Sunday, 10 May 2015

Whither The Labour Party?

The Labour Party have just been defeated in the UK election this week. The post-mortems will begin through the medium of a leadership election as the unsuccessful candidate Ed Miliband has resigned in defeat. As usual such a post-mortem will not address the real underlying issues and yield a leader who will in all likelihood be just as unsuccessful as Miliband.

1) Although they won the election, the Conservatives don't have a large majority so they potentially become vulnerable in Parliamentary votes on contentious issues if their own contumacious back-bench MPs decide to flex their own muscles and defy party discipline. Exactly the same as at the start of the last Parliament when the UK had it's first coalition government in 36 years. However, then Labour was so consumed by its own leadership election process that took a year or so, they were unable to apply any pressure on the fledgeling coalition government in its first year and it remained relatively unscathed. Labour has to avoid that this time round and maintain a rigorous opposition.

2) Proper post-mortems do not get conducted through the process of a leadership election. First of all the debate is internal, through MPs, Trade Unions and party members. The aspect of a proper post-mortem that is omitted, is actually consulting with the public. Asking those floating voters why in the end they didn't vote Labour. These are the crucial opinions and they are overlooked. The internal debate is only conducted with an eye to which wing of the party as represented by which leadership candidate will triumph in the final selection voting process.

3) The failure of a vaguely Left-Wing Labour election campaign has been pounced on by Labour centrists as proof that only their way can deliver Labour any future victory. This of course completely overlooks that a Centrist Labour Party has no real reason to exist. Tony Blair as a Centrist was only successful because he came to power in a period of economic boom. This boom was predicted by all economists as the corollary of coming out of the bust of the 1990s, when people were feeling bruised and fed up with the longevity of the Conservatives in power and weary of various scandals that had afflicted that party. They were ready for a change and it coincided with economic growth. But when the country is an a period of economic sluggishness, when savings are needed which implies a level of austerity, people will trust the Conservatives over Labour to deliver these cuts, because Labour are morally torn about cutting welfare and public services. Now you can argue with the narrative of austerity, but a Centrist Labour party's craving to appeal to the middle classes means they will not rock the economic boat of austerity. Yet they cannot outtrump the Conservatives in that sphere. It makes no sense to try and out-Tory the Tories. Austerity with a smiley-face.

4) So the alternative is to be a Left-Wing party, which Ed Miliband was accused of by his opponents with both Labour and Tory circles. He wasn't in many ways, because he accepted the austerity narrative as above. He just wanted to try and ameliorate some of its victims, such as those on zero-hours contracts, those accessing foodbanks and the like. But none of this plays to those in middle England, in the market towns that they desperately need to convince to have any chance of winning a parliamentary majority. England is a conservative (small 'C') nation, of Napoleon's famous shopkeepers and entrepreneurs. Any sniff of a Left-wing government is going to have those people fleeing for the mountains and doing everything they can to 'stop the socialists' gaining power. It's hard without an economic crisis seeing Labour ever regaining government.

5) At present, a left-wing Labour party has no real principles or ideology on which to base itself. The moment Tony Blair succeeded in expunging the 1918 Clause IV as a founding principle (so much so it was printed on every membership card) was not only the moment 'New Labour' replaced (old) labour, but the moment all its history was erased at a stroke. The history of its origins, its principles and what it stood for. Now whether you subscribe to the principle of Clause IV "To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service"  is not really the point. The point is it has ceased to stand for anything principled or distinctive, so that even when ed Miliband tries to take the party more leftwards, it's completely without context or focus because it's not based on any bedrock of belief. 

6) Looking at the demographics of the Labour Party MPs returned in the election, it has utterly become a party of the cities. All the major conurbations of England are solidly Labour. It has virtually no representation in the smaller urban areas and now nothing in a former heartland Scotland. London is a Labour City, yet London is a very rich (and expensive) city which goes against the grain that Labour can't appeal to the middle classes, although it is also hard to see what inhabitants of Labour constituencies like Hampstead or Islington have in common with inhabitants of Northern constituencies like Stockton and Bury. That makes it slightly schizoid in make-up. Scotland rejected Labour because it wasn't left-wing enough, London votes Labour because they like this cosy left-centrist Labour. London is of course the most ethnically diverse of all cities in the UK and draws much support from these communities, while there is also an element of having the wealth and privilege to desire to share some of that wealth with the less fortunate in a way that Tory voters in say Peterborough or  Swindon don't seem to feel. If London becomes more exclusive due to its property prices and hogging of the job market, if more oligarchs from around the globe buy expensive holiday homes, then that natural Labour tendency may evaporate and Labour will lose its second major core of parliamentary seats as it has just done in Scotland. How does it knit together  a strategy to represent Northern cities, Scotland, the wealth of Londoners who are already its supporters and then somehow to entice those of small town and middle England to come across from the Tories?

I say it's an impossible job and Labour has no real sense of any identity here in the early 21st Century. Nor will its leadership contest likely to furnish it with one. I don't know about a 1000 year reich of Conservative government, but it's hard to see it being limited to just the next 5, 15 or 25...

1 comment:

Katherine Hajer said...

I really liked your point about confusing an internal leadership race with listening to the public. I've seen two political parties up close (relatives in one, me in a different one), and there are always far too many people concerned with "winning" than with what made them politically active in the first place. Their assumption seems to be that unless you have elected MPs/can form a government/include the PM, nothing else matters.

A friend of mine once told a selection of these types they were "all a bunch of fucking parliamentarians" (at a national party convention). It's become a phrase I cherish.