In 1983 Michael Foot was leader of the Labour Party at the General Election when the Conservatives, under Margaret Thatcher, won a landslide victory.
The recent victory in the Falklands War undoubtedly helped, but despite the harsh economic policies, massive unemployment and civil unrest of the early 80s, Labour’s opposition simply could not compete with the Conservatives.
Labour were seen by most as too left wing and led by a leader who no one could see as a potential Prime Minister. The Labour election manifesto was later described by Gerald Kaufman, a Labour MP, as ‘the longest suicide note in history.’
Today, Labour is in an even more disastrous situation. Yesterday, Jeremy Corbyn was elected as leader with a larger mandate than this time last year. The grassroots activists and members of Labour clearly want him leading the party. They hold out a hope, like the Labour Party of the early 80s, that the rightful place for the party is the radical left.
But they are deluded. Labour, despite the half million people who voted, are heading for electoral oblivion at the next election. They have become the party of protest – of demos, rallies and shouting in the streets. The myriad of left-wing causes who cluster together in loose alliance at marches and festivals will be delighted by Corbyn’s victory. But in terms of electoral politics, this socialist utopia will not come to anything, except wallowing in terminal debates about its own purity.
The Labour Party does not exist to be a protest movement on the margins of society. It exists to exercise power. To gain election victories to bring about changes in how the country is run. When it becomes unelectable it is completely failing to do its job.
Impact on real people
I joined the Labour Party in 1993 when I was a student. At the time I was volunteering in a drop-in centre for homeless people in Hull. It was in places like this that I learnt my politics – seeing the carnage caused by the economic policies of the Tory government and the impact it had on real people. But I had little time for the Marxists and Socialist Workers who shouted loudly on campus within the unrealistic bubble of student politics.
It was from this time that Labour became credible and went on to win three General Elections. Their blend of social justice and sound economic management resonated with the country. Of course, there were problems, most notably, the disastrous decision to invade Iraq. But domestically, the Labour years saw huge investment in local communities which made the country a better and more just place.
Take my area of work, homelessness, as an example. Upon election, Labour established a Social Exclusion Unit with the specific target of reducing street homelessness in London by two-thirds. Through significantly increased funding, strong leadership and coordination, this target was achieved. Numbers of rough sleepers fell to the lowest point in decades. I was on the front line at the time, managing a hostel for young homeless people in Soho. I saw first-hand how good politics changes people’s lives. These were the fruits of a Labour government.
But now, rough sleeping has shot up by over 50% in the last 5 years. Tory politics is again leading to massive increases in homelessness and poverty. And yet there is no credible opposition to the Tories’ austerity and cuts. They can do what they want for the foreseeable future.
In the leadership election between Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith, I did not even vote as I don’t believe in either of them as leaders of the party. I therefore don’t feel I can remain a member of a party which cannot even put up a candidate I can believe in.
Corbyn may be a decent person but his refusal to lead the party from anywhere near it’s centre means that Labour will continue to be stuck in an impasse between the elected MPs and the membership. Only the Tories will benefit from this. He will have to crash and burn at a General Election before Labour can move on. But in the meantime, I can’t support or promote him as a possible Prime Minister. So for me, the Party is over.
This does not mean I am any less committed to social justice. I will remain a member of Christians on the Left and continue to work every day, practically and politically, for a better future for people who are homeless and marginalised.
And I hope that one day I can join, or possibly re-join, a party who can credibly fight for this too.
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