The traditional parties of the centre-left are in trouble, not only in the UK (where Labour has been wiped out in Scotland and severely knocked in England) but across Europe. These parties are desperately seeking new leaders and new ideas with which to reinvent themselves.
With changing demographics and the decline of the manufacturing working class that gave rise to the Labour movement, the near universal assumption, since the 1990s, has been that to win elections these parties must move towards the centre if they are to win middle class votes and thereby to win elections (towards the centre, that is, of a political spectrum increasingly defined by the right, which means embracing uncritical and doctrinaire neo-liberalism, while demonising the poor, scapegoating the outsider and retreating into authoritarianism).
The parties of the left were supposed to be the ‘salt of the earth’, preserving the common good against the rottenness of private greed, but they have lost their savour, and it is hard to see how they can be made salty again. They have tried to gain the ‘whole world’ of marginal seats in middle England, but have lost their own soul. They are neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm and fit only to be spat out by a disgruntled electorate.
Yet behind all this self-destructive march to the right there seems to be a lazy assumption, an assumption that is crippling our politics: namely, that middle class people are all virulent neo-liberal capitalists and that policies of the left are only of interest to the working class and the poor.
That is nonsense. The middle class also suffer from economic insecurity (unemployment does not only affect people in cloth caps), and middle class people also rely on public services. If the middle class, broadly conceived, constitutes about half of the population, then relatively few, and only at the upper end of the middle class, opt out of state provision for healthcare and education.
The essence of a ‘common-weal’ society is that we are all in it together. We all stand to gain from a decent national health service, decent schools, clean streets, living wages, and a system of social security that provides a real safety net against the inevitable and uncontrollable misfortunes of life.
The left should lose the misplaced idea that it needs to ‘move to the centre’ in order to win middle class votes, and start communicating a vision of the common-weal that middle class citizens are attracted by. Just because you have a higher education, a nice house, and a decent career, doesn’t mean you don’t care about the wider well-being of society, especially when your own well-being, your own economic security, and your own access to public services, are also thereby enhanced.
One thing I would propose is to replace a minimalist and punitive benefit system aimed only at the subsistence existence of the very poor with a new system of national unemployment insurance that would compensate people at 75% of lost earnings in the event of redundancy, at least for a transitional period of six months (similar, in general principles, to that which exists in Sweden). This would give middle income households a stake in the system and shake off the stigma associated with the current benefits system. I’d like to see a system that the between-jobs accountant or the temporarily indisposed chartered surveyor would not be ashamed to use.
This is not to say that the Labour Party should ‘go back to its roots’, as some have suggested. Its roots were in the age of the steamship and the electric telegraph. Ed Miliband tried that, but it wouldn’t work. The new wine would not fit into old wineskins.
Indeed, it might even be time to abandon the Labour Party as it is now and has been for a century, and to form a new party of the left (a ‘Common Weal’ party, perhaps), that would incorporate the not only that part of the Labour party that still has some principles left, but also the centre-left rump of the Liberal Democrats and the wider, extra-parliamentary movement of the anti-austerity left, from 38 Degrees and UK-Uncut to Unlock Democracy and the New Economics Foundation.
This new party should ally with the SNP; rather than seeking election in Scotland, it should concentrate on English (or perhaps English and Welsh) politics. It needs to abandon Labour’s ‘constitutional Toryism’ (a strange feature of the British left, not found in most of continental Europe) in favour of rejuvenated democracy. This means dropping Labour’s long-held assumption that solidarity requires centralisation in favour of a post-imperial politics of autonomy and confederation.
This would be a major change to the political landscape, that many Labour stalwarts (who are nothing if not fiercely tribal in their dogged but misplaced loyalties) will oppose. Nevertheless, if a decent, humane and democratic politics is to continue, it might well be a necessary one. Labour supporters will have to choose, and not for the first time, whether to put their professed principles before party tribalism. Let’s hope, for everyone’s sake, they make the correct choice.