What next for Labour?

May 11, 2015


Losing a nights sleep on election night and then spending every waking minute since pondering the implications of the Tory victory has left me feeling shattered. So much has changed in such a short space of time that its going to take a long while to work it all out. Here are a few thoughts from a tired brain.

Ukip

Ukip hurt labour a lot especially in the key marginals. Warwickshire North, which was once Labour’s heartland and an area where the old Labour voting community was built around now closed pits, was number one on Labour’s must-win list. The Tories had taken the seat in 2010 with a wafer-thin 54 majority. UKIP got 8,256 and the Tories won easily. It was a similar story in neighbouring Nuneaton, another vital marginal, where again the sitting Tory extended his narrow lead, and UKIP took 6,582 critical votes. Across the north UKIP did really well and took votes from Labour.

In the months before the election I grew increasingly exasperated with the smug dismissal by the liberal media of Ukip as just a bunch of racist dinosaurs, with every photo of Farage in the Guardian which was picked to make him look like a deranged idiot. He isn’t an idiot, and UKIP are real and are about a lot more than racism or xenophobia. The discourse of discontent that UKIP articulates for its supporters hinges on immigration but its really all about being left behind, being left out and a Labour Party that doesn’t belong to them anymore. Its about the the collapse of local industrial culture, bonds and traditions.

Ironically UKIP in many ways puts forward policies that would have been mainstream left labour policies a couple of decades ago, withdrawal from Europe and the protection of workers from an international free trade in goods and labour.

The Ukip problem has not gone away. Douglas Carswell, Ukip’s only MP, has said that Ukip’s future lies in replacing Labour. Speaking on the Sunday Politics, he said:

Ukip’s future lies in replacing a corporatist Labour party. It is significant we came second in 120 seats, many of those seats in the north of England. The disaffection people in Scotland clearly feel towards the Labour party doesn’t stop at the border. It continues all the way down into the old Labour heartland.

I think there is a tremendous future for Ukip in displacing the Labour party with a sort of radical popular capitalism. You are not going to get any real alternative from the remains of Keir Hardie’s party. I’m convinced as a free marketer there is a case for the free market, the case for popular capitalism, has never been easier to make – the problem is the corporatist system we have in this country is giving capitalism a bad name. There is a huge space in the political ecology for a genuine radical, populist free market alternative that is not in cahoots with big business and corporatism.”

This is very, very dangerous for the Labour Party.

The SNP

For the first time since the war Labour is not the monopoly party of the left. For the first time ever Labour has to share the centre left space with another substantial party and another big bloc of MPs in parliament. Labour has to talk to the SNP, and soon, and the relationship between the two parties cannot be reduced to tactical decision in the House sorted out by backroom deals amongst the Whips. Labour needs a strategic alliance with the SNP. I believe Labour needs to reach out and lead the entire non-blue bloc. That means opening up a debate with not just the SNP but also the rump Liberal Democrats about what a non-blue Britain looks like.

The Labour Party in Scotland is shattered but will no doubt want to rebuild and start attacking the SNP. But lets be realistic, unless things go disastrously wrong for the SNP they will be a big force in Scotland and in Parliament for quite a while and any strategy from Labour that prioritises competing with rather than collaborating with the SNP will be very damaging.

Europe

Minus the Lib Dems, which were used to fend of the Tory right in the first term, and now committed to two years of mounting debate, and ultimately a decision, about Europe the Tory party faces a very fractious future. Its majority is not that big and there is plenty of space for its trouble makers to make trouble.

But it would be a mistake for the Labour Party to think it can campaign in the coming referendum merely on the European status quo. Just saying it is in favour of staying in the EU will not do. For start we don’t know what will happen in Europe in the next two years. The problems of the Eurozone have not gone away and if it is in turmoil again at the time of the referendum exit may look surprisingly attractive to a lot of people. But more than that the Labour Party and the left needs to really engage with the European issue. Is this the sort of European Union we wanted? Personally I don’t think it is. If not then what needs to be changed in the EU and who can Labour work with both in the UK and in the wider EU to get change? What is the Labour/Left vision of a future Europe?

Labour needs to work with the SNP and the rump Lib Dems to articulate an alternative vision of European change and reform long before the referendum, while at the same time playing the tactical game so that the fissures in the Tory party are pried open.

The Economy

Because the two Milibands decided to put a space between themselves and New Labour at the time of the leadership election they both allowed the Tories to completely write the (false) history of the economy under the last Labour government. The failure of the banks was airbrushed out and instead a false narrative of Labour overspending and mismanagement was successfully implanted. This was a gigantic generational mistake, and one that has dominated the politics of the last parliament and this election. But things may change now. Osborne stopped the austerity drive and reflated the economy just in time to be able to present a convincing show of economic competence at the election but the next five years will be tougher. The misremembered record of New Labour will begin to fade, any renewed austerity program will really bite and the underlying weaknesses of the economy will not go away. The UK economic recovery is fragile and the long term issues of rebalancing the economy are almost certainly not going to be addressed by this Tory administration so Labour needs to up its game on the economy. It needs to reach out to the SNP and the Lib Dems and it needs to reach out to the large swathe of academic economists who are critical of Osborne’s approach, and start some serious and deep discussion about how this country can earn a living in the 21st century. How does importing lots of cheap young labour (a good thing for a country with an ageing population like the UK) square with social justice and solidarity? How can a globalised financial sector, which we must keep because it pays the bills, be reshaped to better serve domestic investment policies? How should the apparatus of economic governance be reshaped? How can Labour use the EU referendum campaign, when it will on the same side as the businesses community, to build permanent collaborative structures for the future?

In short Labour needs to set the agenda on the economy rather than just respond and complain, and in order to do that it needs to reach out far beyond itself and beyond its comfort zone.

Feel free to leave a comment.

Carole Tongue May 11, 2015

Please look at “Our Europe Not Theirs” by Glyn Ford and Julian Priestley and co authored by a range of experts from the Left. It is an excellent alternative vision of the European Union.

Dave May 12, 2015

The problem is how does labour develop policies that attract back those who now vote UKIP and still maintain the support of it’s now core vote in London and other diverse urban electorates?
Yes, perhaps the economy stupid, but progressive policies are about more than that, and marrying them with UKIP’s reactionary social policies is not a marriage made in heaven.
So a very hard task ahead!

Tony May 12, 2015

I couldn’t agree more, Labour has a very difficult task ahead. In regard to UKIP there are really separate but connected issues: one really is immigration and the fact the freely importing lots of immigrant workers, paying them cheaper wages, and subsidising the incomers through free health care and education is very good for a lot of indigenous people – its very easy to find a cheap builder/gardener/child minder/home nurse in London. But the people who feel the pinch are the less skilled working class, the people who compete directly with the migrants for work and access to scarce and rationed social services (particularly housing) and as a result feel that they carry the cost of immigration. In London a million new residents have arrived in the last decade, and another 750,000 are expected over the next few years. How can London cope with this without big damage to its social fabric??

But the other issue is how immigration is used as a coverall expression of a whole range of concerns by those communities and people who feel left out, let down and deeply unconnected to the Labour party or mainstream politics in general. Some are Tory voters from the right but a lot are people who would, in times gone by, have been rock solid Labour voters but now feel no tribal loyalty to Labour. Thats why Miliband’s attempt to scare them into voting Labour didn’t work – ‘vote Labour or get Tory’ – because to these people Labour and Tory both look like a bunch of self serving, lying opportunists. For these people, those detached by Thatcher’s social engineering from the disintegrated old organic Labour communities, voting UKIP looks like a very good way to protest and get noticed, to make their voices heard. They are right to think that because if they hadn’t voted UKIP and instead voted Labour would anybody be discussing their concerns now?

There is an interesting Fabian pamphlet on UKIP and Labour from October 2014 called “Revolt on the Left” – worth a read (click the link to download it).

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