Given that I have had a blog for over five years, it may seem odd what I am about to say, but here goes. I always try to be honest and tell it like I see it. But it’s gradually dawned on me that I haven’t always succeeded. A prime example was with Brexit. I felt from the start that the best route for the UK to go would be the softest of soft Brexit, a kind of Norway ++. However, possibly given how awful Brexit is going to be, even the softest of soft Brexits, I kept my thoughts to myself. I shouldn’t have. In fact, if we’d accepted from the start the admittedly dishonest and crooked victory achieved by the millionaires of the illiberal elite, Brexit would have been put to bed by the end of 2017. We didn’t. And now we are going through a hard Brexit. In part, the hard Brexit is down to people like me. I’ll try to be even more honest from now on.
Another subject on which I’ve kept my gob shut is the role, and indeed relevance of both the Labour Party and the labour movement, the latter of which I mean is trade unions. Whilst I have not reached a definitive conclusion, I have pretty well made up my mind about them. They both face existential challenges and it would be right to have a frank debate as to whether we need either of them in their current form.
The Labour Party was created by the trade unions to give working people representation in parliament. From time to time, Labour not only achieved that aim but also it won a majority of MPs. And it achieved great things, like the NHS. But that was then, this is now. Our country has changed greatly since Labour was formed 120 years ago but the party has stood still.
The deindustrialisation of Britain was greatly accelerated by Margaret Thatcher’s hardline Conservative government from 1979. The closure of the old industries based in the so-called Labour heartlands changed the demographics. Young men would no longer follow their fathers, and often grandfathers, down the pit or to the steelworks. Younger people often moved away to the big cities to seek work. The old certainties disappeared in Britain’s rustbelt areas and so did the way in which people voted.
Until Neil Kinnock began the long task to make Labour electable, the party was run as it has always had been run. By committees, by conferences, by block votes, by dreary constitutions and by tiresome rules and regulations. It seemed to exist not to win elections but for those who occupied the elected positions and maintained the bureaucracy. There were different strains of socialism and social democracy in Labour in what was regarded as a broad church.
In 2015, after Labour lost its second successive election, an unknown lifelong career backbencher called Jeremy Corbyn stood for leader as a token candidate for the hard left. It required the votes of people who did not believe in any of his politics to even put him on the ballot paper. We know what happened next. In 2017, Corbyn ran on a 1980s style programme and lost the election by far less than many people had feared. Millions of remain voters lent Labour their votes, boosting Labour’s results around the country, deluding party apparatchiks that one more heave would do it. Two years later, Corbyn’s hard left manifesto crashed and burned, handing Boris Johnson’s hard right Tory party a landslide victory. Labour lost all right, but it was where Labour lost that shocked many.
In Labour’s rustbelt areas, voters deserted the party in droves. We can argue the reasons – Brexit, Corbyn’s toxicity, a muddled wish list of a manifesto with unlimited free money – but look beyond that. How can Labour win back those people who voted Tory in areas that previous Tory governments had destroyed the local industries? Or perhaps the bigger question is could it ever win these people back?
Labour has changed in a number of ways. Its main groups of supporters are from the big cities and many of them are middle class. The party leadership comes across as London-centric and, again, middle class. That’s because it is both. And as with the rise of the hard left in the 1980s, it is well-off, privately educated people, who attended the best universities who have the main positions of power in Labour. They believe in political purity, even if this means Labour loses elections. There can be no compromise, there can be no broad church in Labour. And they speak an alien language from ordinary people.
Two of the key words in the debate are ‘working class’. Who are they? The blue collar engineers at large manufacturers who earn excellent salaries? Doctors and nurses? Train drivers who nowadays earn huge salaries compared to days gone by? Where is the dividing line between working class and middle class? Are you working class if you go to university? No one ever tells us because everything has changed. I often wonder when people like Rebecca Long-Bailey, the hard left’s continuity Corbyn candidate to succeed the not-so-great man himself, means when she drones on about her working class credentials. I wonder if by working class they actually mean poor?
Either way, Labour is in a hole. Corbyn offered 1980s tax and spend, pretending that you could do all your spending by soaking the rich and borrowing everything else. He wanted to nationalise the railways, royal mail, the utilities and certain parts of BT. People rejected it. I think old style socialism, the delusion that the state knows best in every single situation, is on life support. Is it time to switch it off?
Corbyn’s top team of privately educated, Oxbridge millionaires may have not intended it to sound this way but they came across as being anti-aspirational. They had enjoyed privilege throughout their lives, some no less than the likes of Old Etonian Boris Johnson, and they appeared now to be kicking the ladder away from under them. Long-Bailey proudly declared she was not a millionaire as if it was a bad thing to be a millionaire. Why should someone not aspire to do as well as they can in their lives? If that means having a good income, isn’t that a good thing? Shouldn’t we want the next generation to better than we did? Diane Abbott sent her own son to a private school, for goodness sake. As ever with the comrades, it’s one rule for them and one for everyone else. (As a soft left mainstream Labour supporter and now, once again Labour member, I would never send my children to a private school.)
So, Labour does need to look at what and who its for. With the breakdown of class structures, it’s not enough to bang on about the working class. How about the aspirational middle class, whoever they are? Yes, we want a publicly owned, state run NHS but do we need to nationalise everything else? Can’t we achieve much the same results by way of effective regulation? And yes, we need to make the country more equal in terms of opportunity and distribution of wealth and more fair. We can do that without taxing everyone to death, although tax changes will need to be made. Be honest. Theresa May employed a soundbite saying she wanted “a country that works for everyone”. Labour should be the party that actually means it.
Nowadays, trade unions are all but an irrelevance. Unions hold enormous sway in Labour, yet only 23% of workers are in unions. In Len McCluskey’s Unite, only 35% of members voted Labour. Some unions do good jobs but many others are merely political power bases for the ultra left. They apparently negotiate on important issues but in truth they are mainly just told by management the decisions which are going to be made and the pay rises that will be offered, if any. Services offered by unions are minimal. I am not saying unions should be abolished but they need to change or else they will die.
The days when people voted in union elections, participated in branch meetings and any other part of the unions’ activities are long gone. It’s jobs for the boys and girls. I believe trade unions need to change, to evolve, to become more relevant to their members, to work with and not against management, to become more a staff association than an old style union. I don’t have a definitive template but I do not see the current union structures as being sustainable.
In the end, it’s all about change. Society has changed. We now have a strange situation where the Labour Party has become the preserve of the affluent middle classes and the Tory Party has made huge inroads into deindustrialised Britain. I do not see this as a temporary aberration, either. Labour needs to wake up and see what’s happening. Most people, I suspect, do not think exclusively down party lines. Whilst Labour created the NHS and saved it under Tony Blair’s government, Boris Johnson’s government talks lovingly about the NHS, too. Over 13 million people trusted the Tories to look after the NHS. A majority of people might want to renationalise the railways but I suspect wouldn’t be prepared to die in a ditch about it. Ditto the royal mail. Ditto the utilities. People just want stuff that works and doesn’t cost a fortune.
The Labour Party and the labour movement are both in crisis and, frankly, deserve to be. They still operate as they did before the internet. The likes of Len McCluskey and Mark Serwotka talk the language of a golden era of trade unionism that never existed and instead put Britain on its knees. Call it change, call it evolution, it’s the same thing.
I am not sure any of Labour’s leadership candidates have grasped the enormity of the task that awaits them in office. You will no longer be able to whistle down the pit to ensure the workers vote Labour, you will need to give people a reason for voting Labour. It could just be that Labour and the unions have had their day. Even as things stand now, the vast majority of people have abandoned them. How long before the rest follow?