Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
You would have to go back to Mafeking Night to cite an outburst of hysterical joy equivalent to the current celebrations of the Labour Party’s obsequies. Labour is dead. One of the two great parties of state – Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition – is deceased. The entire thesaurus of mortality is being employed in this Dead Parrot Sketch as the forces of free-market liberalism hail their accession to monopoly power for a seemingly endless futurity.
Does no small voice whisper its disquiet in the ears of the revellers? Is there no stirring of doubt, no unease, no pause to question whether political life is ever so simple, so consistent or so irreversible? Is there no remote possibility that the so-called “centre-right” is dancing around an empty coffin? Could those who have declared The Party We Love to be defunct have rushed prematurely to judgement?
It would not be the first time. The Tory Party was officially pronounced dead as long ago as 1714 and 1832. Labour was interred, alive as it turned out, in 1955 and 1983. The Conservatives were pronounced in a persistent vegetative state from 1997 to 2010. All of these situations were eventually reversed.
Of course, many of those dancing in the streets are familiar with these precedents. Most of them allow the likelihood of an eventual recovery, but so far ahead as to be a disallowable contingency within their own political lifetimes. By conventional reckoning that is a reasonable assumption. The problem is we no longer live in times when any of the recent conventions are any longer applicable.
The changes overtaking public life not only in Britain but across the developed world are so seismic that nobody – absolutely nobody – possesses a reliable map of the political landscape. Contemporary politics is in a state of permanent seismic upheaval; every movement of the tectonic plates provokes further shock waves and all the well-known landmarks are being eradicated. Terrain that was as familiar to politicians as the faces of family members is now Terra Incognita.
It is in that context the supposed death of Labour smacks of hubris. Labour is dead as surely as was any remote prospect of Brexit five years ago. In a polity where Brexit has happened anything is possible and the last people to detect the next upheaval will be the politicians and commentators. Yes, Labour could die off, like the Rockingham Whigs. Or it might take 15 to 20 years to recover. Or, equally – and this is not a prospect one could have entertained under the pre-Brexit dispensation – Labour could form a majority government in 2020.
Ridiculous? Yes, probably. But not certainly, not any more. Remember the Oldham by-election at the end of last year, which was expected to proclaim the unelectability of Labour under Jeremy Corbyn? In the event Labour increased its share of the vote to 62 per cent. That, of course, is no longer a reliable reference since Corbyn and Labour have gone through many credibility-destroying, voter-alienating contortions since then which must have eroded potential support.
That offers no comfort to the Conservatives since, even though the old tribal lock on voters’ sympathies has been loosed, crossing from Labour to Tory is an unlikely move when UKIP, strengthened by the referendum victory, is available and newly credible. The Conservatives, too, have a concealed vulnerability: their core vote, alienated by David Cameron (initially by Theresa May) has long departed to UKIP. The Tories are a party like a mint with a hole in the centre.
Labour’s best hope would be to toughen its anti-immigration stance while persisting in proclaiming socialism. That is not the suicidal course free marketers presume. Conviction politics are increasingly replacing discredited consensus politics. The next recession, triggered by a banking collapse – whether Deutsche Bank or another – and magnified by the euro crisis, could find the British electorate terminally disenchanted with market forces. All that has happened institutionally to Labour is that, as with its experience of Militant Tendency, it has again fallen victim to a coup by Trotskyite entryists.
What is far more significant and large-scale and unpredictable is the continuing alienation of Western electorates from establishment politics. The terms “left” and “right” no longer apply. The political class has cried wolf about “extremism” too often: nobody is listening any more. In France, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands “right-wing” forces are the beneficiaries; in Greece, Spain, Portugal the left is in the ascendant; in eastern Europe, notably the Visegrad Group states, traditionalist forces are the new establishment.
To predict the outcome of the next decade you would do as well to start investigating pigeon entrails as to study polls and electoral punditry. All that is certain is that nothing is certain. We are experiencing a revolution, so far without pitchforks and other totemic accessories but every bit as world-changing. The tyranny called Political Correctness, above all, is on the critical list. It has exhausted, as the Chinese used to say, the mandate of heaven.
The political class long ago contemptuously abandoned any attempt to understand those it ruled. Now, in increasing terror, it is flying blindfolded into the future. Amid this mounting chaos the future of Labour is of small moment. But for those with the compass to eschew hubris it is an icon of unpredictability, in a time of unparalleled uncertainty.