When Labour loses an election
there is a tendency on the left to first indulge in the
wisdom of hindsight, and then to project the party’s failures eternally into
As I put money on an overall majority for the Tories and have the
William Hill betting slip to prove it, I cannot be accused of the first.
the conviction that Labour can never win again is harder to resist. Just
because it was so wrong in 1992 does not mean it is wrong now.
There is plenty of space for a social democratic party in
Britain capable of speaking for two-thirds of the country or more, and able to
appeal to both aspirational and left-behind voters.
It is just very hard to see
how Labour, with
its current activists and MPs, could ever be that party. For it is
the party’s inability to connect culturally with most British voters that lost
it the election.
Leaving aside the issue of
economic competence and Ed Miliband, it simply had no answer to nationalism in
Scotland, Ukip English populism in the Midlands and the north (which in those
areas gave it nearly 17% of the vote and 44 second places, a pitiful percentage after all the hype, and someone always did come second in those seats
), and the free-market
modernity of southern England.
Labour is a self-consciously
progressive party dominated by highly educated people who tend to believe they
see the world more clearly and understand people’s interests better than they
do themselves – the default instinct of both the educated and the centre left.
But this top-down political temperament and the wider worldview and language of
activist barely overlaps any longer with
the average voter.
That voter has a hotch-potch of sometimes conflicting
political feelings about the world, which might be summed up in Matthew
d’Ancona’s phrase “individualism plus the NHS”.
He or she has a left or liberal
side: most people oppose unjustified wealth and hierarchies (though might
disagree about the definition of unjustified), are suspicious of authority, are
comfortable with “abroad” and support equal rights (including for women and
But he or she also has a conservative or communitarian side: most
people are suspicious of change, want to live in stable communities, think
people should take responsibility for themselves (and think today’s welfare
system discourages them from doing so), want to live in relatively traditional
families and, without being flag-waving nationalists, think that national
citizen preference matters.
As the left v right spectrum has partly faded,
commentators now talk about political views lining up along a libertarian v
authoritarian, or an open v closed spectrum – but the latter distinction is
just self-serving liberal propaganda.
Nobody believes in a closed world.
Most people (including ethnic
minorities) do want immigration to return to more moderate levels and think EU
citizens should have to work for a few years before qualifying for tax credits
or social housing, but they are modern “easyJet” people: socially conservative
on some things and sort-of liberal on others.
A more relevant spectrum would highlight different
emotional attitudes to change, mobility and belonging.
and liberals tend to welcome change, are comfortable with mobility (their own
and other people’s), and not especially bothered about belonging, indeed are
suspicious of most group allegiances.
Yet most voters are more likely to see
change as loss and – without being sentimental for the often oppressive
communities of 1950s Britain – want to live in relatively stable places with a
high level of trust, low crime, and a degree of neighbourliness.
And most people
place the interests of fellow members of the local or national club before
outsiders. This is the spectrum which finds most voters in a very different
place from today’s Labour party.
On social mobility too, Labour’s
graduate professionals seem to be saying: climb those ladders as we did.
course, Labour should be on the side of ladder climbers, but it has been
insufficiently sensitive to the shadow they cast over those who cannot or do
not want to climb with them.
Just as London can make the rest of the country
feel inconsequential, so those who get to university and into the top part of
the labour market can make those millions of decent, responsible people doing
ordinary jobs feel like failures.
This is the dark side of meritocracy, and Labour should
have thought far harder about how to mitigate it.
As it was, the party had far
more to say about universities than the continuing mess that is non-university
post-school education and training.
As Labour MPs Gloria De Piero and Jon
Ashworth wrote in the Times
after the election:
“In the election, it looked
like – so far as Labour was concerned – aspiration was just about going to
university, hence our promise to cut tuition fees. But aspiration is also
finding your children a place in a good school; getting your foot on the
housing ladder; or starting a business or learning a new trade. These are
becoming harder not easier, but Labour was not talking enough about them, let
alone persuading people we had the answers.”
A country with a large group of
strivers, but also decent pay and status for those who stay put and do basic
jobs, is something that is becoming harder to achieve – both financially and
psychologically – as the labour market and the education system increasingly
divide into insiders (mobile professionals/graduates) and outsiders (immobile
people without A-levels doing often basic jobs).
This is a problem for all
advanced countriesand for all political parties, but Labour should have made
this aspect of inequality central to its story instead of fixating on the
It is, however, no use just
having the right policies to connect the aspirational and the left-behind.
several areas, such as welfare and immigration, Labour did have quite socially
conservative policies – milder versions of the Tories’ own policies – but did
not really believe in them or embody them.
Embodiment is vital in today’s
As left v right arguments become more blurred, Labour needs a leader
and a critical mass of activists who can embody social democracy with a provincial,
socially conservative accent.
The election was a decisive vote
against metropolitan liberalism – against mass immigration, further European
integration, and the high-churn society that discomforts so many people.
also a vote against London – the city that most represents those things. United
against it were not just SNP and Ukip voters but many Tory and Labour ones. Yet
London is Labour’s new heartland.
There has recently been much use
of the famous Bertolt
dissolving the people and electing another.
Labour has to do something similar
– if not dissolve its current membership, then at least find a new set of
leaders who connect culturally with the country it aspires to rule.
But did the metropolitan liberal elite hold every seat in County Durham? Did it deliver 81.3 per cent of the vote at Liverpool Walton, 78.12 per cent at Knowsley, 75.57 per cent at Liverpool West Derby, or 74.46 per cent at Bootle?
Few of the Labour-voting 77.57 per cent at East Ham will have identified, or will have been identified, as belonging to any liberal elite. Had they been so identifiable, then they might not have voted in such huge numbers, and not for the first time, for Stephen Timms.
And why does anyone even bother to mention UKIP after it went from two seats to one and began a very public falling apart, reduced to staging stunts with Harry Cole and suspiciously rapid policemen in order to gain attention?
That said, yes.