It will be up to the radicals and revolutionaries to make the case for an effective, modern reformism – a minimum set of demands, as a prelude to further radicalization – argues James Meadway

There is no use soft-soaping Thursday’s election result. It has handed the Tories the slenderest of majorities for their government, and they will exploit this mandate mercilessly.

The result is more the outcome of our perverse electoral system than it is of a major surge in support for the government. Between them, the old Coalition parties, Tory and Lib Dems, saw their votes decline by 3.7m, or 14%. Parties opposing the Coalition from the left saw their votes increase by 2.6m. (Ukip saw their vote rise by a further 2.9m.) The Tories deftly managed to shore up a relatively weak position by, as John Rees has written, using the Lib Dems as a human shield, and then “feeding on the corpse”.

A weak leader surrounded by his enemies

Nonetheless, the failure of Labour to capitalize on anti-Coalition feeling is striking, and unavoidable. It cannot be exclusively written down to the competence or otherwise of Ed Miliband. Miliband was always in a precarious position, and had been since his election as leader in 2010. The peculiarities of Labour’s internal electoral system meant that whilst MPs and party members voted for his Blairite brother, the significant support he won from trade unionists enabled him, just, to clinch victory. But once in office, this meant that the people closest to him did not support him: his MPs did not back him, and his party members did not back him. Trade unionists, each of whose vote, thanks to the “electoral college” system, counts for 0.0077% of each MP’s vote, are furthest removed from the daily life of the party and from its full-time machine. The machine itself was, of course, largely in the hands of Blairites. The Blairites themselves are, through Progress, by some distance the best-organised faction within Labour, enjoying billionaire funding and running what amounts to a “party within a party”.

All of this substantially helps account for Miliband’s weaknesses as leader: his flashes of decent left instincts (taking on Murdoch; arguing for energy price freezes), smothered by Blairite stodge (the “Budget Responsibility Lock” on the deficit; the anti-migrant mugs). The stodge won. The Party has been, quite intentionally, reconfigured by the Blairites to make even small nods towards the left a difficult feat of endurance. Miliband was never able to overcome this barrier and faced, right up until the election campaign started, a concerted and destabilizing whispering campaign originating with the Party’s right-wing.

The Labour Right are already attempting to blame the defeat on these paltry nods leftwards. But this won’t wash, for two reasons. First, nods towards the left were fairly uniformly accompanied by a rise in Labour’s own opinion poll standing. And the overwhelming win for the SNP in Scotland is a standing rebuke to the idea that an anti-austerity, pro-welfare campaign was doomed to fail. Despite their supposed “pragmatism”, if nothing else Miliband’s time in office revealed just how deeply ideological the New Labour project always was.

Second, the core messages of the campaign remained firmly in the hands of the right. On the critical issue of austerity, Miliband and his Shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, conceded all the ground. Labour’s manifesto, far from being some reversion to a pre-Blair past, on the issue of spending cuts was to the right of anything Blair presented. It promised merely a lower rate of spending cuts, not an end to spending cuts. This lower rate, of course, allowed a clear gap to be created between Tory and Labour spending plans. The distance between £30bn minimum cuts implied by the Tories, and the £7bn minimum implied by Labour, is enough to make a material difference in office.

However, these are variations on a theme, not a different tune entirely. It meant reducing the intensely political questions of taxation and spending too much to a purely technical issue: the rate of spending cuts, rather than their fundamental desirability. Labour further played up its technical and managerial credentials by making the – short-sighted and anti-democratic – offer to have their spending plans “audited” by the Office for Budget Responsibility.

Whatever marginal nods leftwards were made – the mansion tax, the energy price freeze, reform of private rental contracts – disappeared behind a core message that did not deviate from New Labour’s: that economic management must be depoliticized if “credibility” with swing voters is to be secured.

A rod for their own backs

After Ed Balls’ short-lived attempt, in his 2010 Bloomberg speech, to present a credible case against austerity, no senior Labour figure meaningfully broke with the consensus upheld by the Conservatives. This was an error in two parts: Labour’s senior team, populated as it was by discredited figures from Gordon Brown’s last administration (Balls himself chief amongst them), could not plausibly claim to be competent managers in conditions of austerity. Every plea they made for their own fiscal rectitude, every promise they offered to continue the squeeze merely reinforced a narrative that the Conservatives had claimed as their own, and rebounded to the Tories’ advantage. Polls on the issue recorded no benefit to Labour from this masochism. At the same time, every nod they made towards the left was immediately rendered void by their primary commitment to the austerity agenda. They lost on both sides of the argument.

Yet this was a double-bind of Labour’s own making. Cameron and Osborne, having previously pledged fealty to New Labour’s spending plans, moved rapidly after the crash of autumn 2008 to offer austerity as the resolution to the crisis. The rhetoric of “bare cupboards” and “maxed-out credit cards” was established then. But it was not until around the summer of 2009 that Alastair Darling, Labour’s Chancellor at the time, conceded the austerity line. His last Budget, in 2010, offered “deeper and tougher” cuts than Thatcher. Labour bound itself by the austerity rules, passing the 2010 Fiscal Responsibility Act. This allowed the Tories to claim their own cuts were merely an extension of what Labour, too, had promised, leaving Labour unable to credibly claim it was an opposition – because, on the essentials, it was not. By the election of May 2010 the narrative of excessive Labour expenditure was well-established, with Labour foolishly playing along.

Rhetoric wins, reality loses

The extraordinary thing in all this is that, of course, the Tories, once elected, did not stick to their promises on expenditure – not, at least, to the extent they proposed. The first two years of the Coalition’s time in office saw diligent efforts to drive through cuts on the scale initially laid out in the June 2010 Emergency Budget. As a share of government spending, austerity measures enacted in the UK over this period were the third worst in Europe, behind only Greece and Luxemburg. With weary predictability, and as detailed by Paul Krugman in a recent essay, these cuts led an economy that was returning to growth by mid-2010 straight back into recession and stagnation over the next two years. The Treasury’s response, from no later than early 2013, was to ease off on the programme of spending cuts – and, at the same time, unloosen the housing market. By 2014, new austerity measures had been reined in, whilst households, having been collectively paying down their debts since 2008, had become net borrowers once more.

Government spending, plus a housing boom that then sustained a return to consumer borrowing, were the crucial drivers of recovery from early 2013 onwards. The Coalition, in other words, failing in its initial ambitions, had defaulted back to a pattern familiar from New Labour’s year in power: debt-led growth. Planned austerity, it is true, and to cope with its earlier failure, was pushed further into the future, the programme of spending cuts being extended and accelerated to 2020. Actual austerity was then held to a seriously reduced pace. Ironically, the total volume of deficit reduction delivered almost exactly matched that proposed by Alastair Darling in 2010, but rejected by Osborne at the time as excessively lenient. The Tories, in office, had inadvertently delivered Labour’s cuts targets, and Labour’s debt-led growth.

Yet the Conservative rhetoric remained identical: the “Long Term Economic Plan” of spending cuts was being held to and was, as economic growth now demonstrated, working. The truth was anything but: at best, the Coalition had taken us back to the conditions of the early 2000s, minus the mild redistribution of New Labour, at a higher level of indebtedness and in conditions of (until recently) deteriorating living standards and without the bonus of rising government expenditure. None of the brave predictions made in the Office Budget Responsibility’s forecasts that accompanied the 2010 Emergency Budget had come to pass: not on rapidly rising real wages, not on a closing trade deficit, not on the investment boom, not on the “rebalancing” of the economy away from services to manufacturing.

The Tories’ rhetoric became detached from their practice. They had created a narrative which, in its own perverse way, could be presented as rather noble: that we were making sacrifices now to relieve future generations of a terrible debt burden. If, sotto voce, the actual impact of the cuts was felt largely by someone else – specifically, those not likely to vote Conservative – then this might be unfortunate but was not undesirable.

This latter point needs underlining. Living standards had declined under the Coalition more than at any time since at least the Industrial Revolution. But the slump in oil prices drove inflation, particularly on essentials like fuel and food, to record lows – even turning negative on some items. Combined with a softened pace of austerity and rising house prices, many voters could doubtless feel that life had turned out not too bad, after all. The insistent drumming from a very largely pro-Conservative press reinforced the message: that austerity was being applied as planned, and that the plan was delivering.

The narrative trumped the reality. To manage the economy at all, and not consign it to conditions of permanent stagnation, required a degree of “Keynesianism” that was left unacknowledged in the official rhetoric, holding to a far slower pace of expenditure cuts than planned. It scarcely mattered that Osborne had, for example, borrowed on a colossal scale during his time in office, more than every previous Labour government added together; or that the deficit was, by 2015, some £50bn greater than his original forecast. The narrative dominated.

To this disjoint was added specific promises, made during the election campaign, of £7bn tax cuts and £8bn additional spending for the NHS. This was, of course, entirely at odds with the rhetoric of austerity and sound economic management: the latter figure was jumped on by George Osborne simply after hearing this was the likely amount needed to meet future demands on the NHS.

Labour did not have a clue how to deal with this. Trapped by a double-bind its own former leadership had created, it was left attempting to bolster its managerial credentials at a time when its opponents had given up bothering to play the managerial game. It was trying to re-fight battles from the last century, using New Labour’s weapons, because it had left itself with little choice. The Tories fought hard, and politically; Labour stuck to the Blairite playbook, and tried only to look like nicer managers.

The correct response would have been to offer an alternative narrative, breaking the double-bind on both sides. Osborne’s slowing of the pace of cuts would have been easier to deal with if cuts had already been rejected in toto. It was no use offering to soften an austerity that had already, in practice, been softened. It was necessary to offer an entirely different story on the economy: one that, as a minimum, stressed spending for the public good, and the desirability of restraining the wealthy. It was necessary, in other words, to reject fighting on the perverse grounds being better managers of austerity, but to stake out new territory.

That it could not reflects the accumulation of years’ of Blairite corrosion. The party is gummed up, from top to bottom, with rust. The joints are just about capable of delivering the correct response, of responding to its historic core of voters and supporters, and transmitting this to its centre. But the mechanisms do not function properly, and the party centre scarcely moves.

No friends in the north

Labour’s second major error was still more painfully self-inflicted, but reached further into the party’s internal workings. It wasn’t only a problem of joints frozen by New Labour, although that did not help, but of the structure itself. The party’s historic attachment to the Union, combined with a Blairite desire to be seen as a “credible”, centrist voice in the referendum campaign led it into the catastrophic error of supporting the dismal Better Together campaign.

It had the option of running a separate Labour for No campaign, or at least taking the one that existed somewhat more seriously. Much as he did just before the 2010 election, Gordon Brown, dredging up otherwise long-forgotten social democratic instincts, made some efforts to express just such sentiments before the poll, securing the “Vow” and Tory plaudits in the process. Had Labour established itself as a distinctive voice for Unionism within the No campaign, then, whatever happened in the vote, it would not have been left irredeemably tarred by the dreadful apparition of its leader begging alongside the Tories for the Scots to (in David Bowie’s plaintive words) “stay with us”. Confronted with the resounding grassroots success of those fighting for independence, notably around the Radical Independence Campaign, Better Together was left rudderless.

Instead, the perennially hapless Alastair Darling – making his second appearance here – was left to flap and squawk at the front end of a campaign that was widely perceived, with SNP encouragement, to be little more than a Tory front. Labour’s historic attachment to the Union, rock-solid since at least the 1930s, as guarantor of a powerful state able to enact social reforms here merged with its more recent attachment to Blairite triangulation. The campaign that managed to stave off independence only to spark up an immense reaction in the SNP surge that has, today, obliterated Labour’s seemingly immovable domination of Scottish politics.

Even then, right up to the election, Labour had the option of containing the rush to the SNP. The desire to appear credible in its commitment to austerity merged with its instinctive Unionism, Miliband responding to Tory goading on the likelihood of an SNP-Labour deal by improbably ruling any such prospect out. This was, as everyone knew, nonsensical: a quick calculation of the likely distribution of seats showed Labour only taking Downing Street with the support of the SNP. But Miliband could not confess to being open to a deal without also seemingly handing Nicola Sturgeon the keys to the austerity “triple lock”. And he could not hand Sturgeon that key without seemingly slighting Labour’s profound identification with the Union and its post-1945 legacy. In the event, Miliband’s desperate insistence were treated as plainly not credible by voters, leaving them wide open to Tory grandstanding on the impending Scottish doom a Labour government would entail. Labour was wound tightly into a tangle on the issue that its leadership could not readily unpick.

Those who do not vote

IPSOS Mori report perhaps the single most striking result of this mess: “lazy Labour”, the failure of Labour to turn out its own side when the time came to vote. Turnout across the UK as a whole was marginally up on 2010, continuing the trend of rising turnouts from their nadir, under Blair, of 59% in the election of 2001. But the national picture disguised significant variation. Turnout in England was down on the previous election, but that in Scotland, significantly up, to 71%. The SNP, to secure its overwhelming victory, had successfully mobilized many tens of thousands of additional votes across Scotland.

The same could not be said for Labour. Mapping the constituencies where those not voting were greater in number than the winning party shows, graphically, Labour’s problem. Across its heartlands, turnout was low. Had Did Not Vote been a party, it would have swept the board.

Labour did not lose because it could not appeal to the swing voters beloved of New Labour. It lost because its failure to articulate clearly a message that would attract its core vote turned them away. The lesson from Scotland should be abundantly clear: the SNP gained at Labour’s expense because it was seen as a clear opposition to both the Tories and their austerity. Labour, to tied up in its own past, could not make the same offer. It was Blair who first lost this support, Labour’s vote dropping by 4m between 1997 and 2005. It has singularly failed to attract them back since; Miliband adding merely another 800,000 to the total.

Throwing messages intended to draw away Ukip supporters added nothing to the mix. Ukip was able to pull on both former Tory and Labour voters, muscling its way to second place in a string of constituencies. Labour’s promise of CONTROLS ON IMMIGRATION, simultaneously vapid and offensive, let alone its anti-migrant mugs did nothing to win these people back. Nor can Ukip voters be considered unambiguously lost to the Thatcherite right, or worse: around its anti-migrant core, the party has opportunistically pulled together a spread of opinion. (It is striking, too, that the Do Not Votes map so neatly onto Ukip targets like Thanet, or Clacton.) It could present itself (however dubiously) as anti-system, and anti-elite, in a way that Labour, with its pantheon of former Cabinet ministers at the helm, could not. New political forces will be needed for that task.

Back to the future

Labour will not produce them. Like the Bourbons, but minus the style, New Labour is doomed to learn nothing and forget nothing. The election of uber-Blairite Jim Murphy to Scottish Labour leader was a harbinger of what is to come. Its leading lights today are busily lining themselves up to declare that, whilst the Forward March of Blairism had taken a brief, unfortunate, pause, it was nonetheless far from Halted. The Blairite solution to Labour’s dilemmas is, in its way, logical. By arranging a final break with the socialist and trade union legacy of its past, Labour could, in theory, resolve the internal contradictions that Miliband was unable to. Shorn of even a minimal attachment to the trade unions, it would no longer be the Labour Party in any useful sense. But as a solution it is at least plausible.

One distinct possibility, of course, is that Blair’s epigones may strike lucky in the same way the master managed: that, just as John Major did with his post-election pit closure programme, Cameron’s government is unable to resist the temptation to go for broke, over-reaching its slender mandate in a series of hard-right homages to Margaret Thatcher; or that one of the assorted economic hand-grenades, whether the housing bubble or the current account or the global situation, detonates some time before 2020. Either or both could pave the way for return of a Labour-led government by the end of this decade, with a gloriously Blairite countenance. Labour could be a party perhaps entirely detached from its historic legacy and, should Osborne’s deficit targets prove once again unreachable in this Parliament, it would be fighting an election in which (yet again) all sides pledged to meet them in the next. Britain would be, by that point, well on the way to the final dissolution of the post-war consensus in deference to austerity Groundhog Day, slowly substituting the NHS and the welfare state for privatized versions of the same thing.

Hollowed out

The left must, in other words, now act fast. Ed Miliband, to his credit, correctly identified the need for Labour to find its core vote. The 4m votes that Blair lost came very largely from its working class support. But the attempt to win back that support within the framework of New Labour proved impossible. Too much had already been conceded, both during Blair’s time in office and subsequently, post-crash. Combined with the impossible situation in Scotland, where Labour’s historic commitment to the Union could not sit alongside its similar commitment to Blairism, and Miliband was already at a disadvantage. Once austerity had been eased, a recovery in place and some slight improvements in real earnings registered, the task ahead of him was immense. The tragedy is that having identified a real problem, he was left with unreal solutions.

The French revolutionary Louis de Saint-Just remarked that “those who half way make a revolution dig only their own graves”. The case of Ed Miliband suggests something else: that, under present circumstances, those who make half a reformism are digging their own graves. The dense, corrupt networks of power and privilege at the centre of British political life will not allow space for anything less than a thoroughgoing commitment to neoliberal values. Miliband was duly hung out to dry. It is necessary to either accept those values, or make a clean break. The SNP, although its actual programme was still mild, was able to use its base in Scotland to at least articulate a clear reformist alternative to the “extreme centre”. Labour, lugging the dreadful baggage of Blairism, cannot now express even the mildest of mild demands for capitalist reform effectively. And it is wholly improbable to imagine its leadership contest resolving this issue to the benefit of its core supporters. Rather, the lurch straight right will renew, and extend.

Under these circumstances, the left cannot either throw its hands up in despair entirely, or indulge in petty contests to find the most “radical” posture available. It will be up to the radicals and revolutionaries, those not organizationally or historically encumbered by the embrace of New Labour, to make the case for an effective, modern reformism, since the historic party of reformism cannot: a chance to win a minimum set of demands, as a prelude to further radicalization. The first call is to ensure that, as a minimum, it is possible to win a defence of Labour’s historic achievements even where – particularly where – the Labour leadership is incapable of doing so. In this task the People’s Assembly, binding together those parts of Labour and the trade unions that wish to fight along with all those radicals beyond, is currently paramount. But for the hollowing out of Labour not to become the outright collapse of the left in England, we will need to move beyond that that defence into questions of plausible alternatives and the mass organisations that can deliver them.

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).