Post-election reflections on the Labour Party

Whatever the future holds Labour should beware both the ‘New’ and the ‘Blue’

If only Labour had not equivocated in its support for Remain and the EU. If only it had been a bit more New Labour, a bit more centrist. If only it had been more ‘credible’, more pragmatic. Or alternatively…  If only Labour had respected the EU referendum result and united around a Leave position. If only Corbyn had stuck to his euro-sceptic guns. If only the Labour party had not been reluctant to respect the socially conservative values of its Leave voters on issues such as migration and free movement.

As the dust settles after what was undoubtedly a devastating electoral defeat for the Labour party, these and other ‘if onlys’ are circulating widely among the progressive (and not so progressive) commentariat.

The first group of ‘if onlys’ emanate from, first and foremost, the die-hard Blairites in the party and beyond. We are led to believe that theirs is a sentiment shared by those in the country who are nostalgic for the pre-crisis New Labour days and who regard the Corbyn project as far too left-wing. The likes of both Mandelson and Blair have made this case since the election. Notably, in some other countries centrist social democrats are also reading the election in this way. Former Italian PM Matteo Renzi tweeted: “The radical and extreme left is the best ally of the right. You can continue to insult Blair and keep supporting Corbyn but this way in the end the radical right wins.” This, we can call the New Labour perspective.

The second group of ‘if onlys’ come in particular from some MPs (or former MPs!) in Labour Leave seats, as well as various commentators and scholars who support a Lexiteer (Labour Leave) and/or socially conservative agenda. Such a sentiment is, they claim, shared by many in Labour’s post-industrial heartlands who support Brexit and reject what they regard as the patronising and unpatriotic cosmopolitan elitism and social liberalism of both New Labour and Corbyn. Their core argument is that Labour should have supported Brexit and in future needs to be an economically interventionist but, crucially, a far more socially conservative and communitarian party. The key difference between the supposedly ‘glorious’ defeat of 2017 and the abject failure of 2019 is, from this perspective, that Labour pledged to accept the referendum result in the context of the former, but shifted to its second referendum position with the latter. We can call this the Blue Labour perspective.  

While recrimination is understandable, the strategies emerging from the New and the Blue perspectives are flawed in their strategic (or electoral) thinking. And as Part II of this blog will discuss they are—even more importantly—flawed in terms of their capacity to build a progressive politics and political economy in a post-Brexit Britain.

First to the strategic flaws. Neither of these alternative strategies would realistically have secured the support of the numbers of both Labour Leave and Labour Remain voters required (as clear headed commentators have pointed out). Neither group’s approach would have resolved the modern ‘progressive dilemma’: the need to secure the support of both the Labour ‘heartland’ working classes and of urban socialist/liberal cosmopolitans in cities (who, incidentally, also include many working classes).

As Andrew Gamble has suggested, New Labour, “for a time…appeared to have resolved the progressive dilemma”. But Blairism—crudely, a combination of neoliberalism and redistribution—worked in relatively propitious pre-crisis and pre-austerity economic circumstances. And Corbynism was in many ways the result of the crisis that for many on the left became linked to Blairism. A centrist economic policy would not have cut it with the many young Labour activists and Corbyn supporters who were socialised during the economic crisis. More importantly, a Remain position would have wrought even graver damage to the ‘red wall’ of Midlands and Northern seats that were eviscerated in this election. The dire performance of the Liberal Democrats only serves to confirm the folly of a centrist strategy.

Adherents to Blue Labour think Labour should have gone the other way and more clearly backed Leave. For them, this election vindicated their repeated calls for more patriotic and socially conservative policies to address the supposed ‘cultural’ concerns of the heartlands. But this thinking fails to properly consider the counterfactuals. Would Labour’s urban cosmopolitan base have stuck with a party that supported the hard Brexit that logically follows from a pure Lexit position (that is, a position that regards the single market as an irrevocable impediment to a socialist agenda)? Would the price of maintaining the ‘red wall’ have been a ‘yellow surge’, not only of the SNP in Scotland, but of the Lib Dems in London and other large cities? And/or, for that matter, would we have seen a ‘green surge’ in the absence of Labour’s radical green new deal agenda? Despite a commitment in the end to a second referendum, it is notable that Corbyn’s vacillation on Brexit led to the loss of more Remain than Leave voters in 2019. This is a fact that is conveniently ignored by the Blue Labourites and Lexiteers in their eagerness to highlight their own prescience.

For purely strategic reasons then Labour should not be seduced by the centrism of New Labour revivalism or the social conservatism of Blue Labour. More importantly—as discussed in Part 2 of this blog—neither the New or the Blue perspectives offer an approach that could successfully address the broader structural and political issues that progressive strategy must tackle in post-Brexit Britain.