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by Henry McLeish
04 August 2016
The Labour membership is only one element of the political trinity needed to translate protest into power

The Labour membership is only one element of the political trinity needed to translate protest into power

We live in turbulent and troubled times. Within long established democracies of North America and Western Europe public opinion is turning against traditional politics and politicians. The public has never been more distrustful, disconnected and disillusioned with democracy and governance.

Trust between people and politicians has broken down. A quiet revolution simmers. A great deal of bewilderment, fragility and anger has settled on our politics, democracy and governance. The word citizen is fast disappearing as market-speak further colonises areas of public and social interest far removed from economic interests.

In this rapidly changing world there will be far reaching consequences for how we organise our lives, and shape our politics, democracy and governance. Certainties that we have taken for granted are being shredded.


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The EU referendum campaign was a sad but spectacular reminder of the fragile, volatile and uncertain nature of our democracy and our politics. This campaign was a damning indictment of what is wrong in Britain and goes to the core of our political turmoil. The shallowness of our democracy has been laid bare.

The UK is not alone in facing these challenges. Through-out Europe and the US, profound social, economic, demographic and technological changes are taking place, holding out the prospect of epic consequences for our politics, constitutional structures, democracies and governance. For some, this offers an overdue shake up of our remote politicians and establishment elites, the chance to talk about social renewal, equality and fairness and to protect our freedoms and liberty. For others however there are concerns about a retreat into a darker place where respect, tolerance, difference, inclusion, internationalism and multiculturalism, is replaced by authoritarianism, populism, isolationism and a trickle down form of racism and nationalism. A new battle of ideas is certainly underway but with little consensus as to where this might end up.

To paraphrase Shakespeare’s Hamlet, something is rotten in the state of Britain.

Brexit is a catastrophe. The Tory party turns right in an attempt to silence their extremists and placate UKIP. The cheap patriots responsible for Brexit and the betrayal of Britain’s interests are promoted to the Cabinet.

Far right Tory extremism and UKIP are driving an insidious nationalism, isolationism, xenophobia, racism and religious bigotry, which was so powerfully on show in the recent EU referendum campaign.

Inequality continues to poison the well of British society. Amidst this political turmoil another crisis is unfolding. People are bemused, bewildered and angry at the dismal plight of the Labour party. Trust, faith and confidence between party, Parliament and people have broken down.

For the next two months we will indulge in a summer of discontent and bitter infighting with no guarantee that a different Leader will be elected. Britain is crying out for a functioning opposition.

This struggle between social democracy and socialism is a problem as old as the party itself: enduring ideas of managing or taming capitalism or replacing it; social democracy or socialism; party or parliament and people; party membership or parliamentary party; protest or power; reform or revolution; democracy or direct action, have dominated Labour debates since its creation. But there is more to this than ideology or policy.

Labour has drifted from having any sense of an historic mission or a deeper purpose. There is no vision for “our” better tomorrow. There is a widening gap between the generations, growing inequality and a profound sense of “them and us”. The excesses of globalisation, austerity economics, neo liberalism, and the relentless inroads of market principles into our social and public realms merely confirm capitalism has not been tamed or effectively managed. People are suffering.

There is now a struggle for the heart and soul of the party and there is no easy or obvious way to reconcile differences. The Parliamentary Labour Party has much to learn.

Too often the PLP appears remote from the public and seems remote, soulless, technocratic and managerial. They are law makers and need some of these traits but not in a way that leaves party members and the public on the margins. Labour voters are disillusioned, angry and volatile.

Corbyn has shaken us from our complacency, boosted membership and enthused young people, but the electors and the PLP remain disconnected and unconvinced.

This political trinity of party members, Parliamentary Party and the people isn’t working. Jeremy Corbyn is not the answer to halting Labour's decline or delivering its long term recovery.

There is no place in or around the Labour party for the political baggage – the tactics, style, tone and intolerance – of the hard left, which the Labour leader has made no attempt to distance himself from.

It is worth reminding ourselves that MPs are political representatives, not party delegates, and that Labour is a party not a cult. Left to its leaders, Momentum is looking more and more like a party within a party.  

Our Bernie moment, as far as Jeremy Corbyn is concerned, is over. There is a legacy we can take from his year in office. Bernie Saunders, uncharacteristically for the US, ran on a socialist ticket, fired up the base of a conservative Democratic party and enthused and inspired young people to become involved. Hilary Clinton and the Democratic Party will take up some of his ideas and policies.

There are parallels with Corbyn. Promoting anti austerity economics, tackling inequality, protecting employment rights, building a national education service, bringing the railways back into public ownership and keeping the NHS free from privatisation have as much to do with common sense as they have to do with socialism and would be popular with the voters. These could be unifying policies.

For Labour the public mood is harsh and unforgiving. The party will have to dig deep to find a new way forward and accept that party membership, while important, is only one element of the political trinity needed to translate passion and protest into power with a clear purpose.

Labour needs to redefine the British political conversation, or the nationalists and populists in England and Scotland will continue to define it for us. 

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