A number of things have been accumulating in my head in the noise surrounding the Labour Party. John Prescott’s interview with Jon Snow about the leadership contest. The interview with Jon Cruddas about the Corbyn effect. A Today programme item about the contest to be Labour’s London mayoral candidate. All of these things and more are less about the immediate business of selecting leadership or mayoral candidates, and more about what the last general election result meant.
In the item on the mayoral contest, The New Statesman’s Helen Lewis contrasted Corbyn’s apparent surge across the country with the more even tempered London contest. Specifically she said that the Blairite Tessa Jowell was not disadvantaged by her political loyalties in London, because of the division between “the wine drinkers and the beer drinkers”.
“Wine drinkers” in the capital are, apparently, civilised, sophisticated types who operate on the basis of rational political judgements. The provincial “beer drinkers”, on the other hand, are nasty, brutish and short on political nous, and liable to make choices under the influence of a skinful of Tetleys.
Presumably Prescott’s interview was evidence of Lewis’s dictum of In Vino Veritas, for surely Lord Prescott is the very model of the Man of Ale? Burnham-backer Prescott was pretty cheerful about the prospect of a Corbyn win, seeing Corbyn’s energising effect on the party as thoroughly positive. Prescott said directly that the questions being raised by Corbyn ought to have been raised and addressed a decade ago, and revealed that he had himself argued in Cabinet against spending billions on a Cold War-era weapon like Trident. Yes, his judgement is definitely a bit Theakston’s Old Peculiar.
Cruddas, an Ed Miliband insider, declared that he hadn’t yet decided how to vote in the leadership election, but echoed Prescott’s analysis that Corbyn’s campaign was airing issues that the party needed to face. Dagenham’s not exactly in the Northern Powerhouse, but I guess the place is pretty infra dig for the “wine drinkers” who know stuff, so probably best to dismiss his judgement as having all the appeal of a six pack of Lidl lager.
So let us look closely at what the Grand Cru minds of the media-set think. What is their “narrative”?
The only measure of political success is electoral success. To win elections a party must reflect the beliefs and priorities of voters. Voters want economic competence. That means cuts. Voters want to stop immigration. That means harsh rhetoric and punitive laws. Voters want a less generous welfare system. That means being tough on claimants and tough on the causes of claimants (i.e. laziness, not austerity, obviously). Labour didn’t do these things, or didn’t do them with sufficient boldness and hug-a-billionaire business-friendliness, and that’s why they lost.
As a provincial blogger who likes nothing better than to start the day with a pint of bitter, I have to say that the world doesn’t look quite like that from here. When I take my whippet for a walk, or amble along to the pigeon loft, or clock in at t’mill, I see something far more complex than can be addressed by talk of gaming elections by aligning the Labour Party with what voters tell focus group researchers they think.
Political cynicism and disengagement need to be addressed. Political leadership needs to happen to shift opinion where it is a block on long term planning. Structural changes in the economy and in society need to be understood and movements of the left need to find ways to connect with how people live life now, in an age characterised by insecurity in access to work, housing and other services. These are big questions to which re-heated Blairism has no answers. Neither does Cameron/Osborne, either, but they have cash and shameless populism to chuck at the problem of winning elections. Also don’t forget that they didn’t win well, whatever their triumphalist behaviour since May might suggest.
The facile characterisation of metropolitan wine drinkers Vs simple ale folk reveals everything you need to know about why the commentariat have almost nothing of value to say about modern Britain and its ways of life and political attachments. For Labour to heed their warnings would be to compound the difficulties that the party faces, and would be to shirk the left’s historic role to remake the political system and the country as a whole for the challenges of globalisation and technological revolution.
The Labour movement came out of the struggles of the 19th Century. The Labour Party established itself firmly as a 20th Century party of government with the Attlee government of 1945. It now has the task of understanding the struggles of the 21st Century in which the nature of the economy and of production has changed, and is changing further at an accelerating pace. In which the nature of work is changing, making old-style labour organisation (trades unions) difficult or impossible. In which gender relations and family structures are radically different. This is a world where isolation from European and global institutions would be disastrous.
Whoever becomes the next Labour leader is almost incidental to this necessary programme of analysing our economy and society, and inventing the institutions necessary to enable politics to restore decency to all our lives.