Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

A movement without motion

The agonising descent of Labour under Jeremy Corbyn is a symptom of the party’s lack of ideas, argues Gabriel Gavin

Last week’s rumours of Jeremy Corbyn’s political demise now seem to have been greatly exaggerated. For some, the inevitable departure of the worst leader of the opposition in living memory is a cure-all for Labour’s ailments. Just as soon as he has retired into the dustbin of history, the gates of Downing Street will be thrown open.

But Corbyn is not at the heart of Labour’s woes. He is simply the latest symptom of a movement that has been bereft of motion for too long. In towns and cities in every region, people’s politics have moved on and Labour has been slow to react.

Too often our solutions to society’s problems are tired soundbites from the turn of the millennium, or some of the more blue-sky ideas from an Ed Miliband-era focus group. Without a vision, without a sense of direction, any future for the party is limited to representing only those who already agree with it.

There is no roadmap to recovery for Labour, no electoral pact or strategy that can overcome its failure to modernise. Not only does Labour look unable to win a general election, it would not know what to do if it did.

The agonising descent of the Labour party under Corbyn is just one part of a trend that is taking place across Europe and across the world. From Germany to Ghana, there is an ideological battle being fought out, one in which the left is not even a combatant. In almost every case, it is moderate, progressive centrist governments standing up against extremism of all forms, while small, out-of-touch sections of society lead protest movements.

As polling this week shows, only one-in-five ‘working class’ voters plan on voting Labour at a general election. For a party founded to represent working people, this is an existential threat. In Scotland, in poorer coastal areas and the outskirts of industrial towns, Labour came to rely on these people to continue voting in the way they always had, without ever looking at what we were actually offering them. As the way people live and work changed, so did their ambitions, their worries and their politics, and Labour seemed to be the last to notice.

The issues that really matter to people, housing, jobs, healthcare, the cost of living, are at risk of being hijacked by a populist far-right that seeks only to blame everyone else for the failings of our systems. But the avenues to building a better-off, safer, less unequal society are still there and they are fast becoming the offering of other parties.

At its current trajectory, Labour’s role in British politics looks set to be diminished. Without an unprecedented reversal of its fortunes, Labour will cease to be a party of government, completely unable to engage with those whose lived experience leads them to put faith in ideas we might disagree with.

Perhaps as a consistent minority of 200-or-so members of parliament representing metropolitan areas, railing against the government of the day but failing to put forward any truly constructive policies, Labour can survive. But without a radical programme of modernisation, without a frank analysis of why working people feel that Labour has contempt for them, Labour governments may become a distant memory.

A seismic shift in political ideology in this country is coming, and is incumbent on this government to ensure that we remain an open, tolerant, inclusive nation at the forefront of the world stage. Labour’s contribution to that remains unclear. Indecisive, unpopular, incapable of winning power, Jeremy Corbyn may not be the leader that the Labour party wants, but might be the one it deserves.


Gabriel Gavin co-founded the Labour Campaign for Prison Reform. He tweets at @GabrielCSGavin



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Gabriel Gavin

is a founder of the Labour Campaign for Prison Reform


  • The Decent of Labour.
    An illegal war.
    Student tuition fees – debt replaces government money.
    PFI, Private debt replaces governmnet money and cripples hospital.
    Light touch regulation of the banks – helping to cause the financial crisis.
    The capitulation to Thactherism and the washington consensus.
    Five million voters lost.
    Hundreds of thousands of members lost.

    The recovery of Labour, damaged by the coup was:-
    1. The biggest mandate

    Jeremy Corbyn won the leadership with the biggest mandate from party members that any leaders has ever won – 59% – more than all the other candidates put together.

    2. Huge membership increase

    Labour’s membership has increased dramatically under his leadership – over 380,000 members.

    3. Byelection victories

    Labour has won 4 by elections since he became leader, Oldham West, Sheffield Brightside, Ogmore & Tooting. Oldham West, Tooting and Sheffield Brightside saw Labour win on an increased majority.

    4. Mayoral elections won

    Labour won London Mayor with Corbyn as leader. Sadiq Khan won with the largest personal vote a single politician has ever received in Britain, 1.3 million. It was also the first election of a Muslim candidate to a western capital city. Labour also won Mayoral elections in Salford, Liverpool, Bristol.

    5. Good local election performance

    In the local elections in 2016 Labour’s performance was as good as 2001, when Labour won a second landslide in the general elections. Labour has repeatedly been ahead of the Tories in the polls since the start of 2016.

    6. Anti-austerity victories

    Labour under Corbyn has helped fight off cuts to tax credits and disabled people’s PIP payments – scoring significant blows against the Tories austerity agenda.

    7. Won the Remain vote among Labour voters.

    We can win if you stop putting down the only leader for years who wants to work for the people. Just stop it.

  • Gabriel, can you tell us where a centre left party is doing well? In Greece a new term was invented to describe the collapse of a ‘progress’ type party – Pasokification; in Spain the ‘progress’ style Socialists are third; in France a party following ‘progress’ style policies is unlikely to get its candidate for President into the final round; in Scandanavia ‘progress’ style social democrats are in retreat; in Austria the ‘progress’ candidate did not make the run off against a fascist; in the Baltic states, Poland and Hungry the centre left has disappeared.
    The vitriol and poisonous language of your article is hardly the sign of a moderate, progressive politics. You sound like a hard extremist. You ignore the role of ‘progress’ politicians like Tony and Gordon in alienating the working class who they thought had no where to go. The emergence of the SNP in Scotland and UKIP in England showed that sections of the working class would leave Labour.
    Corbyn is trying to pick up the pieces and put them back together while having to fight a constant civil war against the self styled moderates of ‘progress’
    Every time we seem to have the Tories on the back foot the moderates attack – refusing to serve in shadow cabinets, staging synchronised resignations, accusations of anti Semitism, causing a leadership election, blaming Corbyn for only getting 66% on Labour voters to support Remain. It seems ‘progress’ moderates are willing the defeat of Labour as part of a creative destruction they hope will bring one of their leaders to head the party.

  • Of course the Left has ideas. You just happen not to like them. The Labour Right hasn’t had a domestic policy idea since the middle of Blair’s first term. The less said about its subsequent ideas on foreign and “security” policy, the better.

  • Labour Right are still thinking Jeremy is the problem of Labour Party. How can Labour be strong opposition when 75% MP and are not ready to serve the people that elect them. They position themselves to oppose their Leader.

    They will all loss their sit. We the commoners who are campaigning for the Party wish Labour Party well, If the Parliamentary Labour Party Member don’t stop the internal war they will all loss that career they love.

    I know majority went into politics because they want to make a different. But when they get there they forgot they are not their on their own.

    I will love to see a change, MP working together to oppose this draconian Tory government.

  • You only have to look at Sarah Brookes answer to this article to see why Labour ( a once great party) is becoming a protest movement and not a serious opposition party with aspiration to govern. Its all a bed of roses, nothing to worry about, reminds me of the line from a song “The sun will come out tomorrow”, well wake up, outside the bubble of the metropolitan areas and those cosy, we all think and talk alike meetings, the real world has its real everyday struggles, they don’t fret about Palestinian freedoms, Donald Trump abusing the media, not even the lack of the ice table in the Antarctic, that may come as a surprise, but that’s the real world.
    Go to the coastal towns and ask about the fishing industry, you’ll find its at odds with Labours support for the EU common fisheries policy, and unfortunately for the Labour party those community’s have woken up to those facts, so safe Labour seats are now not so safe. Those constituencies where there are Nuclear power plants, in England, mostly held by Labour MPs, have also woken up to the fact that those at the top of the Labour party don’t think nuclear is a good idea, those voters have woken up to those facts, so those constituencies are now wobbling. All those northern, Midland’s heartlands, even the Welsh Valley’s, so long a shoe in for Labour, have now become marginal, why, its not just Corbyn, its all those around him , the Thornberry’s, Abbot’s of this world, who for so long have sneered and talked down to the bedrock of Labour support, who took it for granted that they could denigrate their way of living, their aspirations for their way of life, but the Brexit vote gave those communities a way to express their feelings, but what did we hear, it was all Corbyn’s fault, he didn’t campaign hard enough to keep Britain in the EU, yet those same MPs who said that, couldn’t explain why they were so out of touch with their own voters in their own constituencies who voted Brexit, lets just blame Corbyn, where back to that rose garden again.
    The new totem is, “where listening to the voters”, oh yeah, heard it before, listening and acting on what you hear are to different things, the problem is, those same Labour MPs, not just Corbyn, don’t want to hear what they are being told by those same long standing Labour voters they’ve taken for granted so long.
    I really don’t see a solution to this disconnect, all those being tipped to succeed Corbyn are from the same cloth, metropolitan, university educated, political insiders, who are out of touch. In 10 years, if there are 150 sitting Labour MPs it will be a miracle, but the rose garden looks nice.

  • I think the tone of the original article is a little ranty but some of the responses to this are delusional. This is where the Labour Party is:

    1) The 2015 General Election was the third worst result for the party in share of the vote in 100yrs. It left the party effectively 100 seats behind the Tories and wiped-out in Scotland.

    2) The national polls are catastrophic. 15points behind and below 30% is terrible.

    3) All of the polling of ‘real people’ (ie not party members) suggest that the Party has gone backwards amongst all the groups needed to win.

    This isn’t just Corbyn’s fault and removing him will only lead to a temporary boost. It needs a wholesale re-think of the Party’s direction and focus:

    1) Accepting that the only plausible route back to power is to convert people who voted Tory in 2015 (never mind 2010).
    2) Don’t get obsessed with Brexit. Aceept the result and move on. There is no way to square the circle between Leave voters and the long-held positions of party members. Don’t try; Agree to disagree. Democracy is about accepting that you lose sometimes.
    3) All the research from the Fabians, TUC, Lord Ashcroft and the Lab PArty itself in the aftermath of 2015 basically blamed the defeat on having a weak leader and no credible economic plan. Lab haven’t a hope without fixing both.

  • “Without a vision, without a sense of direction, any future for the party is limited to representing only those who already agree with it.”

    Stop whining. You can rely on 24 to 25% of the vote at the next general election. Time to worry is when you lose that 🙂

  • The rich need rising inequality to maximise their percentage of wealth and they operate unaccountably and supranationally . The digital economy will boost their wealth whilst displacing around 50% of jobs by the 2030s. The left behind regions will become even more left behind.
    This will drive up Authoritarian Populism to new heights. APs are anti-immigrant, nationalist, and authoritarian. I can’t imagine Labour embracing AP values and I can see APs embracing Labour values.
    The fact that APs are authoritarian illustrates a decreasing belief in democracy.
    I suspect the future will be less politically stable than today.

  • It still doesn’t seem to have sunk in for vast swathes of Labour supporters – as well as the leadership – that it really doesn’t matter what the party says or does in England & Wales….. the simple electoral arithmetic is that getting into government ever again is virtually impossible without a couple of dozen seats in Scotland.

    It’s that stark. Either find a way back in Scotland, or Labour as a party of majority UK government is effectively finished…. forever.

    The roots of Labour’s woes north of the border long pre-date Corbyn’s dysfunctional tenure – but the current direction of travel at a UK level simply hammers the final nails into the coffin of Scottish Labour.

    Because the last decade has made it as clear as it could possibly be what the largest section of the Scots electorate want – they want the centre-left social democracy of the SNP. The Nats might be a highly-disciplined, extremely well-run party with a superb campaigning machine…. but none of that would matter much if they hadn’t positioned themselves right in the motherlode of Scottish political opinion.

    Those south of Gretna are often fooled by concentrating on the one policy the SNP share with Corbyn – namely opposition to Trident. But that’s an outlier, a policy anomaly. Across the rest of the policy spectrum, the SNP government lies somewhere between Miliband and Blair. Partly that’s as a result of the usual grubby compromises necessary to keep party funds rolling in from the likes of Brian Soutar, billionaire owner of Stagecoach. But it’s fundamentally where the bulk of the party, and its supporters, feel most comfortable.

    The SNP has simply supplanted Labour as the natural home of the centre-left by being far more competent and far better-run. But Labour’s move to the left at a UK level makes the Nats’ job ridiculously easy. If centre-left voters in Scotland could see a competent and professional-looking Labour party in London with a realistic chance of winning a general election, they’d have a reason to switch back for Westminster elections.

    But as long as the incompetent, shambling, crisis-ridden leadership of Corbyn continues to pretend that there are votes to be won further left, and abandons the centre, there is literally no reason why any more than a hard core of diehard Scots Labour voters would ever consider putting their “X” in the party’s box. As consistent polling and local elections results amply prove.

  • Labour are doomed and UKIP will replace them as the main party in Wales and the north and midlands of England, Labour have taken the white working class as a guaranteed vote base for far too long whilst neglecting them. Heck even UKIP is now making inroads into your other vote base British Asians, it might not be massive but the threat of uncontrolled immigration affects them too.

    The Labour Party – R.I.P. Died 23/06/2016.

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