Labour has lost the plot

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Saturday, 13th August 2016

The British Labour Party could soon split into a pale imitation of Tony Blair’s New Labour and an economically illiterate student protest movement. Jeremy Corbyn’s transition from a lifelong backbench rebel to leader of Her Majesty’s opposition surprised me. I had admittedly underestimated the popularity of the new wave of leftwing activism. For a short while I rejoiced as at long last we had a Labour leader who would oppose military adventurism and nuclear weapons. Alas Jeremy Corbyn had little choice but to let Labour grandee, Hilary Benn, humiliate him in the debate on bombing ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

First let me lay my cards on the table. My heart clearly lies with the Green Left as, given a choice, I’d favour environmental sustainability and social justice over consumption-led prosperity. I’d rather invest in better public transport and more cycleways than build more motorways or enable more people to buy cars. I'd rather have full employment with most working 10–20 hours a week on modest wages than a growing divide between the underclasses on welfare or insecure low-paid jobs and the professional classes. I'd rather cut consumption than rely too much on imported resources. I’d also rather allocate some of my wealth to help people in poorer countries help themselves than live with the consequences of continued economic and environmental instability. Yet my brain recognises that we cannot change our lifestyle overnight for we might well throw away the baby, our cherished liberal society, away with the bathwater and end up in a dystopia with even worse human misery. The problem with the idealist left is its utter failure to recognise that we have to face choices at all, except a fictious battle between the reactionary old guard and our progressive future. They fail to see the contradiction between morbidly obese welfare dependents on mobility scooters in the UK and Zambian children walking 2 miles with a bucket to fetch potable water. To the infantile left, they are both victims with a common enemy, global capitalism, and a common solution, global welfarism.

Britain’s vote to leave the European Union revealed the true gulf between public opinion and the predilections of the trendy affluent metropolitan elite. The latter group believe we are on a one way journey to a new brighter tomorrow with more opportunities for all. Their unrelenting optimism is dented only by reactionary conservatives and noncompliant local leaders. Their pet peeves are angry natives, especially those of paler complexion, Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and anyone opposed to their dream of a borderless multicultural utopia managed by benevolent NGOs, global corporations and supranational governments.

Yet although Conservative parliamentarians were split down the middle on the EU referendum, they remain one party, largely because they all support variants of crony capitalism within a mixed economy. While Owen Smith calls for a £200 billion British New Deal, the new Tory Chancellor, Phillip Hammond, is actually pursuing Neo-Keynsian quantitive easing with a vigour not seen since Gordon Brown’s short-lived administration in the aftermath of the 2008 debt crisis. Tory MPs only really differ on the minutiae of strategy and international alliances. The so-called Eurosceptic wing of the Tory Party actually reflect a large body of conservative public opinion disenchanted with the rapid pace of social, cultural and economic change that has left behind many of the most disadvantaged communities in this country. Recent opinion polls have miraculously favoured the governing party despite a temporary fall in the British pound and much hype about jobs moving abroad as the UK prepares to leave the EU. Labour’s share of the popular vote has now fallen as low as 28%, and if it splits, I fear it could fall much lower leaving a vacuum, which the Liberal Democrats rejected by the electorate in 2015, are unlikely to fill. UKIP may have spearheaded the EU Referendum campaign and given voice to widespread public disapproval with unbalanced mass migration, but it offers no coherent policy platform on economics, ecology and defence that can either meet the challenges of the early 21st century or set the party apart from the Tories. While UKIP wrangles over its leadership, it appears too often just to react to cultural changes rather than propose any new solutions other than a few half-baked ideas from Tory think tanks. If we're not lucky, the UK could well have another ten years of Tory rule, probably with an increased majority with the SNP as the only viable opposition. The European Dream is fast fading too as Southern Europe struggles with high unemployment and unsustainable government debt, France teeters on the brink of civil war, Germany grapples with mass immigration from culturally diverse regions and Turkey looks set to unleash another wave of refugees that native Europeans seem unwilling to accommodate.

On the other side of the Big Pond it’s often hard to distinguish the idealistic marketing spiel of large high-profile corporations such as Walmart, Coca Cola, Apple, Facebook, GSK or General Motors from the upbeat universalist rhetoric of mainstream Democrat politicians like Hillary Clinton or Barrack Obama. Just as Coca Cola, responsible for much exploitation and ill-health, can champion multiculturalism through its yearly Christmas ads I’d like to Teach the World to Sing, Hillary Clinton can preach social inclusivity before an audience of Africans and Latino Americans. They all seem to sing from the same hymn sheet. Just as Apple may win favour with its customers by railing against authoritarian cyber-surveillance measures, the establishment left may try to score points with the electorate by promising to clamp down on corporate tax evasion. Yet once the left-branded middle managers are in office, they inevitably collude with their big business friends to entrench the hegemony of a planet-wide corporatocracy. However, many observers make a fundamental mistake in assuming only nominally elected representatives have a vested interest in maintaining social peace. While small business owners may only be concerned with their bottom line and their family’s wellbeing, big businesses take an active interest in their customers’ wellbeing and social stability. As a result the former tend to dislike regulations and punitive taxes, while the latter often help draft these regulations and fiscal regimes to maintain their market dominance and client base. In short big businesses act and behave just like states with multiple tiers of management, surveillance and security forces and complex systems to handle internal conflicts. New Labour hoped to bring about greater social justice in partnership with big business. Tax credits, Gordon Brown's flagship social justice policy, boosted consumer demand and allowed corporations to keep hourly earnings just above the new minimum wage, while property prices and the real cost of living soared.

The two wings of the Labour Party, if we exclude a few old-timers such as Dennis Skinner or Kelvin Hopkins, share the same basic universalist worldview, tend to read the same newspapers and support the same social media campaigns. They only really differ in their romanticism and willingness to openly support the nastier aspects of the military industrial complex. Under Tony Blair, Labour rebranded Western interventionism as humanitarian peacekeeping. While the Parliamentary Labour Party wants to work alongside big business and support the UK’s involvement US/NATO military action in the Middle East, Central Asia and elsewhere, the infantile left imagines it can tax the same global corporations that rely on the US military might to secure privileged access to strategic resources and destabilise uncooperative regimes. They somehow imagine they can bring about a fairer and more peaceful society by taxing and regulating the very corporations that generate the immense wealth on which our high consumption economy depends. The infantile left are always the first to oppose cutbacks in welfare provision and defend the general culture of entitlement that underlies their politics of identity and victimhood. Were someone to suggest the NHS should not give psychologically unstable sufferers of gender dysphoria hormone treatment and invasive gender realignment surgery, social justice warriors would be unable to grasp that the same resources could be better used to ensure everyone has access to clean water or to provide meaningful training and employment opportunities for all. Yet such extravagance can only survive thanks to the proceeds of global capitalism. While sufferers of severe emotional distress may be classed as disabled in Britain and thus entitled to disability benefits, in most of the world such people would have little choice but to work, beg or starve. The naive left may paint the Tory government as heartless for withdrawing benefits from hundreds of thousands of long-term recipients of incapacity benefit deemed fit to work, but in most of the wider world they would have never gotten any state subsidies in the first place and could have only relied on their extended family or community support structures.

Personally I think Owen Smith is little more than an opportunist keen to build on his charisma and Welsh background. His employment history with a pharmaceutical multinational, Pfizer, and the BBC as well as his past support for classic Blairite positions merely confirm that he’s just an establishment stooge. Yet sadly Jeremy Corbyn, despite his growing fan base among social justice warriors, is unlikely to win back the traditional working class vote haemorrhaged to apathy, UKIP or the Conservatives over the last decade. Voters in Labour’s heartlands were more motivated to vote against the European Union than they were to approve of Labour’s Neo-Keynsianism. They may well agree with Jeremy Corbyn on renationalising the railways or keeping the NHS in public hands, but they do not trust his clique to provide the economic stability essential to deliver better public healthcare or transport.

For over seventy years, since the watershed of the post-WW2 settlement, not a single social democratic government has successfully challenged corporate power, while delivering its people greater prosperity. The great social democracies of Northern Europe, most notably Sweden, relied on technologically advanced industries and a highly educated homogeneous working class to engineer probably the best compromise between the highly competitive capitalism of the United States and the inflexible command economies of the former Soviet Union. Globalisation, extreme labour market flexibility and rapid technological innovation have undermined this model. Sweden developed its welfare system to give all citizens equal opportunities and a chance to thrive in a high-skill and low-unemployment economy. That seemed to work while labour market protections remained in place and migratory flows were manageable. However, today Sweden hosts large parallel communities of welfare-dependent immigrants who are neither culturally nor economically integrated into mainstream Swedish society. 41% of residents of the city of Malmö now have a foreign background, 31% born abroad and 11% born in Sweden to non-Swedish parents. This represents a seismic demographic change in little more than 20 years. In 1990 the city was overwhelming ethnically Swedish.

Venezuela marked the final nail in the coffin for socialist reformers. Many leftists placed their hopes in Hugo Chavez and later Nicolás Maduro to exploit the country’s immense oil wealth to bring about prosperous social democratic society. Indeed in the early years, with record crude oil prices, Chavez’s United Socialist Party scored some major successes in redistributing petroleum profits to the country’s workless underclasses and expanding education and welfare provision. However, Chavez failed to address the country’s lawlessness, its high murder rate and its dependence on oil exports and automotive culture. Rather than invest in economic diversification and infrastructure while oil prices were high, Chavez chose to lower fuel prices, a populist act if ever there was one. When oil prices crashed and profits plummeted, Maduro’s government was powerless to prevent a run on the Venezuelan Bolivar, which made imports prohibitively expensive leading to massive shortages of basic foodstuffs and goods. In truth the Socialist Unity Party has never had a monopoly on power and the fiercely anti-socialist opposition controls the national assembly sabotaging much of the government’s efforts to steer the country through the crisis. Venezuela’s Opposition: Attacking Its Own People. However, the Venezuelan experience should clearly show us that within the confines of global corporatism, there is no alternative other than to steer a middle course by attempting to milk the system, i.e. capture a greater slice of the corporate profits pie to fund a welfare system that essentially supplements corporate rule. Jeremy Corbyn’s does not propose nationalising the commanding heights of the economy, but merely returning to public ownership a few loss making services such as the railway operators and water companies. Most of the wealth required to fund public services and welfare would have to come from taxation. Large corporates will always find loopholes to minimise tax while at the same time ensuring compliant governments can provide a minimum level of public services. As a result governments have little choice but to work with major corporations. Failure to do so will result in disinvestment and job losses. In an era of rapid technological innovation, governments can seldom provide the most efficient solutions, but can at best provide the most reliable tried-and-tested conventional technology and prevent the private sector from abusing their power. We’d have to choose a radically different model of development that would require an enhanced state of human solidarity to break free from our reliance on big business.

Unholy Alliance

Labour represents little more than a brand, built around a set of appealing ideals that others have coopted. The electorate is smart enough to realise that big business really runs the show and is just choosing middle managers to negotiate with big corporations and special interest groups. Today the party is an unholy alliance of 4 to 5 disparate groups:

  1. Traditional Blue Labour, patriotic but committed to representing their own people. Today this faction is best embodied by Frank Field, one of the few Labour MPs to oppose the EU and mass immigration, while campaigning for welfare reform that would empower the underclasses. This small clique sees itself running in the footsteps of Clement Attlee, Hugh Gaitskell, Harold Wilson and Denis Healey. Socially conservative, pragmatic, cautious and pro-NATO, they seek the best deal possible for ordinary working people, but have become a bit of an anachronism.
  2. Traditional Red Labour, best embodied by Kelvin Hopkins, Kate Hoey and Paul Flynn MP, critical of big business, keen on international solidarity but also supporters of economic protectionism and aware migration must be both balanced and sustainable. This group is unlikely to ever leave Labour unless it becomes electorally insignificant. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell may have once seemed part of this group, but have preferred the politics of idealist posturing over the more classic positions of the Bennite left. The late Robin Cook made a historic compromise with New Labour by supporting NATO intervention in the Balkan Wars, but soon grew critical of their misdemeanours over Iraq. Were he still alive today, he may not just have saved Labour in Scotland, but may have helped Labour steer in a new direction, that is neither trendy left nor neoliberal right.
  3. The Populist Left: A small clique at Westminster, but with wider support among leftwing activists nationally, this group believe government has the power to instruct big business to pay more taxes and subsidise their vision of a welfare utopia, international solidarity and open borders. They somehow see no contradiction in welcoming more migration from Islamic countries and the championing of gay rights or the preservation of greenbelt from either more housebuilding or hydraulic fracturing. Their politics are as impractical as Natalie Bennett’s Greens and would sadly hurt some of the most vulnerable communities in the country.
  4. Neoliberal Fabian Wing: We once called this clique, probably a majority of the parliamentary party, Blairites, but their pedigree stretches back to the Fabian Society, focused on social reform within a corporate free market economy. Blairism can trace its origins to Roy Jenkins, founder of the short-lived Social Democratic Party in the 1980s, former Chairman of Fabian Society and Britain's first President of the European Commission. Their adherents basically worship global corporations, the EU, NATO and are broadly supportive with the current US administration’s military adventurism. They tend to support high levels of net migration, multiculturalism, rapid socio-cultural change and greater surveillance. In the US this faction would throw their weight behind Hillary Clinton. However, their practical stances are today almost indistinguishable from the Cameronite wing of the Tory Party, who have long abandoned the more socially conservative positions of many former Tory politicians. If their electoral base really understood their true agenda, they would never have won three elections. Tony Blair did not campaign in 1997 to facilitate higher levels of immigration, outsource manufacturing or send British troops to war zones. Rather, New Labour presented itself as a credible centrist compromise between the Thatcherism of the 1980s and the social democracy of 1960s. They could only win under the Labour brand provided they could keep the first two groups, Red and Blue Labour, happy by throwing them the occasional bone, which mainly meant expanding welfare provision. The Growth of Welfare Spending in the UK
  5. The Muslim Faction: Most modern Labour activists would broadly agree on issues such as women’s equality, gay rights and cultural diversity. Yet so would most Liberal Democrats and Conservatives these days. Yet Labour depends increasingly on the electoral support of an ethno-religious community that, to put it kindly, has different views on these matters. While affluent Asians have long lost faith in Labour as the sole defenders of their interests and many have pursued careers in other parties of government, Muslims have special needs that require an alliance with the party most likely to provide generous welfare and lighter immigration controls. Wealthy British Indians of the Hindu faith seldom expect special treatment. Indeed their interests fall in line with other settled communities in the UK. While official statistics show just 5% of the UK population is currently Muslim, this proportion is clearly higher among the younger generation due to a much higher fertility rate and continued immigration through family reunions, arranged marriages and other channels. When Labour has failed to cooperate with local Muslim community leaders, we have seen the election of George Galloway of the proto-Corbynite Respect Party, and most disturbingly Lutfur Rahman. The former Mayor of Tower Hamlets not only brought Bangladeshi levels of corruption to the heart of London, butfavoured his own people over other newcomers and the dwindling Cockney community. If Labour continues to lose votes outside metropolitan districts with large immigrant communities, it will either have to acquiesce to the growing Muslim lobby, by allowing Sharia law in Muslim majority areas, or it could lose another significant chunk of its electoral support. A recent Channel 4 survey found 50% of Muslims in the UK want to ban homosexuality. Moreover many Muslims believe in a very strict dress code that prevents women from exposing their natural bodies for fear of being viewed as sluts. Labour-run Luton Borough Council has now authorised segregated male-only and female-only swimming sessions. Until recently this would be condemned as a regressive move, but to win Labour has to bow to pressure from its most loyal supporters.

Labour activists clearly back Jeremy Corbyn. Social media has undoubtedly played a major role in the surge of support Corbyn’s brand of right-on virtue-signalling politics, at least judging from my Twitter feed. Influential Guardian columnist Owen Jones may have expressed heartfelt doubts about Corbyn’s ability to beat the Tories, but Owen Smith is likely to gain support only from the PLP, longstanding moderate members and some Trade Union affiliates. In all likelihood Owen Smith’s team only hopes to win among the remnant core of Labour loyalists, enough to justify a later declaration of independence from the Corbynite Momentum movement, possibly with the support of a major Trade Union and the Daily Mirror. Labour’s membership has grown from a low of 170,000 in 2008 in the late Brown years to around 600,000 today,a by-product of the kind of online activism that helped the Scottish independence movement win the support of nearly 45% of Scots voters. I think Labour’s newly enlarged membership represents the bulk of trendy Guardian-readers, who have probably switched their news-gathering preferences to the openly globalist Huffington Post. However, I seriously doubt they could win the general election. Recent polls suggest a breakaway Fabian Labour party might attract around 13–14% of the vote with a Momentum-led party gaining little more than 20%. Left Labour may well join forces with the Greens to gain a maximum of 23–24% of the vote. With a First Past the Post voting system that would spell electoral disaster. It then remains to be seen, which way the growing Islamic lobby will side. Why would they urge their followers to back a party that stands little chance of forming a government? Would they not be better off forming their own party and winning a few seats in areas with large Muslim populations? The latter move would deprive the successor Labour parties of at least a fifth of their vote share. Left Labour would probably win in trendy urban areas like Bristol and Brighton, Right Labour may still do well in parts of Wales and Northern England, but face stiff competition from UKIP and Conservatives for the hearts and minds of traditional working class voters and welfare dependents.

Until the aspirational green left can unite around a viable political platform with proposals that will improve people’s quality of life, I think the best we can do is to campaign for electoral reform.

Is another Labour Party possible?

While I may rant and rave against the policies and institutions that Labour politicians have supported, many Labour activists still have their hearts in the right place. I blame Tony Blair's clique for making the party unelectable by alienating first Labour activists and then traditional Labour voters. The former often defected to the Greens, while the latter group either abstained or voted UKIP at the last general election. How could New Labour, often accused of being too rightwing, have pushed some Labour voters towards a party that is allegedly even more rightwing? It all depends on your definition of rightwing, but the answer clearly lies in New Labour's relaxation of immigration controls and its failure to address the skills gap among its core electorate. The voters of Sunderland did not want Labour to tackle unemployment in Poland or provide job opportunities for Indian nurses, they wanted their government to provide their sons and daughters with the skills they will need in the 21st century. Instead they got temporary jobs in call centres before they too were outsourced. I don't pretend Real Politik is easy but here are just some ideas for a true 21st century alternative Labour Party:

  1. Skills for the future: Invest heavily STEM education and training. Reorganise further education around the real needs of future workers. Reintroduce full grants for students from low income families on STEM courses, while urging others to opt for vocational training rather than university. Plan for a high skill / high wage economy rather than short-term growth based on high retail consumption and low wages.
  2. Balanced migration: Reassert Britain's sovereignty over migration in the best interests of the current population. Migration policy should aim to stabilise the population, enable professional and cultural exchanges and family reunions and allow newcomers time to integrate into mainstream British society. 
  3. International solidarity: Target international aid at sustainable development to enable people in poorer countries to prosper in their native communities and prevent a damaging brain drain. We should target aid at countries or regions that lack basic infrastructure such as clean water supplies or reliable electric power and such aid should be conditional on progress towards sustainable birth rates and womens' rights.
  4. Strong Nation states: Campaign for a looser community of independent European nations that cooperate over key environmental and security issues, but retain susbstantial autonomy over economic and social policy. Should the European Union prove beyond reform, Labour should support Britain's negotiated exit from the European Union. Since the Treaty of Lisbon it's become clear the EU is indeed beyond reform. Had Labour led the Leave campaign in the 2016 EU referendum, not only would this referendum been won by a much larger margin giving the UK a stronger bargaining position, but it may well be in power to negotiate a settlement in the best interests of ordinary workers in this country. We want Europe to remain free trade zone, but support the rights of national governments to support their native industries against unfair competition.
  5. Fair foreign policy putting our interests first: Consider first and foremost the interests of British citizens at home and pursue an independent foreign policy in cooperation with our European neighbours. Britain should only intervene militarily in self-defence or when a foreign militia directly threatens the security of our citizens and only then with the clear agreement of the United Nations and only against military targets. Britain should not use miltary force to depose foreign governments or occupy foreign territory. All territorial disputes must be resolved through diplomacy and respect of the democratic wishes of the inhabitants.
  6. Invest in public transport: We will renationalise the railways and increase subsidies for public transport and cycleways in urban areas by raising fuel duty and vehicle excise duty. We will also promote car sharing to give town dwellers greater flexibility. People in rural areas where public transport is not feasible will pay lower vehicle excise duty and be entitled to special fuel discounts.
  7. Invest in sustainable housing for a stable population: Once we can stabilise our population, we will build affordable high density housing for younger people in major cities to prevent urban sprawl.
  8. Invest in sustainable energy: While we recognise the first generation of renewable energy may be more expensive, we want Britain to be at the cutting edge of innovative clean renewable energy solutions, especially offshore wind farms and tidal power.
  9. Phase out nuclear weapons: Britain's Trident nuclear defence system was built for another age when the biggest threat seemed interballistic missiles launched by the former Soviet Union or China. That threat is neglible today, except in an apocalyptic scenario of maturally assured destruction. We oppose renewing Trident submarines and will only retain nuclear warheads until we can negotiate multilateral disarmament with other major nuclear powers. We should prioritise conventional defence and advanced reconnaissance systems. Our duty is to protect our citizens, not to act as a superpower.

 

Corporatism vs Capitalism

On a side note it would be tempting to replace the adjective corporate with the much maligned descriptor, capitalist. Unlike small businesses, corporations are much more concerned with expanding their empires of influence than short-term profits. Corporations work alongside banks, venture capitalists, marketing agencies, law firms, lobby groups and governments to conquer markets and suppress competition from small players by setting standards and regulations.

If you just want to sell a coffee-drinking experience, you can set up a family-run café, work hard, refine your services to appeal to your customers and find the right price point to cover your expenses and earn a small profit. If you employ bar staff, cleaners, maintenance workers or decorators, you may in theory be an exploitative capitalist, but you do not behave like a corporation or a crony capitalist. The latter would employ a market research outfit to identify demand for a customised coffee drinking experience and analyse the competition, open themed cafés in half-a-dozen prime locations of a major city replete with affluent and socially connected young adults and launch a clever social media campaign to spread the word before expanding rapidly to other cities. However, to accomplish such a feat they’d need to run at a loss for at least a year and would thus require a massive injection of startup capital. That how the big corporations such as Starbucks and Tesco behave. They do not set out simply to pursue a creative passion and make a living, but to conquer a large chunk of a market segment with global ambitions and in the process destroy local competition.

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