Category Archives: Question Time

Why Labour Lost

After leading his party to an unexpected and blistering loss, Labour leader Ed Miliband resigned on Friday. Photo: The Daily Star

After leading his party to an unexpected and blistering loss, Labour leader Ed Miliband resigned on Friday. Photo: The Daily Star

It has been two days since Britain voted, delivering a shocking victory for David Cameron and the Conservatives. Defying the odds—and literally every poll—the Tories won a clear majority of seats in the House of Commons and will, when Parliament convenes later this month, form a majority government. It appears the pundits, myself included, were far too quick to ring the death knell of the old system. The exit polling, showing the Tories as the biggest party, was so far from the polls running up to election day that nobody—even Tory activists—believed it. If it was right, Paddy Ashdown promised David Dimbleby, he’d eat his hat. Alastair Campbell said he’d eat his kilt.

On last night’s Question Time, both did just that. The rest of us are just eating a lot of crow.

It was supposed to be neck and neck, with many speculating that while the Tories might in fact win the most seats, neither the Conservatives nor Labour would claim a majority and the numbers would favour Ed Miliband forming a government and walking into Downing Street. That didn’t happen (to put it mildly), and those of us on the left are now trying to figure out what went so very wrong.

There are some, like Tony Blair, who were warning even before the election that Labour was running too far to the left. “I am convinced the Labour Party succeeds best when it is in the centre ground,” Mr Blair told The Economist last month. He warned this election could be one “in which a traditional left-wing party competes with a traditional right-wing party, with the traditional result,” which, as Mr Blair defines it, is a Conservative victory. On that, at least, he was proven correct. Similarly, in a post being widely circulated on Twitter (from what I’ve seen, at least, mostly by Tories), Ian Leslie offers a similar analysis: “given that the last time Labour won an election without Tony Blair was 1974 it’s hard to believe people still think the answer is to move left.”

But people still do. When I spoke to Nancy Taaffe, the TUSC candidate who challenged Labour’s Stella Creasy in Walthamstow, she made it clear that, in her mind, Labour had abandoned the left to their own detriment. “The Labour Party is no longer a socialist party,” she told me, adding that “allegiances to Labour are fragmented.” Ms Creasy won the constituency with a commanding majority, receiving nearly 10,000 more votes than her nearest challenger. Ms Taaffe only received 279 votes. That’s not a ringing endorsement for old-school British socialism, and actually makes Mr Blair’s words last month eerily prophetic, especially given that so many people labelled Mr Miliband as a “marxist” hellbent on renationalising everything from the trains to the air.

This simply isn’t true, as Amit Singh points out in The Indepenent (a supposedly left-wing paper which actually endorsed a continuance of the ConLib coalition). While I don’t agree with everything Mr Singh writes, once particular excerpt does speak to this myth that Labour lost by running too far to the left: “Some regional MPs who are on the backbenches might push a genuine pro-workers stance in parliament. But any Labour MP with any ambition knows to vote with the party, and the party line is pro-business, pro-austerity, pro-war and definitely not pro-ordinary people.”

Even Tim Stanley, who can never really be accused of being a socialist, leftist, or even Blairite, sees the problem. Labour’s “neoliberal policies alienated the base in the long-run and – crucially –left the party without a narrative,” he writes in the Telegraph.

Mr Singh points out that sharing a stage—and an entire campaign against independence—with the Tories devastated Labour in Scotland, which is echoed by James Bloodworth over at Left Foot Forward. “The toxicity attached to the Tories in Scotland transferred to Labour” when they decided to campaign alongside, rather than apart from, the Conservatives, Mr Bloodworth writes. This echoes what Nancy Taaffe told me earlier this week. The vast majority of Labour MPs voted for an additional £30 billion in cuts in January, she says, which in Scotland meant a “betrayal – I mean all around Scotland now they’ve got stickers saying ‘Red Tories.’”

Let’s be clear, though. Even if Labour had taken every seat in Scotland, they still wouldn’t have a majority. It needed England, particularly key marginals in the North, where the party performed woefully. “The great surprise of the night,” George Eaton writes at the New Statesman, “was not Labour’s performance in Scotland (which was merely as terrible as forecast) but its performance in England and Wales.” Crucially, he points out that the party is bleeding support across the spectrum (the SNP in Scotland, the Greens and UKIP in England and Wales), and there is “no obvious strategy to address them all.”

We’ll return to this point later, because I think there is an obvious strategy. But first we must address the purple elephant in the room, which is UKIP. It was generally assumed Nigel Farage’s party would take votes from the Conservatives, but as it turns out, UKIP crushed Labour in key northern marginals. I don’t often quote the Daily Mail, but I think the Mail was spot on in its assessment of UKIP’s ultimate legacy in the 2015 election, at least in terms of actual votes:

…by far (UKIP’s) most significant achievement was an entirely unexpected one. Instead of hammering the Tories, UKIP managed to take votes from Labour in a string of marginal seats across England, leading to a string of disastrous losses for Ed Miliband.”

Many of us on the left – and I’m humbly including myself here – have for years dismissed UKIP voters as racists, morons, and likely to be more supportive of the EDL than EDMil. As it turns out, again, we couldn’t have been more wrong. What makes this even worse is that we repeatedly warned. Just google “working class UKIP.” You turn up this. And this. And this. And this, from last May, when Labour MP Michael Dugher called Nigel Farage a “phoney” and “bullshit artist” while offering no real alternative to working class voters drawn to his populist (if, I agree, phoney) rhetoric. You also turn up this, also from the Independent last year, by Chris Blackhurst:

The one party that did historically offer (the working class) hope, Labour – the one they’d been brought up supporting – turned into something unrecognisable, into a New Labour populated by smooth graduates, not folk from the factory floor. And, as Labour continued to reign, through three election terms, it grew further apart from them and their needs.”

This cost Labour in very real terms. The Telegraph ran a feature before the election on 10 seats Labour needed to win. It’s worth looking comparing the 2010 and 2015 results. In Warwickshire North, for example, the Tories carried by 54 votes in 2010; this year UKIP claimed more than 8,000 votes, costing Labour a seat. In Thurrock, Labour needed just over 100 votes to unseat the Conservative incumbent. Instead, both Labour and the Tories lost votes to UKIP, but Labour lost more – and needed more – leading to another seat UKIP cost the party. In Hendon, the Tories increased their share of the vote over 6 per cent whilst Labour lost votes to UKIP and the Greens. The same story plays out across the country, in Sherwood, Stockton South to Broxtowe.

I get it. None of us on the left wing of the Labour Party (of which I’m loosely including myself, given I’m a foreigner) wanted to consider that we needed folks we viewed as racists and homophobes. But here we are, with five more years of Tory austerity, because instead of questioning why the working-class of this country was abandoning what was, for generations, its natural home, we derided them as bigots, just as Gordon Brown did in 2010. The same way we blamed the rising tide of Scottish nationalism for defeat north of the border instead of asking ourselves just why, exactly, Scottish Labour voters were so disillusioned.

The answer to the latter is obvious (to borrower a phrase, it’s austerity, stupid). The answer to the former – to why traditional Labour voters abandoned the party to UKIP – is more complicated. To really understand what happened there, you maybe need to look across the waters to Northern Ireland. The DUP is a socially conservative party, and a lot of their positions are quite similar to UKIP rhetoric. But they are also made up of a heavy contingent of working-class, pro-labour (small L) voters who, while socially conservative, are still at least sceptical of neoliberal economics.

They’re really not that different than disaffected Labour voters back here in England. They’re struggling, they’re hurting, and they want someone to blame. In Northern Ireland that’s gays and Catholics. In the North of England, though, Labour used to make the case it was what we now know as the 1%, bankers and toffs in the City and Westminster. Under Blair, though, Labour stopped advancing that sort of social democratic argument. Instead, it has aligned itself with big business and “the centre,” which by 1997 was further to the right than it had been in 1979 or even 1983, when Thatcher would’ve almost surely been defeated had it not been for the Falklands.

Blair wanted to win. And he did, three times. In winning those electoral victories, though, he shifted the party to the right, and while Brown and Miliband managed to drag it a bit more to the left, it wasn’t far enough.

Because despite what the pundits are saying, the financial crisis really did shift the tectonic plates of British politics. Britain is not a centre-right country. If you look at the share of the national vote each party received, it’s roughly broke even, if you consider UKIP a centre-right party and the LibDems a centre-left party, which for this purpose is safe to do since both parties draw voters from both sides of the political spectrum. (The Greens, like the SNP and UKIP, took their biggest share of the national vote in history). And looking at how that would translate in actual seats, it becomes obvious that a grand coalition of the left – which, it must be said, I publicly hoped for – would have been feasible. Yes, the Tories still would have been the biggest party, but Labour, the SNP, the Greens, Plaid Cymru, and the LibDems (which again, we’re counting as left-wing to offer some balance to UKIP) would have had more total seats combined. And if, as many Labour activists are saying, the splintering left cost them the election, this matters.

Which brings us back to George Eaton’s earlier assertion that there is “no obvious answer” to address all the issues at play in Labour’s loss. There is. Labour has to once again appeal to the working-class of this country, which means lurching to the left. Voters have shown a willingness to vote for populist rhetoric and socialist policies in all four home countries. The voters who abandoned Labour for the SNP didn’t do it because they want independence – otherwise they’d have it by now – but because they want an end to austerity. Likewise, the voters in England who turned to UKIP didn’t do it because they like austerity, but because Labour refused to – and perhaps was incapable of – presenting a clear, convincing alternative.

There is soon to be a leadership election, and if Labour has learnt anything from the last one, it will be swift and decisive. The next person to lead this party needs to have more appeal than the last (and I say that as someone who genuinely likes Ed Miliband), but they also need to be someone who can present a clear alternative to austerity and Conservative politics. That alternative needs to be informed by current leftist thinking, not old Blairite notions of what the centre is. If the fracturing of the left cost Labour the vote, which so many party activists think, it’s Labour’s own fault. To fix it, Labour needs to make amends, and they need to do it now.

Only the left can return a Labour majority in 2020. The question now is does Labour have the leader to articulately convey a leftist, populist message to voters across this country.

Time will tell, but time is running out. The next election began yesterday. If Labour wants to fix this, it needs to do it now, before any other party has the chance.


#NNSexism: Newsnight illustrates the rise, Twitter the need, of digital feminism

Last night, Fi Glover had an excellent piece on BBC’s Newsnight about digital feminism and the future of women’s liberation in the 21st century. She profiled Laura Bates’ “Everyday Sexism Project”, the media’s fascination with and objectification of breasts, including Amanda Palmer’s Glastonbury nip slip, as well as the objectification of black women’s bodies. The prevailing theme was that technology and social media is changing the face of feminism, promoting the democratisation of the women’s movement.

So perhaps it was inevitable that a story about feminists online would prompt a storm of controversy on the Twittersphere. Using the hashtag #NNSexism, the Twitterati engaged the masses in their own experiences with everyday sexism while a debate erupted over the role of feminism and, indeed, women themselves. One of the biggest debates I had was the tiresome, redundant, 20th century debate over the difference between sex and gender, as illustrated below:

Now, for those of you who aren’t aware, the difference between sex and gender is quite simple. Sex (male/female) is physiological. It has to do with your reproductive organs, your hormones, and your pelvic bone. Gender (man/woman), on the contrary, is a social construct. It’s the set of characteristics we are assigned, even before birth, based on our sex. Think of it as blue for boys, pink for girls. Dolls for Linda, trucks for Liam. It’s not a radical notion; it’s been debated pretty heavily for the past sixty years, certainly since the advent of the third wave feminism in the United States.

My position sparked a lot of vitriol, mostly from conservative (small c) men. Some of it was quite nasty:

Others took to calling out the “sexism” of the Newsnight piece:

What was most poignant, though, were the women (and some men, like myself) using the hashtag as a sounding board for their own experiences with everyday sexism:

What was most disappointing was the number of men trying to trivialise or completely write off sexism and misogyny:

To say there is no evidence of real sexism is laughable. It certainly shows, at the very least, that one hasn’t been paying much attention to, well, anything. Just this month we’ve had Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis speak out on the fear many women have of being “found out” or labeled a “fraud”, the United Nations showing just what the internet thinks of women (and it isn’t pretty), and The Great British Bakeoff finalist Ruby Tandoh defending herself against allegations that she flirted herself to the top. I mean, cos, you know, pretty women can’t bake well. Only male chefs and your nan.

Or they attempted to turn the conversation away from women and onto their own perceived grievances:

Which Laurie Penny succinctly put down to actual, perhaps stealthy, misogyny:

And of which I stand guilty:

I’ll be honest, it hadn’t occurred to me that by sharing my own experience I was steering the conversation away from sexism against women (which is 99% of sexism, after all). In fact, I thought Laurie Penny was calling me specifically out when she tweeted that, and it made me reevaluate my personal approach to the hashtag. After all, regardless of whether or not I identify as a feminist, gay men are still capable of sexism, and we have a notorious entitlement to womanhood and women’s bodies.

In the end I forgave myself. My feminist credentials are fairly well known, and while it was perhaps rude to change the subject in the middle of a conversation, it wasn’t entirely off-topic. In fact, I challenged Laurie on this point (and got no response, I should mention-though I do hope she’d agree):

For as the men who couldn’t grasp the difference between sex and gender prove, we (as a society) can’t even seem to get the vocabulary, let alone the conversation, right. So the men who actually acknowledge not only the merits of feminism but the hindrance patriarchy places on their own existence ought to be not only allowed but encouraged to freely contribute. At the very least we’re acknowledging sexism is real and tangible, which is more than can be said for a great lot of us.

That’s not to give us a pass, though. Patriarchy manifests itself in all sorts of ways, and the internet has proven that even those of us with the best intentions can sometimes stand accused, and even slightly guilty of, inadvertent sexism. In the end, Newsnight did a commendable job of highlighting the rise of digital feminism, but Twitter itself illustrated the dire need for it. Social media makes it possible, in real time, to illustrate tangible examples of blatant and even unintentional sexism and misogyny, and the Twittersphere was not lacking either yesterday. The rise of sites like EverydayFeminism and Jezebel give voice to women (and men) who may otherwise lack one, and perhaps it’s only a matter of time until we have a Feminist Spring.

Until then, let’s all brainstorm it a catchy hashtag.

What do Peter Hitchens and Russell Brand have in common? They both sound like Katy Perry.

Let’s clear one thing up: I’m American, okay? I don’t claim to be anything but. I’m prone to hyperbole. I talk with my hands. I’m loud. I’m crass. And I don’t understand the point of apologising to someone who stepped on my foot, even if it was stuck out halfway across the train carriage. Watch where you’re going, ass.

One thing all Americans do understand, though, is political turmoil. After all, much like iOS7, our government tends to unexpectedly shut down. So you can see where I could possibly understand Russell Brand and Peter Hitchens, arguing from completely opposite political plains, that the government is fundamentally broken and beyond hope. The only thing is, I don’t understand at all. For like listening to a drunk Sarah Palin talking to a stoned George Bush, it’s all just a bunch of babbling with some laughs here and there.

I’ve already taken Hitchens to task over encouraging young Brits to abandon the ship of state, which he reckoned he “ought to be pleased by.” Likewise, the Telegraph Men columnist, Caroline Kent, did a bang up job in her personal blog (which she Tweeted-so I feel alright citing here) of surmising Brand’s articulate but ultimately incoherent argument; “he is basically just spewing the contents page of the Occupy manifesto in people’s faces,” she wrote, adding that it is “hardly groundbreaking stuff.” Hear, hear.

There’s been a lot of commentary on Brand’s Newsnight interview, and I imagine the story has only just gotten its legs. Less has been written about Peter Hitchens’ comments, because let’s face it, the average Brit hardly knows (or cares) who Hitchens is. But what I haven’t seen is anybody linking their dour pessimism together.

Yes, obviously comparing the two is akin to comparing Chantelle Houghton and Katie Hopkins, but I can’t help but to think that there’s a lesson for those living in the Westminster bubble. I mean, after all, it’s not very often that you’ve got the left and the right agreeing, albeit for very different reasons, that things are, on the whole, quite crap. On last Thursday’s Question Time, David Dimbleby deadpanned that anyone conscious knows the British people are disillusioned, and Russell Brand attributes voter apathy to a betrayal by the system.

In his column for, though, Phil Scullion points out that “voter apathy grows in societies which are well fed, safe and where people feel they are being dealt with by the state in a just and fair manner.” By his estimation, then, people were most content in 2001, the zenith of the Blair premiership, when voter turnout was lower than at any time since full adult suffrage was achieved. However, in the two subsequent general elections, turnout has steadily increased by two to three points. By this logic, though, people are increasingly fed up. So Brand and Hitchens are right.

According to the other star of the week, they are. I don’t want to spend an endless amount of time analyzing Sir John Major’s windfall tax proposal, but his uncharacteristicly candid foray into policy debate is, at the very least, indicative of a wider concern. “If we Tories navel-gaze and only pander to our comfort zone we will never win general elections,” he cautioned, encouraging the Conservatives to look geographically north and economically down to address the concerns of workaday Britain.

Likewise, sitting opposite Peter Hitchens-figuratively and literally-on Question Time last week was Owen Jones. “There’s a huge disconnect with politics and ordinary people,” he said, going to lambast M.P.s for the same things Sir John cautioned his own party over, recounting a conversation he once had with Hazel Blears who allegedly admitted that there was no one in the Brown government interested in housing issues. Like Sir John, Owen recognises that the average Brit feels completely alienated from their own political process and their representatives. He too sees the writing on the wall.

I’ve sung a similar refrain for some time now. A couple months ago I did an analysis of the increasing support for Ukip over the past four years, pointing out that it hit double digits for the first time in April of this year. The question I was most often asked afterward was whether Ukip was chipping away from Tory votes or Labour votes. What’s interesting isn’t my answer, but that the answer most of my inquisitors offered depended on their political persuasion; Labour blames disenchanted Tories for the Ukip rise, and the Tories think Labour’s natural constituency is moving in favour of the nationalists. Recent opinion polls show Labour’s lead narrowing, with the Tories growth marginal, so it looks like the latter is true. At least now. I imagine most of the Tories that will have already defected.

So at least to here, I agree, with both Hitchens and Brand that the British public are forlorn and weary, not of Broken Britain but of the gits in government. What I don’t agree with, though, is their rhetoric. Phil Scullion hit the nail on its succinct head: “the content delivered by Brand is so often empty populism, wrapped in linguistic window dressing.” Likewise, Hitchens’ incendiary comment that young Brits ought to emigrate before it’s too late does nothing other than garner him the ire he feeds upon. In both cases the only purpose served is fueling the flames of their own vanities.

It doesn’t raise the level of political discourse. And it certainly doesn’t offer any real alternatives to the British people. What it does do is pander to the likes of Ukip and the SNP, fringe parties which feign populist (small p) agendas but which ultimately serve nothing more than their own doctrinal desires. It’s all a bit like listening to another American that Brits (especially Russell Brand), love to hate-Katy Perry: autotuned to sound appealing, but when you strip it to its barest, is nothing more than out of tune superficiality.

Land of Hopeless Tories? Why Peter Hitchens is Wrong About Britain

If you asked me at the tender age of seven what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have answered “British.” My love affair with your country began as a child, seeing the great houses of the countryside, the gritty streets of Walford on “EastEnders,” and the middle-class pretensions of Hyacinth Bucket. It grew as I did, introducing me to music via the Spice Girls, sport through David Beckham, and the grand ancient trappings of monarchy with Princess Diana’s funeral. When my father finally caved and our family went online, the first thing I did was go into a chat room and pretend to be British in order to talk to British people. Using the screenname “LondonLad,” I told people I was a 13 year old bloke living “near Parliament.”

It wasn’t until some years later that I realised how obvious a fraud I had been, but even now I chuckle happily at the thought. I wanted so badly to be British, even if only in some concocted fantasy played out in my mind. I would go on to study British history at a small American university, voraciously consuming anything written by Dicey, Pepys, or Churchill. When I finally visited for the first time, in 2007, I wept. I cried again when once more I left this past August. There is nowhere on this earth I’d rather live, nothing more I long to be.

This is all more saccharine than a Yorkie, I know. Of course, Britain is a country with many problems, some of them quite serious, all of them urgent. Unemployment, whilst having decreased, is holding rather steady at 7.7%-and is considerably higher for young people. The expenses scandal, Plebgate, the 2011 riots, Falkirk and the sheer need for the Leveson Inquiry all play well into the old Tory mantra of “Broken Britain.” I can only assume that this is the reason why, on last night’s Question Time, Peter Hitchens encouraged young Britons to emigrate. The message? “Anywhere’s better than here, mates.”

My blood boiled when I saw him quoted on my Twitter feed. For a man who routinely argues the hardline nationalist, Eurosceptic point of view, I was aghast to find out that he had such an abysmal view of his own country. You see, I’ve spent the better part of my adult life dreaming of ways into the United Kingdom. And along comes Hitchens, telling my British counterparts that they should give it all up, throw in the towel, and get out before it’s too damn late. The system is irreparable. The country’s in shambles. All is lost. Britain’s going down like the Titanic, and Hitchens is simply the orchestra playing you a fond farewell. Get off if you can; Hitchens, it seems, is himself resigned to going down with the ship.

From my point of view, across the pond, things are hardly that dire though. Britain isn’t the Titanic. Britain is more like the Trident programme-strong, proud, perhaps slightly past its prime in terms of infrastructure but nothing a little investment can’t rapidly improve. It is a nation with a proud history of liberty stretching back nearly a thousand years. Britain is a country that values fair play, that is pragmatic but compassionate, sensible yet idealistic. It is a nation constantly evolving in thought, striving to be fairer, to be kinder, to be better. A nation of witty banter, of overly polite commuters, of nosy but helpful neighbours who may peep across the garden hedges but will pop round in a pinch. Britain is a country that drinks Pimms in the summer, lager in the winter, and gin year round. It is a nation of industrious, ingenious people, who cracked the double helix and invented modern computing. It gave the world democracy, Shakespeare, and all five members of One Direction. It is a land that welcomes immigrants from around the globe, that adopted an Indian dish as its national supper, that in a generation went from Section 28 to celebrating a gay proposal at the Speaker’s house.

This is remarkable progress. And it’s progress I long to be a part of. I am sorry if Peter Hitchens thinks that his country is somewhat lacking, but I happen to think it’s quite fantastic. I can understand his concerns, but what I cannot accept is his attitude. It does no good to sit and bitch about everything that’s going wrong. If you’re not part of the solution, they say, you’re part of the problem. Peter Hithchens is most certainly part of this problem. Encouraging young people to flee the country not only creates a brain drain, but it is utterly insulting to the millions of Britons who are working to make their country better—like Brooke Kinsella, who since her brother was senselessly murdered in 2008, has been a tireless campaigner against knife crime, or Barnsley police sergeant Darren Taylor, who dashed into an unsupported mineshaft to save a suicidal man. In one snide, sardonic comment, Hitchens insulted the millions of Britons quietly working towards making Britain greater yet.

Of course Britain is facing hard times. So are we all. In case Hitchens hasn’t been paying attention, America isn’t exactly a stellar place to be either. Our government can’t even get a basic website to work, and one of our leading conservative figures wants us to celebrate Easter like Jesus did. Well, before I’m crucified and stabbed by a Roman, I’d like to live a little. And if I have my way, I’ll be living British. Being born American was a blessing, no doubt, but it was also a curse, in my case. My heart longs for Blighty, and if Peter Hitchens has such a dour outlook on its future, I will gladly swap him passports.