What is the Future of the Labour Party?

December 27, 2019

The Nation's Rachel Shabi analyzes why Labour was crushed in the last election. She also explores what this says about the future of political struggle in Britain, the United States, and the world.

The Nation's Rachel Shabi analyzes why Labour was crushed in the last election. She also explores what this says about the future of political struggle in Britain, the United States, and the world.


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Story Transcript

MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner. Good to have you with us.

Labour’s devastating defeat in the British elections leaves us with a lot of questions. How is that people polled supporting Labour’s positions like higher tax on its highest earners, renationalization of energy and rail, Labour’s Green New Deal? As our guest Rachel Shabi pointed out in her article for The Nation, the establishment Democrats in the United States are using Labour’s defeat as a reason we need a centrist candidate to defeat Trump.

What will five years of Tories do to Britain? And how is it linked to this worldwide movement of the populist right, riding a high on the failure of neoliberalism as well as a left that seems to have lost its potency in many places? Tariq Ali joined us last week, arguing that Labour should have let Brexit happen then fight it, but not stop it and watch the unraveling over the next year and make its fight then.

Well, I look forward to hearing what our guest Rachel Shabi has to say about this. She writes for The Nation, The Guardian, The Independent, many other journals; and her latest book is Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands. And Rachel, welcome to The Real News. 

RACHEL SHABI: Thank you so much for having me. 

MARC STEINER: I enjoyed your most recent article in The Nation. You covered a lot of ground. And so, did you see this coming? I mean, as an activist and as a journalist, did you see this kind of devastating defeat on the horizon and why do you think it happened? 

RACHEL SHABI: If you know there were all sorts of reasons that we’re working alongside each other and created this sort of domino effect or snowball effect, that resulted in this defeat, and it was a catastrophic defeat for Labour. That much is clear. It was a landslide victory for the Conservatives who are, hard Brexit, hard right party, now purged of its moderate element.

So Brexit, of course, completely changed Britain’s political landscape. And in the years that it has gridlocked parliament–three years we’ve had since the referendum to leave–the EU by a 52% majority said, “Yes, we should leave.” It has jammed parliament and it has jammed politics and it’s created a sense of frustration. But it has also created an atmosphere of essentially a culture war. The leave narrative was very much that the people’s desire to leave the EU was being faulted by an array of saboteurs, parliament, the judiciary, lefties, liberal snowflakes, the media, migrants and Brussels bureaucrats.

MARC STEINER: That’s quite a litany. 

RACHEL SHABI: It was a long list and it kept growing. Through the years, you think, “Oh, what, them too? Their saboteurs as well? Okay.” So it created this narrative of a culture war. And also, we’re looking at Boris Johnson’s Conservative party has become more extreme. It’s become this very nativist, alt-right party allied to far right movements across Eastern Europe, and indeed pals with your very own Donald Trump. So they have used this authoritarian playbook of creating this climate of chaos, undermining liberal norms and institutions like Parliament, like the judiciary, threatening the media, flooding the electoral campaign with fake news, with disinformation. Which was designed I think not so much to spread lies, as to create a sense of confusion over the truth.

So quite often, Labour campaign is on doorsteps across the country. We’d hear not just the politicians were all the same, but they’re all liars, you can’t trust any of them. And that was the atmosphere into which the Labour campaign was running. And it had plenty of flaws and it made plenty of mistakes. But against that sort of atmosphere, it was always going to be very tough. 

MARC STEINER: The contradictions here are kind of really huge. I mean when you look at, as you wrote about, other people have been talking about that the polls showed that most people in Britain believed in a higher tax on wage owners,  renationalization of rail, the new energy system, a Green New Deal; all of that, yet they voted Conservative and against Labour.

And in working class districts, which just turned over completely, they either voted for other people or they voted for the Conservatives, which led to a Conservative victory in these staunch blue collar de-industrialized communities in the Midlands and North of England. So what is the heart of this contradiction? I think people are really trying to parse that out, because it seems to me, that would be important to get to, to understand how to counter it. 

RACHEL SHABI: I agree. It’s really important to parse out, what exactly went wrong. In the initial polling and data crunching, what’s coming out is that whether people were, leave or remain, most people raised the Labour leadership, Jeremy Corby as a reason. As a reason for not being able to vote Labour, this time round. I think to some extent, that was about his leadership in itself.

To some extent, it was also a proxy for Brexit and the Labour party’s Brexit position, which was basically to try and straddle both sides and say, “Listen, we want to unite the country. We will put forward a deal that puts British jobs and interests first, that protects the economy, and then we will put that to a referendum because we want everyone to come together.” And actually, the country’s in no mood for that. The country’s too polarized for that position. And it was seen as weak and sitting on the fence and it alienated both sides of the camp. 

MARC STEINER: Well what do you think should have done the? And sorry to interrupt, but I was in talks with Tariq Ali just last week. One of his suggestions was that Labour should have allowed Brexit to take place, and then fought over the next couple of years to say, “Look what it’s done to us.” And then trying to build a majority to take on the government. I mean what would have been the response that might’ve made sense? 

RACHEL SHABI: The reality is that Labour was going to lose support whatever it did, because it is a combination of Leave and Remain voters. So whatever it did, it was going to alienate one side or the other. I, my sense of it is that, it didn’t do anything quickly enough. So for the last year it was seen as dragging his heels and coming to a position, very reluctantly.

Jeremy Corbyn, who prior to the last couple of years had this brand of authenticity and credibility and not behaving like any other politician, had his brand damaged essentially by triangulating over this issue that people felt was so important and felt so deeply. So it compromised his own brand and at the same time, the sluggishness and delay and indecisiveness, meant that whatever position Labour took, it took it and it got all the pain from it, without any of the potential gain from it because it was too slow and too late. 

MARC STEINER: So picking up on that thing, so our question is, what happens now? Britain has five years of Tory rule ahead of it. It’s very unclear how that’s going to be overturned at all. It’s part of this worldwide movement, as I talked about earlier, there’s populist right-wing movement, it’s kind of seizing control of governments across the globe. Talking about doing this deal with Trump’s government, here in the United States.

So what strategically is happening? I mean, you look at the polls as you wrote about, what people have said. That the majority of young people, under 46, and most in most communities of color in Britain, went Labour. So I mean, when you put all that mixed together, what are the discussions and arguments taking place in Britain now, among people who want to have a different kind of world? 

RACHEL SHABI: It’s very interesting as you say that young people is now defined as “anyone under the age of 46” because that’s the age at which people start supporting the Conservatives and you see the switch. And there’s a very good reason for that, which is that post the financial crash of 2008, there is an understanding that… this idea of letting the market do its thing while tinkering around the edges to mitigate the accesses. That system has failed. And it’s failed most people, not just the very poor.

It’s something that everyone understands on an everyday basis, that life and their own economic wellbeing is precarious. There’s a sense of insecurity and the sense of anxiety that most people have. So there’s an understanding that that system cannot work. It’s not sustainable, and on top of that is perpetuating a now emergency of a climate crisis that desperately needs to be tackled. So that’s why you’re seeing so many young people under 46 support both Labour and support these policies–and as you said earlier, these policies that that Labour came up with, such as higher attacks on the highest earners, such as renationalization of rail and energy companies, such as the equivalent of a Green New Deal, which is a essentially a jobs creation program, as a means of tackling climate crisis.

And one of the devastating things about that is that it was very carefully targeted to reach precisely those neglected post-industrial areas that have been so ravaged by the last 30 years and neoliberal policy. So there is support for those policies. And polling found that actually support for those policies increased after the election campaign. So the conversation now, in this sort of post-election analysis of what Labour should do, is very much around whether to preserve that, whether the party should stay on that left-wing path. Or other factions of the party saying, “Well self-evidently, that failed, and we should tack more towards a center position.” 

MARC STEINER: And that will be the clue to this, I guess. That will take place when Labour’s decides, who’s leader is. That’s where that battle of be seen in public. 

RACHEL SHABI: Absolutely. So the, one of the things that happened after Jeremy Corbyn became leader was that the membership surged to now half a million people, and they are the who vote for the leadership. And they are the ones who in fact voted for Jeremy Corbyn to be the party leader twice. So their influence is still considerable. And it’s understood that all the candidates now throwing their hat into the ring for the leadership contest need to have that membership. And let’s not forget that that membership is what’s so impressive about the Labour party. It’s a ground game, certainly 2017 was very influential. 

But if you have a membership that is that big and has that sense of buy-in to the Labour party as a project, then it is them willing to go and canvass street by street, house by house and have that conversation with communities and on door steps, that is, that is so needed, to engage people with the labor movement. So I would imagine that people who are looking at the leadership position now, will have an eye on that membership and what its preferences are. But at the same time, obviously very important, the failure of a Labour in this last election was to persuade people of their argument. It may have had policies that people liked, but people were not persuaded, by any means, that Labour could or would deliver those policies. And that’s the challenge going forward. 

MARC STEINER: We have so much more to talk about here, so I look forward to the coming year or two, having conversations just about what happens when the center and the left seem to be a one political grouping and taking on the right, which is rising in power. Then what to do next and where does this take the struggle for this new century? And I look forward to conversations about that and many more with you, Rachel. Thank you so much for your work and thank you for joining us today. 

RACHEL SHABI: Absolutely. Thanks so much for having me. 

MARC STEINER: It’s my pleasure. And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Let us know what you think. Take care.