It would be a sad and possibly final chapter in the British Labour party’s history. If the leadership election that closes in two weeks’ time is won by Jeremy Corbyn, the current favourite, his policies — printing money, state ownership of major industries, unilateral disarmament and quitting Nato — will make the party unelectable. That would be a very bad outcome for anyone who cares about fairness in our society or Britain’s place in the world. For those of us who have once before trodden the road of rebuilding Labour, it would also be a poignant one.
The Corbyn insurgency owes little to what a potential majority of voters think or want. It is fuelled by a mixture of idealism, frustration, naivety and trade union bank balances. Some of the people trying to cast votes are clearly wreckers from outside the party, taking advantage of new rules allowing registered “supporters” to take part in the ballot if they pay a one-time fee of £3.
Recovering control of our party will mean tightening those rules again. Electoral recovery is harder; it means winning people back to our side. Like Britain itself, we need to be global and liberal in our economic and social outlook, while still attaching importance to acting against inequality.
The Conservative party, which won a majority in May’s general election, is being given a free ride in coming to terms with this modern world. We have to reforge Labour’s tools for creating prosperity and sharing it more widely. The scale of the task is enormous. The price of failure would be immense.
This fightback must be led by a new, younger generation of Labour reformers. Whatever part the rest of us who care about Labour’s success can play, they are the ones who must close a faultline that already existed in Labour’s ranks before we lost power in 2010. This divided New Labour between Blairites, who espoused greater public service reform, and Brownites, who were more focused on the economy, although personalities played as big a part as policy. It prevented Gordon Brown from taking forward the New Labour reform agenda as Tony Blair hoped he would after his own departure as prime minister. And it remained an undercurrent for the last leader, Ed Miliband, who seemed as keen on discrediting New Labour as on defeating the Tories.
This fragmentation of the left is familiar across Europe and America. In different ways and intensities, we are all experiencing our “Syriza” moment, and if the insurgents are its driving force, they have had unwitting help.
The Labour party’s modernisers, who led the party’s reinvention in the 1990s, have also been at fault. In failing to acknowledge past mistakes and define what New Labour should mean for new times, we have allowed critics within the party to create a caricature of modernisation as a sectarian creed alien to the party’s values and history. It is the opposite: a politics firmly in the party’s historical mainstream of standing up for the many not the few in today’s world.
As a consequence of this caricature, modernisers no longer carry Labour’s middle ground. This holds back a united effort to address the identity crisis currently engulfing the party.
The hard left argument against New Labour is that “it was just a way of getting elected”, as I overheard one Corbyn supporter remarking with a sneer earlier this summer. Yet how else than being elected would it have been possible for a Labour government to introduce the national minimum wage and benefits for the working poor, to fund massive investment in hospitals and schools, offer unprecedented access to university education or introduce single sex civil partnerships? Labour’s fightback has to end the belittling of the party’s record in government and regard it as the foundation for yet further achievement in the future.
But here is the key point: to regain the mainstream of the country, we need to rebuild the broad centre ground of the party first. We should engage those progressives who regard themselves as “blue” rather than “new” — those in the Labour family who stress the place of national and local identity, of traditional culture and language in our politics.
Encouragingly, one group of Labour MPs who entered parliament in 2010 wants to forge a fresh progressive alliance. Their initiative — which they call Labour for the Common Good — needs to reach out beyond parliament and invigorate all those in the party, including those engaging for the first time, who want to join the battle for the modernisation of the Labour party.
That battle has to be re-fought anew in every generation. This is not the first time it has looked hard to achieve. Thirty years ago almost to the day, when I was appointed Labour’s campaign director, the party confronted very similar challenges to those of today following colossal electoral defeat — “moderates” in disarray, the soft left not knowing which way to turn, sensible policy thinking dried up. There were those who said Labour would never form another government.
Under a new leader, Neil Kinnock, we fought back, aided by some stalwart trade unions and the bulk of Labour MPs. Today, we may not have quite that leader or those same stabilisers. But that is all the more reason why those who believe in Labour as a party of government, not protest, have to put past differences behind them, come together and redouble their efforts to turn round Labour’s fortunes. Our party is in mortal danger — we need to save it again.