J onathan Powell, it would seem, is a very clever man. Tony Blair’s chief of staff between 1995 and 2007 poured what he learned into an acclaimed book about statecraft titled The New Machiavelli. He was the government’s chief negotiator in the Northern Ireland peace process, and now serves as the UK’s official envoy to Libya. He has an understanding of politics and diplomacy to die for, and could doubtless run rings around provincial small fry like me.
Strange, then, that he has decided to add his voice to the hurricane of trite guff that currently swirls around the Labour party. In Tuesday’s the Times he put Labour’s defeat down to the simple fact that “we tried to run from the left”, and offered the party a banal vision of hope, which could materialise as quickly as a Pot Noodle. “We can go ahead and lose a third election in 2020 if we choose to do so,” he wrote, “or we can choose a leader who can harry the Tories locked in a miserable government for five years and then win the next election with a substantial majority to change the country as we did in 1997.”
Yvette Cooper launches her Labour leadership bid.
As they say up north, simple as. Powell’s contribution only echoes an array of such bromides, many parroted by people who, like him, are nostalgic for 1997. But from the Labour-aligned left, too, there is a rising chorus of inanity focused on the idea that Labour failed this time chiefly because it surrendered to “Tory austerity”. The essential script threatens to match just about every post-defeat Labour dust-up, ever: depending on your point of view, righteousness v betrayal, or realism v cloud cuckoo-land.
Meanwhile, Chuka, Liz, Andy, Yvette and now Mary (Creagh) do their stuff, enacting a pantomime of small difference (“He’s the British Obama! She’s from Watford! He’s northern!”). It is all awful to watch, because 99% of the noise so pathetically skims the surface. No senior Labour figure, as far as I am aware, has yet mentioned an ongoing crisis of European social democracy, embodied by François Hollande’s torrid experience of power, big problems for the centre-left in Scandinavia. and the dire position of the German SPD .
Moreover, I have not heard anyone confront the fact that, reflecting that continent-wide malaise, Labour’s vote share had been sliding since 2001. Even the supposedly wizard-like Tony Blair managed only 35.2% of the popular vote (a mere 22% of the whole electorate) in 2005 – and one only need visit any number of supposed Labour “heartlands” to understand what that decline now actually means. In those places, it’s instantlyobvious that this is not just a crisis for centre-left politicians, but the left-behind people and places many of them are meant to speak for. Go to the South Wales valleys, or the post-industrial north-east. in the midst of a lot of generalised hopelessness, there is no real enthusiasm for Labour, limp support reducible to ancestor-worship (“I vote for them because my grandad did”), and among most people under 30, no idea of the values the party claims to stand for.
Clement Attlee celebrates Labour’s postwar landslide in 1945. ‘If any wannabe Labour leader is minded to actually read anything right now, they should start with The Road to 1945 ’
To state the blindingly obvious, Labour is a party of the industrial age, which has been storing up this crisis for a decade, at least. Largely devoid of the battalions of organised labour that once provided its organisational and electoral muscle, it has become a shadow party run by an ever tinier clique of politicians drawn from ever narrower backgrounds. A comparable fate has befallen the Tories – but in delivering messages and cementing electoral coalitions, the Conservative party can rely on a hegemonic machine that grinds away day in, day out, and encompasses everything from the rightwing press to most of the UK’s big business.
Labour has nothing to compare, so in its current form, it faces an unenviable choice. It can try to replicate the 1997 story, wait for the Conservatives to become incapably clapped-out, while jettisoning its soul and desperately trying to win the favour of
the Tories’ allies. Alternatively, it can try and do the right thing, without even the beginnings of a coalition of countervailing forces. This was the essential story of Ed Miliband’s leadership: one man and his aides rightly – and sometimes powerfully – going on about inequality and insecurity while sporadically picking fights with parts of the establishment, with no real understanding of what they had to do to stand any chance of winning them. Very occasionally, they talked about “reaching out”. But they never did anything about it.
The necessity of coalition-building may look like a new thing, which was hardly necessary when Labour was a genuine movement. But it is not. Indeed, if any wannabe Labour leader is minded to actually read anything right now, they should start with The Road to 1945. Paul Addison’s brilliant account (first published in the mid-70s) of what lay behind Labour’s most seismic victory. It is the story not just of how Britain’s experience of war set the stage, but decades of work, way beyond the party and the unions. Campaigning for child benefit, for example, began in 1917, thanks to Eleanor Rathbone. an independent MP from Liverpool. A semi-independent offshoot of the board of education began lobbying for the raising of the school leaving age to 15 in 1926.Meanwhile, John Maynard Keynes was blazing a trail away from austerity, and there was a cacophony about a whole range of other subjects, from nutrition to new towns.
I can just about imagine some latter day version of all this – it might encompass everything from Mumsnet through Britain’s churches, what remains of progressive academia, and out into single-issue campaigns that can these days acquire momentum at speed. It would also push the centre-left’s lamentably economistic agenda into places in which it is too uncomfortable: loneliness, family breakdown, an obvious crisis in masculinity, the return of hunger to our towns and cities, and more. The trouble is, I cannot imagine most of the Labour elite having either the wit or humility to get involved.
South Bank, Middlesbrough – with what are said to be the cheapest houses in Britain. ‘Coalition-building may look like a new thing, which was hardly necessary when Labour was a genuine movement.’
To be fair, there is the odd flash of insight. Tristram Hunt, among others, is right about the vexing question of simultaneously appealing to the middle classes, and a former “base” that now has other places to go. Moreover, no one on the left should shrug off the importance of issues bundled up in that awful word “aspiration”, and an enduring Labour problem with the shires and suburbs that has bugged the British left since the 1920s.
There again, if you reduce English middle-class life to a condescending term like “the John Lewis community”(coined by Hunt), you really need to go away and think again. Start perhaps by looking at places where being middle class sits perfectly comfortably with voting for a social democratic party – like Manchester, one of the cities whose estimable Labour leaders will not have a voice in this contest, nor at this rate, be sought out by most of the candidates. Someone might also set aside their tribal prejudices and think seriously about what the SNP has achieved on that front in Scotland(while we’re on that subject, the fact that Yvette Cooper’s launch statement suggested that party won all those Scottish seats on the basis of “anger, fear and division” shows certain people still have a hell of a lot to learn).
Perhaps deep historical forces are now so ranged against Labour that it will be lucky to push past 30% of the vote, whatever it does – and it will have to understand that change will be authored by a range of political actors, many of whom it currently considers its enemies. On the other hand, over time, it may yet reinvent itself and achieve a modern version of its old periods of dominance. But given the gravity of its predicament, any real revival will require longer than five years, and more than another heave authored by whichever poor sap wins the leadership this time. Labour, of all parties, should know that worthwhile things often do.