The future of the left since 1884

Labour divisions

As a long-time Labour party member and sympathiser, I despair. It is perfectly obvious that in many – though not all – policy areas, Jeremy Corbyn is right and the old Blair-Brownite consensus got things wrong. It is equally evident...


As a long-time Labour party member and sympathiser, I despair. It is perfectly obvious that in many – though not all – policy areas, Jeremy Corbyn is right and the old Blair-Brownite consensus got things wrong. It is equally evident that Mr Corbyn is temperamentally unable to run a coconut shy, never mind a political party, far less a government. Labour is, however, so factionalised, with each grouping so unable to see the merits in the other side’s position, that an accommodation recognising those two truths is turning out to be impossible. The membership believes that to give up Mr Corbyn will mean a reversion to the failed pieties and polices of the noughties while the parliamentary party believes a big concession to the membership’s views will both condemn them to electoral defeat and result in a sort of quasi-Trotskyist mob rule of the party. The behaviour of both factions lends credibility to the fears of their opponents.

Given this common paranoia and stubborn refusal to acknowledge the other side’s point of view, the party is doomed to continued factional strife and increasing electoral and parliamentary irrelevance.

Here is the essential policy problem. On many issues the conventional wisdom has been wrong. Being pro-business is right but it has been taken to the point of indulging outrageous behaviour by company executives. Ensuring that state finances are sustainable is right but this had been taken to the point of adopting pro-cyclical fiscal policies that worsen recessions and impose an unreasonable share of adjustment burdens on the poor. Adequate defence is essential but a sensible defence policy does not entail spending billions on an “independent” deterrent that does not deter anyone from doing anything they might be inclined to do and is not independent anyway – it cannot be used without the permission of a foreign power, the United States. Spending that money emaciates our spending on kit that our armed forces might be able to use.  The policy of foreign military interventionism has a success rate of no more than 50 per cent with small successes in places like Sierra Leone outweighed by grotesque failures in Iraq and Libya. The policy of privatizing state industries was initially therapeutic as unnecessary state monopolies were broken up but was taken to the point where natural monopolies and essential state functions were placed in under-regulated private hands. We now have sordid private prisons and comprehensive underinvestment in energy generation and distribution, telecommunications and rail transport despite massive public subsidy.

In nearly all those areas, and more, Mr Corbyn has been right and the party establishment wrong. In other areas his views do have an air of quaintness; nonetheless a degree of humility and respect would be appropriate from a parliamentary party that has allowed itself to be swayed by political fashion and led by the nose firmly up the garden path. Few signs of such humility are visible.

But here is the electoral problem. A majority of the British public would agree with most of the points on policy made above. But they would vote against any party that proposed to change all of them! People vote on overall impression not on a considered cost-benefit analysis of policy positions. Any Labour leader who proposes to change all the areas where conventional policy has been evidently wrong will be characterised as a loony leftie in the media and will be perceived as such by the electorate – even though they agree with the policies. Policies the public remember are not seen as just policies but as indicators of a more general orientation. Promise to renationalise the railways – popular with a majority – and Labour will be suspected of wanting to nationalise much else – not popular at all.

Mr Corbyn and his allies show no awareness of this fact. They are disinclined to deal with public perceptions and consequent electoral realities. There has been a repetition of slogans in mutual admiration gatherings but no competent effort to persuade the public on any of these issues. Moreover there has been little recognition that you cannot fight on too many fronts simultaneously. By all means take on public opinion on one or two key areas but do not quixotically tilt at every windmill in the landscape. The public is attached to Trident as a totem even though every military expert knows it is a waste of money.  Why argue?  Get elected and then abolish it.

Labour should learn from the Tories. Did they promise NHS “reform” and an increase in tuition fees? Of course not. They said nothing or promised the opposite. Once in office they did what they thought was necessary according to their lights. Have they been punished electorally? Not at all. The electorate is generally dozy but rational and judges by a general impression of results, not consistency with a manifesto of which most of them are uninformed.

Tony Blair announced “We campaigned as New Labour and we shall govern as New Labour”. That suited his own views and prejudices but no Conservative leader would have been so stupid. Campaigning is one thing, governing is another. If we had an informed electorate interested in politics the two might converge. But in a prosperous state at peace most people take no interest in politics and could not name more than a couple of cabinet ministers or explain the differences between the specific policies of different parties. Campaigns are about impressions; government is about results.

So we have one Labour faction hung up on electability and unwilling to recognise the scale of its historic mistakes and another faction full of self-righteousness that does not think it needs to worry about public opinion and is led by someone who carries no conviction with that public.

To be sure, any Labour leader, one half inch to the left of Tony Blair will face a barrage of abuse and negative propaganda from most of the press, and the BBC will follow the agenda set by the press, ensuring they have a studio representatives to convey a specious balance. If Owen Smith were elected leader, I estimate it would be roughly half an hour before he was being described as a Welsh windbag and all his inconsistent statements dredged up and thrown at him.

Labour therefore needs one of two things: either to find a political genius who can overcome media hostility and persuade the public of the rightness of all the policies dear to Labour activists – don’t hold your breath – or it needs to be intelligent and think: what are the policies it is essential to adopt in office, and which of those coincide with public opinion and can be easily sold. Then talk vigorously about those and agree to be vague about the rest. The agenda settled, the party could agree to elect a leader with more general electoral appeal, confident that it would not result in a sell-out of essential policies and principles.

The chances of such a rational concordat are pretty well zero so far as I can see. Hence my despair and a fear that the Labour party may not survive and hold office again in its present form.


Gerald Holtham

Gerald Holtham is a former director of the IPPR and has also been chief investment officer of Aviva and adviser to the Welsh minister of finance. He is currently a visiting professor at Cardiff Business School.

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