The choices before the Labour Party

Countless gallons of cyber-ink have been spilled over Labour’s unexpectedly disastrous performance in the 2015 General Election.  A leadership campaign is now under way – one that so far has produced, in my view, little that is positive.  Among much muttering about Blairism, aspiration and were we too left-wing, there is little suggestion that we are about to have the fundamental debate that we need.  Labour is at a turning-point; I remain convinced (having spent my election campaign in Brighton Pavilion, and as a local government candidate in Preston Park ward in the city, fighting the Greens) that Labour remains the only serious hope for progressive politics in Britain.  But it is hanging on a knife-edge; decisions we, the active Party membership, will take over the next few weeks could well decide whether we survive or fall.

And for an exhausted, hurt party that is a challenge.  I’ve found the leadership debate so far rather dispiriting.  For what it’s worth, I think the fundamental things we need to think about are the following:

We need to understand the demographics of Labour’s defeat – to put it at its simplest, and to focus on England (I’ll come on to Scotland and Wales in a moment), we did rather well among the better-off but disastrously badly among the worse-off.  Our vote among these voters fell from its 2010 low. And that’s devastating and sobering; the people at the sharp end of austerity, the people who have seen their living standards fall furthest in the context of the most sustained fall in living standards for 140 years, didn’t back us.  After the cuts, the bedroom tax, workfare, the benefit cap, the casual cruelty of the DWP’s sanctions regime, we did not gain the confidence of the people who need the Labour Party most (neither, it must be said, did anyone else on what one could loosely call the left – and I don’t include the SNP in that). We did not enthuse them, we did not speak to them, we did not give them hope that we could change their lives for the better.  And we found time and again people responding to UKIP.  Talking about aspiration is all very well: but for millions of our traditional supporters it’s about the sheer daily grind of survival.  We need to understand that.

recent Guardian article by John Curtice – the lone psephologist who called the election correctly –  has argued that Labour may find it hard indeed to regain a majority in England. I think the essence is that Labour is much more vulnerable to insurgency (Greens, SNP, and above all UKIP) than the Tories; the Labour vote is more fissiparous than the Tories, and that makes it harder for us to do the political heavy lifting to win marginal seats. It certainly means that following Tory or UKIP framing won’t work – Curtice seems to be saying that if you try to sound like Tories or UKIP all you do is legitimise the insurgency. But we seem to be conducting our leadership election around a warming-over of old narratives rather than finding new ones, which is deeply worrying. I see Curtice’s thesis as a wake-up call rather than an assumption of defeat.

We need to rediscover our economic identity – from the moment Liam Byrne’s idiotic note was released to the media, we lost the argument about economic policy.  And that debate was largely conducted in terms dictated by the Right, and which simply did not speak to the needs of our core supporters.  We were mesmerised by a deficit that, most progressive economists would argue, simply doesn’t matter: large economies with sovereign currencies can, and do, borrow to stabilise economies.  By historical standards the deficit is low.  Labour was not to blame for the economic crash of 2007/8, but we allowed the argument to go by default.

We never got that economic policy under the coalition was an unmitigated disaster.  We never challenged the way in which deficit fetishism was destroying the living standards of the poorest in society.  We talked at times about zero hours and casualisation, but simply failed to link the daily lives of the people at the sharp end to the big movements in the economy.  We talked about “working families” (a marginal improvement on “hard-working families”) but never articulated the vital fact that some of the hardest-working people in Britain needed their incomes to be topped-up by the state in order to survive, and that tells us something pretty fundamental about the sustainability of our economy.  We never talked about the private sector’s investment strike, and the accompanying low productivity and how that was linked to the casualisation of employment.  There was a clear, straightforward economic case to be made: and, mesmerised as we were like a deer in the headlights, we never got past the economic irrelevance of the deficit.

Above all, we never got – let alone articulated – that the real economic divide is between those who make their living by selling their labour – whether they are surgeons or cleaners – and those who live by sweating assets: the rentier class. Although the more highly-paid in the work force can buy security (and may themselves buy into the rentier class), the key issue is that Labour should be on the side of the former (and especially those who increasingly cannot make a decent living by selling their labour, through falling pay and soaring living costs, especially housing), while the Tories are clearly on the side of the rentier.

We have to articulate our economic policy in human terms.  We need to make people understand that unemployment, under-employment and poverty are not self-inflicted or about flaws in moral character, but are the by-products of an economic system that has been abysmally badly managed for the past five years: but can be cured. We need to ask the big questions about work and income and whether traditional models of employment are sustainable under late capitalism. We don’t have another Keynes, but then we don’t need one: the evidence is out there, and we should have connected that economic understanding to the daily experience of the people who have traditionally looked to Labour for support.

We need to get over Blairism – not because Tony Blair’s Labour was a disaster (think EMA, the minimum wage, a million children out of child poverty, and massive investment in education and health that made up for the long-term investment strike by the private sector) but because times have changed.  It’s nearly twenty years since Blair won and fighting the 1994 leadership election all over again is an evasion for which we will not be forgiven.  We need to focus on what is happening now, and confront those challenges in a clear-eyed way that transcends Labour’s old left-right divide.

We need to understand that UKIP is a far bigger challenge to Labour than it ever was to the Tories – the rise of UKIP in Labour heartlands has shown that they are not going away.  One lesson from this election is that banging on about immigration impresses nobody and doesn’t bring votes back to Labour: Pledge Four and that horribly offensive mug simply exacerbated the trend that “tough” talk on immigration loses us votes on the Left while gaining us none from the right.  But the immigration issue illustrates the problems we face perfectly. All the serious economic evidence is that immigration has been good for the economy and has not depressed wages, even for the low-paid; the undoubted fall in real wages (and they have fallen furthest for the lowest-paid) is caused by other things (casualisation, low productivity, and, as it happens, workfare). But people don’t believe this – the story that immigrants are taking jobs is played back at us on the doorstep. How do we frame a narrative that convinces people – in the face of the media – that the causes lie elsewhere, which is not simply seen as writing off people’s strong feelings? People who blame immigration for taking their jobs are not bigoted, just scared. But we patronise them if we’re not honest – and speaking truth in the face of economic mythology is at the heart of what Labour stands for.  We need a better narrative.

A third lesson from the rise of UKIP is about reconnection.  I remain convinced that the core reason for the rise of UKIP is the economic insecurity of a generation that grew up with the promise of cradle-to-grave security, have seen that taken away from them, and have seen the comfortable and untroubled retirement that they came to expect (partly on the back of the private pensions revolution that Thatcher promoted in the 1980s) whisked away from them. The economic realities are different now and all that hope – aspiration even – is dead. How do we speak to people who are deeply insecure and afraid? Labour needs hope to prosper – and hope, among the people who most need us and have deserted us, is in very short supply just now. And I don’t think the language of the traditional left-right divide necessarily helps.

We need to learn important (but different) lessons from Scotland and Wales – Scotland was a self-inflicted tragedy, in which a complacent party, led by the wrong man, simply couldn’t offer anything in response to the SNP’s (wholly bogus) claim to be anti-austerity.  Labour’s wipeout in Scotland emphasises, if nothing else, the importance of humility and of not taking voters for granted.  And it shows how political mythology develops: the SNP was able to get away with its anti-austerity rhetoric because Labour had just lost any connection with the daily lives of people.  Imagine a latter-day English Nicola Sturgeon leading UKIP – a credible, fluent politician who can shamelessly deploy anti-austerity rhetoric in a way that Nigel Farage never could.  Scotland, if nothing else, shows us how vulnerable a deracinated Labour has become to easy leftish-sounding populist rhetoric.

Wales is different – because Plaid trailed in a rather dismal fourth and for all their anti-austerity rhetoric slipped back.  The bigger threat to Labour’s majority in next year’s Senedd elections is a resurgent UKIP, which trebled its vote in Wales against 2011. But Welsh Labour at least has a record to defend – a party that won a majority in 2011 on a serious, radical, costed and intellectually rigorous manifesto clearly to the left of Labour in the rest of the country (retaining EMA, free prescriptions, Flying Start in addition to Sure Start) and has delivered on those promises.  Moreover, First Minister Carwyn Jones has never been afraid to wrap himself in the Welsh flag.  Wales teaches us that it is possible to gain big electoral support for a radical programme – provided we articulate it right, do the intellectual heavy lifting and get the message out there.

We need to find unity on the Left, and Labour must lead it – voices are calling for a coalition across the Left.  The trouble is that none of the other “left” parties – the Green Party, Plaid Cymru and certainly not the SNP – are actually that progressive.  The SNP’s record in government is as a party of the centre-right; Plaid in government in Wales was more interested in promoting the Welsh language in schools than promoting equality and progressive social change.  The Green Party remains an overwhelmingly middle-class party which – as its record in Brighton and Hove has shown – is a very long way indeed from growing out of grandstanding and protest, and simply does not engage with the people who have suffered most under the Tories.  We need to make common cause with the decent, progressive people who back these parties, often out of disillusionment with Labour.

But at the same time, only Labour has the history, the experience, the national reach, the willingness to move beyond the national or the sectional, to lead the kind of political revival we need.  But that energy must come from the grass roots – from a mass party drawing its members from every region, and every part of the community.  And it needs to engage beyond its comfort zone: much of the opposition to austerity will come from those who are not engaged in formal party politics. We talked a lot before the election of the millions of conversations we would hold: now is the time to build dialogue, with community groups, voluntary organisations.  We need to show that we can listen and learn, most of all from the daily experience of those who have largely been excluded from the political process in recent years.

The key to all this, then, is simply that we need to find a new language – a distinctive, grounded, evidenced, passionate Labour language and narrative; one that conveys hope that we really can effect change.  It means both understanding the daily experience of the poorest people in society but having the intellectual and moral courage to challenge some of the narratives that surround it – especially those generated by the media and politicians of the Right.  People no longer believe in, or trust, the political process – and that is profoundly dangerous.  It takes a very special kind of democratic renewal to reverse that.

Above all, at the heart of our language and narrative must lie hope.  The 2015 election was dominated by fear.  The Tories, economically and intellectually bankrupt, had nothing else left: but they deployed fear with deftness and skill.  We have to counter that – we need to be angry at what the Tories are doing, but we need to be hopeful too, and find the moral and political authority to take people with us.

This is about processes, not about the individual we elect at the end of the Summer.  But we need a individual who understands all this. Where is the Labour leadership contender who can do that?


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