Labour and the Ashcroft poll: winning the war as well as the battle

There has been a certain amount of excitement over a poll of marginal constituencies by Tory donor Lord Ashcroft, suggesting that Labour is on course for a thumping win at the 2015 General Election.  While it is no doubt encouraging for Labour and indeed for anyone who wants to see the end of the Coalition, it should be treated with much caution, and in some respects begs far more questions than it answers.

The first point, of course, is that this is a mid-term poll and should be treated as such.  Of course it focusses on marginal seats, which makes it more significant than polls that simply record voting intentions across the country as a whole; but with an election two years away, with the economy failing and with the omnishambles of the bedroom tax (a policy decision whose callousness shows every sign of  becoming an iconic symbol of Coalition inhumanity, not least because not even the DWP has been able to come up with a reasoned defence of it), it would be surprising if Labour were not ahead.

Hanging on to power is, after all, what the British (English?) Conservative Party does.  Following the scare at Eastleigh, and with the UKIP bubble clearly keeping Tory strategists awake at night, the Tories are already positioning themselves on the populist right on issues like immigration and human rights.  Expect more of this; the next election will be dirty, with a Lynton Crosby-inspired campaign designed to divert the undertow of anger in society against immigrants, Europe and above all into demonising the poor and vulnerable at home, with the populist Right claiming that failure in Government arising from being held back by the Liberal Democrats from doing what they want to do.  That’s one of the points about coalition – it allows populist politicians to by-pass the reality checks of reason and empirical evidence, by blaming failure on their partners.

But there is a deeper, more powerful problem.  It’s desperately important to distinguish between the battle and the war.  The 2015 election is the battle; the politics and economics of neoliberalism are the war.  By the time the 2015 election comes along, the neoliberals will have made enormous progress in the war.  Much of the NHS and nearly all schools, not to mention the provision of many policing services, will be in private hands.  The state will have been shrunk, real incomes of those who live by selling their labour rather than accumulating rent on assets will have fallen, and the balance of wealth and power will have shifted significantly.  And, above all, a mindset that economics – or to be more precise economic ideology – trumps democracy will have taken hold more powerfully; it is important to reflect that so much of Osborne’s Plan A is about taking economic policy out of the political sphere altogether, to a place where the language and practice of democratic accountability are no longer relevant.

And the big question remains – if the Tories lose the 2015 election, have they lost a battle or a war?  That depends on the will of a newly-elected Labour government to reverse the coalition’s changers.  It is heartening to hear Labour’s Andy Burnham commit Labour to reversing the NHS legislation on day one; less heartening to consider that on current plans – notwithstanding the reversal of Section 75 regulations – much of the former NHS will already be in the private sector by then.  And there is little comfort in Ed Balls’ commitment to keep Tory cuts, or in Liam Byrne’s “reinvention” of Beveridge which appears to combine an attack on universality with the appropriation of the language of Ian Duncan Smith.  Faced with the post-Eastleigh Tory rhetoric about immigration, Labour’s response was … triangulation, accepting the false premises of Tory rhetoric rather than challenging them..  And I have blogged before about how Labour’s One Nation language appears to skirt round the economic issues that define the battleground against neoliberalism.

So it is not an encouraging picture. I sense that there is fertile ground for a reasoned, passionate, cogent crusade against the neoliberal value system – but that Labour are not remotely close (yet) to that ground, and still use language and  symbolism that ties them into that value system rather than establishing them in opposition to that.  On the weekend after the 1997 election, when I was still in the Labour Party, I attended a post-election gathering at which I remember a strange atmosphere; excitement at the huge victory tempered by a sort of post-hoc rationalisation of how, despite the Blairite rhetoric, Labour would really change things – it came back constantly to the fact that “our people” were now in Government.  It was, with retrospect, a discussion rooted in avoidance, with, two days after an electoral landslide, an air of fear and mistrust; six years later, many of those same decent people were marching through London against war in Iraq.  Real progress means delivering something that brings conviction, not post-hoc rationalisation.

Now, outside the Labour Party, for me the issue is so often how badly the Left in Britain needs Labour to be better; to grasp the moment. In many respects the neoliberal project is on its knees, with the consequences of economic failure being visited on those least able to bear them; but that reality simply isn’t reflected in mainstream political discourse.  The war is still being lost; and Labour remains a party in which many of its activists know and understand at first hand those realities, but whose leadership still appears lost in avoidance.  Until Labour – and the left generally – learns to reconnect, the tide is not going to turn.

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