Monday, May 18, 2015

On and on

I'm back in the UK and it is cold. Being in more immediate touch with the British media, I am becoming acutely aware of the fact that nobody does a post-mortem like the Labour Party.

It combines the calm control of Lance-Corporal Jones,


the optimism of Private Frazer,


with more common-or-garden political practices.



Amongst the cries of "we were too left wing," "we were too right wing" or, even more bewilderingly, "we were too left wing for England and too right wing for Scotland," together with the Blairite calls for the return of the king from over the water or one of his anointed, there are some small voices of sanity.

First of all, Jon Trickett did something that few do, he looked at the figures. Most rely on impressions based, at best, on seats, but more often on pre-existing prejudices. And he comes up with something interesting.
In a minor tidal wave of what looks like pre planned statements, a group of commentators have argued that what lost the election was a failure to tap into the hopes of “aspirational” voters.
However, there is not a shred of evidence for their argument. The explanations for our defeat are deeper than this simplistic assessment.
The truth is that Labour recovered amongst middle class voters but has suffered a cataclysmic decline among working class voters.
That, together with the politics of nationalism, certainly did for Labour in Scotland, but also badly affected them in marginal constituencies elsewhere, particularly in the Midlands.

He also punctures the myth of the electoral triumphalism of New Labour by pointing out something anybody could see if they looked at the figures: "In 2005 ... Labour had lost 4 million voters since the election in 1997."

This isn't reassuring. As John Harris points out in the next outbreak of sanity, this is a common feature of social democratic parties across Europe. And in this country he comes to similar conclusions to Trickett:
...Labour’s vote share had been sliding since 2001. Even the supposedly wizard-like Tony Blair managed only 35.2% of the popular vote (a mere 22% of the whole electorate) in 2005 – and one only need visit any number of supposed Labour “heartlands” to understand what that decline now actually means. In those places, it’s instantly obvious that this is not just a crisis for centre-left politicians, but the left-behind people and places many of them are meant to speak for. Go to the South Wales valleys, or the post-industrial north-east: in the midst of a lot of generalised hopelessness, there is no real enthusiasm for Labour, limp support reducible to ancestor-worship (“I vote for them because my grandad did”), and among most people under 30, no idea of the values the party claims to stand for.
Economically left behind and politically ignored, these communities have turned to demagogic anti-immigration movements, hence UKIP's inroads into the Labour vote. Coffee mugs are no answer.

John Cruddas, who has an axe to grind, having written the manifesto and headed a policy review that was completely ignored, wants the party to try and recover those forgotten voters (and non-voters). As he explained in an interview with Toby Helm, the strategy Labour adopted was uninspiring.
Radical, far-reaching work produced by his policy review was ready to be taken up, he now says, but was left to gather dust by those around Miliband, who opted instead for their minimalist, safety-first offer, and a few “free money bribes” such as the energy price freeze, which failed to add up to a convincing, overarching national story.
He is also an advocate of rebuilding Labour as a social movement through community development and activism. It is damned hard work, as anyone who has worked in a community setting will tell you, but it isn't enough on its own. You have to make a difference too. You have to deliver on your work to be trusted. It is the right thing to do, but it won't bring instant results.

The elephant in the room is what caused these communities to get left behind in the first place, political economy. Nobody seems to be talking about it. Having conceded the basics since 1997, it is hard to build a convincing alternative narrative that can be sold. Part of the problem is that we are locked into the discussion of political ideas on the idea of a right/left spectrum. It is as if ideas can be quantified. Our language is imbued with terms like "the centre ground," implying the ability to split the difference between opposites. In reality, we have distinct theories of how an economy works, not a sliding scale of leftness and rightness. Labour needs to recover an alternative that they can show will work for the excluded and included alike - for all the people they speak for. That is not an easy task at all and it is not going to happen if the Party continues to think in clichés.

4 comments:

roybaintonwrites said...

Stout one, a very good piece with perceptive clarity. I'd also recommend Ina Martin in today's Guardian G2 'We're All 37% Tory Now'. I've expressed similar themes in a more florid, less controlled way on my own blog, which May 7th caused me to almost abandon. These are terrible times; a bit like when the Romans finally gave England up and went home. A Dark Age has dawned.

Bob-B said...

I predict that the next five years will be less bad than "when the Romans finally gave England up and went home".

Roger McCarthy said...

Scholarly consensus now seems to be that there was no sudden collapse of Roman Britain but a long slow decline over decades and generations.

And there is an amusing theory that the supposed terminus date of 410 when the emperor Honorius told the Britons they could have the keys back was all based on some medieval scribe's transcription error of Britain for Bruttium (a province in Southern Italy - which does make a lot more sense if you ever look up the one passage that mentions it).

Anton Deque said...

The north east of England voted Labour. Labour lost because it had a weak leader foisted on us. I never met any one on the left who could tell me what Labour wanted and Ed's performances were dire.

Australian rules. Pick a Captain from within the team.