Elected as the lesser of two evils, Labour will face crises from the offset. Could its disenchanted left step in?
Despite the underwhelming Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election result, there appears a near consensus that the Labour Party under Keir Starmer is headed for government in next year's general election, possibly in a hung parliament but more likely with an overall majority.
At the same time, Labour is a troubled party. Its leadership, determined to move the party towards the centre ground, has scrapped its more leftist policies and ousted members, often on contested grounds. Many tens of thousands of others have simply left in disgust.
Taken together, this has resulted in a loss of 168,000 members since 2017, when the membership was at its peak (564,000), having risen rapidly after Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader in September 2015. Today, membership stands at around 395,000. While this has meant a substantial drop in revenue, there has been increased support from some wealthy donors and companies, with £6m raised just last year.
There are widespread, if largely anecdotal, suggestions that many of the former Labour Party members have not joined other parties but are active in non-party community-orientated politics. There are also signs of deep frustration with national party politics, at least across England, partly as a result of Labour's shift rightwards.
Of the many indications of these trends, two recent examples stand out. In the north-east, the popular if decidedly leftist politician Jamie Driscoll is the mayor of a local district, North of Tyne, but has not made the shortlist for selection as Labour candidate for a planned larger region, the North-East Mayoral Combined Authority. This has caused widespread anger among party members in the region.
Driscoll has now resigned from Labour and is putting himself forward for election as an independent. Support has been impressive. As he put it earlier this week: "It'll be tough going, against national parties with slick press offices. But when we launched a crowdfunder for the campaign yesterday, I said if we could raise £25,000 by the end of August, I would run. We've raised £75,000 in small donations in just one day. People believe in this campaign."
The second example was reported in this column two weeks ago, when Corbyn got a huge welcome from a large audience at the Bradford Literature Festival, including a standing ovation. This response - which he gets wherever he goes, though this is rarely reported on - is reminiscent of the huge crowds that gathered to hear him speak during the 2017 election campaign, when Labour unexpectedly achieved lift-off. The wide polling gap at the start of that campaign narrowed sufficiently to deprive Theresa May of her expected landslide victory, instead delivering a hung parliament.
We are in the odd position of a likely Labour victory in next year's general election, but for a party that simply does not have the enthusiastic support it enjoyed even a few years previously.
If Westminster had a PR electoral system, the Greens would probably gain considerable support from disenchanted voters. But in the absence of that, the obvious question arises of what will happen when Labour gets into power, given that many will have voted for the party only to keep the Tories out, rather than because they genuinely supported its policies.
Some voters will, to borrow a phrase from political theorist Raymond Williams, "elect them on Thursday and fight them on Friday", while others will be pinning their hopes on Starmer being much more progressive once he gains power (though there is so far little evidence to suggest this will be the case).
Looking at what is known about the Labour policies, which are reportedly due to be thrashed out in the coming days, in most areas there is a grim determination not to make any financial commitments. Potentially popular moves to bring some services, such as railways and water, under public ownership are off the table, and there is little indication of intentions to meet the huge gaps in local authority spending and even social care.
Though Labour could hardly be worse on 'green' issues than the current government, it has backtracked on its £28bn investment plans and its current pledges fall far short of what is actually needed. The party does have some useful commitments on industrial relations, especially in terms of job security for the weakest in the gig economy and other sectors, but on foreign and defence policy it is as traditional as they come.
At the root of Labour's difficulties is an issue that rarely gets talked about: back in the 1990s, Tony Blair accepted the Thatcher-era move to market fundamentalism as irreversible. Blair's Labour may have sought some reforms, and his early years in office did see some improvements in health, education and, especially, child support, but there has since been a cross-party acceptance that a deep change in neoliberal economic ideology is simply impossible. Only the Greens and, briefly, Labour under Corbyn, have fought this belief.
The problem for Starmer is that his Labour Party will inherit an economic and social mess accumulated over 14 years of Conservative governments that have acted 'for the few, not the many'. Food banks, multi-year waits for health treatment and increasing poverty are the order of the day.
Adding to this will be an international energy system made uncertain by Putin's war in Ukraine that empowers the wealthy and, overshadowing it all, progressive climate breakdown. In other words, Labour will likely face multiple crises from day one, with little capacity to inspire hope and the consequent risk that any public optimism with the new government will evaporate within a year.
Provided Labour has a working majority, this will be the time - the mid to late 2020s - when those very many people, including the Jamie Driscoll supporters and the crowds who still rush to hear Corbyn, can come into their own, demanding that a new generation of Labour politicians delivers the kinds of progressive policies that were at the heart of Corbyn's proposals of 2017. They may even succeed.
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