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02.02.16

The Progressive Dilemma remains – only sharpened

The reshuffle has done little to dampen perceptions that Jeremy Corbyn is the most left-wing, pacifist and unbending Labour leader ever. Keir Hardie and George Lansbury might compete. Corbyn, nonetheless, is still the most preeminent such leader since Clement Attlee succeeded Lansbury in 1935.

In this sense, the dilemmas posed by the Corbyn leadership feel uncharted. They portend, however, only a deepening of the British left’s core dilemma.

Throughout the period since Labour overhauled the Liberals as part of the duopoly of UK politics, as David Marquand wrote in the second edition of The Progressive Dilemma (1999), “apart from a brief period in the early 1980s, Labour was strong enough to prevent anyone else offering a serious challenge to the Conservatives, but too weak to make its own challenge effective.”

For all the reshuffle’s sound and fury, this position remains, only painfully deepened. Recent analysis by Glen O’Hara and Adam Boulton suggests that Labour remains too feeble to overhaul the Conservatives, while being too electorally entrenched for anyone else to.

Having waded through the evidence on polling and electoral performance, O’Haraconcludes at the Staggers that, “the Party is dicing with a double-digit defeat at the 2020 general election.” Equally, however, as Boulton warns (£) in the Sunday Times, “Labour’s core vote is a lot for Corbyn’s internal opponents to walk away from, as some Bravehearts would like, and to form a new party”.

 “The two-party system which prevailed from 1868 to 1918 – the system of Conservatives versus Liberals – produced a total of twenty-seven years of Conservative or Conservative-dominated government, against twenty-three of Liberal,” observed Marquand in the late 1990s. “Conservative or predominately Conservative governments have been in office for fifty of the seventy-odd years since the Labour party first became the official opposition in the House of Commons … Liberal England may have died, but Labour England has failed to be born.”

Throughout these years of Conservative government, Labour has been reduced to wondering, “why must we endure this?”

We’ve looked at Conservative prime ministers, as we now contemplate at David Cameron, and seen them to be demonstrably failing to address the country’s problems. We’ve wondered why our fellow citizens appear unable to see this. We’ve blamed them. And we’ve castigated the media. False consciousness and vast right-wing conspiracies.

But a century’s bitter experience might cause us to look closer to home. In the years since Marquand wrote, Tony Blair won two elections and Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband have lost once apiece; Labour Scotland has turned to SNP Scotland; and if the trends identified by O’Hara persist, it is hard to see a Labour government before 2030, as the 2020 defeat will be too catastrophic for Labour to recover from in one parliament.

This will continue to be George Osborne’s country, which we’ll just live in, with Labour England unborn around us. The new dawn won’t break for the same reason that it hasn’t broken before. Labour retains enough of what was once Liberal England to remain the dominant anti-Conservative force, while not sufficiently securing the descendents of Liberal England – the chapel-goers and small shopkeepers of a century ago are the great grandparents of today’s social entrepreneurs and business innovators – to electorally triumph over the Conservatives as consistently as the Liberals once did.

There is a decent argument, which Phil Collins has advanced in Prospect, that both the Conservatives and Labour are strongest when they tap into the parts of the liberal tradition that sit most easily with them. As Osborne is a Hayekian liberal, Labour might revisit the New Liberalism of LT Hobhouse, an intellectual touchstone to the last Liberal government, providing fertile terrain for contemporary progressive thinking.

Labour governments have always depended upon some form reconciliation between their aims and market machinations. Whether that be Clement Attlee’s calm reassurance, Harold Wilson’s white heat of technology, or Tony Blair’s prawn cocktail offensive. Revisiting Hobhouse – who, as Marquand put it, sought, “to limit the rights and extend the obligations of property, not expropriate the property owner”; the social market, not grasping state socialism – may provide a new reconciliation in tune with generation rent’s gig economy and compelling enough to both give shape and form to a new social democracy and more fully capture Liberal England than Labour has previously managed.

It would amount to more than the moaning that John Harris in the Guardiancontests is all Labour moderates now offer. As moderates seek to be a constructive force, we would be aided by reconceptualising the Corbyn era not as a wholly changed challenge but a hardening of the progressive dilemma that has hung over Labour for approaching one hundred years.

Labour’s long-term aim – and it may take to 2030 or beyond – should be to finally resolve this dilemma. Moderates must keep an eye on this long-term prize, while engaging in the ducking and diving that short-term political expediency requires. This prize comes most clearly into view in policy areas that form the UK’s institutional structures: the constitution, the electoral system, corporate law, the balance of powers between national and local government, and responsibilities between the state and civic society.

While it is hard to feel that the reshuffle was the forceps of the long-delayed Labour England, these dry debates may be.