What’s happened to the Labour right? Since the departure of Jim Callaghan as Labour leader in 1980, it’s been one long recessional for the section of the Party that, if you can define it, is broadly (but not completely) the part of the Labour Party in favour of more liberal economy, more personal freedom and a more hawkish foreign policy.
The first obvious thing to point out here is that Tony Blair and his three terms in Government embodied all of these things. But this all seems a long time ago: at this moment in time Blairism seemed only skin deep, ephemeral and almost wholly linked an unusually strong and charismatic leader. Blairism of course emerged with the man himself in 1994, when a desperate party gave itself up to the fresh-faced new hope. And when Blair left, the ideals within the Party that he represented seem to have slipped away just as surely. The Party has chosen a gradually more left-wing leader in every leadership election since.
In the latest leadership election, the sole standard bearer for the sort of Labour politics that people like Callaghan and Denis Healey would’ve recognised, let alone Blair, has been the inexperienced Liz Kendall. She won’t win. Indeed, it seems very likely that Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing candidate by far, will. So what has happened to this once dominant section of a once dominant party?
Not unusually for politics, there are a range of theories. One problem may be Blair himself, who is toxic right now amongst many Labour members – particularly the new joiners who surged into the Party after May’s defeat. This may change – reputations recover in time – but it does little for the strength of a wing of the Party still widely seen as ‘owned’ by Blair.
Other suggestions are more interesting. The world has changed dramatically, something that has of course affected every major political party in virtually every democratic society. In the case of Labour in particular, many on the Party’s right defined themselves by being of the left, but a left that refused to cosy up with the Soviet Union. Happily the USSR is now a geopolitical corpse but perhaps its removal has also removed some of the sense of urgency behind that wing of the Labour Party.
Thatcherism, technology and globalisation have also hollowed out the trade union movement, which in its ‘small c’ conservatism and sense of practicality (just think of gruff unionist Ernest Bevin, who hated Communism and created NATO) often was the very Labour right itself. With fewer union members, come a much smaller pool of talent. It is notable that when people talk up Alan Johnson his union background is often referenced. Such a background used to be the norm for senior Labour MPs.
Maybe too that break in the early 80s with the defection of senior figures in the Labour right known as the “Gang of Four” to form the Social Democratic Party is still doing lasting damage, drawing away talented politicians with centre-left views who would have once prospered in the Labour Party.
If so then at least that is a cause for hope. The Liberal Democrats no longer look that good a bet – it’s doubtful whether they’ll want to be in Government again for a generation, even if and when they do recover in the Commons. Another cause for optimism if you happen, as I do, to belong to the Labour right is the sheer circularity of politics – should Mr Corbyn win and should Labour suffer an electoral calamity in 2020 as a consequence, an MP from Labour’s right will look like a more appealing prospect – if there’s a good enough candidate.
I hope there is, though I’m not looking forward to the electoral catastrophe that would have to come first. It is a truism, albeit one that needs to be repeated with a bizarre frequency, that political parties in political systems like Britain’s are messy coalitions that need two strong wings. This is as true for the Conservatives as it is for Labour; witness the electoral effect of the withering of the socially liberal Tory left in 1997, 2001 and 2005, and the steps that David Cameron and his allies have fitfully taken to revive it.
Labour election victories are based on bringing together the best of the left and the right – or, at least, providing an appealing balance. This does not look likely to happen within the near future. For the sake of the Labour’s electoral chances, the wing of the party that gave us Bevin, Herbert Morrison, Roy Jenkins, Callaghan and Healey, figures who changed Britain and, indeed, Europe and the world for much the better, needs to be revived – and soon.