In the aftermath of the Stoke & Copeland bye-elections the pressure on Labour, it’s leader and his supporters increased. I made a storify shortly after the event, although it took me a couple of months to finish. I have exposed it here and because of the importance I place on the Avril Paper, I have copied the text of the storify, albeit slightly edited to this article, so you can read it as originally posted in the frame, or via html.

The slightly amended HTML version can be read overleaf, or below.


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

  1. I used Pott’s book reviews to chart the rise of Corbyn, which asks if he could make a difference; the polls weren’t looking good.
  2. 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 and 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.
  3. I conclude with a review of a white paper which argues that Labour has killed its democracy and that will inhibit it’s renewal. The way that rump New Labour holds onto power and its historic apolitical practices remain a problem for Labour.

The first article, What is the Labour Party for? On the mystery of Jeremy Corbyn is from the TLS by Robert Potts. It is subtitled or tagged with the phrase, “Jeremy Corbyn’s victory in the Labour Party leadership election of 2015 no longer seems as remarkable as it did at the time.” It 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.”

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.

Pott’s 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, reported by Red Pepper.

The next article is by Neal Lawson at OpenDemocracy, Labour’s problems are about far more than one leader, he’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. The article’s tagline is,

Everything that made Labour strong has been turned on its head. The party must embrace the future, or it will die.

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.

A paper by Emanuelle Avril on New Labour, shows its managerialism and the destruction of its activist commitment and influence. I created a snip & mirror on my wiki called “New Labour and Party Management“, to ensure I didn’t lose it. I said, “An unfinished white Paper by Emmanuelle Avril of the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle. The paper is called, ‘The (Unintended) Consequences of New Labour: Party Leadership vs Party Management in the British Labour Party.'”

There follows a number of quotes from the paper.

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 Duverger1 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.

Therefore New Labour’s party management methods, which were focused on electoral gain, in reality made the party less attuned to the electorate.

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

… instead turned a pluralistic party into a highly factionalized one.

… 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 …

… 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 …

Finally I observe that in his classic work on the rules of innovation, James Utterback explains,

…. 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 …

… 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.

The Avril paper in particular is worth a read, it encapsulates a lot of what’s wrong with the Labour Party today.


1.    In political science, Duverger’s law holds that plurality-rule elections (such as first past the post) structured within single-member districts tend to favour a two-party system and that “the double ballot majority system and proportional representation tend to favor multipartism”. The discovery of this tendency is attributed to Maurice Duverger, a French sociologist who observed the effect and recorded it in several papers published in the 1950s and 1960s.

2. I have made a local copy of the Pott’s TLS article; What is the Labour Party for?

The Death Agony of Social Democracy
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2 thoughts on “The Death Agony of Social Democracy

  • 10th August 2018 at 12:56 pm

    This is one of the articles that I originally posted as a storify and brought across to this blog in August 2018. It obviously took a month or two write and was eventually finished after the 2017 general election. I have back dated the article to the Storify page’s last modified date.

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