The 1993 film Groundhog Day, which has just been turned into a West End musical, is the story of a man who re-lives the same day again and again, and finds that it is torture. Could this be the fate of the left in Britain – except that it is one year that is to be repeated, over and over again? After all, it seems we face another year where a leader and a parliamentary party uneasily cohabit, like a couple trying to discover how to make a broken marriage work. And then another year after that?
The political fundamentals are as they were this time last September, only still more pronounced. A majority of the Labour selectorate stand even further from their MPs in their vision for the party. And the thread that connects Labour to millions of working class voters, which was already badly fraying in 2015, now feels so fragile that it calls into question whether Labour can govern again.
But what is saddest, looking backwards, is how barren the last year has been from the perspective of political ideas. When it comes to new analysis, policy proposals or political narrative, it has been a wasteland for the left. Distracted by civil war, neither the party’s new leadership nor Corbyn’s fiercest critics have found the headspace to grapple with the deep, structural challenges facing the nation and the left. Both camps give the impression of harking backwards, not facing the future, seeking guidance from their rival historical lodestars. And that left-conservatism defined the way in which Labour sought to defend Britain’s EU membership.
This year must not be the same. Fresh thinking has always been the starting point for the left’s renewal, but it might also be where a divided party can start to find some common ground. For, as things stand today, Labour people seem to disagree less when they are talking about how to tackle the dimly-defined challenges of the future, than when discussing the party’s internal workings or defending the totems and shibboleths of the past.
During the last 12 months, the Fabian Society has sought to lay the ground for the intellectual revival Labour so badly needs. We completed a programme on the future of taxation, with proposals for a tax on worldwide wealth which would have looked impossible a few years ago. We published a book on the long-term challenges which will face the left in the 2020s. And, with the union Community, we launched a new research initiative, the Changing Work Centre, to examine how the labour movement should respond to the changing world of work.
This September we continue, first by publishing the only comprehensive proposals for reforming social security to emerge from a think tank in years; and then by launching a new call for the left to rediscover its appetite for radical political reform, which defined our politics in the early 1990s. And the society is also working on the issues which will present the toughest test for Labour in the year ahead – the interlocking questions of the UK’s future European partnership, constitutional settlement and national identity.
So far Labour is saying nothing on these matters, or is at best picking holes in the inconsistencies of its opponents. We will know that it has not been another wasted year if, in 12 months’ time, the competing strands of our divided left have started to tell stories of Britain’s future – and ones which have the capacity to connect with the voters Labour needs if it is to win again.