How much can really be said on Question Time? Flickr/UK Parliament. Some rights reserved.
This article offers reflections on what happened in the general election campaign and on the significance of its outcome. Its argument is linked with analysis developed by various Soundings authors (including Stuart Hall, Doreen Massey and myself) of the causes and nature of the financial crisis which occurred in 2007-8, and whose effects are still being felt over much of the world. This larger argument was framed in the terms of a Gramscian approach to political ‘conjunctures’ and the underlying structures of class relations which underpin them.
Labour’s strategic errors
Alan Johnson has observed that ‘the die was cast’ in the general election when Ed Miliband was virtually booed by the Question Timeaudience on 30 April, a week before election day, when he denied that Labour’s overspending was the cause of the economic crisis of 2007-2008. But of course this moment was not the cause of Labour’s defeat – it merely revealed the underlying problem of credibility that Labour has been carrying ever since it lost power in 2010. During election night, as the significance of the exit poll sunk in, two other senior Labour figures, David Blunkett and Alastair Campbell, added their view that the failure to combat the Coalition’s economic narrative had indeed been the central millstone round Labour’s neck during the whole campaign. About this, of course, they were right.
Why, one wonders, did it take until the night of the election for these and other Labour politicians to notice something that has surely been clear for several years?(1) What responsibility does the entire Labour leadership, and not merely Ed Miliband, have, for the decisions that left the Coalition’s accusations on the economy unanswered for all this time? Alan Johnson had earlier also commented on radio, a few days earlier, that Labour had not devised a pithy counter to the Coalition’s accusation ‘they maxed out on our credit card’ – then, at the very last minute, Ed Miliband did come up with a succinct phrase: ‘The question is, did the deficit cause the financial crisis of 2008, or did the financial crisis of 2008 cause the deficit?’ The truth, he asserted, is the latter. But it took more than a sentence, however well-honed, to repair an injury which had been allowed to fester for so long.
Just to show what Labour’s own arguments had been missing, three substantial economic articles were published in the two weeks before the election, each emphatically refuting the austerity-deficit position. These were by Paul Krugman, Harvard Professor of Economics and Nobel Prize Winner, Lord Robert Skidelksy, biographer of Keynes and a cross-bench peer, and Martin Wolf, financial editor of the FT, whose indictment of both parties for economic incompetence did not dissuade the FT from giving their election support to the Coalition. None of these interventions found their way into the broadcast discussions during the election, although one doubts whether John Humphreys, James Naughtie or their counterparts had anything that better deserved their time.
Marketing versus democracy
In the May Day Manifesto in 1967, Raymond Williams and his co-authors described the corruption of politics by the methods of commercial marketing, and the damage this was causing to any genuinely democratic process. (Indeed the ever-increasing marketisation of the political process is a product of neoliberalism [Crouch 2013]). Never have the effects of this degeneration been clearer than in the recent election campaign. The Tories, as expected, brought in their ‘hired gun’, Lynton Crosby, to run their campaign. A twin-track master script was devised – to attack Labour’s economic competence, and destroy the credibility of its leader. These two messages were repeated ad nauseam. The campaign was as narrowly-focused as possible – Cameron took part in only one TV debate, for fear that actual encounters with Miliband might show him to be Cameron’s equal in capability. There were to be no daily press conferences. The broadcasters were left to be weak arbiters of the argument between the parties, and they achieved only a token enlargement of the Coalition’s restrictive approach – one Opposition party leaders’ debate, and one Question Time with Cameron, Clegg and Miliband. So much for democratic debate.
Labour, however, was playing the same manipulative game. They also ran what was essentially a marketing campaign, to their own set script, with its careful timing of releases of specific policies – (‘special offers’ in marketing-speak) to be issued during the six weeks of the campaign; these included the capping of private sector rents, the end of tax-exemption for non-doms, the ‘double-lock’ on the NHS. The Tories were also producing new ‘offers’ during the campaign (for example the subsidised ‘right to buy’ for Housing Association tenants), with such haste that it seemed like panic. To the electorate, these ‘offers’ were surely seen as bribes, in their specifics appealing to some of their targets, but in their disregard of costs hardly suggesting fiscal responsibility. The hapless stone slab of pledges that Miliband unveiled was like an advertising gimmick – and not a very good one as it happened.(2) In fact, within the limitations of a six week competitive advertising campaign, Labour had not seemed to be doing too badly – towards the end there even seemed to be some momentum. And after all, everyone was surprised by the exit poll, and the actual election result seems to have been expected by no-one.
But the problem was that certain realities broke into the campaign, and could not be managed within its terms of engagement. Three of these were revealed in the Question Time debate. The first was the unsurprising revelation that Labour was still widely blamed for the economic crisis, and had failed even to establish that there was a credible alternative view of it. The audience appeared to believe that this was completely self-evident, and that Ed Miliband must be lying to deny it. (What had Ed Balls been doing about this, as Shadow Chancellor for five years – had he forgotten his own excellent Bloomberg speech of August 27 2010?) The second reality was the rise of the SNP, and its taking a position on austerity more progressive than that of the Labour Party. And the third was the issue of public trust in politicians’ ways of conducting these debates in general. You insult our intelligence, a member of the audience said, by pretending that you are going to win a majority, and refusing to discuss what might happen if you don’t. How can we make a rational choice to vote, if you won’t talk about the realistic options? (The ‘hung parliament’ possibility was made to seem more frightening because no-one would even recognise it.)
One can criticise Miliband for not thinking of smarter answers on the hoof to these questions, but the truth is that no satisfactory answers can be given in a two-minute response whose sense and credibility has not been established beforehand. Elections cannot be won in snapshots, even though there is a widespread terror that they can be lost by them, by the dreaded ‘gaffes’. The truth is that Miliband was trapped by the frame and manner in which Labour had allowed the election to be fought – by the major parties’ collusive definition of it as a political marketing campaign.
The total focus of the campaign on the polls made clear just how emphatically a competitive marketing campaign this was. The fact that the apotheosis of the campaign was the total failure of the pollsters themselves, revealed at 10pm on election night before the count even began, was a revenge of the democratic gods on the entire corrupted process.
Would it have made any difference to the campaign if the polls had been right, and had been predicting for weeks the result that actually happened? Would Labour have had the capacity to improvise a response to that situation, if there had been a month to do this rather than not a single second? Would fear of the Tories have brought votes back to Labour or the Lib Dems, in England or Scotland? Given the model of a totally controlled campaign whose shape it had decided on months before, this seems doubtful. After all, it seems to have been Labour and the SNP that the marginal voters in England were frightened of, not the Conservatives. Had the polls been right, we would certainly have had a different election night experience, but would the outcome have been any different?
One Labour politician provided at a closed meeting a few months ago an explanation of why Labour had chosen in the first place to fight such a cautious campaign – for example why its hallmark was to be a small number of achievable ‘pledges’ rather than a more ambitious commitment. ‘We have to be the people who under-promise and over-deliver, rather than the people who over-promise and under-deliver’, Miliband said, evoking the memory of Clegg’s fatal tuition fee commitment, but also the Blair-Brown pledge-card minimalism in 1997. The belief was that the progressive Lib Dem votes which Labour had lost in 2010 would fall back to Labour, and that on the right UKIP would take more votes from the Tories. On those assumptions, Labour did not need to do much to creep to victory. But these assumptions turned out to be wrong. Many Lib Dems had other ideas, UKIP took more decisive votes from Labour than from the Tories, Scottish Labour disappeared. It was always going to be essential to win significant ground from the Tories themselves.
The mobilisation around the Scottish Referendum has re-created a democratic Scottish public, in place of the controlled electoral market place which is virtually all the politics we now have in England. Everyone noted the surge in electoral turnout, and in political engagement in Scotland, and no-one seemed to have the slightest idea how this high level of participation could be achieved south of the border. One explanation is that the issue of national identity and its latent affinities and antagonisms has swamped all other dimensions of politics in Scotland. But it was not a simple as this, since the SNP consensus was as much against austerity as against Westminster. The Scottish nationalist mobilisation exposed the decadence of all of the older political formations, leading them to crumble like so much worm-eaten wood.
The element of unconscious fantasy
There was also an emotional and indeed psychodynamic element to the campaign which had not been anticipated, in spite of the extent to which the advertising industry and the tabloid press rely on unconscious desires and fantasies in their operations. Margaret Rustin, a child psychoanalyst, observed to me that never was an election campaign so clearly framed by a conflict between fear and loathing on the one hand, and hope and trust (even if in limited measure) on the other. These were like pure cultures of the death and life instincts, in Freud’s terms. Mobilised against Labour was the fear of migrants, of the Scots (fantasied to be coming over the border to take English money) and of Europe, and then of the potential ‘chaos’ of an ‘unstable’ government. Miliband was derided and abused in the press in a truly disgusting way – for example, Cameron was permitted to describe him, without rebuke, as an ‘arsonist’. On the other side were the positive, warm and hopeful voices of the three women leaders, Nicola Sturgeon, Leanne Wood and Natalie Bennett, as seen in the TV opposition leaders’ debate, but with whom Miliband made no common cause or identification whatsoever, for reasons which we will discuss below, although the ‘three sisters’ gave a lesson in how a political case could be made in a hopeful way.
The unconscious splits and projections enacted in this process were spectacular. There has long been an element of moral masochism in the attitude of many towards ‘austerity’ and deficit reduction, as if it was felt that in some obscure way people had been enjoying undeserved prosperity in the Blair-Brown years and now deserved to suffer the consequences. On to whom should blame be placed was the main question – the Blair-Brown government, for its ‘overspending’? – certainly welfare claimants and the almost-existent benefit-claiming migrants and NHS tourists. The banks received some blame, but they have been largely exonerated for their dominant part in the financial crisis.
The Tories chewed up and spat out into oblivion their Lib Dem Coalition partners, the latter bearing all the electoral blame for unpopular programmes (e.g. tuition fees, the bedroom tax, the destructive reorganisation of the NHS) that their main Tory authors avoided.(3) And how could the Tories have avoided blame for their savagery towards their Coalition partners, enacted even while Clegg was still saying that he had no regrets for having been part of the Coalition with these monsters of ingratitude?(4) Equally, Labour was punished for its role in the Unionist ‘No’ campaign more than were the Lib Dems or the Tories, perhaps because many Scots had expected better from them. It can be dangerous to be part of Coalitions, if one sacrifices one’s identity by going into them!(5)
Lynton Crosby is notorious as the most vicious of negative campaigners, and it is alarming for the democratic process that his methods won, although it seems that there was some public revulsion against the negativity of the attacks on Miliband. This toxic atmosphere may be recalled by voters as time goes by – perhaps even with an element of remorse – if it should become clear that it is indeed the Nasty Party that they have elected to power. It must also be noted that a majority of twelve is small and perhaps unsustainable over a five-year parliamentary term, and is also far from being a convincing electoral endorsement.
What I want to suggest here, at any rate, is that unconscious dimensions of political conflict, the anxieties that feed them, and mechanisms of defence such as splitting, projection and denial, should not be ignored.
The larger political context
In Soundings we for some time been developing an analysis of the larger economic and societal crisis in which these immediate political events are embedded. This analysis has a long ancestry in the New Left, going back to writings by Stuart Hall and his colleagues during the 1970s and 1980s. Of these, Policing the Crisis (1978), which described the break-down of the post-war class settlement, ‘The Great Moving Right Show’ (Marxism Today 1979), which defined the significance of ‘Thatcherism’, and ‘New Labour’s Double Shuffle’ (Soundings 2005), which described New Labour’s accommodation to the environment of neoliberalism, are among the most important.
In a recent series of papers, published as The Neoliberal Crisis (Davison and Harris 2015) and After Neoliberalism: the Kilburn Manifesto (Hall, Massey and Rustin 2015), several Soundings authors have sought to understand the events of the 2007-8 financial crisis, and what has followed from it, in its systemic context. Our contention is that although the 2007-8 crisis was the immediate cause of many problems and of continuing instability (e.g. in Greece), it was itself the effect and symptom of a deeper systemic disequilibrium. The core problem is financialisation – that is, a diminution in opportunities for productive investment, and the diversion of capital into a hypertrophic level of speculation, with non-productive inflation of asset values.
This situation came about because of the destruction, during the neoliberal counter-revolution of the 1980s in the USA, Britain, and elsewhere, of the relative equilibrium between the three poles of labour, capital and a mediating state, which had been achieved during the New Deal in the USA and the post-war class settlement in western Europe. If labour becomes too weak, and the state is infiltrated by capital, inequality grows, wages and employment shrink, and there emerges a chronic deficiency of demand in the economy. This is in essence the Keynesian analysis of the causes of the Great Crash and Depression of the 1920s and 1930s, brought up to date. There are many similarities between these epochs, not least the rise of xenophobic right-wing movements as the predictable reactions to experiences of insecurity and ‘downward mobility’, both individual and collective.
The crisis of the late 1970s had been caused by an intensification of class conflict, the result of the increased power of labour, both in wage bargaining and in the expansion of public sector provision, in the ‘inflationary’ conditions of sustained economic growth. By contrast, the crisis of 2007-8 was an unexpected consequence of the increased power of capital, and in particular financialised capital, unchained by the neoconservative counterrevolution of the 1980s.(6)
A pragmatic response to this crisis would have been to restore some of the checks and balances on financialised capital, and to reinforce the ‘public’ side of the still-mixed private-public economy. This could have been achieved by stronger regulation of the financial sector, a rebalancing of the economy away from finance, a change in corporate governance to give more weight to longer-term interests, and support for enhanced consumer and public demand through tax-policy and state investment.
Except to a limited degree, under Obama in the USA, this is not what happened. Instead, the dominant neoliberal orthodoxy sought to weaken even further the power of labour and those elements of the state responsive to it, and to rely on the self-adjusting mechanisms of the market (just as in the 1930s) to resolve the problems which its own overweening supremacy had brought about. The argument for the benefits of austerity (reminiscent of an earlier belief in the medical efficacy of bleeding) is that when all impediments to free market forces have been removed (welfare provision, trade union organisation, a public sector) economic growth will spontaneously resume.
However, what we have seen is an exceptionally slow recovery from the economic crisis. The persistence of ultra-low interest rates in fact signifies that there is abundant capital available, but which finds no profitable opportunities for investment. The prospect looms of a permanent state of economic stagnation. Meanwhile the banks and financial corporations whose excessive power, and misjudgements of reality, have brought about this crisis have been protected from the financial consequences of their own mistakes. The ‘deficit’ in many national instances, such as in Greece, is owed mainly to the banks, or to the governments who have taken over responsibility for preserving their assets.
Now, one hardly expects such theoretically-framed arguments as these to figure in British election campaigns. Nevertheless, they are implicitly present. The Coalition, on coming to office endorsed the neoliberal view of the economic crisis, holding that austerity and deficit reduction were the priority for resolving it in Britain. This was shamefully bought into by the Liberal Democrats, who deserved their fate for this reason alone, since prior to the 2010 election Vince Cable knew better, and was a more effective critic of the deflationary approach than the Labour politicians. The idea of the deficit’ has been employed by the Coalition, and more recently the Tories, primarily for political purposes.
It has been, to borrow a phrase, ‘weaponised’ as a means of attacking the Labour Party, and justifying, through the ‘necessity’ of deficit-reduction, the thorough rebalancing of Britain’s economy and society.(7) The aim of this is to fully deliver the Thatcherite programme of ‘shrinking the state’ and destroying ‘collectivism’ (i.e. social democracy) once and for all. It seems unlikely that George Osborne has actually believed in the economic importance of deficit reduction since about 2012, since his ‘austerity’ programme was virtually brought to an end after its contractionary effects had been recognised. Coalition budgets after that date became fiscally neutral. The aim of the further planned cuts is not deficit reduction but the severe weakening of social protection (for example the £12 billion to come from the welfare bill in the new Parliament). It is because these deficit arguments are smoke and mirrors, with little economic rationale, that the arguments about them between the Office of Budget Responsibility and the political parties have been so interminable and inconclusive.
The missing economic debate
Why does all this matter? Because those who accept, or go along with, the neoliberal account of the financial crisis and its alleged causes become thereby caught inside a false and destructive view of its remedies. This is exactly what happened to the Labour Party after the election of 2010, and is the trap in which it has been caught ever since.(8) Because it failed to refute the false argument that its ‘overspending’ had been responsible for the financial crisis, it could not defend its economic record (e.g. the improvement of public services for which it had been elected in the first place), and instead committed itself to many of the constraints of the Coalition’s own programme. Attacking the ‘failure’ of the Tory deficit reduction programme, as Ed Balls repeatedly did, merely committed Labour to working within its assumptions, when what was needed was to have changed the agenda to one of economic development. What followed from this, was Labour’s ‘austerity-lite’, and the limited positive programme it put forward.
But within the limits of sound-bites, Ed Miliband (who is not a neoliberal) did try to acknowledge that there had been some earlier economic mistakes. ‘We did not do enough to regulate the banks, I admit’, he said. But the problem was always more than one of regulation. The real issue is the increasing imbalance during the entire recent period, including that of New Labour, between the financial and other productive sectors of the British economy, and the failure to have devised an economic strategy to counter the effects of de-industrialisation. It should not have been so difficult to make this case. ‘Yes the financial sector is important. It is and should remain one of Britain’s “world class” industries’, Labour could have said. ‘Britain has benefitted from it, it enabled us to finance the restoration of the public services after the Tories had neglected them in the 1980s and 1990s.’ [That memory should have been evoked too.] ‘But this was not enough, and we are now going to rectify this chronic imbalance between finance and industry when we return to power.’
The absence of an alternative economic analysis, or the collusion with a false one, has played itself out all over the election landscape. Because Labour had made so weak an argument against austerity, it could not accept that there might be some common ground with the SNP. And from this came what seemed like the dishonesty of Miliband’s denial that he might need to work in some way with the SNP in Parliament, when it seemed obvious that with a minority government he would need to do so. It seems possible that offering some respect to the SNP – after all Nicola Sturgeon impressed many people in England too – might have helped Labour in both England and Scotland. The refusal to discuss the possibility of a hung parliament may even have assisted the Tories’ victory, since their strategy was to make the prospect seem so frightening.
The absence of an alternative economic analysis also explains Labour’s problem with a significant segment of its core electorate. This has been well formulated recently by Paul Mason. The UK is now divided, he has argued, into three tribes, perhaps four, if one includes the division between the asset-possessing older and the asset-deprived younger generation. There is Scotland, united for the moment in a moderate Scottish version of social democracy. There is the London region, made for the most part prosperous by the dynamism of the financial sector. As Mason argued, many people in London accommodate to this, and make their livings from it, whether as financial traders, cab drivers, computer programmers, café staff, or lap dancers. (Of course there are many other industries that flourish within the London area magnet.)
Then there is the de-industrialised working class, for whom no-one has a credible programme, and whose resentment and despair has been substantially captured in England by UKIP. This is the key constituency whose support Labour needed;(9) but within the policy framework it adopted, it could only do so at the margin, through promises to enforce the minimum wage, give guarantees of employment for the young, etc. It did not have a programme directed to economic and industrial regeneration, using the powers of government to enhance and upgrade production not just to support its priorities for collective consumption (the NHS and education). (This also has a bearing on Labour need to win support from private sector as well as public sector employees.) Labour did not manage to effectively contrast the Tories’ commitment to austerity with its own commitment to growth, as the SNP, Greens, Plaid Cymru and even UKIP managed to do
But what plan did Labour have for developing this stronger and more resilient economy? In its absence, it defaulted to its traditional role of redistributing for the public good what the market sector has produced. But suppose the market sector does not produce enough, or in the right way, to avert persistent crisis, what then? Answer there is none. Labour needs to become a party of production, and not of collective consumption alone.
There is now the sign of a response to this problem from, of all politicians, George Osborne. In a radio interview, the day after the election, he asserted the priority he assigns to ‘the Northern Powerhouse’ – the devolution of powers of economic regeneration, and the commitment of infrastructural investment, first to a Manchester-centred consortium’ of local authorities, subsequently to other urban clusters. His policy represents the influence of the ‘Heseltine’ strain of pro-state Tory thinking – indeed it implements part of Heseltine’s recent report. Regardless of the ambiguities that may exist in this particular deal, and in the idea of alliances between a Tory government and Labour-controlled local authorities, this development is in principle what should be happening, and should have been, like other measures of regional devolution, an important element of Labour’s programme.
But it wasn’t, even though Labour had been the first to advance this idea before it was taken up by the Tories. Labour’s approach to ‘Treasury’ matters remained centralist, and antipathetic to intervention in the productive economy. Gordon Brown’s intervention in the Scottish referendum debate, calling for devolution to the regions and cities in England as a progressive kind of power-sharing, was right, but little has been heard of the idea since.(10)
Labour’s immediate response to the election defeat is now revealing much that is wrong with its conception of democratic politics. Ed Miliband’s immediate resignation repeats Gordon Brown’s in 2010, and may have the same unfortunate consequences, though to be sure it is less damaging to have a leadership hiatus if there is no record in office which needs to be defended. Responsibility for failure, or relative failure, needs to be taken by the entire leadership of the party, and not eagerly dumped on its leader/scapegoat, as is now happening. The myth is cultivated that if only there had been a different candidate, the result might have been different. Several senior Labour politicians (Campbell, Johnson, Blunkett, Prescott) have been saying that Labour should have defended its record in office, and should have rejected the idea that its government had caused the economic crisis. But these senior figures have been around for the last five years: what stopped them from making these arguments before? It is the absence of any coherent alternative view of the economy that has proved so costly.
Tony Blair now argues that Labour should return to its support for the aspirant and ambitious (while acknowledging that he should have been more aware of inequalities when New Labour was in power). Nearly every Labour politician seems to be rushing into print, or on to the air waves, and several of them are throwing their hats into the ring (and in a couple of cases promptly taking it out again.). The problem is that most of the ‘alternatives’ being offered essentially take the form of marketing strategies, not analyses of Britain’s problems, and of the remedies that might be relevant to them. The preoccupying question is, ‘how can we win next time’ (in five years!), when the more important question is what winning would be for, and what in any case can we do in the meantime.
Some now express doubt that the Labour Party is now even capable of the quality and depth of political analysis that is needed.
How bad is it?
Our analysis in The Neoliberal Crisis and the Kilburn Manifesto was that we remain in a situation of uncertainty, in which no stable political solution is emerging to problems which lie beyond the capacities of governments to solve. In keeping with this, we had anticipated an inconclusive electoral outcome, just as occurred during the rather different systemic crisis of the 1970s. In fact, a majority and not a minority government has emerged, possibly because of the fears and antagonisms mobilised in the election campaign. (If the space for reasoned debate is unduly narrowed, one can expect that emotions and fantasies will take its place, as we thus move towards the toxic political culture of the United States.)
But how bad, and how unstable, an outcome does the Tory majority of 12 represent? First the question of ‘badness’. Obviously it is worse than the other anticipated imagined prospects of a Labour minority, or Labour-led coalition government, or even of a Tory-led minority government. The dangers of an absolute Tory majority are the suffering it is likely to inflict on the poor, the damage it may well try to inflict on its opponents (trade unions, political funding), and its possible subversion of public and democratic space, such as public service broadcasting.
But regarding the stability of such a government, there are uncertainties. The Tories may now find themselves more exposed to the pressures of public opinion, now that they are unambiguously in power, than when they were shielded by the presence of their Coalition partner. Cameron had always realised that public opinion is well to the left of his party – he was and is necessary to the Tories because of this. But will his party now assert itself, and in doing so invigorate its enemies? It has the European referendum and the Scottish constitutional question to deal with, and its supporters will now demand their rewards in terms of tax and benefit policies which will make inequalities and impoverishment more visible. Political legitimacy may come to be in short supply, given that the electoral system now delivers such a travesty of fair representation.
Will Cameron even need to seek the tacit support of Labour and/or the SNP, to resist the extreme demands of his supporters, and the pressures from UKIP which may remain significant? And if he does, may Labour and the SNP be able to exact some concessions for providing it? It is not out of the question that five years of this government could lead to such public hostility that a substantial victory for a progressive government, though necessarily based on some broad alliances, might be possible in 2020.
But then there is the question of how an opposition – Labour and all the other movements and alliances that might make this up – might compose itself in the years to come.(11) In socio-technical systems theory, there is a principle called The Law of Requisite Variety, formulated in 1948 by Eric Ashby, which stated that: ‘If a system is to be stable the number of states of its control mechanism must be greater than or equal to the number of states in the system being controlled’. Applied to the political sphere, this means that the variety or complexity of a leadership function must be at least equal to the complexity of the context it is seeking to dominate or influence.
How far off the Labour Party is from this principle of organisational behaviour has just been demonstrated. When pushed off his marketing script, Ed Miliband faltered, and found it difficult to engage, in the required format of soundbites, with the problems which were revealed. But it is important to see this as a systemic failure, not a personal one. The Labour Party had engaged a workforce, paid and unpaid, to fight its campaign, but it had not mobilised a broad coalition. No-one was asked to speak for it, beyond its own apparatus – think what a bonus is was even when Russell Brand decided at the last to offer it a friendly tweet. Broadcasters, who might have broadened the agenda of issues and participants, allowed themselves to be confined to the agendas set by the party machines. ‘Political balance’ took precedence over the scope of the debate, so one had a campaign in which many major issues were not discussed at all. The broadcasters do not function, politically, as an autonomous agency, but as echoes, mediators and referees of a contest controlled by the marketing organisations of the political parties.
One could not have manufactured, in a few months, the kind of mass participation that took place in Scotland during the referendum and since. But there were choices that could have been made. Denied a series of debates with Cameron, Labour could have opted for open public meetings, facing the electorate, on the basis that the livelier engagement of those debates would have been worth the risk of a few awkward moments. Labour could have gone for the daily press conferences that have previously taken place during election campaigns, smoking out Cameron’s reluctance to expose himself to the public. Labour in these situations needs to be committed to opening up political debate, to the educative function of democracy, not to shutting it down in the hope that its own marketing team will beat the other side’s. They won’t, and even if they do, the cost will be the absence of public understanding of what Labour might wish to do. The Scots have just shown how feasible this broader and more open strategy is.
When audiences told the party leaders that they were fed up with being treated like idiots, they showed how far out-of-step marketised politics is with what people want. This is the main lesson that needs to be learned from what has happened.
1. There is the broader issue of why Labour scarcely tried to defend the record of its long period office from 1997-2010, even though there was much that was creditable in it. An awkward silence about the past was no way to recommend the party’s claim to office.
2. I don’t however agree with John Prescott’s silly denunciation of Miliband’s campaign as ‘presidential’. Since he had been under personal attack ever since his election as someone totally unsuitable to be a prime minister, the choice to assert that he was up to doing this job was a sensible one, and indeed his own personal approvals increased during the campaign.
3. Some right-wing Tories may conclude that the voters’ rejection of the Lib Dems was because they had obstructed the Tories’ more radical policies, and they therefore now have popular support for going further. The truth may well be more complicated, namely that the Lib Dems were punished for not doing enough to hold the Conservatives back.
4. The deeper reason for the Lib Dems’ catastrophe is their decision to abandon their identity as an alternative progressive party, which had brought them their years of success. David Steel has now criticised this strategic error. Furthermore, exercising power behind closed doors, as Nick Clegg sought to do, was destructive to the identity of the Lib Dems as a democratic party.
5. It now seems clear that the Lib Dems should have left the Coalition immediately the Five Year Parliament Act made them safe from the retribution of an early election. Further, that Labour should have fought its own anti-Tory Yes campaign in Scotland, anticipating that in the general election to come, Labour and the SNP might have positions in common.
6. We argued in the Kilburn Manifesto that the foreign policy disasters of this period, in the failed interventions from Afghanistan and in the Middle East, were the outcome of a related kind of hubris, the belief that the West having defeated European Communism, could now intervene militarily, or through proxies, to transform the entire world in its own image.
7. This term was suggested to me by Ludo Hunter-Tilney, as not only effective in this election campaign, but also as licensing a recurrent assault on social protection whenever the ‘automatic stabilisers’ of social expenditure in times of recession cause it to rise.
8. Gordon Brown’s view had been a different one – he had coordinated a reflationary, neo-Keynesian international approach to the crisis in 2008, with some success, but became too weak politically to defend this position in Britain in 2009 and 2010.
9. It was not Labour’s cautiously ‘left’ initiatives (e.g. mansion tax, taxing non-doms, 50% income tax, rent and price freezes) that put these ‘deindustrialised’ strata off, but the fact that they seemed to offer them no route to restored prosperity.
10. Osborne’s commitment to this initiative calls for some thought about the nature of modern Conservatism. Should we perhaps see Cameron and Osborne’s overriding commitment as not to neoliberalism (even though they have been its agents) but rather to the continued hegemony of the Conservative Party, with whatever different ideological currents have to be absorbed to make this happen?
11. A member of the audience at Philosophy Football/Soundings event on 9 May pointed out that Ed Balls had lost his seat by 422 votes, while the Greens in his constituency had received 1264 votes. How many Labour seats could an informal tactical alliance with the Greens have achieved, which might have allowed them to win their two or three target seats, in return for their not opposing a larger number of Labour candidates in marginals? My view is that Labour needs now to accept the inevitability of coalition governments, and that electoral pacts, formal or informal, should be sought between Labour, Green and progressive Lib Dem local parties to make sure that the most progressive feasible candidate in a constituency has the best chance of election, The common commitment of all parties in such an alliance should be to a more proportional and just electoral system.
Crouch. C. (2013) The Strange Non-Death of Neoliberalism, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Davison, S. and Harris, K. (eds) (2015) The Neoliberal Crisis, London: Lawrence and Wishart.
Hall, S. (1979) ‘The Great Moving Right Show’, Marxism Today (January).
Hall, S. (2003) ‘New Labour’s double shuffle’, Soundings 24.
Hall, S., Clarke, J. Critcher, C., Jefferson, T., Roberts, B. (1978/2013) Policing the Crisis, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Hall, S.,Massey D., Rustin M. (eds) (2015) After neoliberalism? The Kilburn Manifesto, London: Lawrence and Wishart.
This article originally appeared here, via Lawrence and Wishart publishing.
Get our weekly email