Labour’s party conference ended this week as it began. Jeremy Corbyn, the incumbent leader, had been re-elected to lead one of the greatest parliamentary parties of modern times. But the debate at the Liverpool conference indicates that, despite the emphasis on unity, the party is light years from returning to the centre of Britain’s political stage. For that to happen, not only must Corbyn and his faction accept their duty to lead the party back to power, but so too must the other main players, the parliamentary party (PLP) and the trade union bosses. That does not mean platitudinous promises to unify or go for the Tories. It means recognising that, for the majority of British voters, the tone, style and politics of Labour have become irrelevant, and that this must change, quickly. Unless it does, Labour’s days will be numbered.
For a century, Labour shaped Britain’s politics and parliamentary system, in opposition and in power. It did so because it represented the voters and led on the causes which have mattered to decent people, whatever their party: sound finances and an economy which rewards enterprise, promoting trade in goods and services worldwide; jobs, opportunity and affordable social goods – pensions, healthcare, education and the opportunities it brings; security at home and the protection of Britain’s interests abroad. Sometimes the Conservatives led on these, at other times Labour. British voters made radical decisions to change direction of government, to give ‘the other man’ a chance, whether Attlee in 1945 or Thatcher in 1979. They did so again in 2010, when Labour was sent packing. It had brought the country and its finances to the edge of the precipice, with people’s lives and future facing ruin.
Not only were the Blair-Brown years perceived as fiscally disastrous. They were seen to have brought parliamentary government to a new low, characterised by spin and PR, and by shutting out the voters and failing to represent or be accountable to them. Mr Corbyn’s wacky brand of North London ‘alternative socialism’ now compounds the problem, with the decent Left kept out in the cold. Meanwhile the chasm between the trade union bosses and their members could not be greater. Only one of the three major trade unions, the RMT, supported Leave on June 23rd, though ordinary trade unionists across the country voted for Brexit by the million.
Whether Labour goes the way of the old Liberal Party remains to be seen. Haemorrhaging votes to UKIP may continue and on a large scale. Unity, this week’s theme at Liverpool, is not enough, if it merely aims to rally the troops as a party of protest. Rather, as Frank Field, Labour’s most respected MP, reminded his colleagues, they need to focus on the causes which all of Britain and the party hold dear. Engaging with the Brexit negotiations to make Brexit the reality for which people voted would be a start. Dumping, as many in the PLP want, the esoteric blend of extreme socialism, internationalism, anti-Zionism and collectivist economics would also help. But more is needed if Labour is to return to power.
The party must realise that Britain’s voters do not believe the fantasies of a socialist utopia, or that the Blair-Brownite rump has much to offer beyond the tired spin of a jaded left. A majority of British people wants grammar schools. A majority wants to regain sovereignty and leave the EU, and a majority wants their country to be one in which work and enterprise pay, and where the state, and its political parties, are the servant, not the master, of the people. These shared national ideals have in the past been espoused by right and left, albeit with different emphases and outcomes. If the Labour Party now mistakes them as the hallmarks of the right, it will be abandoning many of its natural supporters and cease to play its pivotal part in Britain’s parliamentary politics.