What is a Real Opposition?
British politics depends on two parties competing for government. Currently, the Labour Party is the only meaningful opposition in a two party system which re-asserted itself in May, with the near demise of the Liberal Democrats. Scotland is in an anomalous position, sitting in the departure lounge waiting to exit the UK. The importance of this is that Labour will not disappear whoever is elected. The real issue is about what kind of opposition the Labour Party is to be over the next five years.
The Blairites thought that the two party system was just about alternance between two very similar parties and that the dominant ideology of England was Tory. Other interests could be ignored as there was no effective party to speak for them. By staying near the Tories they hoped to be in power semi-permanently. But they moved the centre of gravity of British politics remorselessly rightwards, compromising the Labour’s social democratic heritage as they did so and leaving many traditional supporters looking for an alternative, which some eventually found in UKIP in England and in the SNP in Scotland.
Ultimately this stance demoralised both their own party and the electorate became disgusted with such a travesty of an opposition. Nationalist politics with a left flavour took hold in Scotland and with a right flavour in England. Miliband proved incapable of moving beyond the politics of a Labour Tweedledee to the Tory Tweedledum. A telling example is of Osborne’s adoption of the Macmillan-Wilson era policy of training levies on firms to ensure that they take responsibility for preparing new generations of workers (to which this journal will return), something which Miliband and his advisors were terrified of doing for fear of being labelled ‘class warriors’ by the press. They paid for their craven approach through not advancing their vote in England to any significant extent and losing heavily in Scotland.
The Labour leadership election campaign has made it clear that both the party and the country as a whole are fed up with Tweedledee politics. As we said in July, Corbyn’s candidacy has proved to be a catalyst for a re-evaluation of what the Labour Party should be doing. Even on the narrow ground of parliamentary two party politics there is scope for moving beyond the alternation of two nearly identical parties. The Corbyn candidacy proposes a state-led approach to productive investment and more independence from the US in foreign policy. These ideas have resonance with the public as well as with Labour Party members. The party itself has been energised by the Corbyn candidacy, illustrating the isolation of the Blairite parliamentary party. They cannot split the party, knowing what happened to the SDP thirty years ago and being acquainted with the destruction of the centre party, the Liberal Democrats, this year. They have nowhere to go, but plenty of scope for making mischief within and beyond the Parliamentary Labour Party if the leadership election does not produce a result to their liking.
What of Jeremy Corbyn? Is he a Bennite dinosaur on a roll and nothing more, as the Blairites and most of the press allege? The evidence suggests that he is not a Bennite. He is absolutely right to reject the lie that Labour was responsible for the 2008 financial crisis, except in the sense that they allowed the banks too much freedom to cause financial mayhem, in the mistaken belief that being nice to bankers ensured their respectability. It would be catastrophic to admit to a mistake which they had never made and which the Tories would never cease to remind them of, particularly as they had admitted it themselves. Trade union support for his candidacy suggests a revival of the Labour-Union links that are essential to the party’s long-term future. One of the most disgraceful features of the Miliband era was the freezing out of the TUC and a refusal to engage with its social partnership agenda proposed by its General Secretary, Frances O’Grady.
Although Corbyn is not a 70s style leftist dinosaur in the mould of the youthful Neil Kinnock, there is an area that he and his supporters will need to address if they are to make a significant break both with the Blair era and the Wilson-Callaghan years. They need to work with the TUC and the unions to develop economic and social policy based on social partnership, shifting control of firms away from the exclusive domination of shareholders to take into account the interests of employees by promoting worker participation up to and including board level as advocated so powerfully by O’ Grady in the September issue of this journal last year. Other elements of such a policy shift should include working with the TUC on an economic policy which moves the British economy up the value chain, thus providing the desperately needed skilled, well-paid jobs that the country needs. There are signs at least that Corbyn recognises this. This will include more attention to vocational education policy. Here is a chance to outflank Osborne on the left, building on the opportunity for the left that he himself has created.
Labour and the unions also need to work together to help revive local economies through initiatives that allow local authorities to take more control over their own areas’ regeneration. If the unions become more relevant they will be strengthened and Labour will benefit. We do not know whether the revived Labour ranks will take up such an opportunity. The future success of the Labour Party as a parliamentary opposition with practical social democratic solutions to real problems faced by voters, and with real roots in the country depends on it.
Labour will need to think carefully about its policy towards the EU. Corbyn and the Labour left are correct in rejecting the neoliberal labour market and economic policies that the Commission has been pushing for the last twenty years. The European interest may well be served by a UK exit from Europe, but it is likely that English social democracy would suffer. There is however an urgent need to work together with other left parties in Europe to reverse these damaging policies and also to move away from vassal status to the US, whose most disastrous recent manifestation is the warmongering posture towards Russia, which suits the Americans but most definitely damages European interests. More than anything else perhaps, the biggest danger for a revived social democratic labour party will be the consequences of incurring the anger of the Americans.
At the time of writing, we do not know the result of the Labour leadership election, but it is highly likely that whatever happens, the candidacy of Jeremy Corbyn will revive the social democratic tradition within the party and curb the power of the Blairites and neo-Blairites such as those around Miliband. This change will not affect the parliamentary party at first and this is likely to lead to trouble as the new change of sentiment will take time to work through to party representation in parliament.
The position of this journal is clear. Labour has no future as a Tweedledee opposition if it aspires to government in 2020. Hoping to take over from Tweedledum on the occasions when he gets tired might mean a long wait. The public as well as the party is clearly fed up with this kind of alternation with little to choose between the parties. They expect proposals from an opposition which match the scale of the problems that the country faces. This is why Blairism is dead.
[Corbyn actually won decisively, and new possibilities are opening up in British politics.]