Labour’s future as a party of government is under a dual assault. On one flank is a party leadership and new members whose values don’t reflect those of the voters they need to return to power. On the other is a Conservative-spawned Trade Union Bill threatening to strip the party of a huge amount of its funding. But it’s possible to identify a route Labour can use to turn those developments to its advantage in order to truly modernise, and in doing so mark out a viable path to return to power.
Despite the tone of doom surrounding the Party, Labour’s saving grace is that it’s the only viable opposition in the UK. The SNP may not be in power in Westminster, but has governed Scotland since 2007 and will continue to do so until at least 2021. The Liberal Democrats have been numerically destroyed and subsequently managed to top their election defeat by selecting as leader a man who holds social views at odds to most of the party’s remaining core vote. And UKIP’s longevity is in question with an EU referendum around the corner.
But even if it’s possible for Labour to muddle forward in the short term, under Corbyn the party is unelectable. But for the long term this may be no bad thing. To paraphrase a colleague, the Corbyn victory gives Labour an opportunity to burn the house down and start from scratch. Whilst this may seem needlessly destructive, the alternative was arguably worse. Ed Miliband represented what was potentially the first in a long line of uninspiring soft-left unifying leaders. Electorally, the best Labour would have ever been able to accomplish was to scrape together a governing coalition with the SNP, and even that would have required a recession of some depth to facilitate. By going for broke with Corbyn, those on the left of the Party will have their opportunity to sink or swim on their own terms.
Simple failure – whether it comes early or has to wait for the almost inevitable 40+ Conservative majority in 2020 – will not be enough to silence the most extreme elements of the party: for them, there will always be someone else to blame for failure other than themselves. But a crushing defeat should at least provide a window to return to sanity: the hard-left may be in the ascendency with regards to the membership, but Corbyn only won because (a) he was nominated by the Parliamentary Labour Party at the last minute and (b) many of the more mainstream Labour members and affiliates gravitated towards him in despair and rebellion. At the next leadership election, it should be possible not only to avoid repeating this, but also to capitalise on the defeat by presenting drastic change via a centrist candidate as the only option. Fundamentally, with the right leader and policy set, people will return to the party – they have nowhere else to go. But Labour needs further change to break the current Groundhog Day cycle.
This brings us to Labour’s second problem: money – or rather an imminent lack of it. By making the contribution of trade union members to the ‘political funds’ of political parties optional, the Trade Union Bill will hugely reduce the resources unions have at their disposal to support Labour. It would also seriously limit unions’ wider political activities – including their ability to influence the selection of Labour candidates for parliament. The Conservatives calculate that with such changes to legislation, Labour and the left will be crippled.
But there’s a flaw in this Conservative plan. Tony Blair was able to temporarily make Labour viable, but he never cured it of its trade union dependency. Ultimately, it was this reliance that undid all of his work: Ed Milband’s election as leader in 2010 was only made possible by the unions, and it was he who transformed the Party into one that elected Jeremy Corbyn. If Corbyn clings on until 2020, it will largely be with the support of MPs – notably the 2015 intake – whose nominations were influenced by the wider political activities of leading trade unions.
Whilst it’s not a new suggestion that Labour should break with the unions, it was never going to be a move that either party would willingly consent to. However much they may posture, the unions have no other viable political entity through which to channel their influence. For its part, the last thing any Labour leadership needs is the added headache of a lack of funding. But by forcing the issue, the Conservatives are likely doing Labour a huge favour at exactly the right moment.
It comes back again to the fundamental point that Labour is the only viable UK-wide opposition. This presents not only the opportunity for a 2025 Labour revival, but also for new funding. The 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns pulled in a huge amount of money in small donations, and it’s difficult to imagine a similar effort in UK couldn’t bear fruit in the right circumstances. The trick would be to make Labour attractive to the types of people actually able to donate. Again, Blair briefly gave Labour this type of appeal, but he was never able to lock it in as Labour remained financially dependent on and comfortable with the support of the trade unions.
The conjunction of both a failure of the Labour far left and large-scale reduction in trade union influence presents Labour with the opportunity for a return in 2025. For its critics, such a move would represent a gentrification of the Party and carry the hazard of Labour abandoning its roots in order to appeal to the middle class. But the dilemma the far-left has generated between power and principle is a false one. Prime Minister in waiting Osborne may be already – and understandably – measuring the curtains at Downing Street, but his stay there need not be as long as many on the left fear.