per cent, but even that only amounts to three million workers, and public sector employment is shrinking under the present government. Fifty per cent of workers now work in small and medium-sized enterprises, and 15 per cent are self-employed, three times as many as those in minimum-wage jobs.
Labour has to compete in this new space. One of the key questions facing it is whether it should aspire to be a catch-all party again, or whether it should set its ambitions lower. Can it ever again assemble a great national coalition of interests, groups and regions as it did in 1945, 1964, and 1997? Can it ever aspire to get more than 40 per cent of the vote again, which it has only ever done in six general elections since 1918? Britain has increasingly become a multi-party system in general elections, but the first-past-the-post system converts that multi-party system into the familiar two-party system in Westminster. This exaggerates the strength of the two main parties, and forces both of them to maintain the pretence of being catch-all parties in order to get into government. But it is increasingly clear that neither are, least of all Labour. If there had been a proportional electoral system at the last election the result would have been: Conservatives 256 (instead of 330); Labour 200 (instead of 232); Ukip 85 (instead of 1); the Liberal Democrats 50 (instead of 8); the SNP 25 (instead of 56); and the Greens 20 (instead of 1).
Accepting that Britain is now a multi-party system and should have an electoral system which reflects that should be an essential aim for a new progressive politics. Once such a system is achieved both Labour and the Conservatives might well divide into more than one party, as is common in many other parts of Europe. A second aim for a new progressive politics has been well stated by Jon Cruddas, who observed that Labour only wins when it has a unifying and compelling national popular story to tell. It had such a story in 1945, 1964 and 1997. One of the strengths of Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership was that he did communicate a vision and a purpose. He suggested at one point that Labour should re-adopt its old clause IV, with its commitment to full socialisation of the economy. But it is a vision and a purpose which belong to a different era.
The third aim for a progressive politics is to devise a substantive programme which can inspire and energise, but also persuade people that high principles, strong commitments, and grassroots democracies can be joined to a strategy for power and governing. The choice between representative politics and grassroots politics is a false choice. There has to be a creative tension between the two if progressive politics is to renew itself. Across Europe social democracy has been on the defensive in recent times. Since the financial crash centre-right parties have tended to be in the ascendancy in many countries, and the established parties have been challenged by new populist insurgencies. Social democratic parties have become too comfortable, too safe, too remote. They have to reconnect with new sources of energy and excitement. They have to inspire people. Social democrats have to learn how to become insurgents again, and engage with the myriad of groups across civil society which aspire to govern themselves and to shape policy.
Becoming insurgents again
If there are three principles which can frame such an enterprise the first is a commitment to developing a new view of what a progressive or reformed or civic capitalism could look like. There are many ideas to draw on, radical challenging ideas, such as those put forward by Matthew Taylor or Charles Leadbeater. We need new formulations of how to make socialist values compatible with market effectiveness, how to achieve a dynamic, entrepreneurial, innovating economy, encouraging the new emerging sectors – such as online, automation, clean energy, and life science. We need an industrial strategy which promotes a sharing economy, mutualism and ethical practice, new forms of finance and crowdfunding. We need new ways to govern and regulate markets, which include radical policies which challenge some of the abuses of property rights which distort markets and lead to rising inequality.

A second principle is to restate the vision of social security for all and what this means in our current political economy. The aim of creating a high-trust, socially cohesive society remains paramount. The task of a new progressive politics is to find the best ways to achieve that and counter the strong trends making for higher inequality in incomes, in wealth, in life chances and in gender roles, tackling the formidable challenges of demography, affordability, and secular stagnation which threaten the viability of welfare states everywhere.

A third principle is interdependence. One of the most important features of our world for the last 200 years has been its increasing interdependence. Progressive politics will not succeed anywhere unless progressives ally with one another to help strengthen the institutions of global governance, most of which from the EU to the UN are in a fairly parlous state right now. We need more global cooperation not less if we are to address any of the big challenges from migration to climate change which confront us.

Politics always in the end disappoints and frustrates. But it is also a perennial source of hope, imagination and new beginnings. Those of us committed to progressive politics need to begin to explore what such a new beginning might look like.

(From Policy Network)

Andrew Gamble

Professor of politics at the University of Sheffield and emeritus professor of politics at the University of Cambridge. His most recent book is Crisis Without End? The Unravelling of Western Prosperity