A YouGov poll revealed Labour members' top three leaders were Corbyn, Miliband and John Smith: None of whom had ever formed a government
Labour Pains

The “real” Labour Party

Since Blair doesn’t seem to count for many members, they have no positive model of Labour in power

After a crushing general election defeat, the Labour Party faces a difficult path back to power under its new leader. In this special section, six writers examine the career and character of Sir Keir Starmer, outline the massive challenges he faces in making his party electable again, and advise him how to set about his formidable task

Where will you find the “real Labour Party”? The leadership election has come down insistently to one question: which candidate is the true embodiment of “real Labour values”? This is a strangely theological issue on which to base the future of a party, and yet it’s the issue that above all seems to determine the relationship between Labour and its mass membership. And one of the striking things about the “real Labour Party” — which is to say the platonic ideal of the party, rather than the party as it actually exists — is that it seems to be almost wholly incompatible with holding power.

When YouGov recently polled Labour members on their attitudes to party leaders of the last hundred years, the top three slots went to men who had never formed a government. First and second were Corbyn and Miliband, who not only never became prime minister but whose regimes helped to guide Labour to its lowest number of seats since 1935.

Third place was granted to John Smith, who did not even have enough time in office before dying to contest a single election. Tony Blair (who led Labour to two landslide victories and inaugurated 13 years of Labour government) comes in as the fourth least popular.

For many current members, then, Blair’s leadership doesn’t count as “real Labour”, and so there is no positive model of Labour in power to direct potential voters to: during the 2019 general election, Corbyn and Momentum seemed at least as dedicated to attacking Blair’s record as to attacking the Conservatives. Those who take this view tend to be a mixture of younger members with no clear memory of the depleted Conservative administration the Blair government replaced, and older ones who have returned to the fold — those like the film director Ken Loach, who left the party in disgust under New Labour and returned after Corbyn’s election as leader ended the reign of what he considered the “fake left”.

Corbynism was a bad answer to the right question: what is the left for?

After labour lost the heartland seat of Copeland to the Tories in a 2017 by-election, Loach wrote an op-ed for the Guardian explaining that voters had in fact been repulsed by Blair (who by then had been ten years out of office) rather than against Corbyn. Only Corbyn and the “small group” of MPs who unambiguously backed him qualified as “real Labour”.

The appeal of this approach to the hard-left tendency Loach represents is obvious. According to this narrative, Labour would have won if only the public had been offered “real Labour”; and when Labour loses, it is always the fake version of Labour that is responsible. One more spasm of purification, comrades, and victory is in sight.

But it’s not only the hard left that is guilty of this. When 3,000 Labour members left the party in response to Corbyn becoming leader, Peter Mandelson referred to these exiles as “real Labour”. When I joined the Labour Party in 2014, it was under the guidance of an obscure feeling that Labour under Miliband had fallen from its true path and I should be part of the restoration; when I left in 2018, it was with an absolute conviction that the party had wandered from the strait gate and narrow way. (This was not unrelated to the fact that I shared a constituency Labour party with Loach.) In the interim, I cast my votes for the party, telling myself that this was a token of support for what the party should be rather than what it was.

The problem — or one of the problems — with the hard left’s platonic ideal of “real Labour” is that it’s nostalgia with no sense of history. The vision of Labour that Loach believes in is one that is “anti-imperialist” (which is to say, not actually anti-imperialist but rather specifically opposed to Israel), pro-union and pacifist.

But Labour supported the establishment of Israel. In the 1960s, the Labour government strained to rein in union overreach (had the unions been willing to work with Barbara Castle, they might never have had to face the more aggressive reforms of Margaret Thatcher). And Corbyn aside, Labour has never had a pacifist leader in the modern era (Michael Foot was anti-nuclear, not anti-war).

In other words, there is an extant vision of “real Labour” that is not drawn from the record of Labour in government, but constructed by a process of negating Blair: if Blair was the Middle East Roadmap, junking Clause IV and Iraq, then whatever “real Labour” values are must be the opposite. But Corbyn opponents should be wary of making the same error in trying to establish their own vision of “real Labour”. The future of the party cannot consist of an ersatz version of the past divined by inverting everything Corbynism offered.

Corbynism was a bad answer to the right question: what is the left for? In an economy where not only have unions been vastly diminished (and the economy in any case no longer sustains the employment practices that made unions work) what is the place of a party of the labour movement? As the “herbivore” wing of the party pursues beliefs about, for example, trans rights that place it further and further at odds with the mass opinion of the working class, can Labour’s traditional coalitions be held together? The answer to these questions will not be found in wistful romanticising of a prelapsarian past, whether the lapse is conceived as Corbyn or Blair. Labour’s future only begins when it can quell its obsession with “realness” and deal instead with what’s real.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5

Subscribe
Critic magazine cover