Home / Comment / In brief

The Labour Party is a secular church at war with itself

The Labour Party is a secular church at war with itself

Interested by this? Share it on social media. Join our monthly e-newsletter to keep up to date with our latest research and events. And check out our Friends Programme to find out how you can help our work.

The Labour Party has been church-like since it started.

In fact, there was once a thing called the ‘Labour Church’, with its own hymn book and tracts. In the early 19th century there were socialist Sunday schools that took the formation of young socialist minds and hearts seriously. Momentum’s Socialist childcare? There is nothing new under the sun.

Although the memory of Labour’s non-conformist roots has more or less evaporated, I think the parallels are still instructive. Saturday will see the announcement of the results of the leadership contest. More or less everyone predicts that Jeremy Corbyn will win. His leadership and campaigning in particular have already invited such comparisons – the vicar-like aesthetic, the mass meetings, and the fervour of his crowds.

But is it more that an appealing and mildly amusing analogy? I think so. Like many institutions in need of renewal, there is a fierce struggle over direction, priorities and methods.

The battle lines are drawn between traditionalists and modernisers. In the Church of England, these are called conservatives and liberals, while in the Labour Party, they’re known as Corbynistas and modernisers. Corbynistas are conservatives? Yes. Not in their politics, but in the sense that they emphasise the institution’s historic identity and reject calls to dilute that identity in order to broaden its appeal. The modernisers, meanwhile, argue that the movement has no future unless it can connect with a broader public. They argue that the party/congregation has to reconcile itself to the way the world is, rather than the way the world was.

The ‘conservatives’ emphasise the depth of the party – its authenticity, integrity and willingness to stand alongside the most vulnerable. The ‘modernisers’ emphasise the importance of reach – its ability to appeal to those who would not count  themselves among the faithful. It is a caricature, but the caricature only works because it exaggerates real features.

It’s obvious that any party hoping to present a credible alternative will need both depth and reach. Why can’t the two sides just kiss and make up? After all, isn’t Labour supposed to be a broad church? If only it were that simple. That these camps are so publicly slugging it out is not the cause of Labour’s trouble but a symptom. The disease is not knowing what or whom the Party is for, and just how it should be for them. It was contracted during a decade of social democratic government that was made possible by a relatively buoyant economy. That all had to change after the financial crash. All of the Labour Party realises that the old answers no longer work, but few acceot that the questions have completely changed. How can you help people flourish in a post-crash low growth economy when, in the words of former Labour Chief Secretary to the Treasury, “I’m afraid there’s no money left”.

How can such a divided and confused Party recover to provide an effective opposition under a newly-/re-elected leader? Here’s three pieces of advice, not that anyone’s asking.

First, shape a coherent and plausible programme. To do this, Labour will have to get on with some hard thinking about the policy challenges of 2016. A general yearning for the status quo ante 2010 is neither constructive nor convincing. Being objector-to-austerity-in-chief is not the same thing as providing an opposition, and feeling people’s pain will not be enough. The Archbishop of Canterbury has to persuade people that he is both nicer and more right than Richard Dawkins.

There’s more to this than picking the right leader. Instead of an intense period of reflection after 2010, Labour has indulged in debates which have been not so much about direction and values as about personality. Ed or Ed or David? Jez or Yvette or Liz or Andy? Jez or Owen? After three bouts of internecine warfare few have engaged in the task of asking what an authentic Labour agenda for the 21st century could be. In my humble opinion, Jeremy Corbyn is highly unlikely to ever win an election, but he would give himself a much better chance, and do a lot more good on the way, if the Party developed a positive, intellectually coherent agenda.

Second, start talking and listening to the country at large. It is the nature of any membership organisation to be defined and organised by the most committed, but it should never be defined and organised for the most committed. Church and political party alike need to be constantly reminded that they have a mission and a purpose beyond themselves, and that a considerable part of their task is to be engaging with those who are not in the tent. Never forget that people ‘out there’ neither share your identity nor understand your language. You will have to work very hard to persuade them that what you have is worth exploring. It’s little use moaning about biased media or misinformation. That just sounds like special pleading.

Third, Labour will therefore need to mind its language. Labour leader and Prime Minister Harold Wilson used to disapprove those obsessed with ‘theology’ – that is, with theoretical and introverted debates conducted in a specialised and exclusive language. Corbyn’s pitch for straight talking, honest politics is one of the things that genuinely appeal, but should he win, he and his team would need to live up to the claim. For my money, there is far too much talk of ‘neo-liberalism’ – it’s becoming a placeholder for proper analysis and policy. Give meaningful answers to questions people are really asking, insofar as it is possible in plain English, and you at least give yourself a chance of persuading people outside of your tent that you’re saying something worth listening to.

It has to be said that even a remarkable leader would struggle with the challenges that lie ahead for the Labour Party: Scotland’s rejection, a boundary review likely to lose them upwards of 30 seats, and the worst polling performance of Labour’s opposition history. Need we say more? No-one knows how May’s Premiership will yet shape up, but she’s an astute politician, who at the moment commands considerable confidence amongst the general public. All this rather implies a long period of one-party dominance, which everyone can agree is far from ideal.

Many now openly contemplate schism in the Church of England, just as people wonder whether the Labour Party will survive in its current form. When it comes to the Labour Party, I would humbly suggest that anyone (in either camp) contemplating a break-up ought to think again. They would walk away with only half a movement, and though that half a party might be ideologically purer and more at peace it would not be stronger. Nor would it have answered the questions that Labour needs to address if it is to do any good. Any leader will come from one camp or another, but he or she will need to transcend their own tribe if they’re to take the work forward. Doing so would be the first condition of effective opposition, not to mention having a prospect of forming a government. 

Paul Bickley is the Director of Political Programme at Theos


YouTube capture, under creative commons 2.0

Posted 22 September 2016

Politics , Britain

Get regular email updates on our latest research and events.

Please confirm your subscription in the email we have sent you.

Want to keep up to date with the latest news, reports, blogs and events from Theos? Get updates direct to your inbox once or twice a month.

Thank you for signing up.