The future of the left since 1884

What vacuum?

Are the more than half a million members of the Labour party really ‘intellectually incoherent’? I joined the Labour party in 1958 when Hugh Gaitskell was the leader. Two years later I joined the Fabian Society. Sometime during the Blair...


Are the more than half a million members of the Labour party really ‘intellectually incoherent’? I joined the Labour party in 1958 when Hugh Gaitskell was the leader. Two years later I joined the Fabian Society. Sometime during the Blair years I left the party, one of the 250,000 who did so. I had been an active member – chair of three different constituency parties, a parliamentary candidate in a safe Tory seat, author of a Fabian pamphlet. But New Labour was less and less the party I had joined. It did some good things, how could it not in those years of power? But too much of the Thatcher revolution went unchallenged.

In the leadership election after the 2015 general election Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham were the front runners, both experienced front benchers. I watched with dismay as they spoke in sound bites, empty phrases that failed to offer a coherent and energising message. As Philip Collins wrote in the summer Fabian Review they were part of a generation that had become ‘rudderless’. Jeremy Corbyn, a life-long back bencher with no leadership experience and, as far as one could judge, no such capacity, spoke of housing the homeless, life-long education, the threats to social care and the NHS, the need to challenge arrogant bankers, the shocking disparities of wealth and income in Britain today. He reminded me why I had joined the Labour party in the first place. I rejoined; and so did thousands who had left and many thousands more who joined for the first time. Corbyn was elected leader, twice. Party membership soared to half-a-million.

The size and nature of this increase should not be shrugged aside as some seem to wish, caricaturing the increased numbers as simply old men and women recalling the idealism of their youth, and young people discovering an idealism and hope that austerity has stifled. There is truth in that of course, and a good thing too. Idealism has for too long been missing from British politics. My local constituency party, hundreds of miles from London, has just under 1,000 members three-quarters of whom were not members in 2015. Fifty per cent are female. Over sixty per cent are between 28 and 68 years of age with a quarter over 68 and eleven per cent under 27.

We are not a ‘Corbynite sect’ or ‘Corbynistas’, esoteric Latin American Marxist revolutionaries. Neither are we a ‘faction’ as political commentators persist in calling us. We are the mainstream Labour party, the inheritors of Rainsborough, Paine, Robert Owen, Hardie, Tawney, Titmuss and the Nye Bevan who created the National Health Service, built hundreds of thousands of quality homes and argued for parliamentary democracy. We are proud of the Open University, the introduction of seat belts and the breathalyser, the Equal Pay Act, the Health and Safety at Work Act, the Sex Discrimination Act and the Equal Opportunities Commission, Sure Start and the introduction of the minimum wage.

But as we approach the sixtieth anniversary of Galbraith’s Affluent Society with its analysis of how structures of power result in private wealth and public squalor we still have its lessons to learn. And basic issues that concerned Keir Hardie are still with us: homelessness and inadequate housing; workers exploited and poorly trained; areas of Britain where high unemployment remains; gross inequalities of wealth and power. If the free market could solve people’s basic needs – housing, education and training, health, fair recompense for meaningful work, security in old age and sickness – there might never have been a Labour party. Yet, too often in government the Labour party has been a technocratic manager, underplaying its own values, rarely expounding them. In the 2017 election Labour discovered how to be a campaigning party again.

In the circumstances Labour did extraordinarily well. But we lost and the Tories will not fight such an ineffectual election again. They will surely have a more competent campaigner as leader. They will have sought to mobilise the young. And Labour policies, especially their economic credibility, will be under much greater scrutiny. As will its leader. Brexit will be at the heart of the election and by then mainstream party stances, shaped by the outcome of negotiations, will have evolved in ways we cannot now foresee.

But Labour has reasons to be optimistic. Corbyn has grown into the leadership role. He is a good campaigner, short on rhetoric but strong on telling the electorate what is on offer. His parliamentary performances have more bite. The 2017 manifesto that carried a message of hope and moved British politics back to the centre after a long period of right-wing dominance will be improved. Poverty requires more thought as Andrew Harrop wrote in the summer Fabian Review. The awful housing problems require stronger measures. The impact of robotics, nano technology and the remarkable advances in medical science are subjects of hard thought. And the tide of opinion is running with us. Both intellectual analysis and everyday experience have confirmed Neoliberalism as an outmoded construct. There is more to life than individualism and the market place. Values have returned to British politics.

Which brings us back to the contribution by Philip Collins in the summer issue. Parts of the Labour party, he says, are ‘curiously bereft of intelligent thought’ and ‘intellectually incoherent’. ‘Since the Labour party fell out of love with New Labour, nothing new has arisen to take its place.’ There is a vacuum, he believes, in the middle of British politics and the middle needs a philosophy. He muses on ideas that would be ‘philosophically intriguing’.

Meanwhile in the real world, in Britain, the world’s fifth largest economy, food banks increase, homelessness grows, the health service founders. ‘Nothing new has arisen’ because the old problems remain and tested remedies need to be applied: we know what works, we just need to get on with it. As Polly Toynbee and David Walker pointed out in the Spring 17 Fabian Review, whether it is intergenerational justice, vocational skills, lifestyle diseases, transport or housing there is no ‘invisible hand’ that provides equitable solutions. That is a role for government. Democratic socialists and social democrats alike understand that. To be philosophically intrigued is agreeable. But there is essential work to be done. Join us on the doorstep.


Joe England

Joe England is a social historian. His latest book is The Crucible of Modern Wales (Parthian). Joe wrote the 1976 Fabian pamphlet, Hong Kong: Britain's Responsibility.

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