To state the blindingly obvious, Labour is a party of the industrial age, which has been storing up this crisis for a decade, at least. Largely devoid of the battalions of organised labour that once provided its organisational and electoral muscle, it has become a shadow party run by an ever tinier clique of politicians drawn from ever narrower backgrounds. A comparable fate has befallen the Tories – but in delivering messages and cementing electoral coalitions, the Conservative party can rely on a hegemonic machine that grinds away day in, day out, and encompasses everything from the rightwing press to most of the UK’s big business.
Labour has nothing to compare, so in its current form, it faces an unenviable choice. It can try to replicate the 1997 story, wait for the Conservatives to become incapably clapped-out, while jettisoning its soul and desperately trying to win the favour of the Tories’ allies. Alternatively, it can try and do the right thing, without even the beginnings of a coalition of countervailing forces. This was the essential story of Ed Miliband’s leadership: one man and his aides rightly – and sometimes powerfully – going on about inequality and insecurity while sporadically picking fights with parts of the establishment, with no real understanding of what they had to do to stand any chance of winning them. Very occasionally, they talked about “reaching out”. But they never did anything about it.
The necessity of coalition-building may look like a new thing, which was hardly necessary when Labour was a genuine movement. But it is not. Indeed, if any wannabe Labour leader is minded to actually read anything right now, they should start with The Road to 1945, Paul Addison’s brilliant account (first published in the mid-70s) of what lay behind Labour’s most seismic victory. It is the story not just of how Britain’s experience of war set the stage, but decades of work, way beyond the party and the unions. Campaigning for child benefit, for example, began in 1917, thanks to Eleanor Rathbone, an independent MP from Liverpool. A semi-independent offshoot of the board of education began lobbying for the raising of the school leaving age to 15 in 1926.Meanwhile, John Maynard Keynes was blazing a trail away from austerity, and there was a cacophony about a whole range of other subjects, from nutrition to new towns.
I can just about imagine some latter day version of all this – it might encompass everything from Mumsnet through Britain’s churches, what remains of progressive academia, and out into single-issue campaigns that can these days acquire momentum at speed. It would also push the centre-left’s lamentably economistic agenda into places in which it is too uncomfortable: loneliness, family breakdown, an obvious crisis in masculinity, the return of hunger to our towns and cities, and more. The trouble is, I cannot imagine most of the Labour elite having either the wit or humility to get involved.