Jeremy Corbyn is, a leftie friend told me this week, the Labour membership screaming “I’m mad as hell and I just can’t take it anymore”. People have said that a lot about Labour in the past five years. This is the moment the membership with shake the leadership out of its fugue. This is the moment the left wakes up and forms an effective opposition. It hasn’t happened yet.
The Labour Party is in a far worse situation than we feared it was after the General Election (I know, right, how much worse could it get?). On 6th May many in Labour thought the electorate rejected them because they didn’t agree with what they stood for. Now it is gradually dawning on Labour members and voters that it wasn’t a rejection but a lack of comprehension; how can you vote for someone when you don’t KNOW what they stand for?
The Labour leadership battle is continually a rather tedious and navel gazing affair. Of course it is always pitched, as it was with John Smith and Tony Blair, the essential crowning of Gordon Brown when focus shifted to the deputy leadership battle, and then that between the Miliband brothers, that this is a battle for the future direction of the party. There is nothing wrong with pitching it as a battle. There’s nothing wrong that the language gets a bit nasty and aggressive, it’s no more than they’ll have to face as leader opposite the Tories. It’s a blooding.
What’s worse is that, steadily, the Labour leadership contenders have been faded photocopies of earlier iterations. This gradual fade is endemic on the Left because it has positioned itself into a place of reliving former glories and treating the future with fear and suspicion. It is a culture that needs to be fundamentally overhauled before the Left ceases to stand for anything at all.
What is Labour photocopying? In the current generation it’s Tony Blair. To figure out why we have to go back to 1997, when people actually used photocopiers and that paper that yellowed the longer you left it. Blair matured in a Labour Party that was very left wing. In an era of nationalisation, militancy and calls for unilateral nuclear disarmament Blair watched the Labour Party lose its grip on voters, especially those to the left of the centre ground. It was shored up by a working class population that steadily lost its voice as its lost its place in the economy and with that its influence and power.
When Blair began to argue that the only way to fight for the working classes was to get the middle classes onside he was labelled a traitor to socialism by Dennis Skinner. New Labour, as it emerged, ripped up the old rulebook of what Labour stood for and wrote a new manifesto. Many did not agree with it but it was new, it was not modelled on old behaviour or habits. Britain was about five years away from record levels of home ownership. Former working class households felt like they could become wealthier, have greater confidence. The right would argue this was thanks to a Tory government and Thatcher. Well kind of but the Right also created a generation it couldn’t “control”; after the recession in the early 90s a generation was finding its voice. Look at Brit Pop and “Cool Britannia” of a burgeoning and blossoming of independence in the creative industries. There was a confidence and a desire to articulate the future. Thatcher was grossly unfair and the economic policies of her government might have been good for some but they crippled others. New Labour, although we often don’t like to admit it now, provided the Left with an aspiration, a chance to vote for change while still allowing themselves to aspire. A fairer society where all could become wealthier.
The change was inspiring and euphoric, however inaccurate it may have turned out to be (turns out, rich people don’t like sharing their wealth, who knew?). Which feels strange now when you know what happened next. But that euphoria, those endorphins, that’s a powerful feeling. What Labour has tried to do over the last 18 years (18 YEARS! the life so far of an adult human being) is inspired by a desire to replicate that. That euphoric, independently minded but largely centre-ist sentiment, the Blairite syntax, that bloody glottal stop, the fact leadership candidates are still defined by being Blairite or Brownite, the use of spin, the obsession with headlines, defining your campaign and messaging on how it plays on the Today programme; all bar one the Labour candidates are copies of Tony Blair. But they’re bad copies.
The problem is this. Blair was responding to a very 1990s Labour voter (or potential Labour voter as they were in 1993). The Tories were still arguing that Labour would destroy the economy, that you couldn’t trust Labour. Yet from 1992, when Major won the Tories fourth election on the run, a few months later the pound crashed out of the ERM (European Exchange Rate Mechanism), the Tories were no longer to be trusted on the economy. The right ripped itself apart over Europe. Maastricht, sleaze, a long election campaign and an ironclad determination among new Labour to not break ranks sunk the Tories. Change, the opportunity to aspire, for everyone who’d been left behind by the Tories, was a powerful message.
We’re in a different situation now and that slightly yellowed copy of Blair’s image isn’t relevant now. Firstly, we know what happened next. The bright eyed and bushy haired Blair of the 90s pales in our memory next to the man who stood shoulder to shoulder with Bush as they invaded Iraq. Yet Labour thinks the only way it can win is to emulate Blair. And when it does that it doesn’t respond to the issues modern day prospective Labour voters want to think about. Labour still (STILL) hasn’t developed a cohesive response to the Tory position that Labour caused the economic collapse (globally, apparently), it still hasn’t defined a position on welfare (abstaining makes it look like you haven’t got a clue what to say) and they haven’t got a grip on not briefing against each other.
Labour seems hellbent on taking Labour back to where it was in 1997. Yet we, voters, have moved on. Nostalgia is when you look backwards because you don’t like what’s around you. The Right likes nostalgia as well but the difference is the Right spends a lot of its time talking to industries that have to live in the here and now, like business. Business is always going to create its own narrative, its own timeline and position on events that will help to make it a) wealthier and b) more powerful. But it will always look ahead because tomorrow it will be richer. Business doesn’t look backwards. It evolves. Who does Labour talk to? Often it talks to unions. The best unions recognise that change is going to happen but you have to manage it and get the best deal for workers that you can. Bad unions say we have to go backwards (is there anyone who lives in London, or visits London, outside of the RMT that thinks Night Tubes are a bad thing, really?). The reason the Tories have won the argument on cuts and austerity is that Labour hasn’t offered any counter narrative. Not one. It actively abstained from offering a counter narrative. That is shocking. When it is supposed to represent people that gives the message that it doesn’t know what to do. And only one leadership contender offered something different.
Perhaps Jeremy Corbyn is proving to be popular because he adamantly isn’t Tony Blair and somewhere, subconsciously, Labour members recognise that the photocopy of the leader currently have standing for the party leadership belongs back in 1997 and, really, we should throw it away.
Labour is not going to figure this out on its own. It isn’t. Voters are continually telling them but they’re not listening. As political parties stay in power too long they gradually disconnect with their younger self. The New Labour of the early 90s was very different to the remote, out of touch New Labour of the late noughties. Yet that’s the photocopy these leadership contenders emulate the most. Spatting, swiping and failing to connect. Your supporters are telling you which way to go, Labour, Stop trying to go backwards and look forwards. yes, we know it’s scary, we do it every day but it’s easier to plan for a future you don’t know to try to go back to past that doesn’t exist.