The Travails of Labour

The British Labour Party may strike most business people as singularly irrelevant at this point in history. It is involved in a bitter civil war. It is widely believed that it is unelectable.

The outcome of its Leadership contest may (just may ) result in the emergence of two rival parties, one a thoroughgoing populist democratic socialist party, the other more conventionally European-style social democratic (arguing that it represents socialism much as President Hollande might do). But official opinion gets things wrong - frequently. Labour remains very relevant.

Labour has been the main challenger to the Conservative Party since the collapse of the old Liberal Party in the wake of the First World War. It still has no serious rival for that position except in Scotland where the SNP has displaced it. Everywhere else all other parties of the Left and Centre-Left are still electorally relatively marginal. The only serious potential  threat outside Scotland is the national populist UKIP yet UKIP may have lost momentum with the Tory Government's acceptance of Brexit and is undergoing its own internal ideological struggle as we write.

Yes, Labour could collapse, much as the Liberal Party did, but we too easily forget that the collapse of the latter was based on a fundamental conflict between 'social forces', that is, between Liberalism's middle class members and the rising power of the trades unions. Trade union power has much reduced since the Thatcherite onslaught in the 1980s but it remains sufficiently powerful both to underpin a socialist party of one type or another and to draw around it other 'social forces' including the fearful public sector, minorities, intellectuals and impoverished local communities.

A more productive way of seeing recent events in the Party is not as a meltdown but as the possible birth pangs of a new Leftist populism that could, of course, still result in a meltdown further down the line. But it is just as likely to result in a reformed and reinvigorated centre-left Party that may be able to mount a challenge to capitalism in 2020 or more likely in 2025. In other words, unless the economy improves by leaps and bounds, UKIP develops a stronger and sustained appeal to the 'working class' or the Labour Right cuts its own deal with the trades unions, socialism is possible.

Note how Owen Smith, very much a Blairite in his younger incarnation, has attempted to win power within the Party by adopting a programme that is scarcely different from that of Jeremy Corbyn. Take a look at Corbyn's rallies where people are queuing to hear what he has to say. It is not just Len McCluskey of Unite but the significant Communications Workers Union that is now coming out in the strongest terms for the current Leader.  Add all this up and we seem to have a mass base that is rediscovering democratic socialism as an ideology much as Sanders' supporters did in the US.

There is more to say. The struggle between the PLP and the Leader is a struggle between a professional class and a more radical conception of democracy that has been in gestation for two decades. The two sides are not so much fighting within the Party as fighting within the Left of the Party over alternative strategies for power, also based on squabbles that go back decades. And now, not all but much of the trades union movement has apparently tired of taking the crumbs from the professionals' table. This is something transformative that needs to be better understood.