David Coates

Posting…. (3) The Limits of Labour Party Electoralism and the Requirements of Hegemonic Politics


Across global capitalism as a whole, left-wing forces have become far too accustomed down the years to both impotence and failure. Through the long twentieth century, in country after country and decade after decade, power was invariably something that other political forces possessed and exercised, and that the Left did not.  It was power – state power, economic power, and cultural power – against which the Left knew from bitter experience how to mobilize in a defensive manner, but it was power which the Left was rarely if ever in position to deploy as its own.

In the United Kingdom at least, however, that impotence and failure may now be poised to end. For If the current generation of left-wing politicians and activists can work together to forge a politics that is more effective than left-wing politics have proved to be in the past,[1] what now lies before us may well be vital and new twin tasks. Twin tasks, about which the history of the British Left has sadly little directly to teach us: namely the winning of power on a progressive platform, and the implementation of that platform when in power.

It is to that first task – the winning of a parliamentary majority – that this ‘think piece’ is primarily addressed. It is addressed here on a set of linked premises: namely that the political opportunity now before us is real and unique; that in seeking to seize this opportunity, the past is a better guide to failure than to success; and that in consequence the very last thing we need right now, if radicalism in the UK is to prevail at last, is a return to any form of politics of the usual Labourist kind.



If the argument to be developed here has any force, it requires first a recognition that – bad as things appear to be from a progressive point of view, when examining surface developments on either side of the Atlantic –  our contemporary moment contains definite progressive possibilities. Why? Because we are suddenly at:

  • a moment in which politicians of the Centre-Right are increasingly discrediting themselves and their policies in the minds of more-and-more fully educated people in both Washington DC and London;
  • a moment at which the entire neo-liberal way of running capitalist economies is now being questioned by ever-larger (and ever younger) blocks of potential and actual voters, and;
  • – most vital of all – a moment in which (for the first time since the Attlee Government) the requirements for a successful regeneration of living standards and job security for the mass and generality of British workers are entirely aligned with the programmes and proposals of the Labour Left.

Jeremy Corbyn, for one, is old enough to bridge the gap between today’s Labour Left and that of the generation before him, the Bennite Left of the early 1980s; so he at least should be in a position to recognize how much more favorable political conditions are now for radical and progressive politics than they were in his youth. For although today’s Labour Party is but a shell of the one that the Bennites faced – one in which unions are weaker and constituency parties thinned by years of New Labour elitism – that very thinning means that the internal party barriers to radicalism are that much less potent than once they were, and that the ease of policy-capture by an influx of new members is now that much greater. This is both a problem for this generation of the Labour Left – consolidating party membership and enhancing trade union power again are tasks facing Jeremy Corbyn and his team that were never faced by the Bennite Left – but it is also an opportunity for them.

Because now, around the shell of today’s Labour Party swirl active social movements linked by new technologies of communication and motivated by problems that were only embryonic a generation before. Climate change, LGBTQ rights, the need for a fairer work-life balance, proper housing, and access to it by a new millennial generation – all these issues and others have a centrality now, and a wide popular base that was largely missing a generation ago when the balance and character of social forces behind the progressive project was qualitatively different and inferior than it is now – currently one in which class position and consciousness is less potent, and personal experience and social identity is stronger. The task of leading a Labour Party committed to qualitative social change is in consequence both easier than in the past – the forces available for mobilization are suddenly plentiful – but also wider, for party leadership now requires more than simply a focus on parliamentary politics and trade union needs alone.

These social movements ‘swirling’ around a Labour Party led by its own left-wing also underscore the presence now of one other critical thing missing a generation ago: namely the generalized discrediting – in the minds of ever wider swathes of thinking people – of neoliberalism as an economic and social project and of western imperialism as the answer to global problems. When the Benn generation took on Old Labour, they were not its only challengers. A confident, untested, and well-financed neoliberal solution to the crisis of Keynesian demand management stood waiting in the wings, and the external order was still frozen into its basic Cold War choice. But not any more: today the shine has come completely off the Thatcherite solution to economic growth and social development, and the golden-opportunity for a peace dividend in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union has been dissipated in the on-going dislocation of the Middle East caused there by the clash of western arms and religious fundamentalism. Popular support for austerity politics and for military interventionism overseas – support that was high across the entire UK electorate in 1979 and 1983 – is now in consequence at a historic low in the UK.  (It is even beginning to diminish in the heartland of contemporary imperialism, namely the United States itself.)

The task that ultimately defeated the Bennite Left, a generation ago, was that of stopping the drift to New Labour in an electoral environment in which anti-statism was popular and memories of Margaret Thatcher were strong. The task of the Corbynite-Left, by contrast, though still daunting, is more readily attainable. It is to distance the entire Labour Party from its New Labour dalliance with Thatcherism, and to set the economy and society on a growth-path based on greater social equality rather than on greater austerity. Supporters of Labour’s Blairite past remain entrenched within the Parliamentary Party to slow down the speed of that resetting; but beyond parliamentary circles – in the wider electorate at large – there is a large and growing popular constituency for a progressive realignment of policy and goal, and a growing recognition that deregulated capitalism needs now to be put firmly behind us. That recognition even extends to governing circles within international economic institutions like the IMF – a recognition even there that economic growth globally now requires a greater degree of social equality, and not a further round of trickle-down economics.

For the first time since 1945, that is, the thinking and policy proposals of the Labour Left are beginning to run with – rather than against – the grain of long-term capitalist prosperity. For capitalism needs managing again, even if many of its major advocates have so far failed to recognize this new truth: a management that may yet prove more electorally popular than its neoliberal alternative, and a truth that might yet work to Labour’s long-term electoral advantage.



That the debate about how best to manage capitalism is back on the popular agenda gives this generation of left-wing activists an opportunity which their predecessors lacked, and which in consequence they must not waste. But sadly, previous generations of the Labour Left have been very good at just that kind of wasting: each starting when in opposition committed to complete capitalist transformation, only then to end when in power satisfied with merely a modest degree of social reform.

If we do not want to see that slide from high promise to low performance again, if we want to break the cycle of history first as tragedy and then as farce, it is imperative that the entire British Left recognizes – and recognizes well before any radical government takes the reins of power – that the manner in which a Labour Government comes to power is a critical determinant of its ability to sustain its radicalism when in power. And, to put the same point in the medium of time, that the inability of previous Labour Governments to sustain their radicalism when in office was directly related to the nature of the extraordinarily thin relationship established between parliamentarians and their electoral base in the months and years of opposition that divided one period of government from another.

This was very clear even during the years of the Thatcher ascendancy when we first singled out, as a key explanation of Labour failure in power, the mechanistic electoralism that had been so characteristic of Labour politics in each generation prior to that one. Labour in or out of power, as we noted then,[2] never established what could be called – in a Gramscian sense – a hegemonic relationship with its own electoral base. It never created a labour movement in anything other than name. It never even created the network of social-democratic clubs, newspapers and discussion groups whose sustenance had once been such a priority for continental social-democratic parties of the German kind. Instead, of consolidating a strong class movement behind it to sustain it radicalism in office, as other parties had once done, the Labour Party of the past had been satisfied merely to establish an episodic and ephemeral relationship between itself and its people, a relationship wholly mediated through the pursuit and mobilizing of the vote.

And even as an electoral machine, the Party’s presence at grass-roots level throughout the post-Attlee years had lain dormant between elections (and under New Labour continued to lie dormant), only swinging into frenetic activity in the run-up to election day itself. In those moments the Labour Party seemed always to insist – certainly by implication and often explicitly – that the whole task of the Left could and should be reduced to one of door-knocking and vote-catching. But the very fact that the Labour Party, in the vast majority of its constituencies, had not knocked on any doors since the last election tended to mean that fewer doors opened to it, and that doors opened to it with increasing indifference, except in moments of Tory crisis that the Labour Party alone could do little to precipitate. Not surprisingly then, Labour majorities when they came tended to be accidental rather than created, and invariably proved to be as tenuous as they were fortuitous.

Not surprisingly too, with Labour so inactive between elections, even core Labour voters were left exposed generation on generation to the drip-by-drip media-based construction of a conservative, anti-progressive, view of both their private interests and their realistic political options. Democratic electoral politics is ultimately always hegemonic; and it certainly has been in the UK since the years of Margaret Thatcher.  Left-wing forces do not defeat the hegemonic politics of the Right by staying silent in the face of that hegemony, or by tacking to the winds of orthodoxy that conservative hegemonic politics call into being.  In such a circumstance, left-wing forces defeat the hegemonic politics of the Right only by developing a more convincing hegemonic politics of its own.

These limits of Labourist electoralism have, of course, long been recognized by the best of the Labour Left: so that even today it is not necessary to re-invent the wheel on so vital a strategic issue. On this at least, there is still value in revisiting the recognition of electoralism’s limits by the best voices in each successive generation of socialists within the Labour Party. This, for example, was Tony Benn’s – discussing what in 1972 he termed ‘popular democracy’ – raising issues then that still require urgent consideration now.

Political leaders often seem to be telling us two things:  first – “there is nothing you have to do except vote for us”; and second – “if you do vote for us, we can solve your problems.” Both those statements are absolutely and demonstrably false…the historical role of democracy is to allow people to have their way. A real leader will actually welcome the chance to give way to the forces he has encouraged and mobilized by a process of education and persuasion. Legislation is thus the last process in a campaign for change…The people must be helped to understand that they will make little progress unless they are more politically self-reliant and are prepared to organize with others, nearest to them where they work and where they live, to achieve what they want….This is not a wishy-washy appeal for “participation” as a moral duty or “job enrichment” as a management technique, or “involvement” as a Dale Carnegie philosophy of life. It means telling people the truth: if you don’t organize with others to change your life situation, the only change we can guarantee you is the “ins” and “outs” of alternative parties in power. Democratic change starts with a struggle at the bottom and ends with a peaceful parliamentary victory at the top.’ [3]

And if that is not enough to make the point, we can always go back a generation further, to R.H. Tawney and this from 1932.

The great weakness of British Labour…is a lack of a creed. The Labour Party is hesitant in action because divided in mind. It does not achieve what it could because it does not know what it wants. It frets out of office and fumbles in it….If the Labour Party is to tackle its job with some hope of success, it must mobilize behind it a body of conviction as resolute and informed as the opposition in front of it….The way to create [this], and the way, when created, for it to set about its task is not to promise smooth things: support won by such methods is a reed shaken by every wind. It is to ask the question; Who is to be the master? It is to carry through at home the measures of economic and social reconstruction which, to the grave injury of the nation, have been too long postponed…It is not to encourage adherents to ask what they will get from a Labour Government, as though a campaign were a picnic, all beer and sunshine. It is to ask them what they will give. It is to make them understand that the return of a Labour government is merely the first phase of a struggle, the issue of which depends upon themselves.[4]



If the Tawney/Benn take on the requirements of radical politics is correct, any Corbyn-led coalition of progressive forces now faces a set of distinctive and difficult tasks on which it needs to embark with all due speed and diligence, well ahead of its arrival in power – tasks that need to be addressed now if Labour is ever to overcome first the electoral barriers to its success and then the governmental ones. A set of hegemonic tasks awaits, in the meeting of which all of us need to be centrally involved: ideological tasks – breaking fundamentally with neoliberal orthodoxies and offering a vision of a fully democratized and empowered nation. And programmatic tasks – backing that vision with policy commitments that establish new sets of worker and citizen rights, new partnerships between a democratized state and those currently in control of the levers of state and economic power, and new frameworks of social justice and personal emancipation. For the biggest lesson left to this generation of progressives by the failures of previous generations who shared their values and aspirations is surely this: that unless progressives enter power with a fully mobilized base of committed support, the gap between the promise and the performance of yet another generation of parliamentary socialists will open once most the floodgates of reaction and conservatism.

In the wake of the most recent Labour Party conference, Anthony Barnett put it this way: and he was right.

A government that wishes to replace neoliberalism must offer voters an emboldened form of citizenship that meaningfully enhances their influence. If voters are told, as they will be in the most hysterical fashion by the press and the Tories, that Labour wants to replace their consumer choice with ‘centralized bureaucracy’ voters will prefer ‘choice’. To counter this, Labour will need to propose much more than flaccid tropes such as regional devolution, consultation and decentralization…. {If] they want to use the opportunity of a lifetime to transform economic policy in an egalitarian direction…Labour must now prepare itself in a more far-reaching fashion than its 2017 manifesto sets out, even after incorporating its important linked call for Alternative Models of Ownership which propose ways to democratize the economy. In his speech to conference, Jeremy Corbyn looked forward to Labour replacing neoliberalism. To achieve this demands a hegemonic approach that redefines the nature of the country’s politics, as well as economic policy.’[5]

A decade ago, and writing to an American audience[6], we argued that it was conservative political forces, and not left-wing ones, who fully understood the importance of hegemonic politics in contemporary America – that it was they, not the Left, who spend literally a fortune shaping public opinion by their control of news outlets, opinion makers and policy-focused think tanks. And that they did so (and continue to do so) precisely because they recognized that in modern capitalisms: democratic politics is largely a spectator sport. The crowd gets to play every now and then, but between elections it is largely a matter of watching and listening. More of us tire of that more quickly than we should, probably because – in a world of 24-hour news coverage – words flow in huge numbers, washing over us like summer rain. We get wet; and depending on the colour of the rain, we either like it or we don’t. Political parties are the great rainmakers of the modern age. They package ideas. They put together programmes. They organize blocs of voters. They tell us what is happening – what is going right and what is going wrong. They point a way forward and they provide us with protection against the rain coming from the other side. When they are effective, they provide a narrative linking the private hopes of their supporters to some great national program of reform. They keep their own people dry by the quality of that narrative – by the ability of the arguments and images they deploy to act as an effective umbrella.

If that is so, then it is high-time for a Corbyn-led progressive movement to start creating umbrellas again.


For a fuller development of these arguments, see

David Coates, Flawed Capitalism: The Anglo-American Condition and Its Resolution. Newcastle, Agenda Publishing, 2018

[1] On this, see Hilary Wainwright, ‘A new politics from the Left: the distinctive experience of Jeremy Corbyn as the leader of the British Labour Party,’ in David Coates (editor), Reflections on the Future of the Left. Newcastle: Agenda Publishing, 2017, pp. 95-113; and A New Politics for the Left. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2018.


[2] This, in David Coates, ‘New Labour or Old?’ New Left Review, 219, September/October 1997, pp. 62-77.


[3] Quoted in Leo Panitch and Colin Leeds, The End of Parliamentary Socialism. London: Verso, 2001, pp. 50-51.


[4] R.H. Tawney, ‘The choice before the Labour Party’, reprinted in William A.Robson, The Political Quarterly in the 1930s. London: Allen Lane, 1971.


[5] Anthony Barnett, With victory in sight, can the British Left gain hegemony? London: Compass, think piece #91, October 2017, p. 3.

[6] David Coates, Answering Back: liberal responses to conservative arguments. New York: Continuum Books, 2010, p. 1.


David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.

He writes here in a personal capacity.

Join the Discussion

We hope you'll join the discussion, but due to problems with spam, please omit hyperlinks ( web addresses ) from your comment.

with types. immediately skin Reapply for UVA least of after and protection. swimming liberally before Apply broad exposure. sun sweating, minutes with spectrum UV ProPlex minutes 15 at sunscreen every sun 80 drying towel areas. UVB to two water all Apply exposed or after resistance hours.