Labour Now Faces a Crisis That Threatens Its Very Existence

William Boyd’s post-crash novel Ordinary Thunderstorms tells the story of how a fluke experience can destroy at a stroke an individual’s security.

The protagonist, Adam Kindred, goes from having the comfort of a promising white collar career to living rough on the streets. 

He discovers that all we hold dear - family, an education, financial and job security - are terrifyingly fragile. 

The same can apply to political parties. As the general election has proven, our political organisations are built on flimsy foundations. 

Beyond membership, which is a poor indicator given that many members are disengaged and remain with a party more by habit than conviction, a party’s fortune relies on that most unreliable of factors: electoral success.

There is no right for a party to exist. Voters are not beholden to nostalgia or a respect for history when they enter a ballot box and they make their decisions out of self interest. They may vote for a party because they want a certain tax break or disagree with the way welfare is spent. 

the majority of us vote for our own priorities, not out of allegiance

Then there are those for whom self interest is altruistic because they believe that life is better if others around them also prosper. 

In the end, the majority of us vote for our own priorities, not out of any allegiance. 

This is the cruel reality to which the Liberal Democrats woke up to on May 8. A party which ten years ago boasted 62 Members of Parliament now has just eight. 

The assumption that office bequeaths security is just that: an assumption. It has been proved in Canada where the Progressive Conservative Party went from having 211 seats in 1984 to just two in 1993 and in Greece where Pasok has gone from having 158 seats in 2000 to 13 in this year’s election.

This is the spectre which hangs over Labour. A party once so sure of its purpose and so assured of its legitimacy, now faces a crisis which threatens it existence.

Of course, the darkest prognoses come in your darkest hour. Other parties have been here before. The death of Tory England was declared in 2001, while the writing of Labour’s post mortem has been a constant of British politics since Ramsay MacDonald’s national government.

Yet the problems facing Labour now are deeper and more insurmountable than at any time in its history. The question which has long hung over the party is now more pressing than ever: what is Labour for?

Nobody doubts its commitment to social justice and equality but values, especially when they are shared by other parties, are insufficient unless they are embossed with policy and direction.

The identity of Labour is unresolved. Is it still the party of the working man (the choice of gender is deliberate) or has it become a haven of metropolitan England? 

On a whole range of issues, from nationalism to the role of the state, the party either has no clear answer or has allowed its policies to stagnate.

The nightmare scenario is a repeat of the schism of the 1980s

Many are still peddling a form of centrally controlled statism in the age of Uber, others have preferred to ignore the question of national identity rather than respond to it.

In the north of England, the party’s working class base is under threat from UKIP, the rebuilding of its former Scottish stronghold will be a generational effort while in the south and east of England the party has all but disappeared. 

The electoral challenge is surpassed only by the ideological one. The party is being torn between those who believe it should learn the lessons from the Scottish rout to embrace the SNP’s anti-austerity agenda and those convinced the party can only win with a soft-left agenda that does nothing to frighten middle England. 

The nightmare scenario is a repeat of the schism of the 1980s with either the unions and the left or the modernisers seeking to strike out on their own.

Labour and its supporters were deluded about the limitations of the Ed Miliband years. They cannot afford to be deluded about what is at stake now.

Jason Beattie is the Political Editor of the Daily Mirror

More about the author

About the author

Jason Beattie is the political editor of the Daily Mirror. He has worked in Westminster for 15 years including spells on the Birmingham Post, Scotsman and the London Evening Standard. A hispanophile, he has also written for El Mundo and has a deep interest in Spanish and Catalan history, culture and food.

Follow Jason on Twitter.

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