The Liberal Party during the 19th century was one of the dominant political forces in British politics, yet was crushed by titanic social forces, during the first half of the twentieth century. The author George Dangerfield wrote the famous book The Strange Death of Liberal England in 1935 which tried to explain how political liberalism was shattered by the impact of the First World War.
Are we now witnessing the death of the Labour Party after the political explosion of Brexit? It would certainly appear so. Under Tony Blair the Labour party had found a political winner who combined socially liberal “progressive” politics with a robust centre-right approach to the economy, crime and foreign affairs. The New Labour electoral coalition, of the traditional northern and Scottish Labour vote and the affluent middle classes of the south, repeatedly crushed the Conservative Party between 1997 and 2005.
The deeper force underpinning the success of New Labour was the long decade of economic growth, which allowed significant redistribution to the poor, without having to implement massive tax rises for the wealthy. The redistribution of public funds to traditional Labour strongholds, the huge expansion of the public sector and the implementation of modest social reforms like the minimum wage kept the electoral coalition together.
The former Labour Minister Liam Byrne famously left a message to his successor, that “there is no money”, when a Conservative led coalition came to power in 2010. The problem for the Labour Party is that without economic growth it is very difficult to maintain a left-wing agenda of rising public spending without eventually bankrupting the country. Ed Miliband, the successor to Gordon Brown in the Labour Party, never overcome this conundrum.
After a second electoral defeat in the May 2015 general election, Labour faced three strategic choices, move to the reforming centre-right, muddle through in the soggy “soft left” or move decisively to the populist hard left. The “blairite” faction, represented by Liz Kendall, articulated moving to the centre-right which critics called Tory-lite politics, but was overwhelmingly rejected by the Labour party membership.
Either Alan Burnham or Yvette Cooper, representing the continuation of the Brown-Miliband “soft left” approach to politics, were expected to win, on a platform of limited left-wing policies and a strong dose of anti-Tory rhetoric. To the shock of the Pundocracy, Jeremy Corbyn won a landslide victory with a hard left programme of nationalisation, abolishing the nuclear deterrent and the expansion of the state. The Westminster elite have dismissed the rise of Jeremy Corbyn as an irrational reaction by a deluded left-wing membership which is doomed to electoral suicide.
My perspective is that Corbyn’s rise is an eruption of a broader trend of populism which is transforming the Western world. The thinker Martin Jacques has written eloquently on why neoliberalism is dying, which includes part of the themes articulated in my own post, “Winter is coming”, on the coming era of Scarcity Industrialism. The globalised liberal order of free trade, open markets and abundant resources is coming to an end and something very different will replace it.
The Labour grassroots turned to Corbyn because, as Jacques notes, “Corbyn is not a product of the new times, he is a throwback to the late 70s and early 80s. That is both his strength and also his weakness. He is uncontaminated by the New Labour legacy because he has never accepted it. But nor, it would seem, does he understand the nature of the new era.” Corbyn’s brand of Bennite socialism is one alternative to the failing neo-liberal status quo and was the only alternative on offer to a desperate, frustrated and angry Labour party membership.
During the Brexit referendum debate, the Left, including the Labour Party, overwhelmingly backed the status quo Remain campaign. This was a major strategic error. If the Left is perceived by the general public to prop up a failing status quo establishment, which has failed the majority of the population, it is doomed. The Labour Party needs to develop a platform of policies which addresses the multitude of challenges facing Britain in the 21st century, principally, the Limits to Growth mega-trend.
Elements of Corbynism could have some relevance as we transition into the twilight era of a stagnating economy, rising protectionism and the breakdown of key international markets as resource scarcity increases. Corbyn’s emphasis on a strong industrial strategy, the revival and expansion of the state and the proposal that central banks print billions to invest in national infrastructure, like renewable energy, are policies that could enter the political mainstream within the next ten years.
Yet one must not underestimate the huge challenges facing the Labour Party. The party membership, including the bulk of the parliamentary Labour party, are resistant to embracing migration controls which is a key issue for their traditional voting base. In an era of escalating migration flows around the world, the pressure from ordinary voters to close the borders will only intensify and the Labour Party is on the wrong side of this debate.
The populist right are gaining votes across Europe by harnessing the anger of the growing army of “losers” of globalization, the appeal to national identity and the legitimate concerns about the rise of radical Islam. The Left appear to have little to say to these sections of the electorate.
If Corbyn, or even a post-Corbyn populist left, has any chance of regaining power, they will need to take seriously public concerns on the levels of immigration, the integration and terrorist risks posed by the growing Muslim populations of Europe and the failings of the current neoliberal economic model.
To summarise, there is an opportunity for the Left to embrace an economically populist platform which has the potential to appeal to electorates across the Western world. Polling in America showed that Bernie Sanders would have crushed Donald Trump in a landslide victory if he had won the Democratic nomination. Yet the chasm between the modern Left and broad layers of the population on immigration, national identity and security is deep and widening. At the moment, there are very few voices within the Left who appear to understand, or are even starting the process of addressing, these enormous challenges.
In 1935, decades after the Liberal Party had become a shadow of its former glory, an obituary was written on the death of political liberalism. There is a real possibility that a similar book, written within this generation, will be written about the political death of the Labour Party.
On a final note, I predicted in June that Jeremy Corbyn would narrowly win the Labour Party leadership election. I expected that his challenger, Owen Smith, would mount an effective and strong campaign based on his proposed reversal of Brexit, which would appeal to the Labour party membership. On the contrary, Owen Smith has made a number of serious gaffes, most notably, what appeared to be the advocating of direct negotiations with ISIS. At the recent Question Time special debate between Corbyn and Smith, the bulk of the audience laughed when this was mentioned. Owen Smith’s credibility has taken a severe knocking because of these self-induced blunders.
Due to the above, I have now amended my forecast prediction, to include the possibility of a landslide victory by Jeremy Corbyn against Owen Smith. Therefore, my updated forecast prediction is a Corbyn victory.*
*The victory by Corbyn includes the possibility of a narrow victory (50 – 59%) or a landslide victory (over 60% of the vote).