Miliband was best when he acted on his convictions. Flickr/Labour Party. Some rights reserved.
I have been a member of the Labour Party since 1979. Through much of that time I have been very active in the party and for some years I was a Labour councillor.
Given Labour’s defeat on May 7th I am extremely anxious to begin a serious conversation/debate with both members, supporters and other progressive groups/individuals about the nature of Labour’s defeat and how we move forward. I believe there is an urgent need for debate/discussion which has been dramatically increased by the vacuous and in my view irresponsible reaction of members of the party elite such as Mandelson, Blair and David Miliband to the defeat and the superficiality and the lack of any clear analysis or convincing vision of how the party needs to respond to present circumstances from those who are putting themselves forward to lead the party in the future.
I fail to understand how we can elect a leader before we have had a widespread debate about what has gone wrong, what kind of party we want, what kind of s society we want to build and what kind of policies and programme and ways of working we need to achieve success? Electing a leader before that happens is putting the cart before the horse! Quite frankly at the moment, I have no idea what the Labour Party stands for and when I listen to the leadership contenders I have real difficulty distinguishing what they are saying from what the SNP called ‘red Tories’!
In what follows I offer my analysis of Labour’s defeat and what needs to happen now. Others may agree or disagree with me and that is fine. My aim is to hopefully initiate some serious discussion about the future of our party that is widespread and involves as many people as possible who are appalled by the thought of 5 years of a vicious Tory government and the harm it will do to people’s lives – particularly those who are most vulnerable.
The actual election result
The actual result was clearly bad for Labour and I do not dispute that, but there has been enormous hyperbole over the actual results. In the view of many commentators this was a huge success for the Tories and a complete rout for Labour. That the polls got it so wrong perhaps made us think the defeat was worse than it actually was because of dashed expectations that the vote would be much closer.
But if we examine the results, they suggest a much more complex picture. At a recent seminar I attended in Oxford, Sir Ivor Crew noted that the election results and the pattern of voting was the most confused and complex of any election he could remember. Yes, the Conservatives obtained 37% of the vote and Labour only 31%. However more people failed to vote than voted Conservative and vastly more people voted against the Tories than voted for them. Also remember Labour increased its vote by 1.6% whereas the Tory vote only increased by only 0.6% and in parts of England the swing to Labour was over 5%.
In all the major cities in England Labour took virtually all the seats (see for example London, Birmingham, Bristol, Newcastle, Manchester, Birmingham, Nottingham, and Leicester, where Labour votes were often piled up high). Where Labour lost was in a relatively small number of crucial marginal seats. More work needs to be done to explain this failure but one thing is clear: our election system makes the results of elections far too dependent on marginal seats and distorts election results as well as distorting electioneering and party activities.
It is difficult to compare the results in 2015 with the situation in 2010. No one expected the collapse of the Liberal democrats to be as large as it turned out to be and the impact of UKIP in England and Wales and the spectacular success of the SNP in Scotland further make comparisons with 2010 extremely difficult to make.
However if we look at the relationship between votes and seats in a situation where there were several parties in serious competition as there were in 2015, one thing is clear; the electoral system produced grossly distorted and clearly unfair results. For example, the Conservatives obtained 37% of the votes but 51% of the seats, Labour 31% of the vote but 35% of the seats seats. The system also produced inflated numbers of seats in proportion to votes for the SNP. As important, the Lib Dems suffered a disproportionate loss of seats and UKIP suffered even more with 12.5% of the vote but obtaining only one seat and the Greens with over a million votes also obtaining only one seat. It seems to me that a plurality of parties standing for election is here to stay and that this kind of unfairness will continue unless we seriously address the issue of proportional representation. Further although the Conservatives got a very slim overall majority this time the likelihood of coalition governments in the future even without a change in the election system is in my view high.
I will return to the issue of electoral reform later along with a wider discussion of constitutional reform, regionalism and local government but suffice to argue here that in my view institutions do matter; they affect the democratic process and need to be taken seriously. Given what has happened in Scotland and the constitutional issues raised there, the importance of a constitutional convention and a truly widespread debate on constitutional change is imperative.
Labour’s poor performance
The shifting political context of the 2015 election
The spectacular rise of the SNP and UKIP and the virtual collapse of the Lib Dems made the position of Labour much more difficult than in past elections, therefore comparisons with previous elections seem to me to be not really relevant. Issues relating to Scotland and also the UK Independence Party will be dealt with in later sections.
The Blair years and New Labour
Much has been written and said about the Blair years and New Labour and I am not going to deal in depth with the Blair/Brown years. I do not want to deny either the electoral success of Blair or that some good things were achieved in this period (such as Sure Start, school and hospital buildings, and the minimum wage for example). However much of the good work done, especially in tackling poverty, was done by stealth and not celebrated enough so voters were ignorant often of what the party had achieved. In order to understand this we need to focus on aspects of the New Labour’s legacy which have prevented, or at least made it difficult, for Labour under Ed Miliband to build a radical and more progressive politics or even seriously to reflect on the success and failures of New Labour.
Blair’s appeal was centred on what has been described as middle England. Despite the early rhetoric of Blair claiming to be committed to transforming politics, he turned out to be cautious and fearful of alienating a range of disparate interest groups and classes, business as well as aspirational skilled workers, and the Tory press. In so doing he failed to address some of the worst effects of the Thatcher years. In fact in many areas he developed and furthered the Thatcherite agenda – increased privatisation of public services, PFI, Neo-liberal economic policies, support for an unregulated financial sector and a lack of concern for increasing inequality. This in effect meant that his so called ‘big tent’ politics was nowhere near as inclusive as he claimed. In particular it excluded the concern of many of Labours core traditional voters, the young and many non voters, with dire consequences for Labour’s support in 2015.
Connected to this was, in my view, Blair’s failure to transform the political culture of the UK. He came to power with a large majority and there were huge expectations that politics could really change in a progressive direction. However little real radical change (apart from devolution) was promoted. Many, not just traditional Labour voters, but also social and political progressives who had joined the party in their droves before 1997 felt extremely disappointed. Large numbers left the party! Add the Iraq war to this and you have a recipe for widespread disillusionment in the New Labour project. Yet there was no real assessment of New Labour following the election defeat of 2010 and no serious discussion of the haemorrhaging of votes from Labour in the two elections after the victory of 1997. So-called Blairites continued to offer an outdated set of policies without any critical evaluation of their efficacy, and influential Blairites continued to prevent more innovative and progressive policies that in my view Miliband and his supporters would have liked to pursue. This had important effects on the performance of the Labour Party in opposition to the Coalition.
The coalition years
a) The economy and economic competence
From 2010 the Conservatives and Lib Dems firmly established a narrative that Labour was responsible for the economic crisis and were profligate with their spending which they had to deal with when they came into office. This mantra was repeated by the coalition on a virtually daily basis. Labour did nothing to combat this narrative: indeed they often appeared to agree with it. This was disastrous for Labour and more importantly it was not true. As many have argued including leading macro economists such as Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz and Martin Wolf, the economic crisis was a truly global crisis; it did not start in the UK but in America and had global reach, Though Labour may have failed to regulate the banks and the financial sector more broadly, this was a failure not just of Labour but of all political parties including the Conservatives in the UK.
Krugman has recently pointed out how disastrous was Labour’s failure to “combat the very dubious claim that Blair and Brown were profligate and the nonsensical claim that they were responsible for the economic crisis”. One has to ask why Labour allowed this extraordinary failure to defend their record in office and the actions they took to deal with the global economic crisis.
Labour since 2010 further failed to consistently and convincingly attack the Conservative economic policy more broadly; not only have the Conservatives failed to adequately regulate the banks and other financial institutions but failed to rebalance the economy away from financial services, as industry continues to be characterised by low investment and low productivity and in many cases ineffective and inefficient management. Added to this, the labour force is badly trained and lacks the skills to compete effectively in global markets. These weaknesses in the British economy have a long history due to the short termism of successive governments. I rarely remember Labour politicians making any of these critiques of Conservative economic policy.
Again Labour failed cogently and consistently to attack the coalition arguments on the need for austerity. Indeed Labour seemed to accept the need for austerity, often only resisting its most blatantly unfair aspects such as the bedroom tax (it accepted for example the so called triple lock).
However a majority of Keynesian macro-economists were, and continue to be, highly critical of this policy. Again see the works of Stiglitz, Krugman and Wolf. Equating household overspending with deficit spending by governments in a recession is ludicrous. In my view this not only put Labour in the public’s mind as little different from the Tories and reinforced the neo-liberal economic policy of the government but it explains why on the doorstep many claimed there was little difference between the Conservatives and Labour. Further it is my view that many aspects of the Tory austerity agenda is an integral part of its ideological programme to further right wing plans to gravely weaken the welfare state and public services. By accepting so much of the discourse of austerity Labour deprived itself of arguments needed to defend public services and the welfare state and to offer realistic and hopeful alternatives.
Krugman was amazed at Labour's failure to defend its record. Flickr/Commonwealth Club. Some rights reserved.
The failure of labour to combat arguments on its economic competence and to offer an alternative to austerity contributed critically to the lack of credibility Labour faced in the election. Either voters did not know what Labour stood for or they simply did not believe them. The extraordinary negative, but highly successful campaigning by the Tories and the construction of a climate of fear during the election merely intensified that uncertainty.
Labour’s problems in Scotland have their roots in the deindustrialisation and decline in manufacturing so marked in the Thatcher years and then not effectively addressed in the Blair years.
In this respect the alienation of Scottish Labour voters is not so very different from the alienation of Labour’s traditional supporters in the North of England, the Midlands and Wales. In all these areas there has been a growing feeling of marginalisation from Westminster politics.
As noted before, Blair’s electoral success was to base his appeal on middle England and ‘big tent’ politics whilst assuming that Labour’s heartlands, the traditional working class supporters of Labour in Scotland and the North of England and Wales would continue to support Labour as they had nowhere else to go. Though this may have been true in the short term, Scottish devolution and the growing popularity and success of the SNP (particularly as it moved to a more progressive political agenda under Nicola Sturgeon) suggested increasingly that Scottish Labour voters did have somewhere else to go; and to a party that appeared to offer hope and a much more progressive politics than that offered by a Scottish Labour Party tied to Westminster and Westminster politics.
Many talented Labour politicians left Scotland for Westminster in the Blair/Brown years and the party began to lose its ties with its communities in Scotland as Scottish voters increasingly saw New Labour as part of a London metropolitan elite and as part of the problem rather than the solution.
The failure of the Labour Party to distinguish themselves from the Tory party and the coalition in the unionist campaign in the referendum merely reinforced this view. It was obvious that what many in Scotland wanted was Devo-Max rather than complete independence, yet the Labour Party never challenged Cameron to include this option on the agenda. Neither did the Westminster Labour Party understand the needs of Scottish Labour to have some autonomy in its battle with the SNP. There is no doubt that leading Labour politicians in Scotland such as Gordon Brown were decisive in the referendum result. However the immediate reaction of Cameron to the result in talking immediately of the need for English votes for English laws demonstrates that not only had the Labour Party been manipulated by the Tories for their own ends but that in the minds of many Scottish voters there was little difference between the Tories and the Labour Party.
Finally, the failure of Miliband and other spokespersons for Labour to engage with the SNP in the election campaign and their adamant refusal to entertain any kind of alliance with the SNP – in effect to the treat the SNP as the enemy rather than a potential ally – was disastrous. It allowed the fear whipped up by the Tories and the Tory press of a Labour-SNP alliance to influence many English voters’ minds as though such an alliance was illegitimate (remember the posters of Miliband in the pocket of Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon). From talking to Labour Party campaigners, and from my own experience on the doorstep this fear was expressed by many people and nowhere did Labour seek to combat it.
In Scotland, as over economic issues discussed above, Labour was consistently outflanked by a Conservative Party (with the support of an overwhelmingly Tory supporting press) that was ruthless and highly successful in creating fear of voting for Labour.
As we have seen above, for a variety of reasons, both short and long term, Labour voters turned to the SNP in Scotland. In England by contrast those regions with strong traditional working class voters, for somewhat similar reasons turned in large numbers to UKIP. Again deindustrialisation, the decline of manufacturing, long term unemployment and a failure of Westminster politics to address their needs lies behind this change in voting behaviour. This was particularly true in parts of the North East and West and South Yorkshire. Like the SNP a major factor in the success of UKIP was its ability to portray itself as an anti-establishment party – however contradictory and incoherent it was in its political programme it managed to convince people it was not part of the political elite and that it represented something different. Alienated and disaffected Labour supporters in long-neglected areas of the country voted for UKIP in large numbers. Labour seriously underestimated the UKIP threat, seemingly believing that UKIP was a greater threat to the Tories. As we know that was not the case. Though both Labour and the Tories suffered from the swing to UKIP, Labour suffered most.
e) Nationalisms, the EU and migration
In relation to both the extraordinary success of the SNP and the rise of UKIP as well as the issue of the EU and the coming referendum Labour has failed to adequately respond to what has often been called ‘identity politics’ which in this context means national or cultural identity politics. Feelings of belonging, place and locality matter to people and they especially matter when voters feel marginalised and ignored. In Scotland the SNP’s ability to build on its distinctive past; its different education and legal system and after devolution its parliament allowed the SNP to draw on a kind of civic nationalism which large numbers of Scots’ could identify with. In England, on the other hand, UKIP and in many ways, the Tories too, have drawn (with some success) on a less defined but clearly salient notion of Englishness. In responding to the question of migration, the EU and in response to the Scots’ demand for separation or more devolution, both UKIP and the Tories have manipulated and harnessed feelings around English identity to stimulate fear of ‘the Other’ and to blame the failure of the coalition to for example, build more houses or properly finance schools and the health service, on the EU and immigrants. These are difficult issues for Labour, in particular concerns over migration. However these issues are not going to go away and Labour needs to reflect deeply on how it can respond to local, regional and national identities whilst at the same time defending its internationalism and its pro-European commitments. Regional devolution, more power to local authorities and policies to address the needs of those communities devastated by neo liberal economic globalisation must be part of the answer.
f) The collapse of the Lib Dems
Whilst many predicted a loss of seats for the Lib Dems the scale of their losses was a surprise. Though the reasons for such a cataclysmic defeat are not part of my analysis there is no doubt that their failure to defend key manifesto pledges, notably on tuition fees, played a part. This does raise the whole question of trust in political leaders.
g) The leadership factor?
A host of conventional analyses have centred on the persona of Miliband. He was a ‘geek’, part of the metropolitan elite, he was not charismatic, he was in hock to the unions, too left wing and so on.
Whilst not wanting to deny that Miliband lacked some of the charisma and oratory skills of Blair, for instance, the extent to which he was responsible for the election defeat is in my view simplistic and over-blown. From the very beginning he was undermined and continued to be undermined from not just the Conservatives and the Tory press but also crucially from some Labour MPs and in particular the so-called Blairites who voted for his brother and never really came to terms with the result of the leadership election. This meant he was continually hampered in developing new and innovative directions and often appeared to be wavering between appeasing his opponents in the party and his supporters, thus giving the impression of a lack of decisiveness and leadership. In fact where he was best was when he acted on his political convictions and was bold such as his attack on the Murdoch press, his attack on predatory capitalism and non-doms, his insistence on the importance of the living wage and his wish to end zero hour contracts. In these cases he not only won popular support but he put the coalition clearly on the back foot.
Where do we go from here?
A vision – creating a new ‘common sense’?
There are in my view no simple fixes. Certainly attacking Labour under Miliband for failing to appeal to the aspirations of working people or for being too left wing are completely unconvincing, not just to me, but to many Labour Party members/supporters and grossly underestimate the kind of change Labour needs to think about if it is to rejuvenate itself. The way forward must come from a deep, engaged and prolonged conversation with Labour members and supporters as well as sympathisers about the kind of party Labour wants to be and the kind of society it wishes to help create. Only then can it demonstrate how particular policies and objectives can contribute to that vision. Without a clear narrative that is both realistic and appeals to people’s desire for a better, progressive and sustainable future Labour will not become, nor will it deserve to become, a party of government. Importantly the narrative cannot just be a narrowly economistic one but one that draws on a concept of justice which includes both rights and moral virtue.
Scotland proves it is possible to engage people in real and important political debate. This did not happen in Scotland overnight. Labour needs to recognise that if we are to be able to facilitate such a conversation we need to engage people in in their daily lives, in communities, trade unions, work places, universities, in social movements etc. Policy cannot continue to be a top-down process decided by a narrow political elite or based on focus groups and short term opportunism but needs to be the outcome of widespread conversations both within the party and outside.
A constitutional convention
One way in which a conversation and debate could possibly begin would be to take up the idea of a constitutional convention. I know some people think that constitutional issues are not really important and are only of interest to the so called ‘chattering classes’. I dispute this strongly. As I said earlier ‘institutions do matter’. We live in one of the most politically centralised countries in Europe. Local government has no powers which could not be taken away at will by Westminster if it so decided. Parliamentary sovereignty is indeed as Lord Hailsham famously said an ‘elective dictatorship’. There are few checks on power (except perhaps the judiciary and even here the present government is attempting to weaken judicial authority and assert the supremacy of the government over it). The big cities of the Midlands and the North have no real say over policies that directly affect their citizens’ lives and have no powers over finance or tax raising powers. In effect local government is simply local administration of policies decided elsewhere. No wonder so few people vote in local elections
The disillusionment and cynicism of voters in England and Wales is in part a result of an over centralised system which people feel disconnected from and unheard in.
Scotland proved it is possible to engage people in a real political debate about institutions and how they enable or hinder a different kind of politics and policies. The process in Scotland took time and was not just an elite top down process but a bottom up one too.
Constitutional issues are in fact on the agenda right now; further Scottish devolution, the so called Midlothian question and English votes for English laws, the issue of regionalism raised by George Osborne and his so called ‘northern powerhouse’, Europe and the EU referendum as well as an increasingly dysfunctional and unfair electoral system all raise fundamental matters of constitutional and political concern. In my view these issues are too important and fundamental to be left to the political elite to decide.
The Labour Party
The attitude of the Labour Party leadership to its members and to sympathisers outside the party, needs to change dramatically. The arrogance of party elites in the way they relate to members is simply unacceptable. Being told what party policy is without real debate, receiving emails from members of the shadow cabinet addressing members by their first name when they have no idea who they are is patronising and is not conducive to developing a party which is participatory and active.
I am a supporter of a football team and I support it unconditionally. I am a member of the Labour Party because I want make a difference, I want to contribute to its policies and its activities. I don’t support the Labour Party as though it were my team! And certainly my support is not unconditional!
I remember very well before he was first elected Blair promising to make the party more responsive to members and to creating a more participatory party. This never happened. Party elites became even more distant from members, party conferences became completely sterile and stage managed. Policy was decided by advisors and think-tanks or so called focus groups without reference to party members. Increasingly being a member became more and more like a supporters club. Democracy requires real debate. Without a discursive democratic practice the party fails to be a democratic party, in my understanding of democracy.
Party presence in communities and political activism
The party needs to become a more campaigning organisation. Though we cannot go back to a time when Labour was deeply embedded in working class communities, there are many ways in which the party branches/constituencies could hold regular stalls in shopping centres providing information on the party and listen to people’s concerns. When, for example there are community initiatives, protests and demonstrations over specific issues the Labour Party, its members and councillors need to be present. Not to take control of such actions but to be a part of such initiatives, speaking with those involved, taking up issues with the local council or with the MP. Where is the Labour presence in current protests over housing, the environment and racism for example?
Labour should stop being so tribal. It does not have a natural monopoly on progressive politics and should be willing to reach out and work with the Green Party, progressive social liberals and members of the Scottish and Welsh National Parties.
I do believe there is a progressive electorate out there – but it needs to be stimulated and appealed to in new and innovative ways and not on narrow and sectarian grounds which exclude potential allies.
Jeremy Corbyn speaks in Coventry. Flickr/Ciaran Norris. Some rights reserved.
Since I wrote the above in May much has happened. Of most significance has been the extraordinary growth of support for Jeremy Corbyn among Labour Party members and supporters and the incomprehension and hostility of both large numbers of Labour MPs and media commentators, including the Guardian and Observer newspaper to that support. The vitriol directed at Corbyn supporters and the crude caricature of what he is articulating is not only extremely unpleasant but is self-defeating and demonstrates clearly that many politicians and commentators are ignorant of how bankrupt our political system has become and how much of an appetite there is for radical change.
I will be voting for Corbyn. He offers an alternative vision of what the Labour Party can be based on an ethic of social justice, social solidarity and peace. Importantly, his vision also offers hope to people deeply cynical of party politics and what the Labour Party stands for. It is one that strongly contests the dominant conservative narrative that there is no alternative to the neo-liberal consensus, austerity and rampant individualism. However, whatever you think of Corbyn and his candidature in the coming election, he has achieved what I wanted most when I began writing this essay which is the beginning of a real debate about Labour and its future. This would not have happened without his candidature.
However, this is, or should be, only the beginning of that debate. Regardless of who wins the leadership election we cannot go back to being a party that in its desire for political power forgets what it wants that power for. We cannot go back to a party that treats its members with contempt and is so fearful of offending powerful vested interests that it abandons its core principles.