The Tories don't have the support to carry through unpopular policies - we have to build a huge movement against them argues Lindsey German
The sheer cheek of the Tories' claim that they are now the party of blue collar workers contributes to the myth already being perpetrated that Labour lost masses of its traditional support in England - and, unlike in Scotland, lost it to a party to its right. This really is a feeble-minded interpretation of the election result and one which Labour should challenge, but it seems too shell-shocked by the result and too in thrall to the undead walking, in the shape of zombie Blairites, to put an alternative narrative.
That doesn't mean there shouldn't be one. Let's all put our hands up first and agree that this was a disastrous result for Labour: wiped out in Scotland, pitifully weak in some close marginals which it expected to win, and seeing UKIP come in second place in many Labour strongholds. Even when UKIP came third it took sufficient votes in some of the seats to prevent Labour holding or winning. All this was made all the worse by the result being so unexpected and therefore even more bitterly disappointing.
The dominant narrative in Labour, coming from its right wing, echoed by the bitter David Miliband and given legs by a supine media is that Labour was too left wing. If only the party's manifesto had reflected aspirational voters things would have been different. The party ignored those who aspire to shop in Waitrose and John Lewis, and want to move from a flat to a house with garden. Leaving aside the idea that people develop their political stance on the desire to shop in a particular supermarket (and to be honest if you are working with a car and house and garden you are probably in a position to shop at Waitrose if you really want to), the election results instead showed a very different series of aspirations which no doubt affected voters. But most of them don't seem to have centred on shopping.
The truth is the results were very variable. Labour did worst in Scotland in its traditional heartlands. But here its votes by and large went to the left, in the form of the SNP, which campaigned against austerity, took a pro-immigrant stance and was for the abolition of Trident. Its values chimed much more with an old Labour audience, and its vote was not an evil nationalism as too many Labour people are arguing, but reflected a (displaced) social democratic consciousness which sees the chance of controlling its own policies in the course of gaining either home rule or independence. Labour wasn't too left there, but too right under the tutelage of the Blairite Jim Murphy, and lost at least in part because it was too closely tied to the Tories in the referendum.
Labour wasn't too left in London either. There were swings to Labour across large parts of the city, and the party won seats like Enfield North and Ilford North, as well as taking inner city seats like Brent Central, Bermondsey and old Southwark, and Hornsey and Wood Green from the Lib Dems. Two constituencies which contain large numbers of expensive homes and which might have seen opposition to Labour with the Mansion Tax, Westminster North and Hampstead and Kilburn, saw swings to Labour. None of this is mentioned in the references to the aspirational, although one might expect London to contain a fair number of such voters, and indeed Waitrose shoppers.
Nor was Labour too left in the big cities. In Leeds, Manchester, Leicester, Birmingham, Bristol, Sheffield, Liverpool there were sizeable swings to Labour and in some cases the winning of Lib Dem seats to Labour as well. Left Labour MPs in London such as Diane Abbott, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell increased their share of the vote. And of course Green MP Caroline Lucas was returned in Brighton Pavilion with a big majority.
The problems for the party were in two areas: some of their traditional strongholds where they suffered a strong challenge from UKIP, for example in the old industrial and mining areas such as South Wales and West Yorkshire; and in Tory marginals (or occasionally Labour marginals) where the voters stuck with the Tories. Here, it seems economic arguments did play a role in scaring voters into believing they had to stick with the Tories despite everything.
In both these instances, Labour has only itself to blame for failing to attract such voters or losing its traditional supporters to UKIP. It never countered the narrative that it was to blame for the economic crisis and the deficit, even though this was a Goebbels size lie. It never dared to challenge the bankers or the economic wisdom of the city, so it lost that argument. On immigration, it pandered to racist views, even producing a mug with one of its demands as 'controls on immigration'. Who would want to drink out of such a mug, or at least who from Labour? Step forward Ed Balls, who lost his seat anyway to the Tories, done for by UKIP votes. Labours failure to challenge the right wing narrative cost it dear.
Labour is in for a period of hideous bloodletting, with the Blairites on the offensive, wanting to deny even the anodyne Andy Burnham the leadership because they regard him as too pro-union. It is always foolish to portray a major party as finished and Labour still has major reserves of strength, especially its links with the trade unions. But there are severe challenges to its future: the existence of large reserves of voters to its left who are now prepared to go elsewhere (to the SNP and to the Greens to some extent, although not to the far left whose results were almost uniformly awful); the strain on its relationship with the unions; the disaffection and lack of hope peeling off some of its older supporters towards apathy or worse a UKIP vote.
If the answer to Labour's failure is that it lost to left and right, then it really does have an existential crisis which it cannot resolve. Hence the slow haemorrhaging of its vote. Turnout in this election was around two thirds of those eligible, and turnout is usually lowest in strong Labour areas. The pollsters are blaming their mistakes on shy Tories and lazy Labour voters. There may be some truth in this, in that Labour voters feel less enthusiasm and commitment to turn out, even when they say they will.
This particular problem shouldn't be laid at the door of Ed Miliband. It is a long term problem for Labour, as part of the overall decline in voting. It was accelerated by the poll tax 25 years ago, when many more likely Labour supporters went off the register and stayed off. Anyone who has ever campaigned in a Labour area will tell of the large numbers not voting and the also large number who would but are not registered. So even when Labour wins overwhelmingly as in 1997, it does not win anything like a majority of the vote.
Nor, of course, do the Tories: 36.9% of the vote and around 25% of the electorate is not a vote of confidence. But it has given them a majority and they intend to spend their political capital, in the words of George Bush. The attacks on every aspect of our lives will come thick and fast, and we must be prepared for them.
The left also has to get serious. We cannot afford the divisions which have been such a feature of recent years. If we can't unite programmatically then we have to over a common interest in defeating these attacks, and that will involve people from Labour and outside it. The Tories are cock-a-hoop now but they have major problems ahead. They do not have the base of support to carry through really unpopular attacks, unless we let them, instead, we have to build a huge movement against them. That starts with the People's Assembly demo on June 20th. It includes support for strikes such as the National Gallery civil servants and the proposed rail strike. It will encompass housing, benefit cuts, the anti-war movement and anti racist struggles. They can all be woven into one big and inclusive movement which can begin to turn the tide.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
More articles from this author
- Lindsey German statement at Spycops Inquiry
- The Tower Hamlets revolt explodes the election stalemate – weekly briefing
- Winston Churchill: His Times, His Crimes - book review
- This is the real face of the Ukraine war – weekly briefing
- Living with shadows: memory and struggle - Interview with Merilyn Moos
- Russia and Nato: the crocodiles with Ukraine in their jaws
- There’s planet government and then there’s life on earth – weekly briefing