The Wilting Rose


In which Chris Napier talks about his love/hate relationship with the Labour party and the problems with voter apathy, political triangulation and a broken electoral system.

I grew up in a Labour heartland, the kind of place where Labour could put up an empty suit in a red rosette and it would win parliamentary and council seats as a matter of course. I’ve also always thought I was pretty much bang in the middle of Labour’s target market.

However, a combination of the arrogance, complacency, corruption and triangulation displayed by the party since I was old enough to pay attention has meant that I’ve never voted for them, even though I’ve generally held that I’d rather a Labour (led) government in Westminster than a Conservative one.

Indeed, I see Labour’s disappointing performance while dominant in parliament, combined with the general awfulness of First Past the Post being major contributors to my political apathy in my early-mid 20s.

This wasn’t helped by the fact that I’ve lived in very safe seats all that time (well until 2015 anyways) the kind of seats Labour don’t bother to campaign in very hard because they view them as unloseable. It seems I wasn’t the only one, seeing as the 2001 election had the lowest turnout of any since universal suffrage and turnout has remained anemic since, especially amongst the young and poor, especially in Labour heartlands.

Now, New Labour’s tactics made sense and were undoubtedly successful for a time. The policy of triangulating towards the Conservatives to pick up marginal voters put off by the Tories mid-90s internal squabbles worked wonderfully, but it would only work so long as Labour could keep those marginal voters once the Tories got their act together and could keep the centre-left core vote with them.

The core vote has gradually drifted away, either to non-voting apathy, to UKIP & the Greens or in Scotland, overwhelmingly to the SNP while the marginal centre-right voters they shifted to win have gradually returned to the Conservatives (under stable leadership by David Cameron until last week) or moved to the Lib Dems (in 2010 at least) or again, in Scotland to the SNP.

When Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader, I had genuine hopes that this would signal a return to the centre-left, a party which explicitly stands up for working and disadvantaged people against corporate neoliberalism. I viewed this as the only way to effectively challenging Conservative austerity, to halt UKIP’s insurgency into Labour heartlands and a good thing for British politics.

However, it quickly became clear that those Labour MPs who owed their advancement to the Blair-Brown regime – i.e. anyone who won their seat between in 1997 or since – were wholly unwilling to embrace such a possibility and effectively sandbagged and briefed against Corbyn from day one.

They can’t see that their slick triangulation is what has led to the alienation of core support and largely contributed to the Leave vote last week.

I’ve spoken to Labour members who lambast Corbyn’s leadership and point to ‘unsatisfactory’ council elections while giving him no credit for the surge in membership, improving polls or the fact that Labour won the council elections and four mayoral contests handily. Admittedly, I’m an outsider, but that blows my mind.

What might he have achieved if his MPs had looked at the will of the membership and got behind him, if Labour had presented a united front in opposition to Conservative austerity and in defiance of the Murdoch media narrative?

Now, I’m not saying that Corbyn is perfect by any means – he’s not exactly a rousing leader or a slick media operator and I’m not wholly onboard with his somewhat dated version of socialism, but I can’t help but feel that a soft spoken person of principle is exactly what Labour (and the left in general) need at the moment, in stark contrast to the slick bombast of the Tories.

The most laughable thing is that Labour’s best chance of defeating the Tories is by taking advantage of their splits over Europe – an opportunity marvelously presented by the Conservative meltdown in the wake of the EU referendum.

Labour’s landmark victory in 1997 was almost as much facilitated by a Conservative meltdown (which saw John Major hold off a failed leadership challenge from Eurosceptic John Redwood two years previously) as it was by any great genius of Tony Blair or his policy platform.

Seeming to forget this, Labour MPs have attempted to shame Corbyn into resigning – knowing they probably can’t beat him in an election by the membership – allowing much of the media attention this week to be on Labour’s internal struggles rather than Conservative splits and failings over the EU.

Corbyn should have been able to stand up in parliament this week and tear a strip off David Cameron for calling the referendum, for allowing what amounts to an internal Tory squabble to further damage an economy already asset stripped by austerity and divide the nation. The Labour benches should have roared their approval and looked forward to a general election they could actually win (probably not a majority, mind) should one be called.

Instead, the Tories are to be allowed a relatively placid leadership contest and Corbyn is undermined from within for the temerity of gaining an overwhelming mandate from party members and supporters to return the Labour party to a position of being concerned with, well… labour.

At this point, I can scarcely see how a cohesive Labour party moves forward from here. In the absence of a unity candidate (hell, there isn’t even a realistic anti-Corbyn candidate yet) or any good feeling between the rapidly diverting Labour camps, I see two possibilities and neither of them are good.

Either the PLP manage to depose Corbyn, in which case the core support will evaporate entirely and Labour will be annihilated at the next election or Corbyn stays in place and the rebels in the PLP head off to set up their own party… which will be destroyed at the next general election, but not before splitting the ‘labour’ vote enough that the Corbyn party can’t win the seats back either.

Let me be clear. I DO NOT want to see Labour split or collapse in the current state of affairs because that damns the UK (or at least the rUK, seeing as I expect Scotland to be independent soon enough) to Conservative rule for a generation at least. I care too much about my family and friends in England & Wales to view that with equanimity.

A month ago, Owen Jones wrote about how Labour might need to divide before a former-Labour coalition could take power again – but this only makes sense if we have a proportional representation

I’d be all for a PR system, much like that used in Denmark, which would allow a centre-left, pro-EU, anti-austerity bloc of Labour-Progress, Labour-Momentum & Green parties to form a government. However, we don’t have that and I can’t see it happening with a Conservative government who love being able to command a majority government on less than a third of the vote and see their main rivals in disarray.

As such, a Labour split in a first past the post system would lead to a drastic shift in the balance of parliament. By splitting the vote, I’d imagine that the two post-Labour parties would struggle to retain 100 seats between them. There would be gains going to the Conservatives in those precious middle England marginals, UKIP in the working class Labour heartlands that voted so strongly to Leave and some stragglers picked up by the Greens (the four seats the GPEW came second in 2015 for example), the Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru and that one Labour seat in Scotland would default to the SNP.

Labour would be reduced, at a stroke to a lesser parliamentary force than at any time since the end of the first world war and the Conservatives would be handed an increased majority with no single party even close to being able to challenge them in the foreseeable future. That is a disaster for British democracy.

The rose is wilting and while I cannot cry for the Labour party, I will lament it’s decline and demise as it allows the unfettered dominance of genuine evil.




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