Iain Martin's Letter

Can the Labour party be saved when Britain has changed so much?

Britain has changed and it really is difficult to see where Labour fits in.

BY Iain Martin | iainmartin1   /  4 February 2017

The New Statesman’s brilliant Stephen Bush has a wry sense of humour, so it is occasionally difficult to know beyond doubt whether or not he is joking. When this week in print he tipped someone called Rebecca Long-Bailey as the likely next leader of the British Labour party I assumed initially that it was a spoof and that no such person exists. But I was wrong. Apparently the Corbynite Ms Long-Bailey is shadow chief secretary to the Treasury in the shadow cabinet. Well, there you go.

Perhaps not having heard of Rebecca Long-Bailey MP is more proof that I am just another pre-Corbynite mainstream media relic, from the distant lost days when the Labour party was dominated by figures such as Ed Balls, Douglas Alexander and Ed Miliband, back in the mists of time, 20 months ago. Or perhaps not having heard of her makes me the loser. Ms Long-Bailey certainly looks to be a tough and ambitious operator. John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor, hailed her this week on Twitter in the following terms: “Next generation of our socialist leadership team emerging.”

Hmmmm…

There is no getting away from it. The emergence of Long-Bailey as a contender and the absence of nationally genuinely recognisable names from the list of runners and riders is another indicator of the Labour party’s catastrophic decline as a serious force. McDonnell and the other headbangers are said to see Long-Bailey as the Corbyn candidate who can protect his legacy(?). Corbyn’s departure could happen this year, incidentally, on the grounds that Labour’s most hapless leader since George Lansbury in 1935 is utterly derided by voters and keeps getting marmalised by Theresa May in the Commons.

Long-Bailey will not get the leadership uncontested if Jeremy Corbyn stands down, however. Her rival is Clive Lewis (yes, have heard of him) and he’s limbering up for a leadership run. As is Keir Starmer, the moderate shadow Brexit spokesman who is surely too much in tune with potential Labour voters in the country to get past the Labour membership – quite a different thing – in any leadership contest.

They are all destined for disappointment, I fear. Here’s my hot tip for next leader of the Labour party. Keep an eye on Julian Middle-Temple, the thoughtful MP for Islington West and shadow minister for something or other. Julian broke with New Labour in 2001 over its habit of winning general elections. He retreated to Crouch End to write for Prospect magazine and established the first and only branch (now closed) of a planned chain of award-winning organic bakeries. It was in 2010 that he won the nomination for Islington West by mistake when he asked a question about the Iraq war at the hustings. In the Commons in 2015 he nominated Jeremy Corbyn for leader by accident after becoming confused during a conversation with Emily Thornberry MP. His supporters cite his groundbreaking writing in 2012 about New Labour’s so-called “triangulation”: “It’s not a Blairite triangle we need,” he likes to say. “Turn Tony’s triangle into a circle. A holistic, beautiful and complete circle. Round and round we go, in a circle.”

Of course there is no such person as Julian Middle-Temple MP, I think. But would the public notice or care if an imaginary MP stood for Labour leader? It would liven up the leadership race.

Labour voters might as well laugh. It’s either that or crying. There is a small amount of positive news, though, for such despairing and moderate Labour people. The Corbyn experiment has proved such a self-evident and epic disaster that the revolution has started to eat its own. Owen Jones, the fluent Guardian columnist and hero of the new left, this week broke with Corbyn, condemning the incompetence and general uselessness of the crackpot regime he helped to inflict on Labour. Even some of the Corbynites now admit Corbyn is a disaster.

There are also good Labour MPs and members determined that it will not die, who are quietly staying in the hope that the far-left membership that signed up for Corbyn will become disillusioned and depart. They know Britain needs a proper opposition party and that in a parliamentary system new parties struggle to win seats. If Labour holds together and pushes the Corbyn losers out of the way, there is such volatility among voters that it is just about possible to envisage a new, mainstream, charismatic and unheard of centrist leader, using technology to build a movement, emerging before 2020 and being able to punish the Tories if they get into trouble. You doubt it? Ask dead cert president Hillary Clinton how she felt about the impossibility of being defeated by Donald Trump. Think the unthinkable.

Labour being badly split on Brexit is also not as serious problem as it appears right now, unless there is an early general election, which the Prime Minister seems keen to avoid. By 2020, when the UK is next set to vote in a nationwide election, Brexit will have happened. A new leader should have plenty of scope to accept the result and move on, while leaving space to condemn the Tories for mismanagement if there is damaging disruption or an economic crisis.

Right, those were the clutching at straws reasons for decent Labour folk not giving up. The biggest problem with the theory that the party can or will come back is that Britain has changed in its attitudes since the Thatcher era. Even if it could move away from the Corbyn agenda, and nudge a little, somehow, towards the centre, that would still leave it so far away from where the voters it needs are.

A report by academics at Sheffield University and Southampton University published this week illustrated the scale of the cultural shift. The generation that grew up under Thatcher shifted rightwards on welfare, crime, economics and personal responsibility. The generation that grew up under Blair nudged further rightwards on the same subjects.

Professor Stephen Farrall of the University of Sheffield told The Independent: “Blair did not really challenge the kind of discourse which Thatcher had set up. Remember his quote about being “quite relaxed about people getting rich”.

No, that was Peter Mandelson, and he added the qualification that this was fine only if they paid their taxes.

Anyway…

“Our take,” said Professor Farrell, “is that the younger generations have become increasingly socially and economically liberal. They’re much less concerned about religious beliefs or whether you’re gay, lesbian or straight, which people were previously more concerned about. They are much more accepting of diversity, but they are also much more accepting of economic inequality.”

To even begin to connect with such voters Labour would have to be back in roughly Blairite territory, and that would probably be insufficiently robust in policy terms. Such a move towards the voters would require the majority of the party’s membership to leave and perhaps half the current MPs to resign in protest so that they can replaced with appealing and non-socialist alternatives. All this at a time when Labour has lost its Scottish redoubt, probably for good, and is under assault from a Tory leader in England who can hoover up the support of disillusioned Labour mainstream voters and reach into UKIP territory, taking the Tories back above 40% and into potential landslide against a divided opposition territory.

Conservatives will not have it all their own way post-Brexit and would be complacent to assume perpetual dominance. The country is unlikely to thrill to the fantasy of complete deregulation wanted by some free market campaigners. As the UK is compelled by Brexit to embark on a period of national renewal and reinvention, binding the country together, there may even be a desire in the electorate for more social solidarity and defence of the vulnerable. But the UK population has in the last three decades become dramatically more entrepreneurial, consumerist and acquisitive, realistic about economic change, tough on crime, sceptical about welfarism, and far less collectivist. Brexit will require more dynamism and an even greater spirit of innovation to make it work, not less.

Britain has changed and it really is difficult to see where Labour fits in.