Is it really ‘Bye Bye Labour’?

Richard Seymour thinks it is. In the London Review of Booksthe author of Against Austerityargues that Labour might go the way of PASOK, its sister party in Greece. The PASOK vote fell from 43.9% to 4.7% before being ousted by the right. Labour, he says, has plenty of policies: ‘what it lacks is a purpose’. The party has accepted Conservative ‘precepts’ (‘the city is untouchable’) and the Conservative ‘vision’ because it lacks one of its own. Labour’s dilemma is part and parcel of ‘a crisis of representative democracy’ stemming from long term cost pressures on the ability of the state to make discretionary social  payments. This is exacerbated by a shrinking tax base following the 2008 crisis as wages stagnate and the rich resist paying their way.

There is a good deal in this but the argument has two key weaknesses. The first is the idea that the economic basis for reform(ism) is disappearing. This has been repeated by someone on the left ever since the long post-war boom collapsed forty years ago. In fact Britain and other advanced capitalist economies remain sufficiently rich, and the abuses associated with increasing inequality are so outrageous, that there is plenty of room for reforms that the system would swallow if it had to.

Secondly, the left has been reading the last rites over social democratic parties for a very long time without that having come to pass. Is it different this time? Populist parties in Spain and Greece are mounting a significant challenge from the left, and the French socialists look to be headed for a fall. But Seymour acknowledges that although the Blairites might reassert themselves there is no sign of a challenge from a socialist/ social democratic left in Britain. And in France it is the right, not the left that is gaining ground. Seymour himself says nothing said about what Labour’s purpose should be; until that silence is filled it may be too early to wave ‘bye bye’.

Where there remains economic and political space to operate, and there is a dearth of challengers, the old parties will stagger on even as alienation grows and participation falls.

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