Labour on the Brink: Debating the Party’s Future

It seems hard to believe, these days, that the 2015 general election was only 18 months ago, so profound has been the change in the political landscape since the Tories’ unexpected triumph under David Cameron.

Labour on Brink HarryBFor Labour, the political and emotional traumas of that defeat have been resonating ever since as it’s reeled from Jeremy Corbyn’s even more shocking victory in the party leadership election, to civil war in the PLP, record low poll ratings and the aftermath of the EU referendum vote, including mass resignations from the shadow cabinet and a leadership challenge from which Corbyn has emerged even more triumphant.

Meanwhile, the party has grown in membership like never before, re-attracting old timers who fled during the Blair-Brown years and drawing in swathes of politicised young people excited by what the ‘Corbynistas’ call the ‘new politics’ based on grassroots campaigning and the potential of a mass movement for change.

At times it has seemed as if Labour is heading for ‘the brink’, so great are the levels of uncertainty and division, as ILP chair David Connolly commented during his opening remarks at the recent ILP weekend school on the party’s crisis and future.

“The challenge the Corbyn-inspired movement has made to the Labour of the Tony Blair and Gordon Brown era is profound,” he said. “There has never been a more apt time to take a step back and look at how we got here, and where we should go next.”

‘Labour on the Brink: What future for the Party?’ aimed to do just that, bringing ILPers and friends together in Leeds to hear former Labour MP Harry Barnes examine the roots of Labour’s crisis in the New Labour years; Leeds University’s Hugo Radice analyse ‘why mainstream Labour doesn’t understand what’s happening’; and Will Brown introduce a wide ranging discussion on where Labour and the left goes next.

Harry (pictured above) began by looking back to the last “window of opportunity” for the party’s left in 1992 when John Smith and Margaret Beckett took over at the helm from “Kinnock and co”. “Of course, that ended with John Smith’s death,” he said. “And then we had Blair’s rise, leading to the new clause four and new Labour’s huge electoral successes in 1997, 2001 and 2005.”

Labour’s traditional working class support was still “large and solid” at the ’97 election, Harry pointed out, but as Blair’s governments did little to protect the jobs and welfare of traditional working class communities, that connection soon started to weaken.

“Although New Labour did a lot of good things, from the minimum wage to the Northern Ireland peace process to civil partnerships, it didn’t tackle the basic problems caused by changes in British society hit by the rise of finance capitalism,” he said.

“That’s when you started to see rebellions in the Commons – and Corbyn was the most rebellious – then we had Iraq and all the disillusion that followed.”

As for the Ed Miliband era, despite some “helpful policies”, according to Harry, “there was no central, coordinated push to take them to the people – the membership were not informed, the media was not enthused and there were no campaigning materials”.

The leadership fetish

It’s in the wake of those failures by previous Labour leaderships that Corbyn’s success needs to be understood. His long history as a rebel and campaigner has made him attractive to a wide range of people who were otherwise disillusioned, while rousing deep hostility within parts of the PLP.

Labour on Brink HugoRAccording to Hugo (left), the origins of this division between “mainstream Labour” and Corbyn’s “insurgents” lie in Blair’s top-down re-structuring of the party during the 1990s. New Labour’s obsession with centralised control, its orchestration of policy and conference, and fetishisation of leadership “disempowered those at the bottom and absolved those higher up of any responsibility”, most notably members of the PLP.

The party’s command and control managerialism, imported from the corporate world of the 1970s and ’80s, has eroded notions of “functional collective decision-making”, he said. It’s now so embedded in some parts of the party that Corbyn, like Miliband before him, is deemed responsible for everything that’s gone wrong.

The political consequence of this New Labour approach, said Hugo, is the belief that what matters is “to find out what people want and craft politics to fit”. “So the party becomes oriented to the state it wants to govern, not its members; its promise becomes: ‘We will run this better than the Tories.’”

Corbyn’s appeal lies in his opposition to this way of thinking, built around the notion that we need to have some values and principles to guide us, and that members should be able to help shape policy based on those foundations.

As for the chances of peace and reconciliation, that, according to Hugo, depends on each side at least being willing to understand where the other is coming from. At the moment, there are precious few signs of that happening.

So how to move forward? Will Brown structured the challenges facing Labour into five broad areas, posing a series of questions for delegates to consider under each heading:

  • Labour’s electoral mountains, and how to overcome them
  • internal Labour issues around policy and democracy
  • internal Labour issues around relations between the PLP, leadership and members
  • policy directions
  • movements, connections and alliances.

The dilemma facing Labour, he pointed out, was how to do “bottom-up” politics while remaining relevant in a hostile culture and capable of re-engaging with the wider electorate – how to be bottom-up, in short, while not becoming an ostrich.

It needs to “do politics differently” both through its branches, constituencies and regional structures, and online; and it needs to learn to disagree without being disagreeable, not least in developing policy via a clearer, more open and democratic process.

“There is a distinction,” he said, “between a politics of adjusting to change, such as protecting workers rights, improving public services and managing immigration, and a politics of changing the direction of change – shifting the centre of gravity of the economy, creating space for more sustainable llifestyles, and putting areas such education and health on a more permanently stable footing.

“It’s the difference between limited short-term reforms and reforms that lay the basis for more radical change.”

Labour needs both.


‘Labour on the Brink: What future for the Party?’ was held at Leeds Beckett University on Saturday 15 October.

Articles based on all three of the speakers’ contributions will be available on this website within the next few weeks.

See also: ‘Labour on the Brink: A statement on the leadership crisis’

If you would like to be informed about future ILP events, please send an email to:


  1. Kenneth R. Curran
    24 April 2018

    After being out of office since 2010 and the ignominious collapse of support for Labour, there is little indication the party has learnt a great deal from the mistakes that were made during the Blair-Brown years.
    I am not claiming everything Labour did from 1996 onwards was bad. What they did was to tinker with a system which required major political surgery if Britain was to maintain its living standards through the next
    century. In reality Labour spent very valuable time deferring taking decisions, the constant delays in dealing
    with the environment, and the failure to produce training programmes to produce the scientists, and engineers.

    Today we have new leadership which says it is committed to rebuild the public sector. I do not doubt their commitment. What worries me is their apparent belief that public ownership means the state with a nod towards looking favourably upon co-operative enterprises or social enterprises generally. Nor does there appear to be any thinking or debate over the ethos and management of public enterprises. There seems to be a real shortage of creative thought across the party. The fact that we longer have a Labour college where the values and ethics of democratic socialism can be taught is proof of a party adrift on a stormy sea without an engine or compass.

    As Bob Dylan wrote – When shall we ever learn?

  2. Kenneth R. Curran
    11 April 2018

    Among Labour’s supporters and members there has been a groundswell of support for the next Labour government to reverse the trend of the last 20 years to put almost all of the economy into the private sector.
    What is never discussed is, if it is Labour’s intention to grow the public sector, who will manage in the public interest?

    When Labour nationalised the mining industry, Manny Shinwell, Minister for Fuel and Power, and the Prime Minister, Clem Attlee, invited the leadership of the National Union Of Mineworkers to Downing Street to tell them of Labour’s intention to nationalise the nation’s coal mines. When asked what part they and their members wished to play in the management of the industry, their response was that they didn’t want any role other than to represent their members. A very similar attitude prevailed when the rail companies, electricity, gas and steel were brought into public ownership.

    At present I am unaware of any dialogue taking place between Labour and the unions or TUC on the future of public ownership and its management. It’s high time this question of the future management of publically owned Industries and public utilities was under discussion.

  3. Kenneth R. Curran
    1 June 2017

    It is with some disappointment that the issues I have raised in my contributions since the Rose Bowel conference of October 2016 that no one has responded to the points and issues I have raised. If the ILP does not continue to question fundamental problems which are creating difficulties in Labour getting enough public support to get elected, and propose steps we believe Labour should take to address the issues, then it suggests to me at least that the ILP has given up trying to influence the direction of the Labour Party. If we do not constantly produce alternatives to neo-liberalism we are neglecting our traditional role.

    While the campaign to have Jeremy Corbyn elected as Prime Minister, Labour’s manifesto while very welcome and invigorating does not actually acknowledge the existence of corporate capitalism which has quite a different view of the world than Jeremy Corbyn. We only have to look a what has happened in Greece to see what the influence of corporate capitalism can have upon the aspirations of the democratically elected government of the nation state.

  4. Kenneth R. Curran
    14 May 2017

    Since the ILP’s Rose Bowl conference of October 2016 I have attempted to keep in mind that debate and the general lines of thinking presented to the conference by Will Brown.

    There were 5 key issues.
    1. The electoral mountains Labour has to climb to win the next election.
    2. Labour’s internal issues around policy and democracy.
    3. Relations between the PLP, leadership and members.
    4. Policy directions.
    5. Movements, connections and alliances.

    Each one of these points are as relevant as they were then. Of the electoral mountain, we shall know by 9 June whether or not Labour was capable of the task. Whatever the result on polling day, even if Labour has a very successful result, the fundamental key issues remain to be addressed.

    On the Guardian letters page of 8 May 2017 Professor James Curran (no relation) of Goldsmiths University of London reflected on the behaviour of the Parliamentary Labour Party since the election of Jeremy Corbyn. He rightly described the failed coup as an act of serious self harm. He points out that Corbyn was already a scapegoat, and to have him removed, the PLP would only be replacing one scapegoat by electing another.

    Professor Curran reached his conclusions after examining the multiple crises from which Labour suffers, the most important being Labour’s failure to come up with a compelling social democratic alternative to global neoliberalism and right-wing populism. He went on to state that it is a shared problem which both Labour’s right and left wing share. If we fail, we shall face a long period of right-wing ascendency.

    Professor Curran is telling us that we have to address neoliberalism and right-wing populism. We have to create that compelling alternative.

  5. Kenneth R. Curran
    24 February 2017

    Following the two bye elections on Thursday 23rd Labour remains on the brink. The Shadow Chancellor is calling for more time to be given to Jeremy Corbyn to turn things around. I take the view that Labour’s decline has its roots in the ending of the Industrial Revolution. The closures of the Cotton & Woollen Mills. The ending of Heavy Engineering, Pit Closures, the decline in the Steel industry, coupled to the growing use of new technology. The political opportunities were not taken because the Party had not anticipated what was likely to happen.

    It was at the 1963 Scarborough Labour Conference where during the leader’s speech, the Leader Harold Wilson told the party to prepare to receive and feel the heat of New Technology, although Labour created a new Department & Minister of Technology. I don’t believe that beyond suggesting that people should receive a form of compensation (Redundancy Pay) should they lose their job as a result of new technology. No further thought was given to the far wider implications for society stemming from the combination of the advent of New Technology and the ending of the Industrial revolution.

    I firmly believe Labour failed to appreciate how seriously the ending of one system and the introduction of what appears to be a very different way of life is having upon society. The fracturing of Labour’s relationship with that part of the working class who either lost their jobs or their families were affected detrimentally are at the very root of Labour’s dilemma. (Redundancy Pay) has only been a placebo to soften the pain of losing your job. For many men and women from about 48 years of age, redundancy has meant the end of their working lives. From that point onwards the were nobodies.
    Kenneth R. Curran Snr

  6. Kenneth R. Curran
    18 November 2016

    In a sense the gentle and cautious approach of post-war capitalism which followed the Bretton Woods agreement in 1944 was the setting up of the bank for international reconstruction and development and the International Monetary Fund. Unfortunately sterling had been subject to rigid exchange controls during the war.

    Due to pressure from the orthodox financial minds mainly from USA, it was made a condition of IMF that any loan would have to be fully convertible into US dollars by 1947. The first recipient of the fund was Britain which negotiated a loan of $3.75 billion. This was done. All of those who had accumulated wartime hoards of inconvertible sterling – speculators, black-market currency operators, the banks – rushed joyously to change into dollars. As a consequence the loan was used up in a matter of days. The objectives for which the loan had been made were not achieved. Britain faced an extremely difficult crisis. It was also a shock for the US who had insisted upon the Monetary Fund regulations.

    A new initiative was called for which Keynes was able to influence. The Marshall Plan, although ostensibly a US plan, was the brain-child of Keynes who had been present during the negotiations of the Treaty of Versailles, which he left with tears in his eyes declaring he had just witnessed the signing of the next world war.

    It was Keynes who insisted that Germany must be one of the participants in the formulation of the Marshall Plan. The Marshall Plan was the foundation stone upon which post-war Europe was built. Not to be continued.

  7. Kenneth R. Curran
    17 November 2016

    Little was said at the Rose Bowl Event about the international dimension of the problems facing Labour. Every democratic socialist party faces similar problems to the British Labour Party. While I accept the organisational changes introduced by Blair and his acolytes created barriers preventing the rank and file participating in the political life of the party, Blair was trying to create an American style Democratic Party. Almost all of the so-called socialist parties are in reality not socialist nor democratic. Over the past 30 years protected by the stability created largely by the work Maynard Keynes a degree of stability was created across Europe & North America which in my view made quite a number conclude they could live with this kind of capitalism. They had been seduced and the social democrat elite were in a kind of political heaven. Keep to be continued..
    Kenneth R. Curran

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