Politics

What’s Left?

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The image above has been doing the rounds of social media, and speaks strongly to the moment at which the British (or English) left – for which read (or do not read) ‘the Labour Party’ – finds itself in the wake of last Thursday’s General Election. It purports to map the locations of coalfields at the dawn of the Labour movement to those places in England and Wales which voted Labour in 2015, a hundred years later (I say ‘purports’, because, as Newsnight’s Duncan Weldon has usefully collated, Mike Bird has effectively shown how the image is misleading). The left posts this image online as if to say, “You see? Class matters, and we forget it at our peril;” the right shares it around to emphasise just how inadequate Old Labour is to the task of governing contemporary Britain. That one image can be interpreted in two such different ways, or at least be made to serve arguments so clearly opposed, says it all about the post-Miliband – perhaps the post-Blair – Labour Party. It lacks a compass: on the blasted heath of the British left, north can very often be south.

This is why Sam Fawcett at The State of the Left in England can justifiably say, on the subject of the current hand-wringing within Labour about the timetable for the election of a new leader, “The left are saying ‘we weren’t left enough’, the right are saying ‘we weren’t right enough’ and the centre are trying desperately to defend their platform after suffering the worst defeat since 1983 on it. The difference between a long debate and a short one is either we hear this for two months or we hear it for six months.” This is a position backed up by the experience of recent history. It is apparent that the Tory campaign (of which more later) was brutishly effective at hammering home the conception of voting Labour as a risk to economic stability; it could only do so, as Flip Chart Fairy Tales amply demonstrates – with graphs! – because, during the long leadership election of 2010, the Conservatives were given all the time in the world to spin a more or less fictional story about the 2008 crash and the defecit:

If Gordon Brown had not run deficits in the early and mid 2000s, the public debt might now be a little less, but not much. Most of the sharp increase [in] debt came about as a result of the recession. But politics is just as important as economics and the Conservatives won the politics hands down before Labour had realised what was going on. A lot of people are still convinced that the Blair and Brown governments were responsible for the rapid increase in debt in the late 2000s. It will take a long time for Labour to persuade them otherwise. If it ever does.

Already this is happening again: David Cameron opened his first Tory Cabinet by claiming that his was the party for ‘real’ working people; and he has appointed a minister, no less, for Osborne’s pet project, the Northern Powerhouse. With UKIP – who, Nafeez Ahmend’s conspiracy-theory thinking aside, are far closer to outriders for the Tory party than not – clearly eating into Labour’s working-class vote in cities further north of the Trent where many Conservatives daren’t tread, already the stage is being set for a repeat of 2010’s agenda-setting: if you want a vision of the long leadership campaign future, imagine a Tory stamping on a Labour face – for six months.

So let’s think shorter. I’ll put that graph to the right for now, because it’s worth remembering: UK debt was lower than many other major economies’, and it rose precisely in line with everyone else’s. Labour failed to make this case quickly and confidently enough, and in so doing it lost the election. At Policy Network, Patrick Diamond puts it plainly: “Miliband’s team believed an appeal to people’s living standards could trump the core issue of credibility. It would draw a line under the 2008 financial crisis, turning the page on New Labour. The problem was that voters still blamed the previous government for the crash.” This is absolutely key: it doesn’t particularly matter how left- or right-wing you are if you cannot either change or engage with the core argument of an election campaign, and the central concerns of the voters. There is a fairly apolitical, numbers-based argument to be made against the Conservative narrative of Labour failure post-2008; had Labour made it, it may also have been able then to make the weather. But it didn’t – and it risks doing the same now.

The Green’s Molly Scott Cato has received an awful lot of signal amplification for a piece in the New Statesman in which she argues that Labour’s key mistake has been, time and again, not just to fail to challenge but to accept the Conservative narrative: “His decision to resign instantly following the announcement of the result is being interpreted as indicating his nobility, but accepting that Labour was roundly defeated on Thursday is just another example of how Labour has accepted the narrative of its opponents.” Some think Miliband should instead have ‘done a Michael Howard’, remaining as a caretaker and thus allowing the party to fully debate its future – a process from which David Cameron emerged. That is not the world in which we live, however, and, as the Fabians’ Andrew Harrop has pointed out, recovery for Labour is difficult however long the leadership contest and whoever wins it; so it’s brass-tacks time: where next?

Cato, like Andy Beckett in the Guardian, now believes that Lynton Crosby is an evil genius, deliberately fooling us all into thinking the Tory campaign was poor, and ensuring voters scared by neck-and-neck polls would, in the handful of crucial marginal seats, break for the Tories. Certainly the campaign was not the all-conquering success we are now encouraged to believe it to be: the Tory share of the vote went up less in England than Labour’s; only 700,000 more people voted Conservative than in 2010. They did so, however, where it matters: small swings to Labour in safe Tory seats such as Daventry (0.8%!), or constituencies long red such as Michael Dugher’s (“Working-class voters are not core vote any more,” the pit-lad made good bemoans), barely matter; holding vote-share in marginals like Warwickshire North, and ensuring significant shifts to the Tories in Liberal Democrat citadels, is what pushed them over the line. This is attritional electoral warfare fought in the maddening context of First Past the Post.

So Labour should, perhaps, start by mending fences and proposing political reform that would ensure cynicism such as Crosby’s can no longer make the difference in who rules Britain. Labour face a generational challenge in Scotland, and yet the SNP need not be their enemy: Paul Hutcheon’s excellent inside story from the Labour campaign in Scotland shows just how ham-fisted the worst of tribal Labour can be (“He has big ideas,” one source says of Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy, “and a big reputation, but it turns out he doesn’t understand Scottish politics and can’t get anyone to play for him”). This sort of stuff has to stop if Labour isn’t to continue to haemorrhage votes in Scotland; likewise, making common cause with the Greens – allying a vision of the future with a party of governance – could pay real dividends.

But in another way this left-wing coalition is the pipe-dreams of a Jon Trickett tilt at the leadership. Labour must look both ways. It did not pull enough votes away from the Tories; it actually lost votes to UKIP, especially in the north. That is, to quote the historian Dominic Sandbrook, “the British people don’t like hectoring left-wing politicians telling us how to run our lives.” Though Ed Miliband improved his dire poll ratings during the campaign, he came across on the BBC’s Question Time programme a week before the vote very much as an academic giving a series of lectures . He was asked tough questions by an audience in little mood to hear why they were wrong about how they perceived the world; Miliband’s apparent inability to explain why Labour did not over spend whilst also acknowledging voters’ fears is a big reason why the Labour campaign failed. It would not meet people in the middle – it was convinced they would come to it, that they would turn left. Without a reason to do so, without an understanding of why Miliband believed what he did, they would not.

And thus the clarion calls for the party to move rightwards now. In one sense, this is bizarre, as if Miliband ran a Marxist campaign. On immigration, he did not; on benefits, he did not. Rather, the problem was at least in part one of communication as much as substance, a muddiness of argument powered by a nervy pick ‘n’ mix approach to policy. Take this analysis by Business Insider of what is now government policy on free childcare: “It’s probably an indicator of just how bad Labour was at communicating with voters prior to the election that the Tory pledge was for a straight doubling of care to 30 hours, whereas the Labour pledge was an increase to 25 hours plus some other hours if you qualified via a set of definitions.” Business Inside too right-wing for you? IPSOS-MORI say that left-wing voters stayed at home rather than respond to the Labour campaign, too. Worried that’s being reported in the Telegraph? Even Owen Jones understands that Labour has failed to make aspiration its own, when it absolutely must: “Don’t let the apologists of the rich steal “aspiration” for their own purposes,” he says. “Reclaim it.”

To reiterate: from whatever angle you look at it, left or right, Miliband’s campaign failed to convince. “Much is made of the idea of ‘aspiration’ in politics,” says Kieran Pedley in an important post-mortem of the Labour campaign (also at The Staggers, Tim Bale is fair and balanced on the issue of Miliband’s personal culpability), “but this just means recognising what the public want from government and giving it to them. Labour still has a potential majority here.” So. What might left-wing aspiration look like?

umunna-mandelsonIt doesn’t look like Blairism anymore, that’s for sure: despite Peter Mandelson’s appearance on the Andrew Marr show this weekend, and then the bizarre decision by Chuka Umunna to allow himself to be seated next to the Prince of Darkness days before he clumsily announced his candidature for Labour leader on Tuesday, what worked twenty years ago will not today. Bar some waffling about ‘technology changing everything’ in that Marr interview, Umunna seems the back to the future candidate of this new election, insisting that the same triangulation that worked in the mid-nineties will pass now, too. That apparently entirely ignores the extent to which the electoral map of Britain has been chopped up by the 2015 General Election. Recovering from its butchery will take a new approach.

If not Umunna, then who? Liz Kendall, the neo-Blairite, is at least, as one of her supporters, Hopi Sen, archly implies, ideologically more consistent than the former Ed Miliband supporter Umunna, but she may lack gravitas. No others have yet declared, but of the hotly tipped runners and riders, Andy Burnham’s social conservatism lends the lie (for UKIP-bashing good or liberal-losing ill) to his left-wing reputation, whilst Yvette Cooper kept so low a profile in the last parliament that it’s hard to know what to make of her current political position. In other words, no leadership candidate is currently expressing a positive vision of Labour’s future – and, by extension and crucially, the country’s. We should give them time, of course, but there cannot be another failure to engage with what the electorate want, and to explain how – inevitably, given their continued narrow focus – the Tories do not and cannot fulfil those aims.

David Cameron is a PR man to the last: he knows how to govern only in so far as he knows how to campaign for his party via legislation. That requires a robust and powerful vision, whoever becomes leader. A battle-line of this Parliament will be rights and protections – human ones, trades union ones, ones provided by EU regulations. There is anger in the ‘traditional working-class’ about all of these; a Labour leader must simultaneously be able to deal with that scepticism and make the case that it is within the context of rights we all share that aspiration can be most easily achieved. The Tories are committed already to paring back these protections, and they will do so by repeating their General Election trick of fear-mongering; it will be a Labour leader’s job to show how improving one’s lot does not involve reducing the lot of others – or the eventual Pastor Niemöller-like reduction of your own.

Right-wing aspiration is about brute individualism, whatever its One Nation dressing; Left-wing aspiration is about environment (and I evoke the Green agenda deliberately). The new Labour leader will need to show they understand how to craft, argue for and create the conditions in which all can experience success – and yet all can also feel secure. Those are not conditions they will inherit, and so the question is not one of Blairite or Brownite, right or left. It is one of remodelling – and of accessible, pluralist radicalism. The electorate are not stupid, and nor are they students. But they do need to be convinced – and, whilst the Labour right has no monopoly on communication, the left needs to accept it is not impure.

 

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