You can’t revive a corpse
Forget the talk of Labour ‘renewal’ - its humiliation in the elections should mark the funeral rites for a party that died 25 years ago.
As the current spiked/Wellcome Collection debate shows, modern medical science has achieved many breakthroughs that have appeared miraculous. One thing it has still not managed to do, however, is to raise a rotting corpse from the grave and breathe life into a dead body. Yet the British left seems to believe in the miracle of resurrection on Earth, as they talk yet again of the need for ‘revival’ and ‘renewal’ in the Labour Party after its humiliating defeat in the local elections and London mayoral contest.
Like an obsessively devoted child who cannot let go and keeps the remains of a beloved parent around (think Norman Bates in Psycho with his mother’s dried-out cadaver upstairs), they appear unable to accept that the Labour Party to which they are so attached died some 25 years ago. The corpse is now rotten and reeking the place out, and the only decent thing to do is to bury it.
The scale of New Labour’s defeat in last week’s elections came as a shock to many loyalists. The party polled just 24 per cent of the vote – its worst national result for more than 40 years. On an average turnout estimated at around 35 per cent, this means that fewer than 10 per cent of eligible voters in England and Wales felt moved to vote for the party of government. Not only was New Labour trounced by the Conservatives (with 44 per cent of the vote), it even trailed in an embarrassing third behind the faltering Liberal Democrats (25 per cent). Labour lost seats and councils in its heartlands of the north of England and Wales, often haemorrhaging support most badly in traditional working-class areas across the country. Meanwhile, in the starry election for London mayor, Ken Livingstone – the Great Multicultural Hope of the Labour left – contrived to lose to daft old Boris Johnson.
However, the new shock of these defeats had hardly registered before Labour and left-wing observers were once more indulging their old habits of self-delusion, looking for the easy excuse, and promising that if we just hold on it can still come out all right tomorrow. Some tried to blame, er, Tony Blair for ruining the party and leaving it too late to hand over to Gordon the saviour. Many others said it was all down to Brown’s botched abolition of the 10p rate of income tax – now dubbed ‘Brown’s poll tax’. And many warned about the rise of David Cameron’s dangerous but popular brand of Conservatism.
But whatever excuse they favoured for explaining away their defeat, most of them appeared to agree that what is needed now to reverse the setbacks is a fundamental ‘renewal’ of the Labour Party. For a minority of MPs and party officials, that might mean refocusing on the Blairite New Labour project. For most, however, it apparently has to mean reviving and updating the Labour Party’s ‘basic beliefs’, focusing on Labour’s ‘real purpose’ and its ‘public service values’ as the way to revitalise the party’s ‘core voters’ and win wider support.
It is far too late for any of that to work. And it is far too easy to blame Blair’s disastrous war in Iraq or Brown’s 10-penny tax debacle for Labour’s problems. The truth is that these latest election results have openly demonstrated what should have been clear for years: that the Labour Party, as a political movement, is dead. What we are witnessing now is not a temporary setback, but the public funeral rites for a long-deceased body.
The Labour Party that many want to ‘renew’ died at the latest in 1983. That was the party which emerged from the Second World War as the champion of a new national consensus around the welfare state, the National Health Service, nationalisation and state socialism. Labour secured its first majority government in the landslide victory of the 1945 General Election, kicking out war hero Winston Churchill before the war was over. Even when the Tories returned to power in the 1950s, their governments were constrained by the terms Labour had dictated.
Between 1964 and 1979, the Labour Party was in power for 11 out of 15 years under Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, and won four out of five General Elections, establishing its reputation as the ‘natural party of government’. Through its close links with the traditional trade union movement, Labour had become the party best equipped to reconcile the demands of working-class people with the needs of British capitalism, an unholy alliance sealed in the mid-1970s by the Social Contract which imposed state controls on wages and prices. That deal collapsed in the 1978/1979 ‘winter of discontent’ when the public sector unions rose up against the Labour government.
The election of Margaret Thatcher’s first Tory government in 1979 marked the end of an era of consensus politics and the start of a new phase of capitalism in the UK. The old Labour Party with its old politics would never again be able to meet the challenge and win an election. Yet the Labour left drew the opposite conclusion, taking advantage of the party’s disarray and its isolation from reality to make its man Michael Foot Labour leader and fight the 1983 General Election on a manifesto of its traditional policies, such as nationalisation and nuclear disarmament. The result of pitching this ‘longest suicide note in history’ against Thatcher’s Falklands Factor was predictably bloody. Labour won just 27.6 per cent of the vote, and was wiped off the political map across the south of England.
That 1983 election marked the death of old Labour. It was not that the New Labour leaders somehow hijacked and corrupted the party. Rather, it was the fact that Labour had already been reduced to an empty shell that allowed the New Labourites and their PR machine to take over. The process was begun by Neil Kinnock, under whom Labour suffered two more embarrassing electoral defeats before Blair and Brown came in to finish the job. As I have argued on spiked before, whatever else he is responsible for, Blair did not wreck the Labour Party. Indeed his glittery media image helped to hide the hole behind him where the movement was supposed to be.
Over New Labour’s decade in power, it has become increasingly difficult to conceal the truth. The remains of Labour’s traditional ‘core vote’ have crumbled away even in its supposed strongholds. The writing should have been on the wall for all to see in the 2005 General Election when, despite Blair’s re-election with a reduced majority, Labour lost Blaenau Gwent in the Welsh valleys – previously its very safest seat, occupied by such leaders of the left as Nye Bevan and Foot. It has since failed to regain the seat in a by-election.
If Labour could lose there, it could lose anywhere. These latest local elections, which saw Labour thrown out not only in the south and London but in some its last heartlands in the north and Wales, confirmed once and for all that there is no safe place for it to hide.
The party is not just over, it has effectively been finished as a political movement for 25 years. Yet still the opinion makers of Labour and left-wing circles cling to their self-delusions about how it could be revived or renewed with some fairly simple adjustments of policy and image. One columnist has suggested that Livingstone’s defeated campaign in London shows the way for Labour to go, because the ‘radical’ ex-mayor won more votes than the party nationally. Such a wilful refusal to face facts put me in mind of Tony Benn’s risible claim that Labour’s historic rout in 1983 actually represented a great victory for socialism, because 8.5 million people had voted for ‘an openly socialist policy’.
One from of self-delusion that the Labour left has perfected over the years has been to blame the power of the Tories for casting some sort of spell over voters, rather than examining their own shortcomings. This excuse was charactersitic of the 1980s, when left-wing writers invented the theory of an almost-superhuman ‘Thatcherism’ to explain away Labour’s defeats. History now appears to be repeating itself as farce, as some leading Labour supporters claim that it is the popular appeal of Cameron’s politics, or even his ‘emotional intelligence’, which has brought about Brown’s dramatic downfall.
Time to face reality and look history in the face. Yes, it remains just possible that Brown might win an election – after all, it is only Cameron he is up against and elections today are pretty arbitrary affairs. But even in that unlikely event, the truth is that Labour is gone and it ain’t coming back, no matter how much some resurrectionists sermonise about ‘renewal’.
So far as some of us on the left are concerned, that is no bad thing either. For far too long, even in its prime, the dead hand of Labourism weighed down the advance of progressive or alternative politics in Britain. Now, as Brown wrestles with such big social issues as whether or not a bin tax will revive Labour’s fortunes, let us say good riddance to bad rubbish. Or as Messrs Benn and Blair’s old comrade Jesus might have put it, let the dead bury the dead.
Mick Hume is spiked‘s editor-at-large.
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