Anyone who has glanced at the news in the last three months will know that the Labour Party is currently in the throes of a leadership contest. Both the four contenders and the media are framing the contest as the first stage in Labour’s fight for the 2020 election with the assumption that Labour is a permanent but temporarily weakened feature in the Westminster landscape, which will inevitably regroup and eventually win a majority in the Commons. There seems to be little acknowledgment that Labour might never again reach Downing Street or that this contest might not be part of Labour’s fight for power but rather Labour’s fight for survival. However, following Miliband’s resignation Liz Kendall, the ‘Blairite’ leadership contender, did make a subtle hint that Labour has “no God-given right to exist” and this simple point may carry significant substance.
As a generalisation, it would be fair say that, for 300 years, the battle for British political power has been dominated by a dichotomy – the Tories and the alternative. However, history has a seen a political cycle, as the role of the alternative was first occupied by the Whigs, who gave way to the Liberal Party in the 1850s, who then gave way to Labour in the 1920s. The alterative has not always been Labour and there is no reason to think that it should continue to be so. This has been demonstrated in the last three months as the SNP, a strong minority in the Commons, has not only taken on the mantel of ‘third party’ but has shown enough initiative, as Labour is distracted by internal debates, to become the greatest thorn in the government’s side and, in practice, a kind of unofficial opposition.
The Conservative ideology is rooted in the past and in notions of continuity; it thus always appeals to a significant group who are happy with the country as it is or are fearful of where change may lead it. The Conservatives have an electoral failsafe and, as such, the party has an inevitable longevity. However, in recent years, Labour has lost its meaning. It is a party rooted in an ideology based on class divides and trade unionism but these social phenomena have been in decline for decades. The Labour leadership can try to make policies on a whim, as did the Shadow Cabinet through the last Parliament, but this leaves them chasing the electorate with no relevant ideology. They may find a ‘narrative’, as they would call it, to cover up an irrelevant ideology, but the ideology is still there and, if this does not resonate with Britain today, the party will have difficulty persisting as the alternative to the Conservatives.
By 2020, although Labour may have been out of power for only 10 years, in reality, Britain would not have had a left-wing government (i.e. an ideological support for high taxation, high spending, an effective welfare system, and total nationalisation) for the past 41 years. Of course, Blair’s New Labour held power as the alternative for 13 years, but to call it a Labour or left-wing premiership would be tenuous. It may be the case that since 2007, when Brown replaced Blair, Labour has reverted back to the bleak position it was in just before Blair became leader in 1994, on a path of inevitable decline. Indeed, the reactionary approach of the Shadow Cabinet through the latter half of the last Parliament was dangerously reminiscent of the “one more heave” strategy, adopted by Kinnock and Smith.
In order to be the alternative in twenty-first-century politics a party needs an ideology that is rooted in contemporary values, beliefs and circumstances, not with policies designed to counteract the Conservatives but with policies rooted in a core set of relevant principles. Where this could come from is anyone’s guess – but maybe the Liberal Democrats will recover from their election annihilation quicker than they think.