It’s well understood now that a major reason for Labour’s heavy defeat was its abject failure to throw back into the Tories’ face their preposterous rewriting of history that Labour was responsible for the financial/economic crash triggered by the bankers and the international recession. But that is only part of the story. A reformist party bent on transformational change can only succeed if inextricably linked with a powerful social movement to drive through its aspirations. Focus groups, spin doctors, and central direction with demands to stay on message won’t do it. Until the 1980s the Labour party had a mass movement centred round a systematic programme of political education and democratic decision-making focused around the annual conference.
The removal of that in in the Blair-Mandelson regime has left Labour without the heft to bring about major social change from below, which is where alone it can genuinely take root. No progressive party can fight alone and succeed against the North Korean propaganda of the UK tabloids (at least until rules on balance and impartiality are enforced) which provide an instant nationwide amplification of whatever theme Conservative Central Office dreams up, such as the wickedness of any Labour-SNP arrangement as though the Scots were some foreign enemy.
Nor can a genuine progressive party win out on its own against a corrupt political funding system and the conservative fear machine that enables the establishment last-minute to swing elections (as it did at both the Scottish referendum and the 2015 general election). Blair-Mandelson sought to imitate these tactics, but only at the price of denuding Labour of all its fundamental social democratic (as opposed to neoliberal) principles in favour of an ideology that embraced its opponents.
The all-encompassing social movement that Labour needs to regain can only be formed around its trade union base with its near-7 million members. But it should also reach out to the whole range of civic society – the charities network, the CAB, the whole gamut of voluntary organisations, the churches, the Greens, and many others. Harnessing their varied skills means listening to them and their needs and aspirations, not simply seeking to recruit them. It means too re-introducing democracy into a movement where almost everything is now decided secretly at the top and transmitted downwards via speeches and text messages. And it means weaving a commanding narrative for change that can inspire not only all these constituent parts, but their members and activists wit the determination to drive through the huge reform agenda that is now needed.