Sunday, 10 May 2015

Labour’s inconvenient truth…

If I were going to hold a protest today, it would not be outside Downing Street, it would be outside Ed Miliband’s kitchen… Here’s why:

There is no other way of reading the results.  The fact is that the Labour party took a kicking from the electorate on May 7th.  Seats that should have been a shoe-in for Labour fell easily to the Tories, aided by a collapse in the LibDem vote which mostly benefited the Tories.  Even the Tories seemed genuinely surprised by the results having, it is rumoured, already put out informal feelers to the LibDems about the possibility of another coalition.

It would be easy to heap all of the blame onto the shoulders of the hapless Nick Clegg, whose party was well and truly punished for their broken promises and role in the coalition.  But Clegg was put into an unenviable position five years ago when Gordon Brown refused even to talk to the LibDems, effectively ruling out any chance of a progressive coalition.  A fair voting system and the benefits of coalitions are at the core of LibDem political philosophy – they could hardly refuse to form one on ideological grounds.  More practically, had they not done so, Cameron would have formed a minority government, set out his programme, and would have then gone for an October election where he would most probably have secured the majority government in 2010 that he now has in 2015.

The Labour leadership knew this, and were urged to put out olive branches to the LibDems several years ago.  However, the tribalists won the day, preferring to slate the LibDems for their duplicity and broken pledges.  The result, when it came, was that nobody was given a good reason for voting LibDem, despite the obvious need for a progressive tactical vote in those constituencies where the alternative to the LibDems was the Tories.  The LibDem vote collapsed across middle England mainly because right-leaning voters preferred to be represented by real Tories rather than orange ones.  However, a significant proportion of the LibDem vote was progressive – the kind of voters who in 2010 hoped the LibDems would a socially progressive brake in a coalition with an increasingly authoritarian New Labour.  These voters might have been persuaded to hold their noses and vote LibDem to keep out the Tories had the Labour leadership encouraged it much earlier in the day.  As it was, they put the short term pleasure of kicking the LibDems ahead of the long term need to stop the Tories getting a majority.

However, all of this is the political floss on top of a much more serious problem for Labour.  While the various factions within Labour will fight about whether their manifesto was too left wing or too close to New Labour – several Progress MPs have already suggested they chose the wrong Miliband – this merely covers a deeper malaise.  Scotland shows this most obviously.  The truth is that the reforms that Labour chose to make in the 1990s to silence a left wing that Kinnock, Smith and Blair (probably correctly) believed was preventing electoral success, had the consequence of disconnecting Labour from its core supporters in the traditional working class areas of Scotland, Wales and the North of England.  That an increasingly London-centric Labour leadership failed to understand the growing popularity of the SNP after 2011 was bad enough.  However, despite warnings from grass roots supporters in 2014, the Labour leadership chose to stand side by side with the Tories in a “NO” campaign based on fear over hope.  On May 7th, Labour reaped the fruits of that particular seed, and are now – having lost their Scottish heartlands – unlikely ever to gain a majority at Westminster in future…  especially as the Tories will now gerrymander the constituency boundaries to make a Labour majority in England and Wales even harder to achieve.

But Labour’s woes do not end with the SNP in Scotland.  It is clear that in England and Wales, UKIP took sufficient votes off Labour – as they said they were going to, and as the Labour leadership airily dismissed – in Labour’s traditional working class heartlands in England and Wales to prevent Labour from winning seats that should have been in the bag.

Cynics – myself included – have long slated Labour for perpetuating poverty in its heartlands because the party has always feared that if its core supporters’ aspirations were ever met, they might vote for someone else.  Of course, this view is a little simplistic.  However, when the Labour party bureaucracy has created a political fiefdom on the back of European Union structural funding, as it has done in Wales, and when so many key jobs depend upon this funding continuing, we see a multi-million pounds a year reason to ensure that regions like the former South Wales coalfield never be allowed to climb out of poverty.  Indeed, Labour-supporting areas of the UK like the Rhondda are now the only places in Western Europe with poverty levels similar to those of the former Soviet Bloc states in the East of the EU.

The Labour leadership has always taken these traditional working class areas for granted simply because politically they have had nowhere else to go.  For the same reason, the Tories have done little beyond organising the odd garden festival for these people.  As early as the 1980s the nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales began to re-orientate themselves to a left-of-centre social democracy in order to outflank Labour on the left in these areas.  However, this strategy only really began to take off after Tony Blair had taken office and moved Labour firmly to the right – Plaid Cymru’s high point came in the first election to the new National Assembly, where traditional Labour seats like Islwyn (Neil Kinnock’s seat) fell to them.  However – almost as a warning of what would happen to the LibDems at the UK level, Plaid Cymru has suffered electorally as a consequence of going into coalition with Welsh Labour during the Blair/Brown years.  Unlike the SNP, Plaid Cymru - despite increasing their vote - were confined to their rural heartlands on May 7th.

The obvious winners in Wales were the Tories who, in addition to holding the seats on Labour’s target list, managed to take a couple of seats – Gower and Vale of Clwyd – off Labour.  There is, however, a subtle sub-plot to the story.  It was UKIP, not Plaid Cymru, who came third in Wales, Having taken many of the traditional working class votes that Plaid Cymru must take from Labour if it is to succeed in next year’s Assembly elections.

Labour saw a similar shift in the working class vote to UKIP in the Labour heartlands in England.  While none of this translated into seats for UKIP, it played an important role in keeping Labour out of government.

This traditional – largely white – poorly skilled and educated working class that Labour has contemptuously assumed is in the bag at elections has been left behind.  They are not Labour’s “squeezed middle”, they are the people at the bottom of the pile; the hardworking families who must also rely on a mix of tax credits and housing benefit just to keep their heads above water.  These are the Gillian Duffy’s of this world – concerned about the lack of opportunities for their communities but unable to see a way out beyond curbing immigration and encouraging people on benefits – even people with serious illnesses and disabilities – to get jobs.  Labour’s contempt for these people was obvious enough in Gordon Brown’s reaction.  No hint of understanding of the conditions of the contemporary working class – which Brown and Blair kidded themselves they had done away with.  Just the one word dismissal; “bigot!”  But the response in 2015 was even more contemptuous – to avoid another “Gillian Duffy moment” just make sure the traditional working class are kept well away from any of the staged managed election events.  The Labour leadership chose to disconnect themselves still further from their traditional supporter base.

Nor was Labour offering hope.  To the 8 million working people who  still need benefits to top up their incomes, Labour’s shadow Work and Pensions Spokesperson, RachelReeves made clear that “Labour is not the party for you” – as if they could afford to lose these millions of voters.  Indeed, the whole economic policy was essentially Tory-lite - offering little beyond more cuts and more food banks to the working class.

Labour’s reward has been to deliver large sections of their supporter base to UKIP – a party that, whatever their failings, has worked to understand the fears and wishes of the disenfranchised.  This is where I agree with UKIP – we need to develop a politics that includes the disenfranchised who have for decades found themselves at the bottom of the pile.  These people aren’t threatened by poverty and homelessness, they are poor and homeless.  They are not people who are losing faith in the future; they are people who lost faith decades ago.  They are the people whose living standards fell during the New Labour years even as Labour's banker friends were reaping multi-million pound bonuses.  These are not people who need much Tory encouragement to believe that Labour messed up the economy… that was precisely their experience of the New Labour years.

That UKIP has been able to tap into and give voice to this group is testimony to their organisational skills.  This alone should be reason enough for anyone on the progressive side of UK politics to take UKIP seriously and to understand the desperate need to reconnect with the traditional working class.  More than this, however, it is an indictment of a Labour party so disconnected from its roots that its purpose is now unclear.  If Labour cannot give voice to the aspirations of ordinary people, we are left to conclude that the sole beneficiaries of a future Labour government will once again be their friends in The City.

When Ed Miliband resigned, he gave a speech thanking lots of people in the Labour party for their support.  What he should have given was an apology to the ordinary people of this country who are now going to face a full frontal attack on their living standards from a Tory party whose spite knows no bounds.  The lives of tens of thousands more disabled people will be cut short by the welfare system that Labour bequeathed to the Tories.  People’s health will suffer as swathes of the English NHS are sold off to the highest bidder and the Scottish and Welsh NHS is cut proportionately.  The economically illiterate policy of austerity will continue to plunge ever more people into poverty while doing nothing to curb government borrowing.  The Bedroom Tax will continue to socially cleanse the poor from London and the Southeast of England.  Millions more families will be forced to turn to food banks.  These and many others like them are the victims of a Labour leadership that contemptuously believed they could take ordinary people’s votes for granted without ever once trying to understand their needs and aspirations.  These are the people Ed Miliband and the rest of the Labour party owe an apology and an explanation to.

This is no longer simply a matter of whether Labour needs a right or left wing leader to replace Miliband.  It is much worse than that.  Labour must face their existential demons if they are ever to get back to power – they must be able to articulate what – in business terms – is the Labour party’s unique selling point – what are they for?

Unless and until Labour can answer that question, I see no good reason to support them.

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