Labour’s Divisions

Aaron Bastani

The verities of British politics – its stability, temperance and perceived permanence – are rapidly dissolving. Up to 70 per cent of those who voted Tory last May could be about to vote against the express wishes of the government, in the process forcing David Cameron to resign. If Britain remains in the European Union it will be largely thanks to Labour voters. Yet as many as 45 per cent of them could vote to leave tomorrow, and Brexit high command has been actively seeking their votes for months. Iain Duncan-Smith, who has said nothing about pay over the last six years, recently blamed stagnant wages on immigration. The most prominent Brexit arguments increasingly aren’t about competition or red tape, but protecting the NHS, improving access to council housing and increasing wages – even though leaving the EU wouldn’t help with any of those issues. Talk of ‘Red Ukip’ – a combination of social conservatism and anti-elite populism – came to nothing at the last general election, but it is now the default politics of the leave campaign.

Labour, historically, has been an alliance of the poor and people who care about the poor, but at the moment that alliance looks like a thing of the past. The party’s base is visibly splitting into two groups, which disagree on a range of issues, not least Europe. One group is younger, more racially diverse and the avant-garde of a liberal social agenda. The other is older, more socially conservative and more prone to view the failures of globalisation through the lens of immigration.

Ukip failed to win a single Labour seat in England’s east or north last May. But it came second in 120 constituencies, and could prove alluring in the next general election to the significant minority of Labour supporters likely to vote leave. For the likes of Rachel Reeves, Tom Watson and Tristram Hunt, the answer to that is to pivot right, undermining Ukip’s offer by approximating it. But not only is this offer not believed among Labour leave voters, it offends the other half of their base, the metropolitan left who form the core of the remain vote.

Whatever the result this week, in order to come anywhere near power Labour has to maintain its shakey alliance at all costs. That won’t be done by ‘having a conversation’ about migration or ‘listening to concerns’. Nor will it be achieved by dodging objections about low wages by claiming globalisation is an unalloyed good. Hunt and Watson can’t make a commitment to free markets without accepting the free movement of people. If they don’t want one, they can’t have the other.

So how might the Labour alliance be maintained? It isn’t enough for Corbyn to be opposed to austerity; he also needs to make a decisive break with the Blair-Brown years. He must admit that globalisation isn’t working for Britain’s poor, but the solution isn’t border controls. Labour could offer a properly enforced minimum wage of £12 an hour, a return to closed shop unions and a state that is far more active in industrial policy. The housing crisis needs be addressed through a combination of rent caps and increasing the supply of council housing. The implementation of this offer would be guaranteed by the end of a first Labour term. Critics will insist it is undeliverable, but the alternative is a breakdown in the coalition on which the party has historically depended, and without which it will never govern again.


  • 22 June 2016 at 4:55pm
    picklewick says:
    The great majority of the PLP are unreconciled to Corbyn as leader, and prepared to wait until his defeat (in 2020 is necessary) Potential future leaders are already being privately financed by donors to prepare for this. Meanwhile, Corbyn's 'red army' of supporters cling to the hope that Jeremy will deliver and slay the unrighteous. Politics is a dirty business with vanity, narcissism, and ambition just as influential as what is in the party interest. To expect the Labour Party in its present state of division (geographical, generational and ideological) to adopt a programme that will satisfy all its potential supporters is unrealistic. Perhaps a break-up is inevitable and a realignment of forces required.

  • 23 June 2016 at 10:58am
    Gibbon says:
    "Hunt and Watson can’t make a commitment to free markets without accepting the free movement of people."

    Quite correct. But why should socialists support free movement? I mean really, it is quite incredible that the modern left supports a race to the bottom on labour. What ever happened to Karl Marx and the "reserve army". Here are some points for the author to think on:

    1. High levels of immigration - the "reserve army" - incentivises an economic growth model which generates profits by holding wages down, pumping morasses of cheap labour into the machinery of production, and cranking up profits with limited investment in existing human capital or productivity raising technology and innovation. There is a word for this model: neoliberalism...

    2. ...which is of course why every neoliberal authority you care to think about, from the Economist magazine to the CBI and big business, is pro freedom of movement and open borders. What - you thought it was because these guys believe in cosmopolitan freedom? Dream on.

    3. The evidence suggests that high levels of migration has a small but noticeable impact on depressing low wages in low paid sectors like care, retail, hospitality and construction. Yes, yes, I know that in the aggregate immigration brings macroeconomic benefits (almost all of which accrue to the top 15%, other than the migrants themselves of course). But really - Labour and the left resist many policies that would generate growth because of distributional effects - from slashing workers rights, to lowering the top rate of tax. Why are we enslved to GDP for the rich on this question...?

    4. ... I know perfectly well why. Because we are humane and compassionate towards migrants (and because of the sordidness and racism of many rightists, it has also become an unquestioned source of anti-right identity). But there is a difference between migration and migrants. In fact, this referendum has shown that based on the surprising (to some) number of migrants voting 'leave' because of concerns about immigration.

    5. Back to point one and neoliberalism. Do we think our growth model, plundering the best and brightest from Poland and the impoverished European South is good for them? Whatever happened to internationalism?

    6. Finally, instrumental though it is, surely there is a coherent argument for reducing immigration based upon social cohesion grounds.

    None of this is to decry that freedom of movement is a wonderful, liberal idea. It is to point out merely that is not a socialist one. Collective planning versus individual freedom. Socialists always used to be on the former side...

    Oh and by the way I've voted Remain anyway. There are far broader arguments for that - though I would say the leader of the SNP has articulated them far better than dear old Jeremy. But we - and Europe - needs to grasp the nettle on free movement. Not in a baby and bathwater sense - but there is a very real danger the whole edifice could come crashing down. Ignore it and the nationalists will win.

  • 23 June 2016 at 11:01am
    Phil Edwards says:
    The first question to ask isn't what Labour needs to do to win back the Leavers - it's whether Labour's lost them in the first place. (I don't know where your 45% figure comes from, incidentally; the final update of the Economist's rolling poll of polls suggested that 26% of Labour voters would vote Leave today.) The whole point of a plebiscite is that you're not voting for a representative, so you aren't voting along party lines. Leave voters are only going to switch to UKIP on that basis if they think that's the only issue that counts, or if they trust UKIP more than Labour on everything else. That's a high bar; I should think most Labour Leavers are more likely to stick with Labour despite disagreeing with the leadership on the issue. I'm sure there are solid Labour people out there who I'd consider misinformed xenophobes; speaking as a Labour member I'm glad to have them on board, and I hope we can have a chat some time about the misinformation and the xenophobia. Besides, there are perfectly good Left arguments for Brexit, along with all the bad ones. One of the first political discussions I ever remember having was when, aged about 15, I got chatting with an old couple in a radical bookshop, and found myself stumbling through some vague thoughts about how some people would say the EEC was organised really to favour businesses... "Well, it's a capitalist club," the old man cut across me. I respect that clarity of vision, and suspect there's more of it among left Leavers than we might think - even if I don't think this is the day to act on it.

    As for UKIP, the best thing we can do is stop talking them up. Time and again, when UKIP are put to the test in Labour areas, the best they can do is replace the Tories in a weak second place. Under the middle-class London liberal Corbyn the process was supposed to accelerate, but it hasn't; whatever disobliging quotes about the leader himself they give researchers, Labour voters continue to tend to vote Labour. Forecasters predicted that UKIP would take Oldham West or run Labour a very close second; actually Labour's share of the vote increased from 55% to 65%. Earlier this year UKIP were forecast to make inroads in working-class areas in the council elections; they didn't. In Manchester, where I live, there are now distinct 'UKIP runner-up' and 'Green runner-up' areas - and yes, the demographics of those areas are what pretty much what you'd expect - but those are some distant runners-up, owing more to the collapse of the local Tory operation than any real strength in UKIP locally.

    There is a lot of anger out there and a lot of disaffection from all the main parties. There are reasons for this, and reasons why it tends to be channelled towards hate objects who are either distant ('Brussels') or powerless ('immigrants'). But the only lesson for the Left in any of it is to keep a cool head and hold fast to what we know to be true.

    • 23 June 2016 at 2:09pm
      Gibbon says: @ Phil Edwards
      I hope you are right, but I think you are wrong. What I have seen during the course of this referendum reminds me of Scotland more than it does anything else (and I was up there quite a lot). The thing about Labour is that it was founded as a Labourist party. It is not a social democratic party or a socialist party like most of its sister parties on the continent. That basically means that it is supposed to function more like a trade union than what has come to represent - across the political spectrum and around the world - the conventional model for political parties. It was supposed to represent the vested interests of the British working class in the same way that a trade union represents the vested interests of its members. The crucial point here is that it is the rank and file voters who were supposed to determine the ideological outlook. It was not, as has become usual, supposed to take an ideological or philosophical position and work outwards.

      Now, of course no sensible person would expect a political party like that these days. It is a relic of the two (supposedly) homogenous class blocs era. But, you know, working class communities do still relate to the Labour Party in this way and that is absolutely crucial to understanding the sense of betrayal that has gripped many of them in England vis a vis this referendum/high immigration, and Scotland and independence. It is not a conventional betrayal because Labour has never been a conventional party.

      Don't get me wrong: UKIP are not the lightning rod the SNP were. There you a pretty much unheralded combination of nationalism, an anti-establishment campaign for self-determination, centre-left economics and competence. Looking around the world this appears to be something close to political nirvana in terms of electoral appeal at the moment. UKIP have, at best, two of those attributes.

      But lets be honest: its not as if there aren't other toxic factors at play here. No wing of Labour, left or right, looks or sounds like the people its purports to represent - that is a big problem. It's recent record on inequality is questionable: we can make some pretty good excuses for New Labour - they did better than almost all of their peers - but that matters not a jot to these communities. It has profound economic trust issues. And its leader? The tick he gets for being anti-establishment and a relatively accomplished communicator - on media broadcasts and in person rather than on the stump were he is woeful - is completely negated by his downsides. If this is in any way a serious, critical conversation there is no point going into them here.

      I feel we may have reached a tipping point. I hope I am wrong.