Just over a year into Keir Starmer’s leadership, things aren’t looking too clever for the Labour Party. A recent poll from YouGov put Labour on just 28 per cent, four per cent below what it polled in the 2019 general election which, as Starmer and his allies haven’t hesitated to remind us, saw fewer Labour MPs returned than in any other election since 1935. Boris Johnson’s Tories, meanwhile, were riding high on 46 per cent, meaning that the well-worn ‘20 points ahead’ meme now risks becoming reality – albeit for the wrong party.
Things have tightened somewhat in the wake of Dominic Cummings’ testimony this week, but not enough to put an end to the crisis. Starmer needs all the help he can get. The nearest thing he has to any cavalry coming to his aid, it seems, is Progressive Britain – a merger between Blairite pressure group Progress and think-tank Policy Network. The new organisation has set itself an ambitious goal: ‘the intellectual revitalisation of the centre-left’ in Britain. We’ve heard this kind of rhetoric before. Tom Watson’s forgotten Future Britain Group claimed to be renewing social democracy, only to sink without trace once Jeremy Corbyn was dislodged from the Labour leadership.
It has to be said that recent articles written to accompany the relaunch of Progressive Britain inspire little confidence that a bold, free-thinking social-democratic intellectual renewal is in the offing. Nathan Yeowell, the organisation’s executive director, solemnly declared in a piece for LabourList that Labour’s right wing must ‘rethink our centre-left politics, not reheat them,’ and that it ‘must look forwards, not back.’ Forward, not backward; upward, not forward; and always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom.
Shadow sports minister Alison McGovern, long a leading light in Progress, also wrote for LabourList about what Labour needs to do if it’s to get back into contention for power. After running through some of the damage done by a decade of Tory-led government – hundreds of closed libraries, frozen child benefits and cuts to programmes like Sure Start sending child poverty shooting higher, and soaring rough sleeping – McGovern issues a warning against political nostalgia, the ‘overwhelming tendency on the part of those on the left to look back.’
Few people on Labour’s socialist left will be inclined to take lessons in the dangers of nostalgia from the faction whose answer to every setback seems to be to bring back Blair, Mandelson, Campbell or whoever. McGovern, to be fair, does acknowledge that she’s not immune from it herself, but it’s hard not to read this as a swipe primarily at the Labour left. Accusations of nostalgia were prominent in Blairite criticisms of Corbynism: that it was an attempt to drag Britain ‘back to the ‘70s’ instead of confronting the crises of our time.
Nostalgia, McGovern insists, is ‘a seductive liar’ and ‘a comforting warm bath in which to hide from the world,’ and ‘an emotional longing for the past which tells us things were better before.’ Labour, needless to say, must resist this temptation: ‘The past – my past – was not better. This is a lesson that we must repeat to ourselves daily.’ This is, apparently, ‘what it means to be a progressive’ – and, as she takes care to remind us, ‘if you are not a progressive, you are a conservative.’ A focus on the future is ‘the only way to win.’
In truth, it feels like McGovern is tilting at windmills here. Does anyone on the left really hanker after a time machine to return them to a past golden age? There’s a big difference between wallowing in nostalgia and thinking that not everything we did before Thatcher – such as public ownership or collective bargaining – was inherently bad. If anyone’s prone to nostalgia, it’s the current Labour leadership, with its socially conservative mood music and preoccupation with older voters in the former ‘Red Wall’ at the expense of other sections of the party’s base.
Jeremy Corbyn may have made an unlikely moderniser – since we’re so used to associating the term with a sharp suit and a managerial demeanour – but in important respects, he did attempt to drag the Labour Party into the 21st century. Corbynism’s ambitious policies on housing, climate, economic justice and renewing public services represented a clear advance on the timidity that preceded it. They formed part of Labour’s most popular policy programme in many years; even in 2019, the party’s policies generally polled well.
Corbynism’s efforts to renew the party itself, however, ran into intense resistance that eventually wore it down and overcame it. The Parliamentary Labour Party and the party machine under Iain McNicol remained key staging posts for attacks on Corbyn’s leadership; the political composition of the former had barely changed at all by the end of his tenure, despite a slightly bigger Socialist Campaign Group. Bureaucratic resistance, meanwhile, impeded the formation of the Community Organising Unit, swiftly scrapped by Starmer.
The Labour right did not regain control of the party because of the strength of its ideas. In reality, it scarcely has any. Instead, it used its embedded position in the parliamentary party and the party bureaucracy, along with leveraging its easy access to the media, to grind Corbyn and the Labour left down. But it couldn’t win the leadership by being honest about what it believed and wanted to do: instead, it had to sail under a soft-left flag of convenience, with Starmer’s leadership campaign forced to pledge fealty to Corbyn-era policies.
Now that it finds itself, more or less, back in Labour’s driving seat, the Labour right’s paucity of substantial ideas for either the party or the country is obvious. Voters complain that they no longer know what Labour stands for. Starmer’s one attempt at a major new policy launch, British Recovery Bonds, has hardly been mentioned since, a damp squib almost on a par with ‘speedy boarding’ during the Miliband years. Despite inheriting a broadly popular policy programme from Corbyn, Starmer has made no effort to build on that foundation.
Likewise, the grassroots intellectual ferment of the Corbyn era has all but dissipated. Events like The World Transformed brought thousands of ordinary people together to debate their own ideas for the future of the labour movement and of Britain as a whole. TWT still endures and will be in Brighton alongside the Labour Party conference later this year, but it is unlikely to get a hearing from the Labour frontbench any time soon. The messiness of rank-and-file discussion has been replaced by the stale, focus-grouped verbiage of shadow ministers.
The Labour right carefully avoided getting drawn into an ideological contest during the Corbyn years. This was a war-of-attrition strategy which served it well at the time; it is, after all, exhausting to be pummelled by the news cycle day in, day out, as the left was for four years. But this leaves Labour’s right wing exposed. It evidently feels very strongly that it should be in charge, as evidenced by its dogged counter-offensive against Corbynism, yet it has made little effort to clarify what it would do with power if it had it.
But does any of this trouble the Labour right too much? It’s not clear that it does. The Blairite right’s first priority is to tighten its grip on Labour and ensure that nothing like Corbynism happens again. We can expect it to attempt to change the party rule book to this end, possibly by rigging the rules for future leadership contests to keep socialists off the ballot. Much like the Future Britain Group before it, Progressive Britain is more likely to serve as a vehicle for this purpose rather than as the source of bright new ideas on the centre-left.