O rose, thou art sick

The Labour Party's general election defeat has much deeper roots than the failings of its leader, writes Andrew Dolan

June 8, 2015 · 13 min read


The election of a Labour government would have been no great victory for socialists, but the spectacular, albeit narrow, majority won by the Conservatives represents nothing other than a crushing defeat. It heralds five more years of untempered austerity, with all its destructive consequences. The sense of collective shock and despair that permeated immediate post-election reflections on the left was as profound as the joy exhibited by most of the media and big business as they celebrated a victory Cameron hailed as his ‘sweetest’.

Labour’s defeat was comprehensive. Wiped out in Scotland, losing 40 of its 41 seats, it failed to make the necessary gains elsewhere, doing badly in key marginals across England and Wales. Within hours of the result Ed Miliband was gone, his departing speech as forgettable as his tenure as party leader.

A party without identity

Miliband’s leadership was dogged by accusations that he had failed to articulate a narrative strong enough to challenge the ‘common sense politics’ of the Conservatives. This insists that the financial profligacy of the Blair and Brown years saddled the country with a debt that only the Tories can be trusted to reduce through cutbacks in ‘excessive’ public spending. Labour’s vague appeal to ‘fairness’ and ‘togetherness’, even (perhaps especially) when carved in the ludicrous ‘Edstone’, was never going to cut through what has become axiomatic over the past five years, and that Labour reinforced with every proclamation of its commitment to deficit reduction and its adoption of the Conservatives’ solution: cuts upon more cuts.

Labour’s lack of identity, however, has much deeper roots than the failings of its now former leader, a would-be heir to both the Spirit of ’45 and Blairism, incompatible as they are. Indeed, it was Blair who, in the words of Tony Benn, transformed Labour from ‘a radical alternative to the Conservatives into a quasi-Thatcherite sect that made three electoral victories possible’. This legacy still defines the party today.

New Labour owed much to a politics developed under Neil Kinnock that saw the party target voters beyond its traditional demographic, often at the expense of its core support. This was a politics of ‘aspiration’, ‘credibility’, ‘pragmatism’ and, ultimately, individualism. Yet for all its inherited characteristics and its claims to ideological coherence, New Labour was in part built on what the German sociologist Max Weber termed ‘charismatic authority’, when an ‘individual’s claim to specific gifts of body and mind is acknowledged by others as a valid basis for their participation in an extraordinary programme of action.’ Key to New Labour’s success was Blair’s charisma and the ability of his acolytes to project it to the public, a task made much easier by the backing of media mogul Rupert Murdoch.

Charismatic authority may be revolutionary in its own way, but it is far more unstable than traditional or institutional forms. Crucially, following Blair’s political demise the Labour Party was without either the charismatic leader necessary to sustain New Labour or a coherent ideology and programme capable of replacing it. As perfectly illustrated by the current leadership contest, we are instead left with multiple yet undifferentiated ‘heirs to Blair’, seduced by the fading scent of former electoral victories and consequently repeating the political gestures that became so familiar under New Labour: chasing the ‘aspirational’ middle class, winning the confidence of business as a means of establishing economic credibility, and distancing the party from the unions. The result is an impotent ‘John Lewis politics’ with all the power of a car stripped of the engine on which it once ran.

As Channel 4 News economics editor Paul Mason noted in the election aftermath, this confused identity and lack of confidence is doubly debilitating in the face of the assertive politics of Scottish left social-democratic separatism and Cameron-style Conservatism. Labour, by contrast, knows not what nor whom it stands for. To use the language of marketing, unlike its competitors Labour lacks what is needed to create a strong brand: a unique product, the value of which is consistently communicated to a clearly defined audience.

But the party’s lack of identity runs much deeper than a failure of branding. After all, the reduction of politics to an exercise in marketing is a symptom of a much deeper problem.

‘The gloomy night is gathering fast’

In the history of the Labour Party, few strategic blunders surpass the involvement of the Scottish Labour Party alongside the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in the ‘Better Together’ campaign. In the run up to the Scottish independence referendum, their voices sang in such unity that they became an indistinguishable choir, reciting hymns laced with fear‑mongering. Leave the UK, they said, and you’re on your own, cast adrift without a currency in a sea of predatory powers.

Nowhere is it less advisable to get into bed with the Conservatives than in Scotland, a country that last returned a majority of Conservative MPs in 1955 and where antipathy towards the Tories runs deeper than anywhere else in the UK. ‘United With Labour’, Labour’s feeble attempt to separate off their ‘No’ campaign, did almost nothing to stem the perception that here was the political elite joining together to prevent a change that posed the possibility of undermining their power.

The left-wing Labour MP John McDonnell remarked after the referendum that ‘Never again should Labour go in with Tories in a campaign coalition . . . [It] disillusions and divides our supporters.’ So it did – and Labour is unlikely to be forgiven any time soon.

The election as Scottish Labour leader of the Blairite and leading ‘No’ campaigner Jim Murphy, a politician who represents as well as any the indistinguishability of the political class and a politics that has so obviously failed, only compounded the situation. It suggests that Labour’s stream of strategic blunders in Scotland has been less a result of miscalculation than an inability to act otherwise.

At one level, Murphy’s election can be viewed in the same post-Blair context as the current UK-wide leadership election. But as the Scottish independence referendum revealed, the roots of Labour’s ‘strategy’ in Scotland run deeper still.

As Ralph Miliband detailed, the Labour Party has long prioritised loyalty to the British state over its commitment to genuine socialist change. At times, this loyalty has not been incompatible with progressive reform. But when faced with a democratic movement for autonomy and social change – as was the case in Scotland – Labour, following in a historical tradition that long predates Blair, responded as it always has in such circumstances: by closing ranks with establishment forces and mobilising its considerable resources to ensure the maintenance of the British state. One can foresee a similar response from Labour – and a similarly detrimental public reaction – if the campaign for proportional representation gains serious momentum.

There are those on the left who claim Labour was right to reject a movement best understood as an expression of ‘bourgeois nationalism’. The workers of the world have no nation. But even leaving aside the British nationalist discourse utilised by Labour or the absence from its campaign of socialist arguments for the unity of the UK, this misses the point.

The mobilisational capacity of nationalism is obviously an important factor in the SNP’s growth but there is compelling evidence to suggest it is not the central one. Jan Eichhorn of the University of Edinburgh has pointed to Scottish Social Attitudes Survey data showing that ‘Scottish identity or sentiment [has been] decreasing gradually since the advent of devolution.’ Notably, of those who voted for the SNP in the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections, which saw the SNP claim an absolute majority, more than 40 per cent did not at that point support independence.

As the 45 per cent Yes vote in the referendum revealed, support has grown since then, but it is nonetheless clear that there is more to the SNP’s success than nationalism. Specifically, one must consider the appeal of its anti-establishment and (relatively) anti-austerity politics, both of which have widespread support in Scotland, as exemplified by the success of the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC).

Even with SNP supporters who back independence it would be foolish to represent them as driven by nationalism of a purely flag-waving sort. Although its record in power is mixed, the SNP has made a relatively convincing case that an independent Scotland would be an economically fairer place. As Cat Boyd of the RIC wrote for Red Pepper last September, it would open up ‘the possibility of a different type of society: one that unlocks the neoliberal consensus at Westminster’.

Thus it is no surprise that those who voted Yes in the referendum tend to be younger and poorer than those who voted No. Similarly, in the run up to the general election, a TNS-BMRB poll found that 57 per cent of working-class voters and 71 per cent of those aged 18-34 intended to vote SNP.

It is these voters – young and poor, part of a generation that for the first time in recent UK history is likely to be worse off than the previous one – that Labour’s brand of classless, neoliberal politics has so spectacularly failed. Labour’s failure was the SNP’s opportunity, and the country that gave Labour its first and other leaders could turn out to be its graveyard.

‘Failed promises and premature returns’

The decline of Labour in Scotland is a symptom of a malaise also present south of the border, albeit in a different form.

Despite a net loss of 26 seats, Labour increased its share of the national vote by 1.5 per cent. As the psephologist Robert Ford pointed out, ‘The more a seat looked like London – young, ethnically diverse, highly educated, socially liberal, large public sector – the better Labour did.’ Labour benefited from the exodus of social liberals abandoning the Liberal Democrats, yet nowhere near as much as the Greens, who according to an Ashcroft poll secured 26 per cent of former Lib Dem votes, more than twice as many as Labour (12 per cent). Although the Conservatives took far fewer votes from the Lib Dems (barely 7 per cent; the SNP and UKIP both took more at around 9 per cent each), they did so primarily in affluent southern constituencies where the swings were enough to take the seats – 27 in total – from their former coalition partners.

Labour gains among social liberals were partially offset by the loss of votes to UKIP, especially in the north of England, where most of UKIP’s 120 second-place finishes were located. This chimes with the popular post-election narrative of a disenfranchised, largely northern, working class, ditching a party that has for so long ignored their concerns in favour of a Eurosceptic populism that appears to address them. But there is only limited truth in this perception.

According to the Ashcroft poll, only 14 per cent of those who voted UKIP in this year’s election voted Labour in 2010, whereas 43 per cent voted Conservative and 18 per cent Liberal Democrat. Additionally, although around half of UKIP’s electoral support comprises working-class voters this is unexceptional given the simple fact that the majority of voters are working class. In sum, while there has been some movement of working-class voters from Labour to UKIP, it is nothing like the seismic shift that has been suggested.

Looking back beyond this election, however, a trend is clear. Using analysis provided by the House of Commons Library, Labour MP Jon Trickett has shown that between the 2005 and 2015 elections, Labour’s share of voters from the bottom two socio-economic grades fell from 48 to 37 per cent.

This decline in part represents the unpopularity of New Labour’s later years in government. But it should be noted that working-class support for Labour was higher under Tony Blair than in the previous two decades. Blair in fact oversaw a temporary reprieve from a long-term leakage of working-class votes from Labour. In the 1966 election, 69 per cent of manual workers voted Labour, yet by 1987 the figure was 45 per cent and it is now lower still.

Thus the rise of UKIP must be understood as a sub-plot in a much larger tale – one of a formerly industrial working class slowly abandoning a party that has for so long claimed to represent its interests. This is not to paint a simple and reductionist picture of a rightward-moving Labour Party diverging from a left-wing working class. Rather Labour’s long-term failure to address the economic and social consequences of deindustrialisation, and its shift of focus towards the ‘aspirational’ middle class, has considerably weakened its links with those on which it has for so long relied.

An industrial party in a post-industrial age

This shift has had a dramatic impact on Labour’s entire political model. John Harris summed up this dynamic and its consequences in the Guardian: ‘Labour is a party of the industrial age, which has been storing up this crisis for a decade, at least. Largely devoid of the battalions of organised labour that once provided its organisational and electoral muscle, it has become a shadow party run by an ever tinier clique of politicians drawn from ever narrower backgrounds.’

Quite simply, the economic, and by extension social, foundation on which Labour’s political model has traditionally rested has been crumbling for many years. Union membership is still in the millions but the unions’ mobilisational might and political clout is a fragment of what it was. Blair’s solutions were repugnant but his diagnosis was correct, as the earlier quote from Benn reluctantly hints: if Labour wanted to win elections again it could not rely on a failing model. Its problem now is that it is neither a ‘party of the industrial age’ nor the election victory machine it was under Blair.

There is, of course, a long line of Labour politicians and their friends in finance clammering for a return to the halcyon days of New Labour. Yet as a route to electoral success this is easily dismissed: Labour has no one capable of emulating Blair today. More importantly, even if a New Labour Mark II were able to outmanoeuvre the Conservatives in appealing to middle England and successfully position itself as the premier ‘party of aspiration’, this would likely lead to a further loss of support among the working-class voters whose loyalty it still, just about, retains.

From the other side, the call to oppose austerity and reject a return to New Labour issued by ten newly-elected Labour MP’s shows there is still some life on the Labour left. But in general – and all the more so following the election defeat – the influence of the left within the party is weaker than ever. The emergence of Andy Burnham as the favoured candidate of the left is damning evidence of Labour’s future trajectory.

The notion of the Labour Party as a vehicle for socialism has been dead on its feet for many years. A major rethink is needed.

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