How can there be a ‘war for Labour’s soul’ when Labour has no soul?

Labour activists’ delusions have reached pathological proportions. They need our help.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Politics

From Lib Dem Sarah Teather’s sub-Lembit Opik stand-up routine to David Cameron’s in-vain attempt to sound less posh than he is, there are many sad and strange things in modern British politics. But there is nothing sadder and nothing stranger than the belief amongst left-leaning commentators and activists that the Labour Party can potentially be re-energised, that this broken, wheezing, pensionable political entity might, with a bit of PR spit-and-polish, be turned back into a mass party of the working man and woman.

Nothing, it seems, can shake the borderline pathological conviction amongst the so-called progressive set that Labour is still a potentially great party: not the New Labour experience; not the New New Labour experience; not the disastrous wars in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq; not the itchy illiberalism of every living Labour politician; not the revelation that Tony Blair was more showman than statesman; not the jaw-dropping awfulness of the Gordon Brown years; not the fact that the party is now led by easily the most pallid politician in Christendom, Ed Miliband. Through each of these ‘ups and downs’ – Labour supporters’ favourite euphemism for the Ballardian slow-motion death of their party – the party’s people have said the same thing time and again: ‘Now is the time to rediscover and restate our mission.’

And they’ve been at it again during this week’s party conference. Maybe it’s simply not possible to rouse them from their stupor, but surely it’s worth trying? To that end, here are five myths about the Labour Party that must be flamethrown.

Myth #1: Labour has a soul to fight over

Listening to Labour supporters, you might think it is a privilege, perhaps very bliss, to be alive at this hour, since we are witnessing something extraordinary: a battle for Labour’s soul. On one side there are Blairites (a bit evil, manicured, in thrall to Big Business), and on the other side Brownites (stern, decent, often Scottish), and apparently these camps are tussling to take control of Labour’s heart, not unlike the devil and that priest who went to war over a 13-year-old girl in The Exorcist. Everything from Blair and Brown’s Granita meeting to Peter Mandelson’s miaowing memoirs gets squeezed into this epic narrative by Labour-watchers, as summed up in the title of a forthcoming book: Tangled Up in Blue: The Struggle for Labour’s Soul.

Yet no amount of Terry Pratchett-style fantasy lingo can disguise the fact that, in truth, Labour no longer has a soul. If a party’s soul is a fusion of its ideology and its constituency, of its beliefs and its success in getting people to back those beliefs, then Labour’s is as withered as Sarah Teather’s career in comedy. Labour is a hollowed-out shell of an institution, having jettisoned the ideas it was set up to promote and having lost, over the past three decades, the keen backing of its original constituency: the working classes. Indeed, the current scrapping between various party cliques and personality sects speaks to the soullessness of Labour – the shallowness and ugliness of these spats are a result of the fact that there is no soul to battle over, only positions of influence in a middle-class PR machine masquerading as a party, only jobs, status, perks. This is not battle over a soul – it’s a catfight to colonise and puppeteer the carcass of a long-croaked party.

Myth #2: Labour has a left-wing and right-wing

No doubt there was much excitable chatter at the party conference about New Labour, Blue Labour, Old Labour, Red Labour, Purple Labour, Polka Dot Labour and the question of who belongs to which wing. Articles on the threat still posed by ‘Blairite ultras’ and ‘undead Blairites’, whom ‘Red Ed’ must face down, give the impression that the warriors ‘battling over Labour’s soul’ can be neatly divided into leftists and rightists. Miliband, apparently, is on the left of the party, which is why even some relatively intelligent people are cheering this almost impressively unimpressive politician – because they hope he’ll ape his cultural lookalike, Harry Potter, and slay the right-wing Blairite Voldemorts who have ruined Labour.

This is a see-through attempt to glamorise the Caligulan rot eating away at Labour, to present the descent into cliquish hysteria as a stand-off between two great and ideologically opposed camps. In truth, all the big names in Labour – including Brown and his heir Ed – supported the so-called Blairite Project, which was not a ‘takeover’ but rather the opportunistic transformation of clapped-out Old Labour into New Labour and a shift from representing working-class concerns towards embodying middle-class paranoia about crime and obesity. And when have Ed or any of his shadow cabinet ever said anything remotely left-wing? The profoundly illiberal proposal to make journalism a licensed profession (as posited at the party conference yesterday) and the proposal to tweak VAT (which is ‘left-wing Rottweiler’ Ed Balls’ big idea for fixing the capitalist crisis) are not things I recognise as ‘left’. Using old political tags to try to doll up party bickering might make Labour activists feel better about the sordid shenanigans they have got themselves embroiled in, but it is unlikely to convince any normal people that matters of true principle were fought over at the party conference.

Myth #3: Labour has a grassroots base of support

We’re always given the impression that Labour’s problem is primarily one of communication. Its support base of decent working people are just waiting to be talked to, apparently, and Labour simply has to find the right words through which to make a connection with this expectant bunch. In the run-up to the party conference, Labour MP Diane Abbott claimed Ed has ‘found his voice’ and must now use it to ‘win over the public’. Actually, Labour’s problem is not a terminological one but a terminal-decline one – its crisis is fuelled not by a failure to connect with its old support base, but by the fact that it no longer has a real base of support in the real world.

Labour has been losing its traditional working supporters for decades. Its support amongst the manual working classes fell from 62 per cent in 1959 to 38 per cent in 1983. The extent of the rupture between Labour and its old base became clear in the Nineties and Noughties, when rather than seeking to speak for working-class communities it turned every single one of its intellectual rocket-launchers against them, launching unprecedented escapades into every aspect of poorer people’s lives, from what they eat to how they bring up their children. Modern Labour is a ‘party’ in search of a support base, as evidenced in its constant magicking up of new sections of the public it claims to represent: ‘the squeezed middle’, ‘the law-abiding silent majority’, ‘the decent majority’…

Myth #4: Ed Miliband is a rebellious outsider

Unbelievably, despite the fact that this is the zaniest, most baseless myth of all, it was repeated like a mantra at the party conference. So desperate is Miliband to depict himself as an outsider that he even exploited the fact that his parents fled the Holocaust, claiming that this infuses him with ‘the heritage of an outsider’. And he plans to weaponise this heritage in order to make war on the ‘closed circles’ and ‘vested interests’ of the modern political scene. In short, Labour is still fundamentally a non-Establishment party, which plans to pummel the Bullingdon-braised elite insiders of the Conservative gang.

Such political self-flattery would be funny if it weren’t so completely otherworldly. It takes a special kind of shamelessness for someone as well-connected as Miliband – son of Ralph, babysat by Tariq Ali, etczzz – to present himself as a skulker on the outskirts of power. The truth is that all of Labour’s modern men and women – all of them – ascended the party ranks in precisely the same manner as modern-day Tories and Lib Dems did in their party machines: through nepotism and insider backscratching and via professions that are utterly insulated from the madding crowd, such as PR, TV, banking, Brussels, think-tanking, and so on. Labour likes to bang on endlessly about the ‘Bullingdon set’ that now rules Britain, but there is more than one avenue into the modern-day oligarchy – and the Ed clique achieved their current status in a fashion every bit as undemocratic and underhand as the so-called Bullingdon bruisers.

Myth #5: Labour is a social-democratic party

This is the myth that provides the most comfort to youngish Labour activists and apparatchiks – that theirs is still a left party, socialist in sentiment if not in everyday policy, a big, democratic organ of the majority in society. Codswallop. Bereft of a properly social outlook, lacking anything like a democratic base, utterly incapable of saying anything principled or thoughtful about the current crisis of capitalism that is threatening to make people’s lives less stable and more tough, in what way is Labour ‘social democratic’? In truth, the crisis of Britain’s Labour Party speaks to a worldwide crisis of social democracy. Ed Miliband’s schizophrenic political personality – where he can switch between being ‘Red Ed’ and ‘Blue Ed’ and ‘Green Ed’ in mere minutes – reveals much about the desperation of social democracy to reinvent itself in the face of an historic crisis of purpose and support.

Listen, people: Labour is over. It might be hard for anyone but a well-connected mini-oligarch to get to the top of Labour these days, but it is easy to get out of Labour. Just walk, leave this political husk behind, and rethink politics anew.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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