Barnaby Raine takes on the battle for interpretation over Labour’s failure.
David Cameron possesses a deeply irritating ability to win. He performs as an archetype of his class; arrogantly he assumes victory, then the country expresses its tentative disgust with him and then he ‘rolls up his sleeves’, acts the worker bee for 30 seconds, and is carried over the line. That was the pattern in 2010’s election, in the Scottish independence referendum and in this election too. It feels as if voters exist in a no-man’s land between deference and scepticism – they want to see the Etonian sweat before awarding him his birthright.
In the Labour party, the knives are out. This result was bad – really bad. Forces of the right won over 50% of the vote for the first time since 1931. Most Labour MPs wanted David Miliband as leader in 2010, many never warmed to his brother and now it will be all too easy for them to turn impulsively to the most entrenched narrative of Labour’s playbook. “We lost because we were too left-wing”, the Blair generation will announce earnestly, framing dogma as if it were a considered reflection on the facts. Where once this credo seemed radical, today it is nostalgic, lamenting the gone glory days of Alastair Campbell and the Spice Girls. It is time instead to face reality.
Why did Labour lose?
1) In Scotland, the revenge of politics.
That Ed Miliband has stepped down as Labour leader while Jim Murphy appears resolutely determined to stay on as Scottish leader is depressingly ironic. It was Murphy who presided over the most catastrophic election night for Labour, ideologically as well as geographically. Murphy has long been a committed foot soldier of New Labour. The politics he symbolises – from tuition fees to Trident to austerity – became the image of Scotland’s fury. Tellingly, he and the whole Scottish Labour leadership have severely misunderstood the nature of the revolt against them. Labour was hit by “a tide of nationalism”, Murphy said on election night. Its election leaflets across Scotland warned of the dangers of a second referendum on independence. The SNP, though, hardly talked of independence. Instead, they positioned themselves firmly as the champions of Labour’s lost values on the left. Meanwhile, Labour systematically underestimated the scale of Scotland’s new, combative social-democratic politicisation.
An ideologically empty vessel with a strategically savvy leadership, the SNP were able to channel popular anger with Labour’s betrayals more effectively than anyone else. A specifically national alienation from the ‘Westminster consensus’ was the particular framing for this anger, but nationalism had only that remote, secondary relevance to the election campaign. The irony is that the Scottish electorate wanted traditional Labour policies and were forced to turn away from Labour to get them. Hence Jim Murphy, like Gordon Brown in the independence referendum, was reduced to making vague appeals to Labour’s “basic” values. If Labour’s decline were really the fault of the ascent of a nationalist politics to rival its own internationalist socialism, such appeals would seem bizarre. They make sense because the real story of Scotland’s election is that the electorate found itself more Labour than Labour itself. Enmeshed in the fetish of the ‘centre-ground’ after years of right-wing ‘modernising’, Jim Murphy et al. were poorly equipped to react.
2) In England, a dearth of politics.
Paul Mason has rightly noted the sharp territorialising of British politics. ‘Scandi Scotland’ and the Tory shires feel like worlds utterly apart. Perhaps, then, Labour should move right-wards to save its support in England and accept the resulting loss of Scottish votes as a necessary evil? In a UK increasingly at war with its component parts, soft English nationalism in this mould is likely to creep into Labour’s ranks over the coming weeks and months.
There were indeed two elections on May 7. The debate in England was not the debate in Scotland. The difference, though, was less between divergent political philosophies opposing Labour than between political philosophy and its absence.
In England, Cameron barely contested the ideological ground established by Labour; when Labour announced its opposition to non-domicile tax status, for instance, the Conservative campaign opted not for an aggressive defence of billionaires as Thatcher or even Blair might have attempted, but instead focussed on an interview with Ed Balls were he cast doubt over the policy in order to depict Labour as confused and “chaotic”. When Labour pledged a mansion tax to fund the NHS, the Conservatives simply promised more money for the health service. When Labour promised a cap on rail fares, George Osborne all but matched the pledge.
There were substantive differences between the values and visions of the two main parties, but the Conservative strategy was to avoid talking about those differences. This was no 1983. Labour’s campaign focussed on a political vision around opposition to inequality while the Conservatives ran away from that fight. Their campaign posters and leaflets stressed a choice not between left and right, but between stability and the alleged rocky uncertainty of a Labour-SNP coalition.
It was a campaign authored by spin-doctors, not political activists. The English Conservatives played much the same game as the Scottish Labour party, talking up the nitty-gritty of political manoeuvring and side-stepping the vision of their opponents. In Scotland, Labour said “vote SNP, get Tory”. In England, the Tories said “vote Labour, get the SNP”. In both cases, parties avoided tackling ideas to their left head on.
Cameron fared better than Murphy mostly because people found his fear-mongering narrative more believable, not because he offered a right-wing banner around which to rally. When he hailed the results as “a positive response to a positive campaign”, it was hard to take him seriously. The important point here is that Labour lost a cynical public relations war that had little to do with political ideology. A more right-wing campaign would not have saved them.
How could Labour win
1) Be strident.
While Scotland deserted Labour, in England UKIP attracted support in northern working-class areas while the Greens won more votes in cosmopolitan seats than ever before. These are all core Labour demographics. Increasingly, triangulation – the strategy of moving right-wards to pick up extra support – looks like a short-term fix that has had its day. It relied on an information or choice lag among core voters, such that they continued to support Labour even as it became distant from their priorities. Party leaders cannot take that loyalty for granted forever.
The day before the election, the Washington Post published an article detailing extensive evidence to this effect. Crucially, it also suggested that the floating voters of the centre-ground attracted to triangulating parties remain promiscuous in their support, quick to desert once bad leadership, a long period in office or any chance misfortune removes the zeitgeist from the party in question. For having pioneered the strategy that now leaves Labour shorn of both core and floating voters, this defeat was less Ed Miliband’s fault than Tony Blair’s.
Labour is plagued by all the wrong ghosts. Stuck in a 1990s time warp, the party maintains its slavish adherence to the anti-cult of Michael Foot and industrial militancy as the twin culprits responsible for every defeat. In this story, to move left is suicidal and to move right is always pragmatic.
For most of the public, times have changed. In the closing days of the campaign, David Cameron carried a copy of Liam Byrne’s infamous 2010 note with him everywhere he went. Whenever faced with a tough question, he would read out the text scrawled by the former Labour Treasury minister – “there’s no money left!” – his face filling with mock horror. It is the memory of New Labour and the post-2008 economic crisis that harms Labour at the polls now, not the memory of the 1970s or 1980s.
That is worth bearing in mind as Labour chooses its next leader; the more tainted by association with New Labour, the easier this line of attack will be for the Tories. Had David Miliband led Labour into this election, the charge would only have been more damaging.
Ed Miliband deserves credit for his attempts to move beyond New Labour, but his caution put him in an impossible position. He campaigned against austerity Britain – with its bedroom tax, food banks and zero-hours contracts – while endorsing the need for austerity. On issues from immigration to the deficit he was on the back foot, accepting the Conservatives’ right to dictate the location of the political centre-ground. Miliband’s problem was his half-heartedness, which made him appear confused and uneasy. He wanted to cut the deficit, he said, but then failed to identify major areas for cuts. Swaying between left and right, he could never appear ideologically confident.
The SNP’s success demonstrates the possibility of an alternative strategy. By aggressively forging their own political narrative, they set the terms of debate in Scotland. They were assertive in framing Trident as a costly monstrosity where Labour was defensive when proclaiming its fidelity to Tory defence policies. They attacked Tory cuts by presenting themselves explicitly as an anti-austerity party where Labour attacked the same cuts while buying into the austerity paradigm that had produced them.
2) Don’t be complacent.
So far, so comfortable for left-wing readers: Labour need not fear turning left-wards. Left-wingers always say this after election defeats. Labour lost because it was insufficiently left-wing, they claim with clockwork predictability, while right-wingers consistently say the opposite. Thus opposing political views are crudely deflected into competing post-election explanatory narratives. Both sides conveniently assume that the electorate believes whatever they do.
That complacency functions to obscure and excuse the left’s failure to develop in line with a changing world. We rarely move beyond solutions worked out in the early twentieth century, like taxation and nationalisation, which focus on political economy and relate above all to large bodies of organised workers in industrial societies. When Labour loses, we measure its impurity against those policies, which we take as a priori emblematic of what it means to be on the left. If Labour had stuck to them, we say, it would have won. We avoid talking about the 30% of trade unionists who voted for Thatcher in 1979, or the 28% of the unemployed who voted for Cameron this time. Can we be so confident that they would have flocked to Labour, if only it had promised to nationalise the banks under workers’ control?
There may not have been much politics in this year’s Conservative campaign, but there was a great deal of ideology. An adept PR man, their campaign director Lynton Crosby mobilised the foundational conservative rhetoric of competence, efficiency, stability and leadership. This is the language of a ruling class pleading for popular subservience. It has been the lexicon of the Tory party since Stanley Baldwin uttered the inspiring cry, “Safety First”. Two vital lessons follow.
First, Labour must enter the ring to win the match. The long shift from politics crafting and inhabiting public spaces – from the workplace to the pub to the street corner – to a politics of the image and of personality represents a depressing indication of the force of neoliberal hegemony. Where capitalism moulded a public sphere distinct from private life, neoliberalism’s novelty lies partly in expanding the norms of the private realm to cover once public arenas. Politics, like all else, is commodified and reified at the hands of neoliberalism.
To win now, Labour needs to put in a slick media performance. This is to play the enemy’s game, and the right has an inbuilt advantage of course – not least through ownership of the print press – but without a serious, coherent media strategy Labour will continue to give the Tories a free ride to victory. For the left, that would clearly not mean compromising on principles to win The Sun‘s endorsement, but it would mean working out other ways to win the communications war.
At this election, the Labour party should have talked up the dangers of a Conservative-DUP coalition much more to match the scaremongering about a deal between Labour and the SNP, for instance. It should not have relied merely on a long series of speeches outlining an even longer series of policies and a great deal of door-knocking. While the Conservatives visualised their emotive anti-SNP attack lines in a series of simple and memorable posters, Labour fought the election as if we were still living in the nineteenth century
Secondly, appeals to the safety of the status quo are stopgaps that win elections only when the standard-bearers of change fail to diagnose burning contemporary problems and pose effective solutions. Where the status quo comes under effective attack, “stick with the plan that’s working” becomes an inconceivable election mantra for a governing party. The left loses largely because it fails to address the present.
Whether campaigning against payday lenders, meaningfully challenging rape culture or developing ways of using the ascent of technology for social good rather than just increased unemployment, the left must orient itself to the particular challenges felt by people in 2015, not those of 1917 or 1945. That has always been the key to political success; the National Health Service was innovative at its creation, just as Thatcher’s popular capitalism involved policies – from enhanced share ownership to council-house ownership – that were novel on the right. Both met demands of the moment with an overarching image of the future, filled in with specific policy detail. By comparison, today’s left is shockingly staid. We must be prepared to think up new solutions to new problems.
The weather forecast is gloomy. Emboldened by their majority, the Conservatives will be freer and nastier. The left will continue to protest and continue to reach a limited demographic, failing to take the imaginative leaps necessary to reimagine its politics in light of neoliberalism and globalisation.
Labour will move right-wards. None of the suggested candidates for its leadership have the politics, the passion or the creativity to reposition the left; instead the battle will be between Chuka Ummuna’s nostalgic Blairism – ‘cool’ cosmopolitan social neoliberalism – and the even crueller nostalgia of a recrafted right, which articulates a return to Labour’s working class roots as entailing hostility to migrants and an authoritarian social conservatism. This is the traditional stuff of Labour’s right-wing before its New Labour redefinition, and it will resurge in the face of UKIP.
Come 2020, the Tories will either win again or lose to a politically indistinguishable Labour party that succeeds in showing it can administer Conservative policies more effectively than the genuine article. As triangulation withers and dies, that second scenario becomes harder to envisage.
The ultimate winners of the election will be the SNP, not because they swept up votes on election night itself in magnificent fashion but because the project of Scottish independence will be immeasurably furthered by the shadow of the election result. The UK is a country profoundly politically divided. Having fuelled English nationalism in the election campaign, Cameron will now ignore and alienate Scotland and its verdict on austerity.
The SNP need not even talk of independence now to boost support for it; they can insist, rightly, that their mandate is to oppose austerity and then sit and watch as cuts push more and more Scots into the independence camp. The Conservative and Unionist Party may well break up the very Kingdom to which its members offer obsequious declarations of love.
Politics, of course, is not like the weather. We have agency. Now begins the interpretive contest over which lessons Labour should learn from the result, alongside a desperately important struggle to resist the incoming wave of austerity 2.0 from a majority Conservative government. That things are unlikely to be pleasant from here does not mean that they cannot be so. We still have a world to win and winning, if elusive, is never totally beyond our grasp.