Futurology for beginners

This autumn has seen political commentators talking up prospects of a Corbyn government. Even before Labour conference, The Times proposed that A Flagging Economy Could Put Corbyn in # 10, (September 13th 2017), and Brexit would produce economic damage- thus leading to a Labour government. While some commentator don’t expect to have to wait for a Corbyn Premiership, because the Government will collapse, others think that the Tories can go a full 5 years to 2022, and if May can be removed a new – possibly Boris Johnson – goverment could remain in office. Whatever the time scale, attention is now focussed on a coming Labour victory.

The assumption Labour will win is paralysing discussion of actual election prospects. Labour is currently selecting for key seats with All  Women Shortlists the priority – to ensure that there are more female MPs. The leadership is assuming that there will be more MPs in the first place. 

The core assumption of the Labour Left is of undeniable success and they are not suprisingly gung ho. They have always argued that with control of  the  leadership they can win elections and legislate socialism. This is not good news for the Labour right, who have made every mistake possible since 2005, notably with the failures of the Front Bench to oppose Blair- Brown, and are in no position to argue. 

But the most interesting tendency  on display is the soft left, particularly Compass, some elements of which have embraced triumphalism. This was most clearly shown by a Think Piece on their website, (Thinkpiece #91 October  2017) With Victory in Sight, can the British left gain hegemony? which followed a discussion in a Conference fringe on Is what is needed one more heave or hegemony? Written by Anthony Barnett the emphasis was certainly not on one more heave and was less cautious than an earlier think piece from Matthew Sowemimo. 

This latest piece nailed its colours firmly to the mast with the title, forseeing Labour in office with no obstacles of any kind. The opening two paragraphs made this clear, with Barnett seeing “immense promise for the left”, because “If things stay as they are, all Labour needs to do is hold its breath, as the government disintegrates…. For the present government is un-electable and Downing Street is certain to become the address of current leaders of the Labour Party”. The bulk of the pamphlet is about the chances of securing ‘hegemony’ a Gramscian term for control through ideas.

Barnett never explains why the next five years are a prelude to a Labour government, or makes any attempt to explain how he thinks the voters will behave. The thrust is all about what Labour should do. Barnett’s belief that “If for the next five years the Conservatives retain to-day’s unhappy cabinet…the country will be Labour’s” reflects a wider belief there are no obstacles ahead. As Harold Wilson said, a week is a long time in politics. For Labour to sit back for 5 long years and expect to win says more about the current Labour triumphalism than any realistic political analysis. The Tory  Party is most dangerous with its back to the wall.

Barnett is influential in Compass and the post LCC soft left, and his advocacy of PR is a core principle of Compass. For example, the pamphlet Compass produced several months before the 2010 election had the telling title  The Last Labour Government – why only a referendum on electoral reform can save the party now and the stress on pluralism, ie permanent coalition, continues and is unlikely to be acceptable to the hard left.  Compass itself seems to think Labour cannot win an election on its own and favours the Progressive Alliance strategy which its leadership pushed in advance of its AGM on November 4th.

This is too rigid and problematic a scenario.  It is possible for Labour to win the next election, but the Tories have a viable strategy – and Labour does not display one. The Tories have a  playing card in Brexit. If the cabinet, now controlled by the Brexiteers, produces a negotiated settelement however bad, Labour will be challenged to vote on it if May’s statement on 25th October is the route map.  This is a trap. If Labour votes against and the vote is lost, May has said she will use crown prerogative and leave without a settlement using the Referendum mandate. This was re-emphaised by David Davis in the Commons on November 13th. Whatever the vote, Britexit will happen.  If the vote is won, however, the Tories have  triumphed and Labour is shown to be ineffective. If Lost, Labour is shown to be ineffective. How to get out of the trap is the key issue. 

A viable strategy for Labour has to be both acutely aware of how the voters behaved in 2017, and sharp enough to take the initiative from the Tories, notably on Brexit where the Tories claim a democratic mandate from the 2016 referendum.  Currently there is no debate on how these two crucial factors can be played. Barnett captures the current triumphalism, but mirroring the over confidence  of the hard left is folly. The soft left should be debating how to win, not what to do when in five years time – or sooner – there is a Labour government.

If this is not done, Labour is relying on the continuation of the surge on June 8th over five years when they do not control the agenda, which is high stakes politics. It would be foolish to bet on the winner of the next world  cup. It is even more foolish to make calculations based on Labour strolling into Number 10.

Trevor Fisher

November 2017


  1. Peter Rowlands says:

    What is worrying is that discussion of policy, which was key to Labour’s showing in the GE, has virtually dried up. It is desperately needed if Labour is to win.
    The Tories can be stopped from implementing Brexit if a vote of no confidence is successfully carried, which would mean a GE, which if Labour won could result in an extension of timeto nrgotiate transitional arrangements or a second referendum.

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