So it’s now official: Labour wasn’t too left-wing at the last election after all. That’s according to none other than the Labour Party. The internal party review, overseen by former deputy leader Margaret Beckett, spent last summer asking that – and other irrelevant questions – all of which helps to satiate the need to make any meaningful reforms. Don’t panic folks. No need for a post-mortem.
Well that’s just great. Don’t worry about that trifling fact that it was the Party’s worst general election result since 1983. In some ways it was far worse. Even Michael Foot’s party won seats in Scotland. But never mind that. As long as it wasn’t a sense of political purity that cost Labour the election, then we can all sleep soundly knowing that the Party has a fighting chance in 2020. In fact, maybe the party wasn’t pure enough? Maybe, as many in the Labour grassroots have seemingly concluded, Labour can afford to be more left-wing at the next election? How else does one explain the lurch to “the Left” with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader. Whichever way you cut it, political purity is high on the Party’s agenda. Incidentally, my first local Party meeting after the election of Jeremy Corbyn last autumn spent nearly an hour discussing the need to scrap Trident (presumably because that’s all the electorate wanted to talk about on the doorstep in last May’s election?).
For those who don’t live or die by the rigours of Party dogma – which is 99.5% of us – all this naval gazing spells disaster for Labour. That Margaret Beckett even felt the need to ask the question “was the Party too left-wing” just makes the whole Party look stupid and out of date. If you have to even ask the question then almost by definition the answer must be yes.
The problem is not that Labour looks too left-wing. It is much more fundamental: the problem is that the Party doesn’t even talk a language the rest of us recognise. It doesn’t sound like us. It doesn’t think like us. It doesn’t share our concerns. The nature of internal Party debates – scrapping Trident being a good example – shows that Labour still doesn’t really “get it”. In demonstrating that Labour is still vexed by the notion of left-wing versus right-wing simply underlines that the Party lives in another world. A different world to the rest of us.
Stop me if I am stating the bleeding obvious but most people – including those who actually vote – don’t regard themselves in terms of class politics any more. Someone really should tell the high-ups in the Labour Party that the Cold War is in fact over. The “Left” (whatever that might mean in 2016) lost. The Ladies of Greenham Common are not about to make a triumphal return and reshape our nation’s political agenda. Britain has long since moved on. We are no longer a breed of Class Warriors, much less, Cold Warriors. But rather, we spend money. We shop. We buy things. We define ourselves by our ability to consume. We aspire to earn more money, so that we can buy more things.
Increasingly, and rather annoyingly from my perspective, we choose to live life virtually. Rather than identifying with the people who live next door, we build our own shallow, pitiful communities with like-minded people in the digital void. This is how social progression is measured in modern Britain. It’s not very progressive and it’s not very social. But the genie is out of the bottle. And no amount of well-intentioned Labour moralising is going to reverse decades of consumerism and the digital society.
Labour needs to reflect the modern age, rather than revert to the comfort of the past. Just as Labour had something relevant to say to the dockers in Liverpool or the pitworkers of Barnsley living in their cramped two up, two downs in the early part of the Twentieth Century, it now needs something relevant to say to the digital nomads of the early Twenty-first century. These nomads have a lot of the same problems that gave rise to the Labour movement – they can’t get a well-paid job, can’t access decent housing, can’t afford to save for a pension, they feel increasingly insecure financially – only they do it all with a smart phone and a Facebook profile, and they never, ever worry about whether they are being ‘left-wing’.
In this shiny new consumer age, talking about ‘left’ and ‘right’ means nothing (unless you’re referring to the control buttons on an Xbox). Unless Labour gets that, and pretty damn quickly, it risks becoming a museum piece rather than a serious political force.