What vacuum?

Joe England

Are the more than half a million members of the Labour party really ‘intellectually incoherent’? I joined the Labour party in 1958 when Hugh Gaitskell was the leader. Two years later I joined the Fabian Society. Sometime during the Blair years I left the party, one of the 250,000 who did so. I had been an active member – chair of three different constituency parties, a parliamentary candidate in a safe Tory seat, author of a Fabian pamphlet. But New Labour was less and less the party I had joined. It did some good things, how could it not in those years of power? But too much of the Thatcher revolution went unchallenged.

In the leadership election after the 2015 general election Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham were the front runners, both experienced front benchers. I watched with dismay as they spoke in sound bites, empty phrases that failed to offer a coherent and energising message. As Philip Collins wrote in the summer Fabian Review they were part of a generation that had become ‘rudderless’. Jeremy Corbyn, a life-long back bencher with no leadership experience and, as far as one could judge, no such capacity, spoke of housing the homeless, life-long education, the threats to social care and the NHS, the need to challenge arrogant bankers, the shocking disparities of wealth and income in Britain today. He reminded me why I had joined the Labour party in the first place. I rejoined; and so did thousands who had left and many thousands more who joined for the first time. Corbyn was elected leader, twice. Party membership soared to half-a-million.

The size and nature of this increase should not be shrugged aside as some seem to wish, caricaturing the increased numbers as simply old men and women recalling the idealism of their youth, and young people discovering an idealism and hope that austerity has stifled. There is truth in that of course, and a good thing too. Idealism has for too long been missing from British politics. My local constituency party, hundreds of miles from London, has just under 1,000 members three-quarters of whom were not members in 2015. Fifty per cent are female. Over sixty per cent are between 28 and 68 years of age with a quarter over 68 and eleven per cent under 27.

We are not a ‘Corbynite sect’ or ‘Corbynistas’, esoteric Latin American Marxist revolutionaries. Neither are we a ‘faction’ as political commentators persist in calling us. We are the mainstream Labour party, the inheritors of Rainsborough, Paine, Robert Owen, Hardie, Tawney, Titmuss and the Nye Bevan who created the National Health Service, built hundreds of thousands of quality homes and argued for parliamentary democracy. We are proud of the Open University, the introduction of seat belts and the breathalyser, the Equal Pay Act, the Health and Safety at Work Act, the Sex Discrimination Act and the Equal Opportunities Commission, Sure Start and the introduction of the minimum wage.

But as we approach the sixtieth anniversary of Galbraith’s Affluent Society with its analysis of how structures of power result in private wealth and public squalor we still have its lessons to learn. And basic issues that concerned Keir Hardie are still with us: homelessness and inadequate housing; workers exploited and poorly trained; areas of Britain where high unemployment remains; gross inequalities of wealth and power. If the free market could solve people’s basic needs – housing, education and training, health, fair recompense for meaningful work, security in old age and sickness – there might never have been a Labour party. Yet, too often in government the Labour party has been a technocratic manager, underplaying its own values, rarely expounding them. In the 2017 election Labour discovered how to be a campaigning party again.

In the circumstances Labour did extraordinarily well. But we lost and the Tories will not fight such an ineffectual election again. They will surely have a more competent campaigner as leader. They will have sought to mobilise the young. And Labour policies, especially their economic credibility, will be under much greater scrutiny. As will its leader. Brexit will be at the heart of the election and by then mainstream party stances, shaped by the outcome of negotiations, will have evolved in ways we cannot now foresee.

But Labour has reasons to be optimistic. Corbyn has grown into the leadership role. He is a good campaigner, short on rhetoric but strong on telling the electorate what is on offer. His parliamentary performances have more bite. The 2017 manifesto that carried a message of hope and moved British politics back to the centre after a long period of right-wing dominance will be improved. Poverty requires more thought as Andrew Harrop wrote in the summer Fabian Review. The awful housing problems require stronger measures. The impact of robotics, nano technology and the remarkable advances in medical science are subjects of hard thought. And the tide of opinion is running with us. Both intellectual analysis and everyday experience have confirmed Neoliberalism as an outmoded construct. There is more to life than individualism and the market place. Values have returned to British politics.

Which brings us back to the contribution by Philip Collins in the summer issue. Parts of the Labour party, he says, are ‘curiously bereft of intelligent thought’ and ‘intellectually incoherent’. ‘Since the Labour party fell out of love with New Labour, nothing new has arisen to take its place.’ There is a vacuum, he believes, in the middle of British politics and the middle needs a philosophy. He muses on ideas that would be ‘philosophically intriguing’.

Meanwhile in the real world, in Britain, the world’s fifth largest economy, food banks increase, homelessness grows, the health service founders. ‘Nothing new has arisen’ because the old problems remain and tested remedies need to be applied: we know what works, we just need to get on with it. As Polly Toynbee and David Walker pointed out in the Spring 17 Fabian Review, whether it is intergenerational justice, vocational skills, lifestyle diseases, transport or housing there is no ‘invisible hand’ that provides equitable solutions. That is a role for government. Democratic socialists and social democrats alike understand that. To be philosophically intrigued is agreeable. But there is essential work to be done. Join us on the doorstep.


  1. Joseph Kawalski

    Some great points and an interesting read.
    At the end of the day I personally believe it’s all about standards of living. When standards of living are low we see more crime. Many of the victims of crime are very poor, living in squalid living conditions, under so called housing associations that are no better than the slum landlords they claim to be the charity to protect us from. I stand in solidarity with those who are campaigning to stop cuts to our NHS or even worse in privatisation of our NHS. Our National Health Service should have been modernised and reinvested in during the years that we had a Labour government. Safeguards should have been in place to make sure the NHS would not be in it’s current position of facing possible privatisation under the Tories.
    What happened to all of our industry? I understand dark satanic mills and coal mines weren’t exactly the most environmentally friendly institutions, but they provided unionised jobs for the working class communities. Not to mention all the sense of belonging, such as the colliery silver band or brass band or local co-operatives that took care of our industrial, proletarian and working classes after the second World war and got this nation back on it’s feet. through affordable food, insurance, funeral care and even some of the first foreign holidays. People want to feel they belong to something and Trade Unions are great for that as they give structure, security and economic stability to people’s lives. Not to mention how society has turned it’s back on our coal miners and their families. Many of our former coal miners suffering from lung diseases. Remember as Labour, we are caretakers of Labour laws to protect workers.
    We have a lot of work to do in the financial sector. Credit Unions and Building Societies are great, however we still see too much predatory lending from those payday lenders and loans sharks that Ed Milliband promised to take on if he was Prime Minister. I think you hit the nail on the head Joe, as a Jeremy Corbyn government would inspire people to get involved in government and wake the sleeping giant we call the British working class, if he hasn’t already. Glad to hear you’re back and enjoying your membership in the Labour Party.

  2. Barrie Thompson

    I had been a Labour Party Member nearly three years before Joe England unlike Joe I did not leave the Labour Party because I did not like the Leader the membership had elected I stayed and fought my corner no leader even Jeremy Corbyn agrees with all that I do but I strongly believe in a democratic organisation I have the right to challenge the leadership and try to win them over to my way of thinking just flipping in and out of the organisation is not the way to do it.

  3. Warwick M Davies

    I always considered myself to be on the right of the party until Tony Blair became leader when I suddenly found myself, without changing a single political view, on the left so I too left the party, not wishing to be lead by what were in effect soft Tories, though they did do some good things. I rejoined when Ed Milliband became leader hoping that at last we may have a proper Labour Party again. As can be imagined I did not vote for Jeremy Corbyn, thinking him too left wing for my taste, but since his election he has been a revelation. Since my age and disability prevent me I cannot be as active in the party as I would like but Corbyn now has my full support and I can,t wait for him to oust this car crash of a government. Of course we have some idiots and idealogues in the party, with half a million members how could we not but it seems to me that in the Tory Party it’s the idiots and idealogues that are running the show. We need to show them the door before they do irreparable damage to the UK.

  4. Michael Pesch

    I’ve never seen the need to join the Fabians. The party is capable of of developing its own leaders with our current stuctures. What I do see as an issue are tbose CLPs that embrace one person one vote but have no branch structures to develope our membership at streetlevel. Its great that members can get involved at a local leadership level on the EC but without the Branch connection which is a throwback to the days of decline we can never build a strong party. Membership numbers and campaigning with small groups organised centrally cannot reach out to our thousands of members but more importantly the thousands of members cannot reachout to all those supporters and families that we need to work for with us. As a former party chair back in the successful days of the mid to late 90s, I know what infighting and factionalism did to the party with its full time party jobs and over centralisation. We need to bring back the party that many of the older members can remember. What summed it up for me was a fairly new dedicated member and local party officer who thought branches would only dulicate what the EC was doing and was just bureacratic and unnecessary. I dont think they had got around to reading our rule book.

  5. verity

    A clear piece that gets to the heart of the issue fast. However there is a vacuum. Unfortunately this vacuum lies within the PLP, which is the force bereft of substantive contributions that go beyond what the leadership has already pencilled in or most probably quietly sketched out. It is not out of vindictiveness that that issue of their continuing roles should be challenged but more about what extra value do they give. Appearances on the screen are numerous and yet very rarely inspire radical Labour solutions. Unfortunately they leave the impression that their appearance was more about their own visibility. Surely it cannot be that they are without the demanding levels of talent we now require. The solution has surely to be in a more expectant and demanding Labour membership.

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