Après le déluge

Where does Labour go now?

Parliament starts the new decade with Labour still in a state of grief…and anger…about its crushing election defeat. It’s a good place to start.

If we’re brutally honest, the real grief is not rooted in the depleted number of Labour MPs, nor in the personal tragedy defeat meant for Jeremy Corbyn. At its core is the damage done to the bigger dream that once surrounded Corbyn.

Addressing this offers little comfort to either Left or Right. Bigger picture politics will dominate the years ahead. Even Britain’s Defence and Security services recognise that the greatest threats we face (both domestically and internationally) will come under 3 headings

  • our complete unpreparedness for climate shocks and ecosystem breakdown,
  • unsustainable gaps between the richest and poorest, and
  • the prospects of secular stagnation within the coming decade.1

As climate physicists continually try to warn us, ‘There are no small steps left’. Only systemic, transformative change might hold society together. This applies as much to a deeply divided Britain as to a Europe also in danger of disintegration. Even the US Army High Command belatedly recognise this affects them too.2

Beyond factional simplicities

The 2019 debacle leaves both the Left and Blairites facing some uncomfortable truths. For nostalgic Blairites, there is no cosmetic ‘middle ground’ that is relevant to the existential challenges ahead. Individualised, aspirational politics offers no answers to climate crises. Nor can we expect to shop our way through the upheavals to come. Only t h e s h i f t i n t o m o r e c i r c u l a r economics stands a chance.

For the Left, the problems begin with Labour’s failure to root its policies in the radical decentralisation regularly espoused by both Corbyn and McDonnell, but which never made it past control obsessions within the ‘Corridoriat’ of Senior Advisors surrounding them.

1 Understanding the ‘New Normal’—’The Challenge of Secular Stagnation: an economy that works.’ Briefing Paper Series, No 1, Tim Jackson, http://limits2growth.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/ 2018/07/AETW-Policy-Briefing-No-1-digital.pdf

2 ‘Implications of climate change for the US Army’. United States Army War College, https:// climateandsecurity.files.wordpress.com/2019/07/implications-of-climate-change-for-us-army_army- war-college_2019.pdf

Killing the dream

In 2017, hundreds and thousands were drawn towards Jeremy, not because of specific Labour policies but because he symbolised a different sort of politics; something open, honest, radical and inclusive; a politics that promised to be genuinely transformative. In 2017 Labour lost, but we felt like winners.

But even in 2017 it was clear that, for the following election, the technicolor dreamboat of values drawn to Corbyn’s Labour would need more specific pegs to hook itself onto. People also needed to know their own part – as players, not just passengers, in this transformative change. On both counts, Labour failed.

The 2019 electoral disaster was a combination of catastrophic misjudgment and ill-focussed organisation. Jeremy will inevitably carry much of the blame. But Labour’s deeper problems lie more in the cadre of senior advisors surrounding Corbyn. None should be allowed within a million miles of Labour’s rebuilding.

Blinded by Brexit

This was an election that should never have happened. Johnson only had one card – Brexit – and Labour allowed him to play it. Labour should have forced the Tories to wallow in the Brexit mess Johnson had wrapped himself in. A spring or summer election would have suited Labour much better…especially if the condition for agreeing to one was that Johnson’s Brexit deal should have been put to a public vote first.

Anything other than this was certain to end up as a Brexit election; with the inevitable bottom-of-a- barrel race into alienation and resentment that followed. The trouble is that many of those closest to Corbyn always looked as if they wanted Brexit anyway.

The fudge of Brexit neutrality made Labour look indecisive and Jeremy weak. It spurned Labour’s strongest card in favour of a public vote. This should have been championed as a demonstration of what trade union democracy always involves. National disputes routinely occur. Trade union leaders negotiate with national or international employers, hammering out the best deal they can get. But the actual deal always goes back to the members for their final informed decision.

Neither the Tories nor the Brexit party give a hoot about trade union democracy. But Labour does. It is the high ground of democratic accountability the Party should have stood on. Whatever the outcome it would have taken Brexit off the table. Any subsequent election would have had to address the bigger threats of societal and climate collapse already hovering around our doorsteps. It was self-deceiving to say Labour won the bigger arguments in the election. We never even got close to having them.

Labour’s manifesto – full of genuinely radical changes – was longer (and more expansive) than my mum’s shopping lists. These were policy arguments that had to be won before an election, not during one. Even candidates struggled to digest many of the manifesto details.

More decisively, Labour lacked a simple strap-line. We didn’t even have the wit to pinch the Tory one. Dumping the ‘Brexit’ part of their ‘Get it done’ and prefacing it with a succession of bigger issues; ‘Fix the planet: Get it done‘, ‘Tackle homelessness:…’, ‘Repair the NHS:…’, ‘End poverty:…’. would least have forced a proper debate on the more fundamental ‘Get it done’ challenges ahead.

Where it all went wrong

This criticism, though, merely puts a bow-tie on a corpse. Labour had been playing into Tory hands long before Johnson took control. This may be the hardest thing for the Left to face up to.

While Labour was still falling in love with Jeremy the Tories set about casting him as a man who couldn’t lead. Corbyn’s senior team helped with this, turning Jeremy’s campaigning zeal into an absence rather than an asset. Goodness knows how many rail-miles Jeremy clocked up, but it never became the ‘leadership’ peg the public were looking for. Within the LOTO comfort zone activity passed for strategy, when there was none. Instead of leading a mass movement, with a hugely empowered, devolved power base, Jeremy ended up with a corridor cabal. The opportunity to build a wider consensus (even within the PLP) got lost behind internal obsessions with control.

When David Cameron began his attempt to detoxify the Tory image he knew he couldn’t do so from within his parliamentary party. It was (and is) full of too many crazies. His answer was to set up a series of Commissions, bringing fresh ideas in from outside and (without ever formally endorsing them) associating himself with fresh thinking and openness. Post-2016, the Left failed to see it needed to do the same.

Corbyn inherited a PLP that wanted to lynch him and (to their credit) an office determined to stop them. Sadly, it also created a siege/control mentality that was never able to reach outwards. McDonnell brought in Lord Kerslake to oversee Treasury reform plans. No parallel Commissions ever got through the LOTO net. No national/international figures were ever brought in to raise Jeremy’s policy/leadership profile. No one who’d ever arm-wrestled in climate negotiations, trade deals or peace diplomacy came in to lead Labour’s transformation planning.

Instead, ‘corridor control’ came to dominate. Factionalism overtook radicalism. At the most senior levels, people who’d never negotiated anything more than an extended tea-break were left in charge of the policy sifting process. The most repeated Shadow Ministerial complaint was about delays in getting radical policy proposals through the LOTO soup. Sue Hayman saw a string of her Environment proposals get lost in this Never-never-land. Two years on, Alan Whitehead still awaits approval for publication of his Local Energy book (on radical decentralisation). Andy MacDonald’s pledge to set annual carbon budgets for every part of the transport sector never became the platform for transformative changes in aviation and shipping policy. His proposed ‘pendulum shift’ of funding from private to public transport infrastructures went the same way. Germany’s 10% cut in rail fares shows how popular such radical changes can be.

Beyond fairness or revisionism

If an appeal to ‘fairness’ was never going to win Labour the 2019 election, nor was Blairite revisionism. Technically, the Left could argue that Labour’s share of the vote (32.2%) was better than Ed Miliband’s 30.4% in 2015 and Gordon Brown’s 29% in 2010. In absolute numbers, Labour also gained more votes than it did in 2005 (10,269,076 versus 9,552,436) under the then leadership of Prime Minister, Tony Blair. But so what?

Labour also got trashed because the Blairite legacy finally caught up with it. When I entered parliament in 1992 Scotland was solidly Labour. So too were all the northern seats we’ve just lost. But in 1997 New Labour had different priorities.

Week after week, meetings of the Parliamentary Labour Party were offered policy initiatives based on New Labour fixations with competitive individualism and the ‘opportunity society’. Real power shifted from citizens to corporations; and from the public realm to the private. The pursuit of Mondeo Man and Worcester Woman became the New Labour mantras.

Those of us complaining that such policies offered little to Labour’s ‘core voters’ were told bluntly that core voters had nowhere else to go. One look at the Labour wasteland that is now Scotland, and the broken Red Wall of the North and Midlands, tells you how foolish the claim was.

Post-2010, the SNP wrapped a nationalist flag round Old Labour’s redistributive policies and took over our turf: 40 Labour seats were lost and have never been recovered. In 2019, the Tories did

the same in the North and Midlands; taking Labour seats where ‘the end of boom and bust’ and ‘enduring prosperity’ both looked more like sick jokes.

The Tories will try to hang on to these seats by throwing money at them, but almost certainly on terms that reward corporate backers far more than impoverished communities. So where does Labour go next?

Back to the Future?

The first thing Labour must do is avoid any retreat into centrism. Look at the fires currently raging in Australia and the floods in nearby Indonesia. Look at our own pre-Christmas floods or earlier fires that wreaked havoc from California to the Arctic Circle. Look at the ice melt. There is no ‘nice politics’ of the middle ground to return to. Business as usual will never return. Any wannabe Labour Leader who ducks the centrality of transformative climate politics is not worth following.

No less dangerous are any siren calls to patriotism. The Right will play this card, and do so divisively. Brexit will break Britain. The Left needs a bigger, anti-poverty, climate politics to hold communities, and the country, together. The real answers will be found closer to mutualism than patriotism.

Regionalised and localised approaches to flood prevention, food security, air quality, re-wilding, fuel poverty, clean energy and transport must form the backbone of a Labour commitment to re- found accountable, secure and inclusive democracy. It needs to go hand in hand with the radical re-empowerment of local government. There is no other way of delivering the 20%+ annual CO2 reductions needed to avoid the next tranche of climate tipping points.

In early 2017, John McDonnell, Jeremy and I began work on what was to be a Labour Smart Cities’ Initiative. The plan was to open up conversations with up to 20 localities about the development of radically decentralised, clean-energy grids. Modelled on lessons from both Denmark and Germany, the plan was to put localities in the driving seat of strategies that made ‘climate’ the centrepiece of tomorrow’s economics. It needed rapid decarbonisation of the energy system, nationwide energy efficiency and waste reduction programmes, the use of smart technologies to localise, store and share energy, and a new skills agenda delivering full employment in a more circular economy.

The Party HQ balked at 20 pilot areas but agreed to a launch group of 3; kicking off on Merseyside, with support from the Metro Mayor. The Mayor was great. The venue, workshops and speakers were all agreed on. But the political penny began to drop that this posed a serious threat to existing fossil fuel interests and to centralised energy generation. Suddenly no one could find a common diary date for Jeremy and John. No one could agree which part of LOTO’s lap it should fall on. The 3-D commitment – decarbonisation, decentralisation and democratisation – became the first of Labour’s ‘corridor casualties’.

Climate priorities, as well as electoral calculations, dictate that this is where Labour’s repair work must begin. It means doing so in Scotland and Wales as much as in the newly lost heartlands of the North and Midlands. This is where tomorrow’s security, stability and democracy politics will find its roots. Labour doesn’t have to wait for Banksy or the Security Services to spell this out.

The last election should have been the Climate Election. What happens in the next decade will determine whether we tip from crisis to collapse. Labour needs to become the Party that ensures we don’t.

Alan Simpson

Advisor on Sustainable Economics January 2020

5 Comments

  1. Ruth Gillett on February 13, 2020 at 10:14 pm

    This is interesting. Reading it la few days ago (a quote someone posted from your article in the Independent spurred me to search for more) is the first time I’ve seen anything like this about Corbyn’s closest advisors.

    It goes some way to explaining the frustration I’ve felt at the air of inertia – almost a feeling of an inexorable, fateful slide into failure. As if Corbyn was not himself – not the guy I’d heard over the years challenging the government from the back benches.

    I joined the Labour Party because I felt hope that he and McDonnell had a chance to change the party. A party I had always had to hold my nose to vote for, purely in the interests of keeping the Tories out. Long experience as a community volunteer, fighting Labour’s tory behavior here in Glasgow, and of course Blair and his spin-offs had made me an unlikely party member.

    Of course there are many other factors involved in our failure to get Corbyn’s Labour into government, but that niggling feeling that he was restricted /muzzled /neutralised /stifled – I couldn’t understand where that was coming from…

    I’d love to know more. Why would he rely so heavily on advisors over his own instincts? What did he personally think about brexit? His address to the European Socialists (youtube) didn’t seem to marry with what he was saying in speeches. Why did he never or rarely challenge the denigrating narrative (either on antisemitism or other issues)? I wondered if it was just that he didn’t see the need to descend to their level, as he himself knew it was rubbish – or was he advised to remain silent?

    Re the timing of the election: once Lib Dems & SNP had declared they would support it I can’t see how he could have prevented it – but why was he calling for an election first rather than a brexit referendum? was that his idea or his advisors?

    He was heavily criticised in Scotland for ‘abandoning his principles on nuclear weapons. If you look hard enough, you can find that he hasn’t, that he and McDonnell were out-voted but were personally still going to speak out against renewal of trident. Why was that not bought out in answer to the criticisms? No claims or criticisms ever seemed to be rebutted by anyone convincing. Ordinary people like me spend hours on social media and in one to one conversations trying to counter the misperceptions put out by the media, the PLP, other parties – when really I feel there should have been a professional team doing that. Campaigning here in Glasgow, I was shocked at the number of (supposedly) politically aware people who had swallowed the PLP/media narrative about this dangerous (but weak & foolish) old man. Where was the backing team? Why was he left apparently floundering?

  2. Peter Pettit on March 1, 2020 at 10:20 pm

    Good to see you going strong . Your politics are impeccable. And , you might recall , your occasional presence in the Notts Probation Football team a decided bonus. At that point in time , of course , Michael Owen was a star to be born. Perhaps you were a premonition.

  3. […] to dampen down this deviation:  “Privately, many on the radical left agree with former MP Alan Simpson that the dogmatic and authoritarian tendencies of the orthodox left smothered the creative and […]

  4. Elena Moses on March 14, 2020 at 5:41 pm

    I appreciate your perspective here, and many (most?) in the party would agree with your 3 priorities. Given the ‘corridor casualties’ are pretty important to the new membership in recent years, I’d like you to say more about the paragraph below. LP members need to understand the dynamics and power playing in structures beyond the CLP; structures that are opaque to ordinary members. If we are to have internal democratic reform, we the membership need to know how we can help this process so that what we vote for in a leader is carried through to the strategy for elections, not just the developing a manifesto ……

    ‘The Party HQ balked at 20 pilot areas but agreed to a launch group of 3; kicking off on Merseyside, with support from the Metro Mayor. The Mayor was great. The venue, workshops and speakers were all agreed on. But the political penny began to drop that this posed a serious threat to existing fossil fuel interests and to centralised energy generation. Suddenly no one could find a common diary date for Jeremy and John. No one could agree which part of LOTO’s lap it should fall on. The 3-D commitment – decarbonisation, decentralisation and democratisation – became the first of Labour’s ‘corridor casualties’.’

    Even if you don’t name names, what roles were obstacles in the above scenario. And where did the special advisers that you deride come into this?

  5. George Carty on March 30, 2020 at 1:23 pm

    Could the increasingly environmentalist bent of Labour have contributed to its demise?

    The Red Wall seats that flipped Tory in December were mostly the more rural portions of the old coal mining belt, which since the closure of the mines have been highly car-dependent (as their dispersed populations preclude efficient public transport). The low land prices there have also made them attractive for housing developers: many building new estates miles away from amenities.

    Was the collapse of the Red Wall in part down to a yellow-vest revolt in defence of car culture?

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