The latest election shows us that there is a yearning for an alternative. Sam Leach looks at why Blairism 2.0 will be the end of the Labour party
The disappointment following the country’s decision to elect a majority Conservative government last Thursday, made clear that the Labour party is in ‘crisis.
Labour’s tepid message and response to a five year programme of austerity by the coalition must be perceived as a critical failure of Labour strategy. Simply, you cannot fight an election on the territory of somebody else. Even preceding the 2010 General Election, a tired Labour government was already haemorrhaging support and even arguments to other parties.
Labour effectively lost the economic argument following the financial crisis, and with it their credibility and 13 years of government. Despite its global nature, Labour took the flack for Britain’s period of economic demise, at the time, and even into the 2015 election campaign.
The notion of Labour’s ‘profligate’ spending while in government, abetted by Liam Byrne’s silly note in the treasury, was used repeatedly, and falsely, to Labour’s demise. Statistics preceding the economic crisis display the inherited debt per GDP by Labour in 1997 of 42%, while before the 2008 crisis it stood at 36%. By 2008, the deficit had fallen to 2.1%, against the 3.9% that it inherited in 1997.
The Tories agreed with Labour’s spending pound for pound before the crash. Labour’s level of lax regulation does display a considerable error in decision-making, and also a total compliance with the very richest in society greatly increasing their wealth, at the expense of others, and with it, a more unequal society continuing during Labour’s governance. That isn't to say that an increase in spending on hospitals, schools and Sure Start centres should not be vehemently defended.
The whole notion of ‘there is no money left’ is completely untrue, especially against the backdrop of a coalition government that has borrowed more than every Labour government put together, in which George Osborne has borrowed £257 billion more than he said he would, with UK national debt reaching £1.484 trillion. This is the longest sustained increase in the national debt since the Second World War. The importance is not in the detail, but in how the argument has been portrayed, and who believes who.
Ed Miliband’s ‘triple-lock’ election pledge of fiscal discipline only served to confirm and concede the argument that Labour were fundamentally incapable of managing the economy. However, when this narrative, fought on Conservative lines is advanced by Labour, all it does is legitimise the Conservative argument (and staggeringly even their own economic record!), while increasing the ‘risk’ in voting Labour.
Ed Miliband’s BBC Question Time performance a week before polling day in Leeds, in which the Labour leader stated that the party “didn’t overspend”, was met with groans and horror. It was simply too late to be advanced and was immediately rejected by voters. Any argument correcting Labour’s economic credibility should have been asserted consistently after the leadership election, not a week before the country voted.
Labour and immigration
Also, Labour’s message on immigration spells a similarly muddled message to the voters. The 2015 election pledge stated ‘controls on immigration’. There are legitimate concerns on immigration. One that Labour does well to repeatedly exacerbate. On one hand, Labour has been critical of immigration. David Blunkett stated Britain was being ‘swamped’ by asylum seekers, Gordon Brown’s famous call for ‘British jobs for British workers’, while Phil Woolas’ 2010 political campaign in Oldham, asserted that if the Liberal Democrats were elected in the constituency, then the ‘extremists would win’ and ‘illegal immigrants would stay.
Alternatively, Labour has appeared uneasy to open an in-depth debate on immigration for fears of being branded ‘racist’, highlighting a ‘culture of hesitancy’. This has been a hugely counter-productive process, and has only inflamed tensions. These tensions have been the fuelling of UKIP’s electoral surge. On one hand, by adopting a similar narrative of fear and insecurity on immigration, Labour sought only to legitimise UKIP as being in touch on the issue.
On the other hand, by not addressing people’s concerns on immigration or race, such as Gordon Brown describing a working class voter from Rochdale as a ‘bigot’, we reach this pathetic, confusing middle ground argument from Labour that tries to appease those concerned with immigration. The 2015 immigration pledge is the epitome of this.
The controls on immigration, notably through withholding benefits to those who enter the UK within two years were certainly the populist ploy behind this. However, this blaming of a largely invisible immigrant threat is corrosive and effective. It cries out for a response.
The politics of fear has trumped the politics of hope. Fear of health tourism, which costs the NHS 0.06% a year. An articulate example of immigration is that of South Elmsall in West Yorkshire, in which retailer Next in a hiring process of new workers for its distribution centre advertised such jobs in Poland at the minimum wage.
Those entering the UK to work are not to blame. They want to support their families and work hard. They are not the problem. It is employers who are undercutting pay for people here. That is the choice. Don't blame those who are, like the rest of us, searching for a better life. Blame those who have power and who want us to fight each other rather than build an integrated, cohesive and prosperous society for all. Labour’s campaign momentarily flickered in tackling this. But ultimately, it was repeatedly caught in the storm of spin.
UKIP’s support is highest where immigration is lowest. It is these fears, often not truths that legitimate the concerns of immigration. Fears that need a loud alternative and inclusive conversation. Labour should absolutely be talking to those who voted UKIP, who march with the EDL and feel that the ‘white working class’ has been ignored. This assumption that people are well gone from convincing forgets that they were never in the first place part of an actual debate or positive alternative advanced that dispels such lies. Again, unless you tackle the narrative, you fight on someone else’s territory and you lose.
The numbers are pretty terrible for Labour from Thursday. It may be said that Labour have increased their vote by 800,000, but the nudging of Labour’s vote from 29.0% to 30.4% signals a very minimal shift in an appetite for the party. Probably most worryingly from a Labour perspective is the barely adjusted turnout from five years ago. Turnout has moved up 1% to 66%, yet when you take out the increased turnout in Scotland of 71.1% and higher turnouts in particular marginals, such as Nigel Farage in South Thanet, turnout has barely moved at all. There was still 16 million on the electoral register that didn’t vote, combined with the prediction of 6 to 7 million who weren’t even registered.
This signals that Labour did nothing to shift the apathy from large sections of the population, and therefore did nothing to generate a movement towards the party. When delving deeper into the voting statistics, Labour clearly gave a significant proportion to the Greens, who polled 1.1m votes from 265,000 last time, while UKIP’s near 10% increase from 2010 can certainly be attributed in large part to Labour’s vote.
Examples including the 7.7% swing from Labour to UKIP in Hartlepool for example or in Miliband’s own seat of Doncaster North, where we saw a 6.6% swing to UKIP. This yearning for an alternative was captured by a party of fear. For the young, 58% decided to cast their ballot, up from 2010, but still notably low.
Staggeringly, if non-voters represented a party, Labour would have only won 42 seats in the entire election, particularly displaying the flakiness of support in even strongholds. Is this really the basis in which Labour was founded? Is that Labour’s moral crusade of today? There is no assurance that these non-voters would have voted Labour, but it is clear that nothing being offered from any party really mobilised people to vote, and given the fact turnout tends to be lower in more deprived seats, which
Labour should be more in touch with, must take the majority of the blame. When you compile all those registered to vote, Labour received less than 20% of the vote. The Tories got 24% and are completely beatable, based on the sheer numbers that could be mobilised. In the meantime, it is wholly in the interests of the Tories that people don’t vote.
Scotland is often typified as the reason behind Labour’s downfall. The repeated Tory message against a ‘chaotic’ potential Labour/SNP pact in England combined with a dramatic and historic shift in Labour support north of the border signal two very clear outcomes. On the one hand, the Tories will continue to prolong any message of fear to mobilise enough support to govern.
Secondly, when we analyse the support that has shifted from Labour to the SNP, it clearly depicts that the Labour heartlands can be defeated based on an appealing alternative. Albeit a marginal hold in Edinburgh South, Labour suffered an absolute electoral wipeout in Scotland. Huge swings were commonplace all over Scotland, with a swing of 39.3% in Glasgow North East seeing Anne McLaughlin gain the seat from Labour's Willie Bain, Labour's safest seat going into the election.
The potential next foreign secretary in Douglas Alexander was ousted by 20 year old Mhairi Black in Paisley and South Renfrewshire, who became the youngest MP since 1667. Whatever your opinion on Scottish Independence, the ability of the SNP to channel 45% of the Yes vote into a positive, progressive, anti-austerity movement had huge success, not least in turnout but also in active political conversation and life.
This movement underpinned the SNP’s dramatic political shift, but also maintains their position as a progressive force. The SNP’s membership more than quadrupled following the referendum defeat. Those in Labour that repeatedly focus on being ‘overwhelmed by Scottish nationalism’ fail to conceptualise that independence was driven not by party politics, but by the Radical Independence campaign that envisages Scotland as both a progressive and democratic place. Notions that such voters have sold out Labour by voting SNP, fail to gauge, that for most, it was in fact Labour that sold out such voters.
Following the election, Labour has arrived at a new political juncture and is likely to deepen this crisis. Already, the debate has been hijacked by the notions of ‘aspiration’ from the Blairite wing of the party, who were sharpening their knives at the very prospect of Ed Miliband not becoming prime minister. The swings in Scotland against Labour show the old Blairite strategy of advancing in previous Tory strongholds based on the security of immovable Labour strongholds that had nowhere to go now looks very foolish.
The concept of ‘aspiration’ is also a complete falsehood, absent from any real meaning. Is aspiration not quality public services, actual social mobility in which the young do better than their parents and secure, well-paid jobs for all? If aspiration means the kind of me-first individualism in which the vast majority of us have come second over the last 30 years, then Labour should be fighting to re-articulate the political debate.
The public has actually been to the left of Labour, in wanting to renationalise the railways and energy companies. They want a fair tax regime in which the richest and large companies pay their tax, and that a living wage, that people can actually live off, comes to fruition. Miliband’s hesitancy on such policy, combined with the failure to create a distinct alternative on the economy and immigration is pivotal in the defeat.
Labour cannot go back to the era of mass apathy and individualism; real, participatory democracy means so much more. Everything this election shows us is the yearning for an alternative. The Blairite option in Jim Murphy in Scotland was a catastrophic error and seems to have displayed the final nail in Scottish Labour’s coffin. People in Scotland feel they have a voice in the parliamentary system in which their energy can be channelled.
The decline of the union movement and the absence of any democratic structure within Labour to achieve autonomous, grassroots change have resulted in Labour being a hollow, elite-run, undemocratic structure, not a movement.
The activism seen in marginal seats by Labour, often behind youthful and progressive MPs displays real optimism that Labour must once again be a movement. Firstly, this is through allowing members an ability to influence and shape policy. But, secondly, Labour should be continuing their election effort. The huge data available which signalled voters’ choices at the ballot box can display those that have been totally turned off from politics.
Labour should be starting that conversation now, taking the debate to voters, and creating the opportunity for a democratic arena to emerge and thrive. A return to Blairism could erode any lasting link with the unions. A genuine alternative, driven by those previously disaffected and turned off is the only way in which Labour can achieve the fundamental change that we all seek.
Blairism 2.0 will be the end of the Labour party. A democratic movement will be, once again, its rebirth.