When Renewal began in 1993, the first line of the first issue was 'Renewal will be a focal point for debate about the changes that Labour needs to make'. Much is implied by this statement, which still captures the basic purpose of the journal it is our privilege to edit. 2016 finds Labour, and the British left more broadly, at a challenging juncture. Electorally, the prospects seem bleak. Riven by cultural and ideological divides, confronted by a wary and disparate electorate, Labour faces a comparatively young and vigorous Conservative government, prepared to deploy its narrow parliamentary majority to ruthlessly reshape the constitution in its own electoral interests.
More fundamental than this, however, is a pervasive sense of political disorientation, one that afflicts populations and governments everywhere, but which is peculiarly fatal for parties of the centre left. When our predecessors wrote in the early 1990s, it was easier for 'progressives' to detect and adapt to the mood of the times. Whatever one might have thought about its constituent elements--the forward march of economic growth, European integration and American hegemony--they seemed relatively evident, and stable. It is difficult to feel nostalgic for that era of the 'end of history'; for Major, Yeltsin, Maastricht or Sarajevo. Yet history's recommencement has left us strangely unprepared. The financial crisis, and a subsequent decade of stagnation and austerity, has proved also to be a crisis of European social democracy. In Britain, the accommodations that New Labour thought it had reached--with the City of London, with a post-industrial electorate, with changing patterns of demography and migration--have unravelled one by one.
In Britain and elsewhere, rising international tension and pervasive economic insecurity are breeding xenophobia and undermining the foundations of democratic society. Where resentment and inertia are the order of the day, the left will always struggle to prosper. But prosper we must. Among all but the most obstinate and irresponsible denizens of the political right, it is close to a truism that climate change and gross inequality pose major risks to the futures of human societies. There is an emerging elite consensus--among scientists, economists, technocrats and even CEOs--regarding the limits of our economic and political systems. Polluters, rent-seekers and oligarchs will not be brought to heel via seminars at Davos. We cannot trust to their enlightened self-interest to build a future worth living in. Yet while the volatility of democratic politics is certainly increasing, its ability to marshal meaningful constituencies for action appears frustratingly limited.
The challenge of mobilisation
As that first Renewal editorial also noted, the demise of the sociological basis for left politics--and for the British Labour party in particular--has often been predicted.
In the 1990s, Labour defied such predictions by building a powerful electoral coalition in a post-industrial, property-owning, multiethnic society, with low trade union density. Further fragmentation of identities and occupations, alongside concerted Conservative attack on the public sector core of Labour's support, pose dramatic new challenges. The exchange we carry in this issue, between Patrick Diamond and Ken Spours--figures associated with contrasting, yet complementary, iterations of Labour politics--draws attention to the scale of Labour's current predicament. They, and we, are clear that the current leadership is neither the ultimate cause of the party's problems, nor (in itself) the solution to them. Jeremy Corbyn lacks both critical friends and worthy opponents. Renewal aims to be a home for both.
At its most noble, Corbyn's project for the leadership of the party has promised open debate about policy and strategy, and a reconstruction of alliances with civil society and social movements. This is to be welcomed. Labour stands in desperate need of intellectual outriders, and new sources of information and ideas. Renewal will play its part in providing them: both through building new connections with academia and activism, and by developing a broader historical and international perspective on contemporary British politics and society.
A precondition for honest and open discussion, however, is that tribalism, virtue-signalling and mistrust are left at the door. A culture has taken hold within the...