The Death Agony of Social Democracy

In the aftermath of the Stoke & Copeland bye-elections the pressure on Labour, it's leader and his supporters increased. Here's three insights ....

  1. This was started in the Spring of 2017, before the local elections which were not good, and well before the General Election the results of which suggests that a wake might be premature. I had been planning something along the lines that classic social democracy was struggling around the world. The Lawson article below catalogues its electoral failures, obviously it used the reviews to chart the rise of Corbyn, which asks if he could make a difference; the polls weren't looking good. Lawson suggests two routes forward, one of them PR with which I agree, although I suspect his appeal for a progressive alliance is over for the moment. I conclude with a White Paper which argues that Labour has killed its democracy and that will inhibit it's renewal.
  2. The General Election result which happened just a month ago, (on the original publication) will change the way we read this story.
  3. The way that rump New Labour holds onto power and its historic apolitical practices remain a problem for Labour.
  4. The first is from the TLS and is a polemical review of three books about the rise of Corbyn. They say, "Rosa Prince, in Comrade Corbyn, offers a pacy biographical account, sourced predominantly from outside his circle; Alex Nunns’s The Candidate is a very well-researched narrative, widely sourced but written from a supportive perspective; and Corbyn: The strange rebirth of radical politics by Richard Seymour mostly eschews the personal for a witty and acute political and historical analysis from a position to the left of Corbyn."
  5. The review of Nunn's book catalogues Corbyn's ascent to power through the failure of Blairism, the slow re-joining of the soft left who'd given up during New Labour's ascendency and the final accumulation of the young and the new Left from single issue politics.
  6. The reviewer is pessimistic of Labour's chance of victory, but points to the Referendum Party's 1997 catastrophic failure and remarks that the future is hard to forecast. He does say that Labour's majority want to focus on inequality and to reject insipid triangulation and that the left majority is solid for the foreseeable future. A view to be repeated by Paul Mason at a Progress Conference later in the year.
  7. The next article is by Neal Lawson, who's strong on the road to irrelevancy, the weakness of the Unions, the loss of social memory of the depression and WW2, the decline of manufacturing and its command and control management style which was used by the Atlee & Wilson Governments and still aspired to by the New Labour rump. He notes the failures in Greece, Holland and France of Labour's sister parties.
  8. His answer is what he calls a unification of 45 degree politics and proportional representation. The former involves the creation of campaigning organisation and their legitimisation by the State. By calling it 45 degree politics he makes it sound new and innovative, but this is how we used to do politics in the 70s & 80s, although the lessons from Spain since 2008 are worth learning from and Grenfell may be the focus that leads to more powerful tenants organisations, a new tier of civic society. PR would doom the Tories to a minority in Parliament and he hopes make Labour confront its tribalism and work with other progressive parties. The results of the election make this less likely not more.
  9. A paper by Emanuelle Averil on New Labour, shows its managerialism and the destruction of its activitist commitment and influence.
  10. There follows a number of quotes from the paper.
  11. The sustained efforts to control the grassroots were based on a misconception of local parties and members, who were seen, in keeping with the old Duverger model, as dangerous radicals who would thwart the modernisers’ ambition to make the party more responsive to the voters. However, the rare empirical studies to investigate the supposed ideological gap between Labour members and Labour voters (Seyd and Whiteley, 2002) have shown it to be in fact very slight and a matter of degree rather than of a real divergence of opinions.
  12. Therefore New Labour’s party management methods, which were focused on electoral gain, in reality made the party less attuned to the electorate.
  13. Even more paradoxical for a party whose main objective was to win elections, one of the most immediate and most significant effects of the New Labour’s party management, which worked hand in hand with management of the media, was the toxification of the party’s image ..... the record level of abstention in the 2001 general election was such a shock
  14. ... instead turned a pluralistic party into a highly factionalized one.
  15. ... the blandness of a “sanitized” party (Seyd and Whiteley, 1992: 207). Such type of party simply ends up putting the voters off as they can no longer see the difference between the parties. It also discourages activists, who lose any incentive to get mobilised and to campaign ...
  16. ... the way the newly created policy forums functioned, where minority opinions struggled to even be recorded.
    Vladimir Derer, founder of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, expressed the view, echoed by many party members, that only political debate can keep activists, whom the leadership relies on to run the local parties and campaigns, interested. Participation to the political debate, which “wine and cheese evenings” could never replace, is an essential motivation for partisan engagement ...
  17. In his classic work on the rules of innovation, James Utterback explains,
  18. .... it is true to say that internal consensus and cohesion, as they manifested themselves in New Labour, constituted obstacles to innovation and therefore endangered the survival of the party ...
  19. ... it s ironic that as Tony Blair became leader and as New Labour was swept into power, an entire wave of groundbreaking management books, developing the model of the learning organisation.
  20. The Averil paper in particular is worth a read, it encapsulates a lot of what's wrong with the Labour Party today.