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Despite decades of trauma, Labour is still shackled by ideology

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THAT the Labour Party is a complete mess at the moment is being concealed by the coronavirus crisis.  

Had this WMD not been unleashed on the world by the Communist Party of China’s incompetence or design, the soap opera of Labour infighting would have dominated the news as it did in 1981 and 2016.  

It is not for want of trying by Labour front-benchers and its former leader. Rebecca Long Bailey preferred to be fired by Sir Keir Starmer rather than withdraw a tweet endorsing a Labour-supporting actress who promoted an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, even when the actress herself withdrew the allegation.  

Jeremy Corbyn is being Jeremy Corbyn, but is now experiencing suspensions from the party for doing so. At the weekend, Lisa Nandy, who is Shadow Foreign Secretary (no, me neither) was exposed as believing our armed forces should be disbanded and replaced by Oxfam.  

There will be a decent interval before Nandy is dumped by Sir Keir, otherwise the electorate will be dumping Sir Keir as part of Labour’s record-breaking fifth successive post-war electoral defeat.  

Scottish Labour has lost yet another leader. The party seems to be irrelevant in the fight between unionism and nationalism north of the border and seems set to lose more seats in the Holyrood elections.  

Labour has only one Westminster MP with a Scottish seat. That the Conservatives have more Scottish MPs and MSPs than Labour would have been inconceivable a decade ago by any political commentator. 

But how did Labour get into this mess? Was there a time when Labour was not experiencing this trauma? Possibly not. Unlike the Conservative Party, Labour adheres to an ideology, and it is the strength of that adherence, and its consequences, that always causes the party problems.  

This is because there is always a struggle when pragmatism clashes with ideology. When Labour implements a policy that differs from its ideology, it always runs the risk of being called hypocritical and being denounced by vocal supporters.  

When Labour runs with its ideology over objective reality, it is misgoverning. This probably explains why, outside of the now-repudiated Blair/Brown years, Labour’s maximum time in office has been for periods of no more than about six years.  

Labour’s ideologically-informed governance stops working properly after about three years. The last time Labour was returned with a good majority, excluding Tony Blair’s three victories, was in 1966 – 55 years ago. 

Ideology is the cause of Labour’s problems. Harold Wilson stated that the Labour Party is ‘a moral crusade or it is nothing’. While this is a fine soundbite, made before Wilson became Leader of the Opposition, it made him and the party hostages to fortune.  

Sometimes the most beneficial decision a government can make is not the most moral by socialist standards. Sometimes the only decision a government can make is to cancel the crusade and sail back home. 

While it is possible that Labour’s current problems appear to stem from the Blair/Brown government’s failure to protect the economy from the worst of the banking crash as well as did other countries, the very fact that New Labour is routinely denounced by the most influential in Labour circles implies that the party’s longest continuous period in government was part of the trauma, rather than the cause.  

The party turned to Blair and Peter Mandelson after the unexpected death of John Smith in 1994 instead of Blair’s leadership rivals John Prescott and Margaret Beckett.  

Prescott had been elected as an MP in 1970. He remained a backbencher during the Wilson/Callaghan government, but was also an MEP at a time when that position was nominated rather than elected. Beckett had actually been a government minister in the 1970s.  

Yet Blair, who was elected to Parliament in the same year as Jeremy Corbyn and Gordon Brown in 1983, won more votes than his rivals combined. What came to be described as Old Labour was denounced in the late 1990s as much as New Labour is today. 

It was actually in the mid-1970s that Labour’s current trauma really started, a trauma that I suggest persists in the party to this day.  

It was slightly over 30 years after Clement Attlee’s landslide electoral victory, greatly aided as it was by the Bohemian corporal plunging Europe into war, that Attlee’s policies and the Keynes-inspired political and economic settlement that accompanied them finally collapsed as the global financial community gave up on Britain and the pound started to crash-dive on the exchange markets.  

The British government reportedly ran out of money to prop the pound up. National bankruptcy and a default on government debt loomed. Not for the first time, a British Prime Minister had to take the begging-bowl to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), but this time it was different.

The loan was not unconditional. The IMF got to have a major say in the running of the British economy. To avoid this loss of economic sovereignty, Tony Benn advocated a siege economy, including withdrawal from NATO and the EEC, which would have plunged the country into an emergency dictatorship as the state assumed almost totalitarian powers to direct labour and business.  

His plan was rejected. Instead, the Government was forced to implement decidedly unsocialist monetarism, a very unKeynesian restriction of the supply of money to the economy.  

Just as hyperinflation was the bugbear in Germany, unemployment was Britain’s, but Labour policy moved away from trying to lower this whilst the number out of work was rising.  

Services and subsidies to nationalised industries were cut, to the outrage of the more ideologically-committed. But ideology had to give way to pragmatism as policy was now directed by external forces. The IMF had made Labour an offer it could not refuse. 

And this is the point at which Labour’s underlying and continuous trauma properly started. Labour’s ‘moral crusade’ was at an end. The run on the pound in 1976 had been dangerously real, as was the risk of an unprecedented default on government debt. The direction of travel had been set and the Government’s reputation for competence was fatally damaged. By Wilson’s estimation, Labour is left with nothing. 

Margaret Thatcher reversed Labour policies of state control and successfully extracted socialism out of the productive section of the British economy. She destroyed the power of the unions to force change in policy or governments.  

To get elected and re-elected, Tony Blair could not undo the major changes made under Thatcher. The fact that he was elected Labour leader was also due to the trauma experienced in the mid-1970s when its ideology stopped working for the last time and Labour stopped winning general elections.  

Blair even rewrote the party’s keystone Clause IV – its historic commitment to nationalising British industry – to distance the party from its original function. 

The trauma that persisted in the Labour Party is evidenced by its choices of leader after defeat in the 2010 general election. Ed Miliband had been an MP for only five years before becoming leader and had held a minor government role compared to more-experienced and senior rivals David Miliband and Ed Balls.  

His leadership plan distanced itself from New Labour and was based on waiting for the Conservative-LibDem coalition to fall apart while holding on to his core vote with policies that harked back to the 1970s. It was a disaster that prolonged the trauma. 

Miliband was succeeded by Corbyn, a veteran backbencher of 32 years who had zero front-bench experience because no Labour leader would touch him with a bargepole.  

Only a party membership in serious trauma, and bereft of new ideas, would have considered Corbyn the best choice of leader. It was an act of desperation after all other ideologically-compatible alternatives had ended in failure.  

Corbyn appointed as his Shadow Chancellor a man who also had zero front-bench experience despite being an MP for 28 years, and who had been fired from a similar finance role at the Greater London Council when he planned to set local taxes illegally, which could have caused a collapse in services and chaos on the streets of the capital. There was more electoral disaster. 

Now Labour has selected the most inexperienced politician ever to become Leader of the Opposition. Even though Sir Keir Starmer has the same parliamentary experience as did Ed Miliband and David Cameron, both of these had been working with government ministers for years beforehand as special advisers and had been well-embedded in their respective parties’ organisations before that.  

While Cameron was able to draw on a pool of experienced former government ministers for his teams, Labour has been restricted in doing that for the last five years, as senior former ministers who had Tony Blair or Gordon Brown as a boss and remain in Parliament were and remain effectively personae non grata on the front bench.  

Emily Thornberry has a place, Yvette Cooper does not. The trauma is thus a barrier to recruiting talented politicians. To get elected, Sir Keir made pledges to the Corbynist party members on which he cannot deliver and also win a general election. 

Labour’s ‘moral crusade’ ended in 1976 with the ashes of its economic policy. Changing events as the country moved to a deunionised, service-based economy and the collapse of communism in Europe by 1991 means the party is stuck with an out-of-date ideology it cannot implement.  

While socialism is regarded as hip and cool in a mass media ignorant of history, this fashion stops at the ballot box. Labour is split between the idealists and pragmatists and has been so for decades.  

Its traumatised leadership has rejected pragmatism for the last ten years and paid the price, but cannot bring itself to detach itself from a failed and unworkable ideology. Labour’s most vocal supporters now use the term ‘centrist’ as a form of abuse. 

The Labour Party needs to split so that the Left wing can carry on with its historically vote-losing policies whilst the moderates continue with a form of voter-friendly inclusive pragmatism. There is room in the political spectrum for two pragmatic parties in the centre.  

Tony Blair tried to move Labour towards pragmatic governance, but the handicap of the ideologues led to inevitable failure. The Corbyn surge was a symptom of a trauma that has plagued Labour for more than 45 years, limiting its opportunities to govern.  

The trauma can only end when Labour does what the Conservative Party – the world’s most successful political party of the democratic era – has been doing for almost 200 years, confronting and abandoning its past when situations change.  

Until that time, Labour’s decades-long trauma will persist to the party’s ultimate detriment. 

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Paul T Horgan
Paul T Horgan works in the IT Sector. He lives in Berkshire.

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