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.