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Vol. 36 No. 10 · 22 May 2014

If Labour Is Serious…

Ross McKibbin

It would be a bold psephologist who predicted the result of the next general election on the strength of last week’s local and European elections. Several outcomes seem equally possible or equally unlikely: a Conservative majority; a Labour majority; the Conservatives as the largest party; Labour as the largest party; a coalition government; a minority government. Easier to predict is that the result will put enormous pressure on the existing political system, pressure it is ill-equipped to control or resist, and will encourage politicians to do short-term things which will in the long term almost certainly be very damaging. Indeed, the coalition government has been busy doing such things from its formation; among the malign consequences has been the rise and rise of Ukip.

For Labour the election results are mixed. Despite what the Conservative press said, Labour did pretty well in the local government elections – clearly better than any of the other parties – but much less well in the Euro elections, though better than either the Tories or the Lib Dems. Its performance in the Euro elections was heavily dependent on London and to a lesser extent on the North-East and North-West. Elsewhere it didn’t poll like a winning party. It is both obstructed and favoured by today’s political circumstances; circumstances which make it difficult to know quite what it should do. How does it, for example, approach those who voted Ukip? Ukip is an apolitical, insurgent party, and such parties are notoriously unstable. Its supporters have genuine, if ill-defined, grievances, but don’t know quite how government works and are thus attracted to parties like Ukip who simplify politics: their political knowledge, though not negligible, is superficial. They are typically largely dependent on the state and its services, but convinced (not unreasonably at present) that the state conspires against them. In a politically rational world they would be Labour voters; but Labour has failed to convince them of that. Miliband’s inheritance is not good. Labour under Blair and Brown hadn’t entirely abandoned its traditional voters, but its support for them was surreptitious. New Labour’s emphasis on ‘modernisation’, social mobility, the ‘aspirational middle class’; the party’s closeness to the City and non-domiciled billionaires, not to mention the financial crisis of 2008 and the disappearance since then of interest rates on savings – all this makes it very hard for Miliband to reply to the question ‘Why should I vote Labour?’ without seeming utterly hypocritical.

Social democratic parties almost everywhere have suffered serious electoral losses over the last twenty years, no matter how successful they were, or weren’t, in government. Even in countries where they have held on to power, their direct electoral support is much diminished, as for example in France and Greece. The traditional mass parties of the centre right have also lost support; in Italy the great Christian Democratic Party simply disappeared. The mass social democratic parties of the 20th century were based on a unionised industrial working class often protected, as in much of Europe before the treaty of Rome, by a tariff regime designed to fend off international competition. But the steel and textile mills, the coal mines, the shipyards, the railway workshops, have disappeared along with the tariff regimes and much of the industrial working class. The ‘labour’ parties were awkward coalitions made up from an often socially conservative working class and a socially liberal-radical middle class. Once the industrial working class ceased to be the most important element in the coalition, the social democratic parties became increasingly attuned to the interests of their middle-class metropolitan supporters, and the remnants of the working class were left to be convinced that the EU or immigration were responsible for their disappointments.

Free market ideologies are now entrenched in the English-speaking countries (and in the EU Commission) and seem entirely unaffected by the crash of 2008. To question the universal wisdom of the free market is to risk being thought an idiot, or worse, Old Labour. Privatisation continues at a manic speed, frequently, as with the probation service, in the most unlikely places. But it has never been particularly popular; and most privatisations have been failures, either in principle or practice, and some little more than rackets. Most people know this; yet such is the hold of the market on the political elites that any suggestion of reversing the worst of the privatisations – or even establishing proper regulatory authorities – is regarded as a ‘lurch to the left’. We know, for example, that there is widespread support for bringing the railways back into public ownership. But, even though Miliband understands this, we can be fairly certain Labour will never do it. The party’s failure to break out of this ideological constraint seriously limits freedom of manoeuvre and its prospects.

It is true that the coalition is not popular and the collapse of the Lib Dems in what remains of working-class Britain is almost certainly to Labour’s benefit. The widely noticed difference between the results in London and the rest of the country conceal the fact that the coalition did as badly in London as elsewhere; the difference was that in London the aggrieved voted Labour not Ukip.

The Conservative Party has its own demographic problems. The last time the Conservatives won something like their historic share of the vote was in 1992. Their losses to Ukip are partly their own doing. The party leadership and the Tory press have always assumed that no matter how corrosive their rhetoric on immigration and the EU – and it has been relentless – the consequences would always favour the Conservative Party. It isn’t the first established right-wing party to discover that genies once released from bottles are hard to put back. The party and its feral press have had their fingers badly burned; and there is no form of PR to rescue them. The Tories no longer command the deference they could once have expected and cannot order the dissenters into the party: whatever else it is, Ukip is not a branch of the Conservative Party.

Labour tends to get the votes of Britain’s ethnic minorities, to some degree compensating it for the continued loss of the white working-class vote. The result in London, for instance, almost certainly owes something to their support. Yet the values and attitudes of much of the immigrant population are sympathetic to modern Conservatism, but for obvious reasons it is very difficult for the Conservatives to exploit this. At the moment Labour has a lead in the ethnic minority vote which it has won without much effort and which helps to explain its relative success in the local elections.

How, then, should Labour fight the next election? There is no risk-free way. It seems likely that its programme should be as far left as political boundaries permit – unlike the programme of 1983 which crossed all the boundaries of common sense. The present government’s spending cuts should be reversed (including the more morally outrageous welfare cuts) and Labour should nerve itself to contemplate higher and more redistributive taxation. As late as 1988, after all, the top marginal rate was 60 per cent; it was reduced to 40 per cent by Nigel Lawson in what was probably the most reckless budget of the modern era. The capacity of local government to meet its traditional duties should be restored. One of the things felt most acutely by Ukip voters is the decay of services from local government. What Labour should not do is simply attack Ukip as xenophobic and racist and leave it at that. Many of the grievances of Ukip voters are legitimate, especially over the withdrawal of state support and services and the consequent economic and social impoverishment of their lives. But social democratic parties, dominated by market ideologies, are very reluctant to admit this. There should be no more privatisations and outsourcings, and much stronger regulation of existing privatisations. (It is too much to expect any reversals.) As part of the re-empowerment of local government, the responsibilities of the local education authorities should be restored to reassert democratic and coherent control over our ravaged and disintegrating educational system. Ukip voters are unlikely to oppose that.

If Labour is serious about recovering or winning the Ukip vote it should abandon the notion of the ‘aspirational middle class’. That is probably the most vacuous phrase in British political usage: most members of the middle class, as of any class, have always had aspirations and the middle class is now so large and diverse that it is unclear who exactly is being targeted.

There remains Europe and immigration. Here there is not much Labour can do but take on Ukip and the Conservatives. Withdrawal from Europe is impossible for Labour even to imagine, and the free movement of labour is at the heart of the EU’s founding treaties. On the other hand, it can be defended only by ending austerity, always the breeding ground of xenophobia. It is surprising how unwilling even the partisans of the EU are to argue the case for membership. Most voters don’t realise that we can safely drink our water, eat our food, swim in the sea, have a reasonable expectation that a building won’t fall on us, thanks to EU legislation. Damning such legislation as the work of the nanny state is simply a way for Conservative (and Ukip) politicians to escape their obligations, something the British political class has frequently done. And Labour should say so. Labour is unlikely to do all of these things, though if Miliband follows his instincts, it could well do some. If it does nothing, however, those who feel abandoned by the state, of which Labour is (or was) the political representative, will simply withdraw from politics or go elsewhere – with dire consequences for the Labour Party.

If Labour is to win next year’s general election, its shadow ministers, MPs and candidates will have to discipline themselves. They have to stop telling sympathetic journalists from the anti-Labour press about Miliband’s weirdness and geekiness. He is entitled to more loyalty. There is no obvious successor and Labour has foisted on itself a method of electing a leader which precludes a swift coup. In the meantime they all, leader and led, have to ensure, in so far as they can, that Scotland does not vote yes given the number of seats Labour will lose if Scotland leaves the Union: something that has become slightly more likely as a result of the Euro elections.

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