Historically, Labour’s darkest hours have offered the chance for intellectual renewal. In the aftermath of successive election defeats, infighting and Brexit, Labour must not be afraid to ask the boldest question of all- what sort of state do we want to build?
“Unless Labour can once again become a party of the majority of the working class it has no future, except as a coalition of minority pressure groups and interests. There is only a modest future for a party which represents only such groups, and social forces on the decline. If Labour cannot get back the sort of communities represented by Stevenage, or Harlow, or Swindon, or Slough, we can forget about the British or any other realistic road to socialism.”
Eric Hobsbawn, Labour’s Lost Millions, Marxism Today, October 1983
Labour has been here before. Two tumultuous electoral defeats, the party ripping itself apart over internal bickering. A rampant Tory Party eying the prize of one-party government. A sense of drift, of chaos, of irrelevance. As it is in today, so it was in the 1980s. Oh, and a little matter called Brexit. Forward March has already attempted to put this rupture in historic perspective, more of which can be seen here.
We often think of the 1980s as the worst period in the Labour Party’s history, and with good reason. Yet it was in this decade that the most important conversation in the party’s history took place, lighting a flame which we today seek to re-ignite. The flame was called Marxism Today(MT), the in-house magazine of the Communist Party, first published in 1978 under the editorship of Martin Jacques. Printed in bold technicolour, the journal attracted the brightest voices on the left; from the acerbic brilliance of Stuart Hall to the revered intellect of the legendary Eric Hobsbawn.
MT was not afraid to think big. It sought to answer the biggest and boldest questions; it coined the term ‘Thatcherism’, and sought to understand why it was so popular. It tried to answer why the workingmen’s clubs were empty, and why the shopping centres were full. It asked why the ‘forward march of Labour’, so confidently predicted by Karl Marx, had ‘seemingly come to a halt.’ It had a bold and restless energy.
Yet perhaps the most important question MT asked was the most simple: what sort of state does the left want to build in the modern era? After the frustrations of the Wilson-Callaghan years, simple answers about rebuilding Attlee’s ‘Jerusalem’ were dead; imperceptible shifts in global capital, labour and infrastructure meant something new was needed.
Over the next decade, MT sought to answer that big question. It called conferences, ran special editions, and sold almost 20,000 copies a week. It created the space for an intellectual renewal of the party, which by the late-1980s had become the watch-word of a new coterie within the party; the young Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson all wrote for the magazine, convinced of its clarion call to modernisation. They saw that the party needed to tell a new story. But did they succeed?
The art of statecraft
Let us now skip the the next period of opposite- 2010- to see how the party next reacted to electoral defeat. Had the New Labour years lived up to their promise of a new statecraft? How would the party react? Where next?
A week after the election, John Denham published a piece in the Guardian entitled ‘Labour’s Lost Millions, revisited’, a title making direct reference to the legacies of MT, and its thinker-in chief, Eric Hobsbawn. Denham reflected how the New Labour model of the state had ultimately failed: its basic promise of state action plus free markets had been critically ruptured by the 2008 crash, and a generation of rising inequality and stagnating incomes.
Denham successfully argued that the New Labour narrative of statecraft had been, to all intents and purposes, a failure. This was not for lack of policy achievement; the New Labour government had made genuine transformations in education, poverty, and healthcare. Yet as Denham noted, New Labour had never managed to create an enduring narrative around their reconceptualisation of the state; too cowed by a right-wing press and a focus on narrow party management, Blair and Brown’s tendencies had been to hide their achievements, rather than elucidate them. It was an argument that Hall, Jacques and Hobsbawm could have written themselves. As Denham opined, New Labour’s inability to craft a story around their best achievements meant that, when the coalition came into power, they were all too easy to knock down:
No one ever fought for tax credits, or Sure Start, so that when the time came to defend them, we found people thought they were acts of God, not of mere elected politicians.
John Denham, Labour’s Lost Millions-revisited, The Guardian, May 2013
The article captured the zeitgeist. From his very first speech as leader, Ed made it his agenda to start a new conversation about the state. A long time ago it may seem now, but it is all too easy to forget the genuine intellectual excitement generated by the early Miliband leadership. This was the era of mass inequality: of Occupy of Thomas Piketty, and of Roberto Unger. Ed surrounded himself with blue-sky thinkers who were unafraid to ask big questions. Whilst being slated in the press for appearing overly ‘wonkish’, some good ideas came from this period- notions of ‘predistribution’, workers on boards and a wider assessment that the goal of socially democratic parties needed a re-wire a ‘responsible capitalism’ for the twenty-first century. In a landmark speech to Google’s Big Tent in 2013, the themes of the Miliband leadership emerged in full colour. After a decade in the ideological wilderness, it seemed that Labour had finally rediscovered the art of statecraft.
And then, the 2015 election. An election in which Labour’s message to the electorate was its weakest in a generation. An election in which a good manifesto full of great policies never translated into a tangible narrative of where the party wanted to take Britain. As Patrick Wintour’s fascinating insight reveals, Labour’s 2015 campaign was one in which the more radical instinct of the Miliband leadership were subtly put aside, for the more dour and traditional politics of moderation. In the run up to the election, inventive suggestions about transforming the state were displaced by a simpler- and ultimately less fruitful- series of slogans. ‘A Better Plan, A Better Future’ hardly conjures associations with the bold invectives of past elections: Let Us Face the Future, for example. Arguably this was also the mistake of the Remain campaign in 2016, which failed to engineer of positive and powerful pro-European case.
In electoral terms, the absence of statecraft in the most recent electoral campaign proved costly with the public. Throughout the election, a narrative emerged in which the Tories offer was clear (e.g. ‘Security’, ‘Fairness’, and David Cameron’s oft-quoted desire to build a ‘low-welfare, high-wage economy), compared to Labour’s series of piecemeal offers. The party became trapped in familiar traps on issues such as welfare, austerity and immigration, which a wary public fundamentally rejected.
The failure of Labour statecraft was perhaps best captured by David Axelrod, who decried the offer to the electorate as ‘Vote Labour, Win a Microwave.’ While Axelrod’s claim shouldn’t be taken too literally (being, after all, the man who was apparently paid over $200,000 for only three consultations), the point remains that in 2015, Labour forgot the art of statecraft. It had no fundamental message about how to transform the state, and its relationship with the individual. Instead, it fell back into its comfort zone of minor redistribution, taking with one hand and giving with another. A weary public took one look at the microwave, and decided they would pass.
Where next for Labour statecraft?
If MT were to be published in 2016, what would it have to say about the future of Labour its relationship with the state? Looking back from the vista of two consecutive electoral defeats, it is not impossible to imagine what Hobsbawn, Jacques and their circle would have to say about Labour’s current predicament.
First of all, it seems unlikely that the luminaries of MT would whole-heartedly endorse the Corbyn project. Although ostensibly hailing from the far left of the party, the MT project was borne out of a deep scepticism about the ability of the party’s left to forge a coherent narrative. They saw the Bennite left of the 1980s as relying on outdated assumptions about the British state: an unchanging monolith, unwilling to see the change going on in front of them. Union radicalism. Mass state-ownership. Mass working class consciousness. Whilst MT painted a convincing picture as to how the world was changing, they saw the Bennite left as offering retrograde and outdated dirigisme.
One can only imagine what they would say about Corbyn’s attempts at building a new narrative about the state and how he can change it. I imagine that they would applaud the ambition of John McDonnell’s Guardian article in November 2015, where he argued convincingly that:
“Meeting the challenges of the future requires a state that can think and act strategically. We need to ensure that we exploit these possibilities in a way that creates, and does not restrict, opportunities for workers. To facilitate this, we must re-establish a system of worker participation in management, with a supply chain of information between shop floor and government that brings workers and unions together to advise policymakers on the future direction of the economy.”
John McDonnell, Socialism With an IPad, The Guardian, November 2015
The title may have been clunky- ‘Socialism With an IPad’ sounds like a rejected punchline from The Thick of It, but the scope and ambition is there. The question now is whether Mr McDonnell can match this ambitious rhetoric with a policies, ideas and substance. Some of the ideas are already taking shape: the next Labour statecraft will have to address the changing nature of work, and how automation challenges industrial relations. It will have to talk convincingly about welfare, rather than pandering to the right-wing dog whistle, or ignoring public concerns altogether. It will even have to accept that our society is ageing, and we need a new conversation about pensions and retirement.
The next Labour statecraft will even have to move beyond the debate beyond cumbersome and tired preoccupations with debt, austerity and the deficit. We tried offering the public a microwave in 2015, and they did not want to buy it. Labour’s history shows that the public will only trust it with the keys to government when it offers a powerful narrative about how it can change the state in a meaningful way. Attlee and the New Jerusalem. Wilson and the White Heat of Technology. Even Blair had his moments of statecraft, although time will tell if its legacy is built on more than sand.
To do so, we need to revisit the radical and restless energy of Marxism Today and the New Times debates of the 1980s. With their bold headlines, colourful front-pages and innovative ideas, they looked beyond the horizon of Labour’s electoral woes, and began to reimage what the state could be. Over the coming months, we at Forward March hope to begin that process anew. We hope you join us.
To contact Forward March, email us at email@example.com
Eric Hobsbawn- http://banmarchive.org.uk/collections/mt/pdf/83_10_07.pdf
John Denham- https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/may/13/labour-fairness-denham-election
John McDonnell- https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/nov/19/john-mcdonnell-labour-technology-tax-economy-of-future