A socialist on the sidelines is an ineffectual and useless person. They can attend protests outside Parliament and shout all they want but the decisions happen within it, not without it. Pressure matters, but only so far as how much the government fears the reaction. Otherwise the only useful socialist is a power-hungry one desperate by whatever means to get into power. Because when we don’t, the most vulnerable and disadvantaged are left alone to face unchecked capitalism.
That’s the only conclusion to draw from the deeply distressing results of the by-elections in Copeland and Stoke. We won in Stoke, but only because UKIP chose the worst of candidates there. Our vote share declined and the combined Tory / UKIP vote was higher. It was a seat we’d held for most of this century, as was Copeland. And now it’s gone. This was supposedly, according to Jeremy Corbyn and Momentum, a middle finger to the political establishment. It’s pretty insulting to the intelligence of Copeland to suggest that these revolutionaries voted for change by voting in the government who over the past seven years have torn up the country’s public services and social security.
Perhaps it was the fault of Tony Blair. He left ten years ago and it takes time for anger to build up. Except, even that is such a poor argument: we held these seats during the New Labour years, even when we were accused of crashing the economy, even under Ed Miliband. When the eighties seemed like a dark time for Labour, we still held it.
A self-defeating blind dogma is gripping the Labour left as it once gripped the Labour right. A refusal to acknowledge severe mistakes only creates a bigger abyss for the party to fall into come 2020. Oppositions are supposed to take seats, especially against hugely unpopular governments. In Copeland, the game-changer was always going to be Jeremy Corbyn’s views over Trident and his middle class liberalism that simply alienates all. And a failure of his leadership has been his refusal to admit his own mistakes made in facilitating the loss of this seat. For a man praised for his honesty, humility and dignity, he has displayed a lack of class in refusing to resign and admit that he is soiling the party’s image.
The party was suffering before Corbyn but is now being decimated because of him. The country won’t look past his previous comments regarding patriotism and security at a time when insecurity runs rampant. Whatever the problem is, he is not the solution for it. He could not stop the overwhelming tide of anger that drove Brexit, nor attempted to, and has subsequently not even tried to hold the Tories to account over Article 50. The Leave voters are dissatisfied and the Remain voters find their allegiance shifting to the Liberal Democrats.
The problem for Labour, though, has always run deeper than Corbyn and a failure to understand that has created Corbyn. The cold detached “we’re all middle class now” feel of New Labour and the “Jez We Can” (#JezWeNeverWillWithHim) politics of Corbyn have a symbiotic relationship. Corbyn’s failures reinforce the anger of the Labour right brigade whose attitudes in turn infuriate the Labour left. The solution has always lain in the middle. Tony Blair was a pragmatist who realised Labour could only win power by realigning the party to meet the public. Toughening up on crime and security, changing Labour’s rhetoric to move away from state power and more focus on the emancipation of the individual. As the well-known Labour activist, Mohammed Ahmed, explained, the policies of 1997 should not be transplanted onto the next manifesto, but the strategy must be.
The party admits it needs to talk to voters but that is currently not happening. Immigration can no longer be ignored and yet we treat it as a binary: either for free movement or totally against. The lack of nuance defeats us. We benefit from immigration, economically and culturally, but there are pressures that come with it too.
Labour has avoided addressing this. If Tony Blair can be blamed for ignoring the economic aspects of immigration – failure to distribute wealth accordingly away from London, local investment, building more houses, boosting wages – then Corbyn and co have failed to understand the cultural impact. As communities change, people there will feel rootless, their ties to their home and town washed away by a change that threatens them. Local businesses that have been in towns for generations – pubs, fish and chip shops, for example – close down and are replaced by something else.
A town might still have the same name but now it feels totally different. As human beings we don’t just seen identity with groups but with pieces of history that provide that sense of familiarity, safety and closure. Labour has simply not spoken enough about this. When we talk about helping old local businesses to compete with bigger companies, we should address the cultural impact of losing these small businesses. Change shouldn’t mean something is entirely replaced always; often it can just mean evolving and growing, adapting but still there. Communities have been strengthened by multiculturalism and Labour must always defend that, but at the same time ensure that a community still retains its roots. Demographics can and will change, but that shouldn’t necessarily mean the community loses everything it had before. The next Labour government has to explain how social and economic changes to communities will not result in roots being destroyed.
And we need to begin reclaiming patriotism. There’s an instinctive repulsion to English nationalism given its ugly history, but patriotism can be wedded to progressive ideas as the SNP have shown (at least on the surface). A true patriot wants the best for the country, to be proud of the accomplishments but mindful of the failures. Labour can discuss the past failures from a position of learning to be better rather than sounding hateful. We should proudly cherish and protect the BBC, NHS and our rights and freedoms as struggles of ordinary British people from past generations. In a time of huge threats to national security, promising to reverse cuts to police and army budgets as part of a package to be tough on crime and terror provides the sense of a Labour Party that cares about security and is proudly British. It’s one that can be internationalist and socialist whilst at the same time managing to be patriotic and mindful of community roots and values.
But that will not happen right now when the party is managed by a horde of left-wingers whose liberal extremism is completely alien to the fears and insecurities of the working class. We need to be a party once more that understands the lives of working people. The idea of suddenly having to turn intolerant on immigration is wrong. Labour were proudly internationalist during the New Labour years and still racked up successive victories. Had the economy not crashed in 2008, we might still have been in power. But we failed on our part as socialists then and we are failing right now.
You cannot make change without having the power to do it. These are dark times for all those who aspire for a more progressive Britain but if we are genuine about helping the working class, we can find a way. As the line in the epic Batman thriller, The Dark Knight, goes: “The night seems darkest just before the dawn.” We found a way in 1997 and we can find a way again.