The party’s over, and along with it, our hopes for a more progressive Britain. As we clear away the emptied bottles and filled ashtrays, as the dust settles, there’s one opinion we’re going to hear a lot of: Labour lost because they were too left-wing. From the usual pundits, naturally, but from within the Labour Party as well. You can almost hear the steely scrape of Blairite knives being sharpened, (like here, for example).
It’ll come as no surprise that Red Train disagrees with this reactionary interpretation. But, as Labour’s right-wing is so fond of reminding us, the party hasn’t won an election without Tony Blair since 1974. So how the hell can we justify our position?
Looking back, Labour has had a rather bi-polar election campaign, lurching about from issue to issue almost as much as the Tories - at least until the latter lighted upon the electoral goldmine of fear of the SNP. Attacked by the Tories from their right, they’ve also had to fend off – not very effectively, as it turns out – attacks from the left in Scotland. The party’s response to the rise of the SNP was to put arch-Blairite Jim Murphy in charge, for the party to be quickly and memorably dismissed as ‘red Tories’.
The SNP’s success cannot be easily dismissed as just about nationalism. Of the thousands who voted SNP on Thursday, not all of them can have voted for independence a few months ago. This was about Scotland, having been presented with a viable alternative, thoroughly rejecting the neo-liberal consensus of the main parties. Who’s to say that England, given a genuine alternative, might not have done the same? As discussed here before, the Green Party are neither consistently left-wing enough, nor diverse enough, to be that real alternative. The SNP, conversely, look and sound like their own voters.
My argument for a left-wing Labour leadership actually has very little to do with left-wing ideology, and more to do with my interpretation of the political game itself. If you’ve watched any news channel in the past few weeks, I’ll bet that I know what’s the most common criticism of party politics you’ve heard: the three main parties are so similar, you can’t even fit a cigarette paper between them. You hear it equally from people on both extremes. From potential Green Party voters. From potential UKIP voters. From potential non-voters. And it isn’t popular. It turns people off not only the Labour Party, but off party politics in general.
To me, the answer is simple. It isn’t about starting a new left-wing movement, or supporting a different party like the Greens or whoever. It’s about the whole flawed premise under which all of the main parties struggle along: electoral success is to be found exclusively in chasing the centre ground. In painstakingly ascertaining the public’s opinion, and then reflecting it back at them.
Problem is, it isn’t true. The public find themselves surrounded by yes men, and they hate it. Like third-world politicians who universally claim to be ‘for the poor’, without ever explaining what this might entail, focus-group chasing only angers and disengages people. Labour believe it hook, line and sinker, of course, and have done for ages. It’s this, rather than any policy decision, that kept the wind out of Miliband’s sails. Having taken a tiny, tentative step to the left under his tenure, the party cowers in fear of what the tabloids might have to say about it, backing off from any opportunity to actually put forward his views. We’re left, then, with the mostly unchallenged discourse about ‘Red Ed’, a dangerous radical who wants to take Britain back to the seventies.
In contrast, I think that the job of political parties shouldn’t be to obsess over what the electorate thinks, and then tell them what they already know. It ought to be to present a compelling vision of what kind of society they think we should live in – and then to do their best to convince us that it’s the right one. To finish every speech with ‘...well, this is what we think. If you agree with it, vote for us. If you don’t, vote for someone else.’ Now, how refreshing would that be? Moaning about the Miliband leadership’s lurch to the left completely misses the point. Like socialism itself, it’s impossible to say how this would have actually turned out, because it hasn’t really been tried yet.
When they haven’t been doing their best to sound exactly like each other, the parties have been shouldering each other out of the way to tell us how their plans have been meticulously costed, independently audited, checked and double checked by the economists. I don’t think I can imagine anything more depressing. Of course it’s important to be able to prove that you can afford to do what you say you’re going to do. But running a national economy isn’t as precisely similar to managing a household budget as the Tories would like you to think.
In buying into this narrative, Labour have confused vision with strategy. Vision ought to be about what kind of society you’re aiming for. Strategy is merely about how you’ll realise it. If you cannot convince people about the destination you want to set out for, it’s irrelevant whether you can persuade them about the cost of the train fare. Strategy without an underpinning vision, a moral vision, is surely redundant in an organisation like Labour.
Finally, to respond to a point that’s already been made a mind-numbing amount of times since Ed MIliband stepped down. Yes, it’s true that Labour won three elections under a right-wing, ‘business-friendly’ leadership from 1997 onwards. But – leaving aside the fact that a terrier clutching a Labour Party rosette between its teeth could have beaten John Major in ‘97 – the context’s completely different these days.
Back then, there was the feel-good factor. Life felt pretty good if you were in the middle of the economic sandwich; perhaps most voters were indeed, to paraphrase a New Labour grandee, intensely relaxed about people getting super-rich as long as things were basically OK for everyone else too. But times have changed so much since then it hurts. The ideology-free politics of those retrospectively golden, easy years simply cannot be applied to today. The electorate may not have wanted whatever it was that they believed Ed Miliband was offering. But what they also certainly don’t want is three parties who sound almost exactly the same as each other.
UKIP, as much as the SNP, are the manifest lesson in this. Abhorrent though I find their opinions, I do at least respect them for this: they became popular, to the extent of becoming decisively the third party in English politics, by speaking their mind, rather than blustering around trying to convert the latest opinion poll results into policies. More than any of the three main parties, UKIP were successful in projecting a compelling vision of what they wanted Britain to be, and what it shouldn’t be.
Now, doing this is relatively easy for parties of the right, because they prey upon peoples’ worst instincts. On their prejudices, their worries, their fears. To do this as a left-wing party is much more difficult, because it involves appealing instead to peoples’ better instincts. To the inherent belief in fairness, compassion and equality of opportunity that most people hold dear. To make this vision listened to is going to be difficult, for sure. But when it comes to the conversation about the future of the Labour Party we’ll inevitably soon be having, I can’t think of anything more worthwhile.