When British Prime Minister Theresa May called a snap general election – scheduled for June 8th – many on the centre-left despaired. May called the election to capitalise on the huge lead that her Conservative party had over the main opposition Labour party in opinion polls. At the end of April, the Conservatives were polling between 40-50 %, with Labour on 24–30% (give or take the odd bounce) leaving a consistent 20% gap that would be exacerbated by the UK’s ‘first past the post’ electoral system.
At the end of April, the Conservatives were polling between 40-50 %, with Labour on 24–30% (give or take the odd bounce) leaving a consistent 20% gap. Even as the gap narrowed in mid-May, if there is a still a gap by election day its effects will be exacerbated by the UK’s ‘first past the post’ electoral system – and polls before previous elections have tended to underestimate Tory support and overestimate that for Labour.
Despite Theresa May’s manifest inadequacies, many Labour supporters still fear a Tory landslide and they are right to: in 1983, the year of Labour’s greatest defeat in a general election since the Second World War, they got 209 seats on 32% of the vote, with the Conservatives winning 397 seats on 42%. However, while Labour supporters are right to expect a heavy defeat, social democrats in the UK – and across Europe – should embrace this heavy defeat rather than try to fight it.
They should do this despite the certainty that a Conservative victory will make life materially worse for a majority of people in the UK. They should do this despite the certainty that a Conservative victory will mean less money and more privatisation for the NHS and other key public services. They should do this even though a Conservative Victory will encourage a nastier, more xenophobic public culture. They should do this even though a Conservative victory will guarantee that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ – and probably hard Brexit.
They should do this because the Conservatives will win handsomely anyway.
They should do this because Labour needs to change.
Hijacking Labour, Undermining Democracy
In the last two years, Jeremy Corbyn and the hard-left group around him have taken control of the Labour party. They were able to do this, in part, due to an ill-considered change in the way that party leaders are elected (by previous leader Ed Miliband), which allowed large numbers of new members to join, for as little as £3 – and many did so specifically to vote for Corbyn. They were also able to do so because no major Labour figure was able to clearly articulate a compelling centrist, progressive vision befitting a major social-democratic party.
Corbyn has already overcome a revolt by 172 of the 229 labour MPs less than a year after taking over and was re-elected as the leader of the party in 2016 gaining more than 100,000 votes more than challenger Owen Smith. That sounds like a large number and a democratic mandate until you consider that 9.3m people voted for the 172 MPs who supported a no-confidence motion – and that they did so for a Labour party of which Corbyn was not leader.
Under Corbyn, the Labour party was woefully unable to provide effective opposition to the Conservative government of David Cameron. Under Corbyn, the Labour party was so half-hearted in its support for the EU that it must take a large part of the blame for the Brexit vote. This disaster for social democracy (and many other things) in the UK was cheered on by many Corbyn supporters who campaigned for ‘Lexit’ (Left-wing Brexit).
Now, Corbyn’s Labour party has proven itself so ineffective at holding Theresa May’s Tories to account, so incapable of providing proper scrutiny over the most important political process in a generation, so devoid of the imagination needed to conceive of, let alone deliver, a credible progressive alternative to Brexit that May has seized the opportunity to claim an even stronger mandate.
Losing the Battle to Win the War
Corbyn has accelerated the process of making the party unelectable begun by his predecessor, Ed Miliband. He has dragged the party so far to the left that its policies appeal to only a small minority of the electorate. But electability is only half the problem. This hard-left hijacking of a social-democratic party has left Labour with both analyses of and solutions to domestic and international issues that are so laughably retro, so laughably misguided, that they would make a good joke if the consequences weren’t so serious.
Corbyn who espouses socialism rather than social democracy and still calls his colleagues “comrades,” was a long-time columnist for the Communist Party of Great Britain’s ‘Morning Star’ newspaper. He has allowed a culture of bullying, anti-Semitism, misogyny and intra-left infighting to develop in the Labour party. He and his key advisors have variously backed Venezuela’s oppressive left–wing regime, defended Vladimir Putin, blamed the West (and Ukrainian fascists) for the Ukraine crisis, argued that we should focus on the positives of Stalin’s dictatorship, called Hamas and Hizbollah his friends, dismissed the value of NATO and has stated that he will not use the UK’s nuclear deterrent, even while continuing to pay for it (to maintain jobs). Corbyn ignores the EUs credentials as a prime underwriter of peace, prosperity and social protection in Europe and advocated that article 50 be invoked immediately after the Brexit vote in June 2016. To name just a few examples.
Add that Corbyn has repeatedly proven that he is neither a competent or convincing leader and it is clear that the Labour party is not a credible party of government (as the electorate concurs), nor even a credible opposition party. This lack of opposition has damaged British democracy not just social democracy. Labour has been hijacked by self-obsessed retro-leftists to become an anti-social and anti-democratic force that I – and many others – cannot and will not vote for.
The only way for Labour to effectively challenge the Tories and provide effective opposition in future is for the party to change radically. A crushing electoral defeat should be a clear signal to ditch Corbyn and his policies. If they cling on even after such a defeat then it would be time to form a new social-democratic party that could meaningfully reinvigorate broad-based progressive politics in the UK and contribute to the wider task of re-imagining the future of social democracy in our changing and challenging world.
Re-Imagining Social Democracy
Rather than farcically re-enacting the socialist battles of the past, the Labour party, like social democrats across Europe need to address current and future challenges: from the threats to the liberal international order; to harnessing the benefits of growing migration; and dealing with the uneven impacts of technological change, particularly automation and other revolutions in the ways we work (such as the advent of the ‘gig economy’ epitomised by Uber).
We cannot give in to nativism and must challenge the lies that have scapegoated migrants for structural economic problems and social exclusion – progressive societies thrive on diversity. We need to make this case and persuade people that it is in their interests rather than simply pandering to misplaced intolerance. ‘Socialist-nationalism’ threatens progressive causes in Poland, Slovakia and, increasingly, in the Czech Republic, but also in France, where the centre-left’s implosion has left the liberal Emmanuel Macron as the only – imperfect – option.
Martin Schulz’s boost to the SPD in Germany shows the value of picking the right leader but also the broad-based appeal that comes from being credibly able to argue for both the power of markets and the need to curb their excesses. A major social democratic party must be for the many rather than the few (whether the very rich or the very left). But investment in infrastructure and public services requires prosperity, as does meaningful progressive taxation. It also requires convincing enough people that they will keep enough of what they earn to reward their effort, but that social and that social democracy serves their ambition as well as their effort.
The challenge is significant but not unprecedented. Having fought the 1983 election with a hard-left manifesto described by a Labour MP as “The longest suicide note in history” Labour re-invented itself, winning the biggest election victory in British political history in 1997. For all the (justified) criticism thrown at Tony Blair for the Iraq war and the other (less justified) criticisms of New Labour we should not forget what they achieved in terms of poverty reduction, social inclusion, funding public services and urban regeneration. They made Britain a more modern, prosperous, tolerant and open country at the heart of the EU, forward-looking and attuned to the needs and hopes of its people.
And we cannot forget that they needed to be in government to do so.
You can read this article in Czech here.
Written for The Reporter Magazine, an independent media outlet based in Prague, The Czech Republic.