Labour Must Find Its Raison d’Être or Die

In a constituency were the Conservatives are utterly screwing up the local NHS service Labour still couldn’t defend a seat that it has held since 1931. Labour’s crowning political achievement was the establishment of the NHS after the Second World War, yet its desecration by the Tories isn’t sufficient to get its lifeblood to vote for Labour. The party of the labourer is being deserted by the labourers. This crisis goes far beyond the incompetence of Jeremy Corbyn. Since the post-war consensus collapsed Labour has been unsure of its identity. Its only success electorally after that collapse is reviled by current Labour members who have a large say in the direction of the party. Yet even that success sowed the seeds for the current crisis they are in, Labour has been shedding votes since 2001.

The fact that it was in power throughout the late 90s and the entirety of the 00s has ensured this identity crisis was somewhat suppressed on the national scene. Ed Miliband’s main achievement as leader of the party was to keep suppressing this identity crisis, he tried appetising the soft left of the party but he ultimately failed to convince the British public of its merits. This primary was down to the fact he offered such a bland soft left agenda, while failing to address Labour’s perceived economic incompetence that there wasn’t much merit for the populace to see in it. The hope the new Labour faithful placed in Jeremy Corbyn was that the left would be bold, exciting, honest, scrupulous and most importantly of all that he would be firmly anti-Tory, even to those “Tory stooges” within the Labour party itself. They wanted to return to the Labour of the past, yet many remained ignorant about the nature of Old Labour. The left decided to indulge itself in both ideological purity and nostalgia of the benefits of the post-war consensus.

What many have not realised is that the socialist movement has slowly been divorcing itself from the labour movement, this started during the 1980s when some working class voters were appetised by Margaret Thatcher’s promise of a home-owning democracy and most importantly her want for people to become better than they were. Through strife you could get the very same riches as those born in higher privilege. For some it wasn’t a dream, it was the truth. Many among the left will scoff at what was just said, but this is a prime example of socialism failing to connect to the labour movement. The promises of capitalism were more appetising than socialism to many labourers, those labourers who suffered from the appalling consequences of the Thatcherite revolution were more than happy to vote Labour and let their blood be filled with a vilification of anything associated with the Conservatives. Tony Blair’s success in getting Labour elected into power was the result of Thatcher’s excesses as well as the trouble the Europe question was posing to the Conservatives. Blair was able to communicate to those with the aspirations fostered by Thatcher, but realised how damaging the consequences of her policies were.

This is the reason why the left of Labour loathe Tony Blair, they dislike the ethos of aspiration that surrounded him. The Iraq War provided all the ammunition they needed to destroy him and his reputation among the Labour faithful. This is why those who want to accommodate pragmatism, more commonly known nowadays as being a Blairite (even if you substantially disagree with him) in Labour circles, is such a crime. The pragmatic Labour supporter knows people have aspirations, that they want the means to fulfil it and that you have to speak the language of aspiration. The Labour left don’t like that not because they think people shouldn’t have aspiration, a common but mistaken criticism put onto them by the right, but because it sounds right-wing. Its like they are being infected by a dose of Thatcherism. Alas, many on the left define themselves by what they would do at Thatcher’s grave rather than what they actually stand for. When you ask them what they are for it doesn’t take long before they start speaking negatively, the typical response of those whose politics is defined by the want to protest something. Just look at how boring Jeremy Corbyn’s policy platform is. He’s only had three decades to come up with an agenda of how to reverse the Thatcherite revolution that was unleashed when he became Islington North’s MP in 1983. One thing Jeremy Corbyn isn’t is stupid, so what’s with the dearth of substance?

The left dislike the language of aspiration because such language has connotations of accepting that it is acceptable for people to get filthy rich. The left don’t associate aspiration with getting filthy rich, they associate greed with the desire to get filthy rich. Once you’ve got a certain amount of wealth, do you actually need it? The right dismiss this as the politics of envy, the left dislike the rich because of their own failures to get to the top of the ladder. In other words, the left want the top of the ladder to be closer to their state of affairs (let’s not forget these left liberals tend to be beneficiaries of privilege) and the language of equality is designed to hide as well as justify that envy. The likes of Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson were happy with people getting filthy rich, which is why many on the left think of them as Tories in red clothing.

The biggest problem the left has is reconciling the notion that the aspirations of the many get hindered when the greed of a select few is allowed to run riot with the language of aspiration as well as policy. When dealing with the greed of the select few, the left immediately assert the need to tax them at higher rates than before. The logic behind this position is simple, it tends to be a popular sentiment among the public (funnily enough they tend to happily vote for the arty that directly opposes that sentiment) and it is simple to understand. Take what the rich owe to the rest of us back to the rest of us in order than we can have a cohesive and equal society. We justify such redistributive taxation by the need to pay for public services, such as the NHS, and the welfare state, the safety net everyone needs when they fall into bad times. That is essentially the whole motive behind the support for social democracy in the Labour party. Democratic socialists go further by being more stringent on capitalism as well as proposing more state interference in the economy through nationalising certain services or industries.

All these models have failed though. The end of the post-war consensus ended the motivation to support statist democratic socialist policies, such as the advocacy of nationalisation and high levels of taxation, while the public are becoming less sympathetic to the conservation of the welfare state. The public need the welfare state and know it is important that we should have one, but they don’t want one. The reason they don’t want the welfare state, at least as it currently stands, is because they don’t want welfarism. They want the welfare state to be the safety net for the needy and deserving, but the doctrine of welfarism associated with left-wing politics has created a welfare state which helps the undeserving but more importantly it creates dependency. People want their work to pay so that they can be autonomous. David Cameron hit the nail on the head when he said, “Make Work Pay”. It was such a shame that his policies did a great job of doing the exact opposite, underemployment is rife and many are in employment without guaranteed hours. The left can only respond by wanting to conserve the welfare state, expressing outrage at the cuts to benefits the government is implementing and ruing the fact that government isn’t spending money on creating jobs.

Socialism and welfarism have become synonymous, yet they shouldn’t be. The reason why they have become synonymous is the reason social democracy has failed. Social democracies crowning achievement has been establishing welfare states to humanise the harsh and punishing effects capitalism has, this crowning achievement was established during the post-war consensus. It was meant to be a step in the gradual transformation of our economies away from capitalism towards socialism. Since that consensus collapsed, social democrats have become conservatives trying to preserve what is good about the past from the forces of change. Democratic socialists have become paleo-conservatives wanting to turn the clock back to the days of the post-war consensus. This is the inherent problem with the socialist tradition that has dominated the Labour party, it seeks to preserve itself. Once something has stopped accomplishing its aims and is preserving its achievements, it has failed. Social democracy was in the ascendancy once because it stood for progress and change, not any longer. Social democracy no longer has any sense of how to achieve socialism, as a result it no longer is a force of change. So it has been reduced to an ideology of utilising the welfare state to stay relevant, hence the birth of welfarism. Welfarism is borne out of the paternalistic instinct running through the party, paternalism is fundamentally an elitist agenda.

Now we come to the key issue of what the raison d’être of Labour is. The interests of the working classes and the socialist movement has diverged. If Labour cannot reconcile the two then its purpose has been utterly lost. If Labour has abandoned the cause of socialism it has no purpose, it might as well let the Liberals become the opposition again. Labour has no right to survive, it has no right to be the main opposer of the Conservatives.

If Labour is to reconcile socialism and the interests of the working classes it needs to broaden its perspective of socialism. There used to be a libertarian tradition within the Labour party, the state need not be pillar of Labour ideology. Paternalism can be eradicated in favour of liberation and autonomy. Tackling the land issue was important to the socialist movement and is going to be very important in the future, the injustice many young people face in not having affordable access to land is killing social mobility and creating intergenerational inequality. We tax sources of productive activity too highly, yet unearned income goes largely untaxed. Perhaps a Labour party should advocate taxing those who generate their income without being productive, such as landlords who have no desire to occupy or develop the land they are on. Workers have little participation in the conditions of their workplace, despite the fact workers have great insights to how the company they could work for could improve. Modern corporations are highly inefficient because of imposed hierarchical structures that don’t necessarily help the company. The UK has severe shortage of productive efficiency in the workplace, this is the result of a lack of intrinsic motivation in the work they do as well as many finding themselves underemployed. A lack of loyalty exists in he workplace in both directions, which is costing our country billions of pounds a year. Workers only gain money from income, but why not get a share of the divided of the profits go align the workers interests to those organisations that create wealth. Markets have their problems, but while resources are scarce they will always be a necessity. Perhaps the left can embrace the importance of markets and free cooperative enterprise rather than using the flaws of markets as an excuse to be hostile to them. A new reinvigorated socialism could very well create new wealth and new technology better than the currently existing capitalism can.

Gareth Mawer
I consider myself a left libertarian committed to promoting the philosophy of liberty, even though I do not always support proposals that are normally considered libertarian. Georgism and mutualism have had profound influences over my beliefs, though I'm not afraid to digress from them were necessary. My mains interests are politics, economics and philosophy.