Why are Labour’s Progressives Ineffective?

Lecture | April 17 | 12-1 p.m. | 201 Moses Hall

 Matt Beech, University of Hull, England

 Institute of European Studies

The public lecture will examine the travails of the progressive wing of the British Labour Party. These right-wing Labour MPs, peers and activists were once in the ascendant of UK politics and it is arguable that they were the dominant force for over a decade (1997-2010). ‘New Labour’, ‘Blairites’, ‘Brownites’, ‘moderates’ are labels applied to this wing of the Labour Party. The designation currently used by many of these politicians and activists is ‘progressive’. I think this is the most accurate description of the traditions and ideas which motivate these individuals. It includes the socially liberal, pro-European, constitutionally liberal and market friendly dispositions that this form of Labour politics represents.

The lecture asks: Why are Labour’s Progressives Ineffective? The context to the question is that progressive Labour was ejected from office at the 2010 general election bringing an end to the thirteen year tenure of Blair and Brown’s New Labour project. A fellow progressive, Ed Miliband, led Labour from 2010 and saw his party lose heavily to Cameron’s Conservatives in the 2015 general election. It is fair to say that since 2015 Labour’s progressives have been in crisis. Whilst still commanding a majority of Labour parliamentarians in the House of Commons the election of Jeremy Corbyn in September 2015 moved Labour politics sharply to the left. Moreover, it is outside of the Palace of Westminster that Labour’s progressives have suffered the most. Corbyn’s support group, Momentum, has recruited hundreds of thousands in the form of members and registered supporters. Some Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) have voiced the idea of mandatory reselection of MPs who fail to support Corbyn’s agenda.

If the 2015 election defeat, the rise of Corbyn and Momentum were not sufficient reasons to send Labour’s progressives into an existential crisis then the result of the referendum on the United Kingdom’s continued membership of the European Union certainly was. Labour’s progressives have been staunch supporters of the project of European integration since the 1990s. Their spiritual forebears go back to the early 1970s most famously with the ‘69 Common Market rebels’. These Labour MPs broke ranks with Harold Wilson’s leadership and voted with Heath’s Government to guarantee the passage of the European Communities Bill.

Despite the Labour Party’s third successive election defeat in 2017, the Progressives are no nearer displacing Corbyn; reversing the leftward drift in many CLPs; or scuppering Brexit – try as they might. This lecture seeks to provide an analysis as to why the political and cultural offering of Labour’s Progressives does not resonate deeply with Labour-inclined and floating voters, and thus, renders them currently ineffective.

 heike@berkeley.edu, 510-643-4558