What lessons can Labour learn from the 2015 election?

No one expected the Tories to win the 2015 general election outright, not even the Conservative Party itself. It took the nation by surprise. A year on, a clearer picture of what happened is starting to emerge. The pre-election polls show that the Tories were perceived as better on the economy and leadership, and no party has ever won an election after being behind on these two metrics. However, the problems with the Ed Miliband era go beyond his leadership and his policies - although these were part of the problem. The left is out of power across Europe and the right is maneuvering on the centre ground. The left needs do some serious thinking about how it has found itself in such an unpopular position. What have we learned with the perspective that time brings?

Not everything about the 2015 election results was a disaster for Labour. The party did expand its vote in many seats. However, it piled up extra votes in areas where Labour already had strong support - mainly middle class, metropolitan areas - so it did not translate into more seats. The same result can be seen in the local council election results under Jeremy Corbyn's leadership. Support for Labour is increasing, but not in a way that makes it likely that they will win the 2020 election.

The oblivious conclusion to draw from this is that Labour need to change its tactics and expand its electoral support in areas that are not metropolitan, liberal and middle class. Labour used to dominate working-class votes in the former industrial heartlands of Britain. Now the SNP and UKIP are eating away at that support. If UKIP makes gains in the former indisputable north similar to those which the SNP did in Scotland, then the Labour Party could be all but wiped out at the next general election. So, how does Labour expand its support?

Enter Tristram Hunt, who has edited a book entitled Labour’s Identity Crisis: England and the Politics of Patriotism, which looks in detail about why Labour lost the 2015 election. It details the experiences of 10 Labour candidates across the country and the complex changes in British politics that are working against the Labour Party. One such candidate is Suzy Stride, the unsuccessful Labour candidate for Harlow in Essex, who describes a disconnect between middle-class Labour activists and working-class potential Labour voters. This is unsurprising as Labour has become a party of the metropolitan, liberal, middle class. Labour’s entire make up as a party needs to change to tackle this disconnect.

Stride goes on to describe Labour activists as “like middle-class Ryanair passengers” when speaking to working-class voters. It appeared to her that talking to working-class people was something that a middle class Labour activist had to endure, so that they could get back to the real work of running the country. The “metropolitan squeamishness” of Labour needs to end if Labour is to expand its electoral support.

Hunt's other argument set out in his book is that Labour is insufficiently patriotic. He relates this specifically to English patriotism, claiming "Labour fails to embrace Englishness". Hunt makes a good point that patriotism has to come from the heart, if it is to be believed from a politician. I cannot imagine anything worse than half-hearted, fake patronising patriotism from a middle class Labour leader who thinks this is a pill he has to swallow to become Prime Minister. That would make Miliband eating a bacon sandwich look like a moment of grace and dignity.

Hunt makes a strong case for the fact that voters felt that “Labour did not really believe in England or the English”, and he goes onto say: “In short, we were seen as insufficiently patriotic”. This problem of Labour being unable to express English patriotism is bound up in the fact that Labour has become a middle class, liberal, metropolitan party. Many middle class, metropolitan, liberals are uncomfortable with the idea of patriotism. They associate it with UKIP and pubs with St George's flags in the windows that they avoid going into. If Hunt wants Labour to become a more patriotic English party, then it will need to address the problem of it being dominated by middle class, metropolitan, liberals.

Patriotism does not have to have to be expressed in a xenophobic UKIP way. It does not have to be the celebration of Kings and Queens, Empire, conquest and the suppression of the weak. It can be found in the writing of George Orwell, the music of Billy Bragg or the poetry of William Blake. It can be found in the shared British culture of everyone who lives in this country, that is strengthened by diversity and immigration. It can be found in the Tate Britain or the England football squad. I know this is a very middle class vision of patriotism and it is not what everyone wants or what will lead Labour back to power, but there is a way to find a relatable patriotic politics that is not alienating to either middle-class or working-class people.

Hunt's book makes a good case for how Labour should adapt to win in 2020, but is it the right approach? For one thing Labour cannot afford to alienate the middle class, metropolitan, liberals – they are the only demographic that still supports them. Embracing English patriotism will not help Labour retake Scotland. Then again, Labour's woes in Scotland are so deep that perhaps everything north of Hadrian's Wall should be written off. That means Labour needs to win big in England and Wales - about as big as Tony Blair did in 1997. English patriotism alone is not enough to deliver that kind of victory. I do not see any prominent Labour politician that can deliver that kind of victory in England.

Politics has changed, the centre is not holding and things are falling apart. There is no single strategy that Labour can use to appeal to the whole country. A strategy designed to appeal to swing voters in the former industrial north may alienate swing voters in the prosperous areas of the midlands and south. Appeals to the asset-rich southerners or English patriotism is likely to drive metropolitan liberals to the Greens. There are no clear answers for Labour, not like there used to be.

The trajectory Corbyn is taking Labour on is likely to increase Labour's support amongst middle class, metropolitan, liberals and thus repeat the pattern of Miliband increasing Labour support in areas where Labour is already popular.

Hunt's book is a good start to the conversation about Labour's future and how to expand support for Labour, but more is needed to turn Labour into a government in waiting. There are no easy wins or quick fixes to Labour’s problems. One strategy will not return Labour to government. Stephen Bush has even gone so far as to say that it is impossible to unite the different social groups Labour needs to win the 2020 election.

If Labour wants to win in 2020, they will need a strategy that is regional, speaks in different ways to different people without being contradictory, is precisely targeted and different to anything that has come before. It’s that simple.

2015 a year in review - the general election

I usually start the New Year with recommitting myself to writing this blog and standing up for left-wing values, so this year I decided to do something different and end the year with recommitting myself.

It has been a rollercoaster of a year in every sense. 12 months ago if you told me that by December 2015 Jeremy Corbyn would be leader of the Labour Party, Charles Kennedy would be no longer with us, David Cameron would have taken us into another Middle Eastern war of dubious legality and that the biggest political hash tag of the year would be in French, then I’d have claimed you had one too many eggnogs over Christmas.

However that’s the political landscape we find ourselves in at the end of 2015. It has been an unfortunate year for Paris, bookended with twin tragedies of the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the Paris massacre in November. Terrorism and security have been major themes of this year; partly because the Tories want to make it the subject of the next general election, in the same the way that economic competency was the subject of this year’s election – more on that later.

The refugee crisis reached a critical point this year as over a million people entered Europe from the Middle East, South West Asia and North Africa. How Europe responds to this crisis will be the defining debate of our generation. Britain’s offering to this debate was frosty indifference until the Independent put the picture of a drowned child on their front page and before long we had a commitment from Cameron to take in “thousands” more Syrian refugees. I was more surprised than anyone by this. It goes to show that maybe people do care about what happens outside our borders and that we not a selfish island of little Englander UKIP voters, whatever that demographic of squeaky wheels claims.

Insulting UKIP bring me neatly to the biggest British political event of this year, the general election. For people who follow politics like it is a sport it was both fascinating and dull. The polls were too close to all (up until the BBC’s exit poll) and it looked like another hung parliament, with coalition negotiations going on in the public view. However there were no moments of controversy, no gaffs and no defining moments of brilliance. The TV debates were interesting but ultimately changed nothing.

Small left-wing(ish) parties did well out of the TV debates. I was very impressed by Leanne Wood from Plaid Cymru and Nicola Sturgeon from the SNP. Sadly Natalie Bennett from the Greens failed to make much of an impression. She did manage produce the worst gaff of the election with a terrible interview for LBC.

I thought that we could face a “Green Moment” when the Greens steal large number of voters from Labour’s metropolitan liberal left and become a serious player in parliament. It did not happen. I have a soft spot for the Greens but while they are seen as the party of the self-satisfied, middle class, Guardian reading set - the people with their own compost heap in the garden but take three holidays aboard a year – they will fail to capture the broad based support they need in order to return more than a handful of MPs.

Lack of effective leadership for the Greens remains a major problem for them. Caroline Lucas is a good politician to have at the front. Natalie Bennett is not and I do not see her leading the party to electoral success. It must be said that the first past the post electoral system is a huge hindrance to parties like the Greens – and UKIP. A fairer electoral system would have given the Greens more seats for the one million votes they got in the general election. However it would have also returned a Tory UKIP coalition government. I think this is right, it is what we voted for and it was what we should get.

It is interesting that, in May, I thought that the general election was the death of major parties and first past the post system, that electoral reform was imminent, and that coalitions would be the future. With the poor performance of small parties this year, a Tory majority government and huge numbers of new members of the Labour Party, it looks like big parties are as strong as ever and that binary left/right politics is here to stay.

The general election also saw the annihilation of the Lib Dems, justly deserved for breaking so many manifesto commitments and alienating a new generation of voters who they courted in 2010. Many of the 2010 Lib Dem voters went over to the Tories, which cost Labour the election. This should finally put to bed the idea of the Lib Dems as a credible left-wing party. They are and always have been centrist party.

The only small party to do well out of the first past the post system was the SNP, who swept through Scotland like wildfire. This should concern Cameron more than it does. The Tories are great at ignoring places that do not return Tory MPs and Cameron is bad for this even by Tory standards. The huge popular support for the SNP means another referendum on Scottish independence is likely and it is possible that this Tory government will be the last of a united kingdom.

No one expected it, but the Tories eeked over the line to form a majority government. The public rejected coalitions, majority rule is back. It was the first Tory budget in nearly 20 years but it is a majority smaller than John Major’s in 1992, and look how well that went. Sluggish but present economic growth saved the Tories bacon at the polling booth. Growth was strong enough that the government could claim that they were doing well, but not so strong that the electorate could trust Labour to turn on the spending taps. Everyone hated the Lib Dem so the Tories were in – narrowly.

I hate the Tories, but I do have to acknowledge their clever electoral maneuvering. Back in 2010 I thought that austerity could keep the Tories out of office for 20 years, that when people felt the impact of the cuts it would mean a Labour landslide. It did not happen. Homelessness is up, child poverty is up, inequality and personal debt are at an all time high, yet the Tories remain popular. They have convinced enough people to win an election and hats off to them.

Having popular support from many newspapers helped, but I lay the blame squarely at the feet of Labour. By supporting austerity, by making it their top manifesto commitment, they handed victory over to the Tories. The Tories lost three elections to New Labour by promising to match Labour spending and deliver tax cuts. Similarly, Labour cannot win by offering spending cuts and better public services. The argument needs to change.

The possibility of a UKIP surge - long predicted but never appearing - was something that worried me during the election. UKIP came second in a lot of safe Labour seats and this should worry Labour, but these seats remain safe Labour seats as the Oldham by-election demonstrates. UKIP have claimed they are parking their tanks of Labour’s lawn, that their popular anti-EU, anti-immigrant, straight talking politics will bring them massive electoral victory. It has not and I see now that it will not.

This is partly because if a voter agrees with UKIP, there are plenty of Tories who share their views. It is also partly because of our British dislike of anyone seen as extreme. However it is mainly because UKIP are, at most, a dual issue party. Those who hate the EU and are frightened of immigrants care about the economy, healthcare, educating and housing and they want a party that has comprehensive policies on all of these fronts. UKIP does not and the Tories remain the main party of the right.

If the election was a surprise then what happened afterwards was a shock. Read my summary of the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader here.

The Party’s Over

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.

Why I am voting for Labour

Before I talk about voting Labour in 2015, I want to talk about the people who voted Tory in 2010, specifically the people who voted Tory because of David Cameron. Many people voted Tory because they believed in Cameron's plan to modernise the Tory Party, to move it away from its nasty party image, and his pro-business agenda. However some of these showed their support for Cameron by voting for a right-wing Eurosceptic local Tory candidate. These backbench MPs have dragged the Tory party to the right and now threaten to take Britain out of the EU. Whatever you think about the EU, most people agree leaving would be bad for business. Pro-business Cameron supporters damaged the policies they believed in by supporting right wing Eurosceptic candidates. The lesson from this? Who your local candidate is matters.

Many of the above people did not know they were voting against what the wanted. Most likely they had not researched what their local Tory candidate actually stood for. They agreed with Cameron so they voted Tory. Ironically these people would have been better off voting Lib Dem.

This election campaign has focused on the party leaders and personality politics but what your local party candidates believe is just as important. They say that all politics is local; this is especially true with coalition governments. Supporters of a Labour/SNP or Tory/Lib Dem coalition may bring these governments down by voting for the rebellious backbench MPs whose rebellions will eventually unravel a coalition agreement.

I want to avoid this by focusing on who my local candidates are. I want a local MP I can trust to represent the values I believe in. This is why I am voting Labour: because of my local MP Stella Creasy.

The Labour party may be struggling to find its ideology but Creasy certainly is not. She is a socialist, a feminist and a supporter of the co-operative movement. She has spearheaded campaigns against predatory payday loans companies and the harassment of women online. She is committed to defending the NHS and repealing the hated Health and Social Care act. All this I am very much in favour of.

Creasy is an MP who is passionate about Walthamstow, which sounds cheesy but it is true. She supports the campaign for our local EMD cinema and she frequently tweets about Walthamstow. She shows the same interest for the area as the people who live here, which is the first time I can say that about my local MP. Creasy is someone who represents all of Walthamstow, not just the well off gentrifiers who have moved to the area recently but also the less well off who have lived in the area for longer.

To a degree, the national campaign is a factory in my decision to vote Labour. Under Ed Miliband Labour have moved further left than they were in the Blair/Brown years and I want to reward this move with my electoral support. This is mainly because if Miliband does not become the Prime Minister, this slight shift the left will be blamed and the next Labour leader will move the party to the right. Perhaps further to the right than Blair. As a Labour socialist, this must be opposed. It is difficult for me to argue for moving the Labour party to the left if I do not vote for them when they do move to the left, even if it is only a small drift in that direction.

One thing which is inspiring about the Labour party are some of the younger MPs and candidates who have solid left wing credentials. Not just Creasy, another example is Cat Smith, standing in Lancaster and Fleetwood, who is an outspoken feminist. It is inspiring to see Labour’s radical roots alive in this younger generation.

The Green Party do have a lot of passion and a lot of good policies, which is encouraging to a radical lefty like myself, however they are untested in government and I am wary of falling into the same trap I did with the Lib Dems in 2010. The Greens are also not as diverse as Labour and a true left wing movement for change would be made up of the people it is trying to help.

I am willing to trust Labour once more to be a decent party of the left. This is mainly because of new generation of left-wing MPs emerging like Stella Creasy, but also because I know that Labour can be a powerful force for making society better for all and not just the wealthy. I want to continue supporting Labour because I have faith in the roots from which the party came, I have faith in what the party has stood for during most of its life and I have that they can help the poor and disenfranchised.

Our society is dangerously divided and dangerously unequal. We blame the poor and immigrants for the problems caused by the wealthy. However Labour activists and Labour candidates are standing for the most needy in our society and they need our electoral support to be able to help the poor. In the worlds of Billy Bragg’s Between The Wars, “ I kept the faith, and I kept voting, not for the iron fist, but for the helping hand.” Don't let me down, Labour. I am trusting you.

Are the Green Party playing the game or changing the game?

The Green Party are likely to do better in this coming general election than the have done in previous general elections. Despite this the campaigning itself is not going especially well for them. Natalie Bennett’s media gaffes aside, the general theme of the current political debate is not around climate change or social welfare, which is where the Greens are strongest. The debate is focused on economic competence and deficit reductions, where they’re weak.

Elections are not won or lost based on how good your answer to the voters’ questions are; they are won when the voters ask the questions to which you have the best answer. The election is a battle to change the topic of political conversation in a party's favour, something the Green Party is not doing especially well. This is mainly because they are a small party and have less sympathetic friends in the media, but it is also because they are not connecting with enough voters.

When I mentioned this in discussion with a friend and Green Party supporter, she replied that what I described was "playing the game" and that the appeal of the Green Party is that they do not behave like the other parties, made up of career politicians and spin doctors. The Greens want to change the game of politics to something more accessible to ordinary people. This got me thinking, are the Green Party playing the game of politics or changing the game? Are they different from the other, more established parties, or they are just politicians of a different stripe?

The Green Party certainly do not make arguments like any other party. They are the only party openly challenging the neo-liberal consensus that has gripped politics for the last 30 years. They argue for benefits, in favour of immigration and for taxing the wealthy. The Labour Party do not openly endorse these policies, and the cabal of right-wing parties are completely against them. In terms of policy the Greens do seem to be genuinely different from the other Westminster parties – the regional independence parties are a different case.

Politics is all about establishing a narrative, the Tories have done this very effectively with their “Labour's borrowing caused the financial crisis and austerity will restore prosperity” narrative. The other Westminster parties are following this narrative to a greater or lesser degree; Labour have promised spending cuts if they are returned to government. The Greens are the main Westminster party that is challenging this narrative. However the new narrative laid out by the Green Party is a more radical change to politics.

The Green Party are challenging all of our established ideas on benefits, on spending and even on economic growth itself. They are the only Westminster Party making a strong case for benefits as a safety net for the less fortunate. They are the only Westminster Party making a case for public spending as the driving engine of not only prosperity but also equality. They are also challenging the idea of economic growth as a goal in itself and attempting to assert a new narrative about preserving our natural environment.

Such a radical change to our political narrative cannot be considered to be "playing the game". Labour are playing the game by signing up to the Tories narrative on spending cuts and deficit reeducation. The Greens are refusing to play this game and are attempting to assert a radical new narrative of their own.

A new narrative could also be considered “playing the game of politics”, changing the game would involve being a party that is different to the Westminster parties. A party made up of people disenfranchised from the game of politics. Westminster politics is dominated by white, male, middle-class, career politicians from public schools. A party changing the game would ne the opposite of this.

So how diverse are the Greens? On the surface they are very diverse they have a female leader and their only MP is a woman, which is certainly different from the other four Westminster parties. However their candidates, activists and supporters are mainly white and mainly middle class, this is true even of the their leader. One of the key problems the Green Party face is lack of working class support despite a raft of policies aimed at those with low incomes. They are incapable of shaking their middle-class Guardian reading, organic yogurt eating image and this is partly because of their lack of diversity from an ethnic and class point of view.

This Guardian video shows how undiverse in terms of race and class the Green Party activists in Bristol West are. It also shows the problems they are having in reaching out to voters who are not white and middle class. The Greens maybe trying to change the game of politics but from many disenfranchised voters point of view, they look the other Westminster parties.

Despite the Green Party’s lack of diversity they do have a lot of policies that could benefit disenfranchised voters abandoned by other parties. However the Greens still have a problem connecting with the people who stand the most to benefit from their policies. One reason for this is that they couched their radical vision in the language the other parties use. Bennett is quick to use phrases such as “fully costed”; to disenfranchised voters this makes them look the same as the other parties. The Greens have a different way of doing politics, but by using the language of the other Westminster parties they are not changing the game of politics and not differentiating themselves enough to disenfranchised voters.

The Green Party called for a peaceful revolution against the established order of Westminster but their revolution looks very white and middle class. From my point of view, a real revolution against the political establishment would both represent and appeal to the poor, the disenfranchised and members of ethic and social minorities.

The Greens are not popular enough with the poor and ethnic monitories which are overlooked by the other Westminster Parties to be changing the game of politics, nor do they adequately represent these groups - which would be necessary to change the game of politics.

The Green Party may not be leading a revolution, but they are challenging the established political narrative, which is a welcome change. The Greens are not changing the game of politics but they are playing it in a new and interesting way.

TV Debate

I watched the TV debate as a potential swing voter. I am currently leaning towards voting Labour but the party’s proposed policies are a lot less radical than my own views. I feel a lot of sympathy for the Greens, who are genuinely passionate about radical change to our society. I watched the debates wanting to be convinced by Ed Miliband, but strangely found Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru and Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP more convincing.

Wood passionately defended the NHS in a section where she talked about how it had begun in Wales and needed to be funded by general taxation - something I very much believe in. Despite Miliband's best attempts to gain ground on the NHS, he failed to sound as passionate about the institution as Wood did. Wood also mentioned the skill gap which immigration fills, particular in the NHS, when the main party leaders were falling over themselves trying to appeal to the slightly xenophobic middle-Englander, something I found especially repugnant.

Wood received the first applause of the evening when she stood up to Nigel Farage’s scapegoating of immigrants and scaremongering over HIV. I cheered when she told Farage that "he should be ashamed of himself" whilst defending immigration and the role immigrants play in society. I wanted Miliband to stand up to the embodiment of self-entitled English bigotry, but all he managed were a few hesitant points about peoples’ concerns, which did nothing to win me over and nothing to convince swing voters that Labour is "tough on immigration". The fact that Labour want to appear tough on immigration disappointments me, they should not be allowing the right to dominate this issue so much as it only benefits the Conservatives and UKIP, and Labour will never be viewed as credible on this issue.

Sturgeon also voiced her opposition to austerity and talked about the need to raise government spending to invest and create jobs. I was disappointed that Miliband is determined to emphasise that a Labour government would cut more from the budget, during a time when unemployment is still high, there is underinvestment in infrastructure, and inequality is very significant. Five years of Tory austerity has made us a harsher, meaner, less equal, more money focused society, governed by small-minded bean counters who would propagate suffering if it was cost effective.

We have come through the first recession in history where the rich have got richer and the poor have got poorer. The vast accumulation of wealth and opportunity by a small fraction of society threatens the re-emergence of the class system and has broken the mantra that hard work is rewarded; this concept remains only as a political sound-bite. The Labour Party should be whole-heartedly opposed to this, however it fell to Sturgeon to defend the role of government spending.

We can fight inequality and self-interest through the government spending Sturgeon defended, through the NHS, through investing in homes, through welfare spending. Miliband appears to prefer a holding pattern above the point where the Victorian social structure would return, instead of defending the role of government. This is presumably so that a future Tory government can push us over the edge. I was disappointed by the Labour leader, but encouraged by the SNP leader’s arguments.

Sturgeon stood up to Cameron's plans for future welfare cuts. A Labour leader I could be proud of would have stood up to Cameron's plans to balance the nation's books on the back of the poorest whilst cutting taxes for the rich, but he did not. Most likely out of fear of offending the above mentioned small minded bean counters who will never think Labour are credible economically anyway. Labour do best electorally when they capture a spirit of optimism about the future, not trepidation.

I do not seem to be along in thinking that Sturgeon did well that night, she topped 3 out of 4 snap polls asking who had won the debate, one third of Labour and Lib Dem voters support Sturgeon and the most Googled phrase after the debate was whether a non-resident of Scotland can vote SNP. Clearly a significant section of the public, even the English public, agree with Sturgeon’s arguments, so why is Labour so keen to be out flanked on the left by Plaid and the SNP? Is it to gain the vote of the cynical self-interested centrist? I would prefer a Labour Party that appeals to our aspirations (as the SNP does and has Labour did when it won big in the past) rather than a Labour party that appeals to cynical self-interest. I am disappointed by how uninspiring Miliband's arguments are and those of Wood and Sturgeon pleasantly surprised me.

Miliband did have some good moments during the debate. I agree with his dismissal of trickle-down economics, which has only succeeded in creating one of the most unequal societies in history – even if he demonstrated little belief in an alternative. I also agreed with Miliband when he talked about the pressures on private renters and the exploitation of immigrants. These were good moments when he showed some genuine compassion.

Miliband was certainly not the biggest loser of the last debate. That was Farage who at best came across as a broken record and at worst as a dripping xenophobic imbecile, which will no doubt please his core demographic but is unlikely to sway anyone else. Miliband did well but failed to inspire me the way that Wood and Sturgeon did. I want a Labour leader who leads on left wing issues and inspires people to vote for them with a positive vision of a fairer, more equal future. I saw this from Wood and Sturgeon; I did not see this from Miliband.

Green Surge

The Green Party has been in the news, but this time it isn’t because they had a surge in membership or been invited to the leaders’ debates, it is because their policies were actually being discussed. On LBC they had a chance to put their housing policy directly to voters and the outcome was not good. Faced with some simple questions on financing their leader Natalie Bennett completely collapsed. The phrase train wreck does not begin to cover how badly it went - you can hear the interview and read the transcript here.

The story quickly became about how bad her performance was, which is a shame as we do urgently need more council homes to alleviate pressure on the private housing market, and no other party has seriously suggesting tackling the problem. Bennett also made a good point about how much of the housing benefit bill ends up in the pockets of private landlords, something I have been pointing out for years. The lack of a living wage means that benefits are used to subsidise both private landlords and the low wage offered by employers. If you are concerned about the cost of housing benefits, then look at who it really goes to: buy-to-let landlords, and not low income workers.

Increasing the stock of council housing, coupled with other Green policies like a living wage, would reduce the housing benefit bill, move vulnerable people out of the private rented sector, increase standards of living for the lowest earners, reduce inflationary pressure on rents in the private housing market and provide more home security for those in need.

All of these benefits, which would help the Greens electorally, were overlooked because the story became about Bennett’s performance. The Greens do need to get better at pitching themselves, or else they will not be able to expand their electoral support. The fact that their leader fell completely apart during an interview that was not particularly difficult or pressing is not encouraging this close to the election. It looked like they were not expecting their policies to come under the same level of scrutiny that every other party gets.

Those posters asking "the boys" what they are afraid of look childishly overconfident now, especially as one of the “boys” Bennett will be up against is Nicola Sturgeon who is a very good debater and will make short work on Bennett if she cannot answer simple questions about figures without tripping over her own feet. That's without taking into account Farage's bolshie style of public oratory, Cameron and Clegg who have done this before and Miliband who has been able to held his own against Cameron during PMQs. The Greens could end up looking like amateurs playing in the professional party's league.

This home spun, ordinary-people, lack of professionalism is part of the draw of the Greens - up until the point when it stops them appealing to ordinary people who have little tolerance of politicians with a lack of media savvy– case in point, look at what happened to Gordon Brown five years ago.

This, and other, recent media gaffs are symptoms of a wider problem with the Green Party - and I write this as someone who is tempted to vote Green in the general election. The Greens appeared to have assumed that everyone would support their policies if they knew what they were. However this is because there policies have had little scrutiny outside the ranks of their supporters or people who are likely to vote for them. Appealing to a wide cross section of the general public is more difficult, and does not necessarily require changing of policies but it does involve expressing them properly.

Expressing them properly does not mean becoming the slick PR machine that the Tories are or raising the huge ground swell of volunteers that Labour have, it means framing their policies as the answers to the questions voters are asking and, where possible, changing the national debate to questions to which the Green Party are the answer. UKIP, remember, have only become relevant by making sure every question on every issue can be answered with ‘Europe’, ‘immigration’ or ‘political correctness’ – whatever you think about their worldview, they’re good at it, and they’ve been successful in getting these issues onto the agenda, largely against the wishes of the established parties.

It also means having a consistent message on policy areas such as the economy, health, housing, etc. Which are areas where it is possible to make gains from Labour among left learning people. They are doing some of this already, which is why left learning people like myself are inclined to vote for them, but they need to be better at it.

They also have to phrase their policies in a way which voters can clearly understand what the party as a whole stands for. A recent example, pointed out to me, is that the Greens want to legalise membership of groups like IS (who want to destroy our society) but will make criminals of small business owners who do not want women to breast feed on their premises. I think these are both good policies but when put together they seem very contradictory and are likely to alienate people who would otherwise support the Greens.

As a country we need the Greens to do well, they are the only party that is challenging the status quo - with the possible exception of the SNP. From safe guarding the environment, to protecting the NHS, to ending the scapegoating of those on benefits and immigrants, there are many reasons to support the Green Party, but the Greens themselves need to start acting more professionally or this Green Surge will not translate into electoral results.

The main piece of advice I would give to the Greens are to stop focusing on the details like the minutia of how policies will be funded and leave that the other grey suited politicians fighting it out to be accountant-in-chief. By focusing on the cost of policies the Greens are playing the other party’s game, a game they cannot win. A sustainable future and a fairer society is not something which can be subjected to cost benefit analysis.

To appeal to voters the Greens need a simple and consistent narrative of hope and change. They need to be the breath of fresh air that will clear away the old establishment and vested interesting and usher in a fairer, cleaner, greener future. They need a message of hope and change and not one of small-minded bean counting. This will engage people who want change and believe that the Greens can deliver it.

It's the economy stupid

Economic performance makes or breaks a re-election campaign. In the absence of a scandal (and sometimes in spite of one) strong economic performance will guarantee a government’s re-election. The poor economic situation allowed Bill Clinton to beat incumbent George H. W. Bush in 1992, and then 4 years later the buoyant economic circumstances allowed Clinton to overcome the Monica Lewinski scandal to be re-elected. Economic performance allowed Blair to win three elections and Brown to win zero. Now with a general election almost upon us, the economy is centre stage again.

Economic "leadership" is seen as a winning trait in a perspective Prime minister and with inequality up, wages down, homes too expensive for most people to afford, trouble in the Euro-zone and another financial crash on the horizon there has never been more need for economic leadership.

However, economic leadership is not what we are being offered. Cameron offers more of the same from a future Tory government, more protection for big business, more cuts to public services, more blaming of the poor for all our economic problems. I doubt a future Tory government will raise wages, living standards or reduce inequality. This is mainly because they refuse to legislate to achieve these aims; Cameron prefers to ask business leaders nicely to do these things, so that they can easily ignore their social responsibilities.

Defining economic success is half of the election battle. Cameron would prefer it to be economic growth figures, as GDP is up and the economy is larger now than it was before the crash. Labour are viewed as weak on growth, mainly as a hangover from the 2010 general election, when Cameron was able to blame complex global macro-economic problems on the simple fact that Labour overspent. Labour would prefer economic success to be defined as growth in wages and living standards, which have remained flat since the Tories took office.

In terms of policy, Labour offer some economic leadership. Miliband's plan is to promote responsible capitalism, which is neo-liberalism with government intervention to prevent the worst inequalities and abuses. However, this is not leadership or putting forward an alternative to the dominant economic narrative of neo-liberalism. This is a slightly different variant on the narrative Thatcher established in the 1980s and has essentially remained unchallenged since.

Labour's plan is to exploit peoples’ fear. Fear that things will get worse, fear that wages will not rise, fear that ordinary people will not feel the recovery, fear that your children will be worse off than you are. This is a bad move as Labour achieved large landslides when they captured a spirit of optimism. This was the case in 1945 with the welfare state, in 1966 with the “white heat of technology” and in 1997 with New Labour. Appealing to our aspirations works better for Labour, not our fears.

Politicians from the main parties are appealing to our fears instead of our aspirations; this has led to voters being frightened about the future and unsure who offers hope. UKIP aims to exploit voters’ fear that immigration and the EU will drag our economy under, Lib Dems that the two main parties will unleash widespread suffering without them as a coalition partner, Greens that our economy will be wrecked by environmental disasters, the SNP that a collapsing English economy will sink Scotland as well.

If all economic indicators were improving then the government would be doing better in opinion polls. Let us not forgot that the Tories led us into a double-dip, almost triple-dip, recession. The economy is growing but people who are not already very wealthy are not feeling better off, this is a failure of economic policy.

If Labour were offering an alternative narrative then they would be doing better in the polls as well. By playing along to the Tory's narrative of austerity, instead of offering one of their own, they are playing a losing game. 2010 was not long ago and fighting the debates from that election again will not bring about a Labour victory. The lack of a counter narrative is playing into the hands of the Tories.

No one offers any vision or leadership on the economy, only fear. Economic fear has gripped us as a nation despite the return of growth. We are frightened about unemployment, uncertainty, anti-business agendas, rabid capitalism, wages, inflation, deflation, the cost of the NHS, the lack of an NHS, the cost of immigration, too many pensioners, house prices falling, houses being too expensive, anti-EU rhetoric, pro-EU rhetoric and our shadows.

The climate of fear and uncertainty that surrounds our economic future is a product of the lack of leadership from politicians on the economy. Politician of all stripes would rather let the market and unaccountable large companies control our economic future, and the result has been inequality, economic instability and a public who worries that control of the economy is out of their hands. This has led to a view that ordinary's people's concerns are not taken into account when economic decisions are made and now most people are frightened about their future.

In the 1970s economic uncertainty, fear about the future and belief that the economy was out of our control led to strong leadership from Margret Thatcher and a radical new vision for our economy. Now those views have been allowed to run to their logical conclusion and people are concerned about the state of the economy. Again we need bold leadership from politicians and a new economic narrative to change direction and regain people's faith in the economy and their own futures.

We need a new economic narrative to replace the neo-liberal mantra, which has led us to this place of fear and confusion. We need a narrative that makes us optimistic about our future and feel in control our own economic wellbeing, not at the whim of free-market forces or governments that looks after the financial futures of large companies instead of its own citizens.

The fact that both main parties have the same economic narrative is the reason for the political deadlock. As the economy is the most important issue to most voters, presenting a new popular economic narrative would be a huge vote winner for a party that did so. It was an adviser of Clinton's who coined the phrase "it's the economy, stupid" to describe how election campaigns turn on this issue. Both main parties should bear this in mind when they are considering repeating the tired economic clichés voters are disillusioned with, or showing some leadership on this issue and presenting a new narrative.

The case for voting Green

Earlier this week I posted the case, from a left-wing point of view, for voting Labour in this year’s general election. Until recently I only considered the possibility of voting Labour. I have been a Labour Party member for over ten years and have campaigned for them on two separate occasions. However I have been completely underwhelmed by Miliband's leadership despite voting for him to be party leader, because I believed he was the most left-wing candidate on the ballot.

It is not his lack of charisma or inability to eat a bacon sandwich which puts me off voting Labour. It’s the party’s complete failure at being actually left-wing. Despite the fact that the right-wing press will paint Miliband as a socialist, he still cannot find it in himself to put forward a genuine alternative to the Tories’ neo-liberalism and austerity. However, recently the Green Party has been doing a pretty good job of putting forward this alternative, and I am considering voting for them. So on that note:

The case for voting Green:

I am one of a growing number of people who believe we need radical change to our society to avoid sleepwalking into a resurgent class system and growing civil unrest. The wealth of the rich is exploding compared to the wealth of everyone else. Government austerity is eroding the welfare state and destroying the services the poorest rely on. The great social levellers - free universal healthcare, free education, a minimum standard of housing - are being removed. The poor are being blamed for being poor and the disabled are blamed for being disabled. Through private schools and unpaid internships, society is gamed for the children of the rich and, if this goes unchecked, we will return to a class based society where your prospects in life are determined by your birth. The left needs to send a powerful signal that we want to change society, and this signal is voting Green.

I support their policy on a minimum national income to fight poverty, as well as their energy and tuition fees polices. I also strongly support not renewing Trident. In terms of radical changes to our society, I believe the Greens are right to propose cutting back the army, partly to stop us getting involved in another disastrous war in the Middle East. Changing the focus in employment to work that matters/is of social benefit would not only be good for the environment, but would also help to end the money and status obsession which is slowing killing everything that is good about our society.

From a socialist point of view they plan to tax the rich and help the poor, which will lead to an end of the culture of blaming the poor for being poor and then punishing them with austerity. Speaking of which, the Greens are the only party with a clear opposition to neo-liberalism and austerity. These policies created our economic problems and then pushed the burden of solving them onto the poorest members of society. On top of all this, a vote for the Greens would be a push back against the dominant right-wing narratives on immigration and benefits.

The Greens are the only party I trust on the environment. Labour are too pragmatic to do something as idealistic as protecting the natural world. They are also the only party I trust to be sensible on crime and drugs. They are the only party I trust to look at the causes of crime and not simply rely on harsher sentences. The drugs reforms that the Greens suggest seem common sense to me, and are supported by the medical community - at least in terms of marijuana.

Every other party is so terrified of right-wing hysteria that they refuse even to concede the point. The continual cycle of successive governments burying their own drug reports which refuse to tow the right-wing line shows how reluctant they are to consider any form of liberalisation. Instead, the drug problem gets worse and the right-wing pundits blow more steam out of their ears and jump up and down on their hats whenever liberalisation is suggested.

The drugs issue shows how timid the mainstream parties are and how little changes regardless of which one is in power. It is this narrowing of debate which has contributed to the climate of cynicism that surrounds politics. By voting Green we can counter this cynicism with a real alternative to the big three - an alternative which is not UKIP, as UKIP is just more cynicism but of a different kind. Voting Green will show politicians that we do want something different from the narrow range of policies that are presented to us.

Do you think that a future Labour government will tax the rich and ban zero hour contracts? I do not think they will, but they might do in a coalition with the Greens, which is another great reason to vote for them.

The main reason not to vote Green is also one of the main reasons to vote Green, which is their energy policy. Their total opposition to nuclear power is unfounded. France is invested heavily in nuclear power and has one of the lowest levels of greenhouse gas emissions in Europe as well as some of the cheapest electricity. As much as I love wind farms, and hate how the landed Tories moan about them, the technology is not ready for Britain to become fully dependant upon them in the short term. Nuclear power must be used as in the medium term as we wean ourselves off non-renewables. A Green/Labour coalition would probably have the best combination of optimism and realism on energy policy.

There is also the Green's support for alternative medicine, which has no place within the NHS. However, aside from these few differences, I am struggling to find proposed Green Party policies that I disagree with. My only concern is that it is easy for a fridge party to promise a lot of radical policies, but with no experience of national government, I am worried about how much of this they will deliver. After being seduced by the Lib Dems in 2010, I am weary about a seemingly left-wing alternative that turns out to be a Tory footstool.

Despite this I strongly believe you should vote for the policies which best represent your vision of what you want the country to be. Worry about the bean counting and paperwork later. If were too preoccupied with these things then we would not have a welfare state - and it is this attitude which is partly responsible for the eroding of the welfare state.

I, like a lot of radical lefties, think that our society needs real change to advert economic and social disaster. Change which cannot be offered by the Labour Party. The only way send a signal to politicians that we want radical change to our society is to vote for the only party which is offering radical change, which is the Green Party.

The case for voting Labour

The first wave of our general election coverage tackles the most fundamental election question: who should I vote for? It will be no surprise to our readers that voting Tory or UKIP is out of the question, and I feel so let down by the Lib Dems that they are no longer an option either. However, the growing Labour vs Green debate is very interesting so I thought I would start the coverage by evaluating these parties.

Full disclosure: I am a Labour Party member, generally vote Labour in most elections, and I have campaigned for Labour in the past. However, being on the left of the party, I am tempted to vote Green. One of my reasons for writing these posts is to figure out for myself how I want to vote in May. So without further ado:

The case for voting Labour:

Under Miliband, Labour has been more radical than it has been in a long time. Some the policies of market intervention he is putting forward would have been unthinkable under Blair or Brown. There’s lots of genuinely left-wing policies to like in Labour's current offering and I feel we should encourage the Labour Party while it is being radical by voting for it. If we do not, and Labour is defeated, then we will get ‘Blue Labour’ and more towing the centralist line on spending, on immigration, on welfare. If Labour puts forward left-wing policies and lefties do not vote for them then we can hardly complain when Labour does not put forward left wing policies in the future.

Miliband may lack charisma but he does have a vision for what Britain should be like, backed up by theory and experience of government. He believes that now is a time for political change, when the status quo can alter, as in 1945 or 1979. His ideas of responsible capitalism, and government intervention in the market to prevent the worst inequalities and protect the poorest people, would have been considered dangerously radical under Blair.

In terms of policies I support there is the reintroduction of the 50p income tax bracket, a mansion tax with the funding to support the NHS, the roll-back of NHS privatization and protecting our EU membership. On top of that there is a mooted young peoples’ manifesto, to encourage young, disenfranchised voters to participate in politics as well as a possible University tuition fee reduction and ending charity status for private schools.

Above all, there is the NHS. Labour will protect the NHS and prevent another top down reorganisation. Labour will also protect the NHS from alternative medicine, which is supported by the Green party. On the economy, a Labour government will protect economic growth, rising living standards and move some wealth from the top of society to the bottom.

Labour is proposing to cut £7bn from the budget, which is something I am opposed to. However it would be simplistic to say this policy is no different from the Tories who plan to cut 4 times this figure. Under Labour the government can continue to function, under the Tories it will be changed forever. It is also worth pointing out that Labour will protect local council budgets which the Tories will decimate if re-elected.

The Labour party is different to all the other political parties in that since it began it has always been a confederation of different groups and different options. The Labour party is best adapted to accommodating the differences on the left and balance the competing demands of environmentalists, socialists, trade unionists and liberals. There are a lot of key debates about what the left should look like in the 21st Century and it is best that these debates take place within the Labour party and not between different parties. Partly because the Labour party is best set up to balance these different views within one cohesive movement, but also so as not to split the left wing vote, which is what the Tories want. I am very concerned about the future if too many lefties vote Bennett and get Cameron, or worse get Farage.

The case against voting for the Labour Party is that they are so rubbish at being left wing in practice. Their leadership lack any passion for left-wing views or values. The idea that the Labour Party should be calling out businesses which run zero hour contracts or politicians endlessly blaming the poor for our economic problems is completely alien to the party's leadership. They seem to be terrified of being accused of being of actually left-wing.

The sad thing is that the right-wing press will accuse Miliband of being a dangerous Communist no matter what he does, so why does he not take this opportunity to he even a little bit socialist? The Labour Party is always bowing to the right's advances on immigration, on benefits, on the EU, and never takes the initiative. The more they do this the more they let the right define these issues and thus take the electoral advantage.

The Labour Party has failed to set out an alternative to austerity and Neo-liberalism. Their case for voting for them is that they will do the same as the Tories but be a little nicer and little bit less harsh on the poor. The subtext of this is that a Labour government will still be nasty and still push most of the burden of society's problems onto the poor. The alternative would be to put out a real ideological alternative to austerity and neo-liberalism and, as the Labour Party has ceded any debate on these issues to the right, this will not happen. I agree with the political ideology of Miliband, but it is the beginning of an alternative to the neo-liberal hegemony and not an alternative in itself. The Labour Party is going in the right direction but has not gone far enough.

The main point against voting Labour is that they are completely uninspiring. They are not offering alternative views on the current debates and are still wrestling with the Tories over a political centre of dullards and bean counters. This will not inspire popular support and contributes to the climate of cynicism and apathy that dominates the electorate.

If we are going to get more of the same from the next government then I would prefer it to be Labour's slightly nicer and slightly more equal more of the same. However I want a real alternative to the political narrative laid out by the right. More of the same will not end this culture of political cynicism, only a real alternative to the status quo will do. A radical shake up will come at some point, I just hope it is from within the Labour party.

General Election Coverage

It is that time again, a general election. A time when the parties throw mud at each other, try to influence the debates onto subjects they poll better on and generally bicker while trying to look majestic, dynamic or forward thinking. It is one of those times when we all end up thinking: "Wouldn't it be easier if we all lived in a Soviet style one-party system?" No? Well maybe that is just me.

In truth, I love a general election, it is a time to debate our future and review our past. A time to think about the kind of society we want to live in and what we want to escape from.

This general election promises to be more interesting than any since 1992 because the outcome is so uncertain. Labour/Lib Dem coalition, Tory/Lib Dem, Labour/SNP, Labour/SNP/Green (hopefully), Tory/UKIP (heaven forbid), any of these outcomes is possible. The polls are close and both major parties are struggling to get thirty-five percent. Smaller parties are surging and being talked about in a way they have never been before - i.e. not as a wasted vote. By mid-May, the make up and priorities of the government could be radically different from what it is now. It is all very exciting.

In the run up to the election, we will be providing our own unique coverage. It will be similar to what you have read before, fiercely left-wing, but entirely focused on the election. Polls, leader debates, manifestos, we will be covering it. Watch here for future developments. It promises to be interesting.