Ed Miliband Ed Miliband Photo credit: Counterfire

With both main parties retrenching their commitment to austerity, the crisis of representation will be met, for now, outside of Parliament argues James Meadway

The Conservatives’ election victory has created turmoil in the Labour Party. MP for Dagenham and Rainham Jon Cruddas has claimed it is the ‘the greatest crisis the party has faced since it was created.’ Frontrunner for the leadership in the wake of Ed Miliband’s resignation, Chuka Umunna, has withdrawn from the contest. Jim Murphy, the ultra-Blairite who led the party in Scotland to a catastrophic defeat, blamed Unite the union in his own resignation speech.

And within hours of the exit polls being announced, New Labour luminaries like Peter Mandelson were to be found denouncing Miliband’s “shift to the left” as the cause of Labour’s disappointing showing. The leadership contest has been dominated by the insistence that the party must attempt to win over “aspirational” voters. “Aspirational” is a code-word. It means Tories. The implication is that the party must move hard to the right, and perhaps break its link with the trade unions.

This is New Labour’s stale offering reheated. It displays not the slightest understanding of how and why Labour failed to win, or where its real problems lie. Like the Bourbons, New Labour seems doomed to “learn nothing, and forget nothing.”

First, we should put the defeat in perspective. This was not some Tory landslide. The Tory vote increased just 0.5%. Labour’s went up more, by 800,000 votes, or 1.5%. Only 24% of registered voters voted Conservative.

This is a government without the mandate it is attempting to claim. And nor is it the product of a major shift to the right.

Accepting austerity was a disaster

Second, it was precisely Labour’s acceptance of the need for spending cuts that crippled their campaign. George Osborne and David Cameron switched, very shortly after the crash of September 2008, into insisting that Labour “overspending” caused the crash.

This was, and is, rubbish. You don’t get a banking crisis by employing too many nurses or teachers. You get a banking crisis by employing too many bankers.

But the Tories have stuck to the Labour overspending story ever since. Labour’s critical error was to concede this point, with Alastair Darling as far back as summer 2009 stressing the need for future cuts. His 2010 Budget laid out a programme of spending cuts that Darling said at the time were “greater than anything Margaret Thatcher contemplated.”

This was a gift for the Conservatives. It meant that Labour could not argue against Tory claims they had overspent. If Labour had not overspent, why the need for austerity? Labour could be presented as both shifty, and incompetent.

At the same time, Miliband’s nods to the left, such as the pledge to freeze household electricity bills, were cancelled out by Labour’s main commitment to the austerity agenda. A few isolated bits and pieces of policy looked pathetic next to the deficit reduction plan.

By committing to spending cuts, Labour made a rod for its own back. New Labour posturing and attempts to look “credible” on the economy gained it no political advantage.

Labour is hollowed out

Third, the hollowing out of Labour’s support continued. The map here shows how seats in Parliament change if we count those who did not vote as if they were a party. Did Not Vote wins overwhelmingly across Labour’s core areas, particularly in the north of England. In seat after seat, thumping Labour majorities for the MP are matched by dismally low turnouts – the lowest being Manchester Central, where more than half of registered voters did not bother to vote.

This is New Labour’s legacy. Tony Blair’s biggest achievement was not to win the 1997 election. So detested were the Tories by then, after 18 years in office, that a donkey with a red rosette could have won. Blair’s greatest achievement was, over his time in government, to lose Labour four million voters. It was the weakness of the Tory vote that kept him in power.

These disappearing voters are very largely from Labour’s working-class support. Research cited by Jon Trickett MP suggests that whilst its vote amongst the middle class and better off has held up, Labour’s vote amongst workers is down by 25%.

The New Labour theory of “triangulation,” as applied by Tony Blair, holds that a party’s core supporters can be ignored whilst the elusive“centre ground” is chased. But chasing this supposed centre ground has led to Labour losing millions of its core supporters. Further moves towards the “pro-business” agenda that Labour leadership candidates are now stressing will lose still more.

Scotland and Ukip

Fourth, this hollowing out of Labour’s support helped push the SNP to its extraordinary victory. Years of Labour complacency helped sweep out MP after MP from Labour’s Scottish heartlands on 7 May. Labour’s complacency was compounded by the profound error of joining “Better Together” campaigning and fighting alongside the Tories for a No vote in the independence referendum.

This was pure New Labour – always finding the “centre ground.” But it misjudged badly how the ground would shift towards favouring independence, and it allowed the SNP to present Labour as little better than Tories. Sticking to a strong, simple, anti-austerity message gave the SNP an overwhelming advantage in the election.

“This was not a pure right-wing vote. Much of it was an antiestablishment vote.”

South of the border, Labour’s hollowing out allowed Ukip to come second in constituency after constituency. Much of Ukip’s vote camefrom ex-Tories. But a chunk appeared from disillusioned Labour voters, particularly in its heartlands.

This was not a pure right-wing vote. Much of it was an anti-establishment vote. Green canvassers found many on the doorstep undecidedbetween Green and Ukip. Opinion polls show that the majority of Ukip voters support the renationalisation of railways, keeping the NHS in public hands, and big increases in the minimum wage.

These views are in stark contrast to the Thatcher fanatics running the party. But with a simple message on migration Ukip were able to appeal to a deep sense of anger and disillusionment with Britain’s political elite. Labour could not compete on this score.

New Labour is the problem – not the solution

At every stage, it was Labour’s commitment to the last-century politics of New Labour that failed it. Far from damaging the party, the opinion polls showed that any nod leftwards by Miliband was accompanied by a rebound in Labour’s ratings. Yet the Blairites dominate the party, organised particularly through “Progress,” a party-in-aparty funded by Lord Sainsbury. The next Labour leader, elected by September, will almost certainly guide the party further to the right.

There will, in addition, be a series of major rows with the trade unions, centred on Unite. A number of the new intake of Labour MPs, many elected with Unite support, are significantly to the left of the party’s leadership. But they remain isolated inside the existing party structures.

The question of working-class representation will not go away. Both main parties are retrenching their commitment to austerity. The crisis of representation will therefore be met, for now, outside of Parliament. The People’s Assembly is the best vehicle we have to pull together a mass movement of all those in opposition to the austerity consensus.

This article first appeared in Counterfire’s new free paper. Contact us for copies to distribute in your area.

James Meadway

Radical economist James Meadway has been an important critic of austerity economics and at the forefront of efforts to promulgate an alternative. James is co-author of Crisis in the Eurozone (2012) and Marx for Today (2014).