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Rise of the new Labour left

Sukumar Muralidharan | Updated on January 22, 2018

Mr Right?: Britain’s former Prime Minister and former Labour Party leader Tony Blair. File image   -  The Hindu,Chennai

Left hook: Jeremy Corbyn, surging ahead in the Labour leadership race   -  REUTERS

Sukumar Muralidharan   -  BUSINESS LINE

Blair watches in helpless disquiet as the left-wing he had banished to the shadows acquires a menacingly concrete shape in Jeremy Corbyn

Parties that lose elections usually end up licking their wounds in friendless isolation. But the Labour Party has, since sinking in May to a second successive election defeat in Britain, seen a surge in membership. Distinctly unhappy at this good fortune is Tony Blair, who restored Labour to power in 1997 after two decades in the wilderness. Where some see opportunity, Blair sees ominous visions of the party going backwards to a “parallel reality” where “evidence and reason” have no place.

The new entrants to the party, Blair worries, could make electoral victory impossible. But it is not just winning that matters. The programme that the party seems eager to embrace in the flush of new-membership enthusiasm is, for Blair, simply wrong-headed — a consequence of mistaking “radical leftism” for the more sensible pursuit of “radical social democracy”.

Blair was the fourth in a leadership succession that shifted Labour away from its left orientation after 1983, when the eloquent and cerebral Michael Foot led the party to spectacular defeat. Though mired in recession, Britain was heady with victory in the Falklands War and ebullient over the prospect of a new trans-Atlantic partnership, with Republican right-winger Ronald Reagan being inaugurated as US president in 1981.

Since then, winnability has been an obsessive focus of the party leadership, and this has meant banishing the spectre of left-wing politics from within. Neil Kinnock came agonisingly close in 1992, but it took another five years of inept dawdling by the rival Tories for Labour to regain the winning mojo. Blair’s first electoral contest as Labour leader in 1997 was a sweeping triumph that more than requited the indignities of 1983.

Today, Blair watches in helpless disquiet as the left-wing he had banished to the shadows acquires a menacingly concrete shape in Jeremy Corbyn, an eight-term Member of Parliament and survivor of all the swings of the electoral pendulum over the years. He complains bitterly that despite all efforts since Kinnock’s days, Corbyn remains a potent threat to balance and sanity. And he would also undoubtedly remember with great chagrin that Corbyn was among the main organisers of the February 2003 demonstration in London against the march to war in Iraq.

It was Britain’s largest ever public demonstration, a warning of imminent folly that Blair chose to disregard.

Today, the invasion of Iraq is recognised as a fiasco, a millstone that Blair will never shake off, and will remain his unique claim to a place in the history books. It is not his seeming prescience on Iraq that propels Corbyn’s rise. Rather, it is a growing sense of malaise at the narrowness of politics since Labour acquired the prefix “new” and stretched itself out on the bed of neoliberalism. Whether it is Labour or the Tories in power today, the economy runs on the spectral sense of “confidence” of the speculator in the financial markets, and entitlements are determined not by social negotiation and collective bargaining but by the fickleness of asset prices.

Corbyn’s Islington North constituency — which he won with over 60 per cent of the vote in May — reflects the polarities of a state in which Labour does no more than embroider and embellish the central pillars of neoliberal orthodoxy. This London suburb has 42 per cent of its residents living in social housing and 31 per cent owning their homes. The average income of the former class is £15,000 and of the latter, £78,000.

Clearly, these are strata that would define voting allegiance by where they stand in the hierarchy. There is a large element in the middle though, where the real battle for votes is fought. Since Blair bid farewell as its leader, Labour had an indifferent performance in 2010 and then a seemingly catastrophic defeat in 2015. Yet the fine print indicates that between 2010 and 2015, Labour gained over 700,000 votes and the rival Tories just 600,000. Labour’s share in votes increased by 1.5 percentage points against 0.8 for the Tories.

With all that, the outcome was a decisive Labour defeat, a consequence of being too much a part of the middle-ground, insufficiently distinguished from the Tories. This yielded space for insurgent campaigns run by Scottish and Welsh nationalist parties and environmental campaign groups, not to mention right-wing xenophobes.

Tory victory remained a dimly foreseen possibility till the very end, with every opinion poll forecasting a dead-heat. The failure of the pollsters was sufficient to excite an inquiry by the British Polling Council and the Market Research Society. Early hypotheses proposed a “shy Tory, lazy Labour” explanation: of conservative voters being reluctant to state their choice in pre-poll surveys and Labour supporters failing to turn up on election day. That seeming effort to extenuate at least some of the pollsters’ obtuseness may hold a kernel of truth. Labour simply failed to offer a credible alternative to the menu of economic austerity the Tories had cooked up.

Corbyn’s surge in the Labour leadership race is quite possibly one way of preventing the fragmentation of the middle between regional parties and the extreme right. Interestingly, there is a close analogue across the Atlantic in the strong early showing of Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed socialist, in his quest for the 2016 Democratic party nomination.

Here again, voter ennui at an undifferentiated middle is driving a sharp polarisation between left and right, with the oafish real-estate developer Donald Trump — bizarre even by the standards of the Republican right-wing — representing the other end.

Politics under neoliberalism is clearly entering a phase of mutation and rapid, unpredictable change.

Sukumar Muralidharan is an independent writer, researcher based in Gurgaon and Shimla

Published on September 04, 2015

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