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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > November 2016 > Left, in pieces

Left, in pieces

After a lifetime of trying to find a nationwide answer to the progressive dilemma, I’ve given up

Labour MPs forced a great showdown with their unloved leader this summer, less than a year after he first took the helm. But they left their Liverpool conference with nothing resolved, at least not in any way that they would have wished. Jeremy Corbyn was even more firmly entrenched than before, having been reelected with a higher share of the vote, and on a bigger ballot.

Understandably enough, the party’s current travails are being debated using the familiar terms of ideology and class. The Jeremy Corbyn surge that transformed the contours of Labour politics a year ago was undoubtedly powered by revulsion against the ideological vacuity of the Tony Blair-Gordon Brown New Labour regime of 1997-2010. Blair’s insistence that Labour now stood for a preposterous “Third Way” designed to turn Britain into a “young country”; the contempt for civil liberties that pervaded a series of “anti-terror” laws; and, above all, the unlawful folly of the Iraq War stank in the nostrils, not just of the so-called “hard left,” but of idealistic progressives of all ages. Brown’s assiduous courtship of the City and insistence that financial regulation would be “limited touch” and not just “light touch” were less obvious, but another affront to traditional social democracy. Meanwhile, the Gini coefficient, which had measured a sharp climb in inequality under Margaret Thatcher, stubbornly refused to fall. Against that background, Corbyn’s election and now re-election are not just understandable; they were predictable. The shock and horror with which the Westminster village greeted them only shows that its denizens have lost the plot.

Unfortunately, the Corbyn remedy has proved to be poison. The civil war between extra-parliamentary Corbynites and the New Labour retreads in the parliamentary party has made Labour unelectable. If a general election were held tomorrow, Theresa May would sail to victory. Almost certainly, Labour would suffer a crushing defeat—perhaps as crushing as 1983, conceivably as crushing as 1935 or 1931. All the signs are that the party I joined at 20 is in terminal decline.

A vicious blame-game compounds the party’s plight. The best hope of transcending it is to understand that this is merely the local, British case of a much wider malaise. From Copenhagen to Berlin and from Athens to Jerusalem, social democracy is in retreat. In the last Israeli elections, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud crushed the essentially social-democratic Zionist Union. Pasok, the Greek social-democratic party, imploded long ago; “Pasokify” has become a term of art on a despairing left. The Danish Social Democrats went down to defeat last time, and in France, François Hollande’s socialist party has no discernible governing philosophy and seems set to lose the Élysée next year. Marine Le Pen’s Front National—boosted by the narrow majority for Brexit vote in the European Union referendum—looms menacingly in the wings. The once mighty German SPD is now the junior partner in a coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, and polling miserably. The German europhobic party—Alternative für Deutschland—is weaker than the French Front National, but the fact that it exists at all betokens an astonishing mutation in German assumptions about the European project.

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About Prospect Magazine

In Prospect’s November issue: Sam Tanenhaus argues Donald Trump is a consequence of the American government ignoring the people—and they’ll have to deal with his impact whether he wins or loses the presidential election. Diane Roberts explores the rage eating America by looking at the people that government has failed. Switching the focus to the UK, David Marquand and a quartet of commentators assess Labour’s position—with varying conclusions. Also in this issue: Matthew Qvortrup looks at the relationship between Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin, two of Europe’s most important politicians whose lives have long been intertwined. Andy Burnham, Labour’s candidate for the mayor of Manchester, lays down the reasons why the northern powerhouse is so important and Prospect’s Arts and Books Editor Sameer Rahim reviews Zadie Smith’s latest novel.
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