What is Labour to do?

Ross McKibbin

In Imperial Russia there was a ‘What is to be done?’ genre of political writing which was – except, perhaps, in the case of Lenin – rarely optimistic. On the contrary, there tended to be an assumption that there was too much to do and probably no chance of doing it. In Britain we find ourselves, mutatis mutandis, in an analogous situation. We have a government which has scarcely any reason to exist and hardly anything of importance to say to the electorate, but we face an almost unendurably long election campaign which that government has at least an even chance of winning – in which case nothing will be done at all. When, therefore, we ask what is to be done, we must also remember that the problem of arrival is inseparable from the problem of what we do when we arrive.

Nonetheless, this is the first time for many years that it has not been utterly fanciful to wonder what a non-Conservative government might do. In practice, because of the electoral system, that means a Labour government. But it also means a Labour government which seems remarkably unready for office. Despite the endless policy reviews of the last few years, it took just a few inaccurate and predictable press comments about taxation to expose frailty at the top of the Labour Party – a reluctance to defend an entirely defensible policy being one of them. What, then, is to be done?

Before it writes its first Queen’s Speech the Labour Party needs to recognise the domestic and external constraints upon its freedom to manoeuvre. Domestically, it will have to cope with the formidable array of vested interests deliberately created by the Conservatives: should they win again, it will be these interests which do it. In the last 13 years the Conservatives have had virtually no other objective than to fashion an electorate which will vote Conservative as a matter of course, and simultaneously to so marginalise the Labour Party that, regardless of circumstances, it becomes an unthinkable alternative. They succeeded, and it is no secret how this was done or what the consequences were: success came in a paradoxical and disastrous way. It has hastened the country’s relative decline, yet as a system it can survive in almost no other environment than decline. At almost every point on the downward path it has been possible to convince enough people that they have a short-term interest in its survival, an interest which overrides what most of them know to be true: that in the long term the system accelerates decline. This, in turn, suggests that any government which attempts to reverse decline – by, for example, dethroning private housing from its central place in the political economy – risks something like social upheaval, since it threatens the expectations of those who were encouraged to believe that they could have their cake and eat it. Thatcherism has thus constructed a mass of vested interests which it is now almost impossible to displace.

In addition, the Labour Party will be bound by political constraints which long pre-date Mrs Thatcher. The Conservatives have always had at their disposal perhaps the mast partisan press in Europe. The fuss over Labour’s proposal to ‘uncap’ national insurance charges shows how effectively this engine of persuasion works. One of the reasons, furthermore, why it works so well is that it operates within a political culture which is itself only quasi-democratic. Unlike Labour, the Conservatives have a large passive electorate which has no material interest in a Conservative government, but also has no confidence in its own political capacities or in those of people, like the Labour Party, who claim to speak for it. Not many Conservative-voting pensioners, for example, will change their allegiances despite the ruthless attack on their standard of life over the last decade. All this means that the countervailing democratic impulses in British society which Labour might draw on are at the moment weak, and hitherto the Labour Party has made little effort to strengthen them.

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