Mike Davis reflects on Labour’s defeat
Tory bribes of income tax, VAT and National Insurance freezes and a new housing bubble combined with the politics of fear on migrants, benefit recipients, Europe and Scotland threaded through a narrow English nationalist ticket to bring the Tories home to an unpredicted narrow overall majority. Last minute decisions by undecided ‘shy voters’ who opted for the incumbent party sealed the victory.
Labour’s austerity lite programme founded on the misplaced focus of deficit reduction coupled with spending cuts, ‘the fiscal responsibility lock’ backfired. People voted for the real thing.
The Liberal Democrats paid a huge price for getting in bed with the Tories, being reduced from 56 to 8 seats. Towing the Tory line disenchanted their supporters and undermined any wider appeal.
The SNP annihilated Labour and produced a sea change in Scotland which has been some time in the making. Labour suffered from its alliance with the Tories in the ‘Better Together’ referendum campaign, failed to articulate a new deal for Scotland or stand up to austerity.
The last five years have been a largely wasted opportunity to define a new popular narrative away from New Labour embracing a modernising agenda of wealth redistribution, a new economic model and a democratic revolution.
There are small comforts: Cat Smith’s win in Lancaster and Fleetwood, seven Labour gains in London and two seats in East Anglia (Cambridge and Norwich South). Plus a few other gains scattered across England. For Labour nothing can make up for the bombshell of the SNP 56 seat win (of 59) in Scotland, the Tory mop up of Lib Dem seats in the South and their resistance to Labour and UKIP. The defeats for Nigel Farage and George Galloway, by respectively Tory and Labour candidates, do little to assuage the negative impact of a Tory overall majority.
Cameron presides over a hugely divided United Kingdom. The SNP campaigned on an explicitly anti-austerity ticket along with ‘devo-max’/fiscal autonomy. So SNP Scotland opens a huge chasm. Wales largely stuck with Labour and Plaid while England, outside the main conurbations becomes even bluer. Cameron has adopted the language of ‘one nation’ Toryism while eschewing it throughout the six-week election campaign. Unexpectedly he now has to deliver huge cuts, tax freezes and a European reform and referendum without a Coalition brake. The latter could be the tripping point as his back bench right-wingers sense a new-discovered power.
Meanwhile poverty, inequality, and hardship for the many will grow while the rich get richer. Read ‘insecure’ and ‘bitter’ in place of the cynical Tory ‘Secure and Better Britain’. Work insecurity will mount alongside narrow nationalist sentiment deepening social divisions. Society will become more bitter as the poor, migrants and vulnerable are blamed for the problems of the profit system, the banksters and its Tory managers.
For Labour the challenge is profound. Either discover a new social democratic politics or be beached. In the wider UK reconnect with the millions of voters who defected to rightist parties. Work more closely with civil society organisations, co-ops and trade unions to build a vibrant opposition. In parliament find some common cause with the SNP, Plaid, Greens and rump Lib Dems against the Tories or drift.
Of course the print media were ranged against Labour—only the Mirror and Guardian advocated a Labour vote. Miliband had bravely challenged Murdoch where Blair had feted him. Yes, Labour’s last leadership contest took the fire away from the coalition for too long and then team Miliband, surrounded by many New Labourites, failed to nail the lie that Labour caused the 2008 crash.
Further team Miliband failed to hammer the Tories and UKIP on Europe and immigration, conceding too much ground on the latter and saying little on the former.
But most significant was the economy. Miliband failed to shift the narrative away from ‘deficit reduction’ on to investment, secure well-paid employment and progressive taxation. The positive attacks on the super rich—the non doms, banker’s bonuses, tax avoiders came too little too late. While with the weight of Ed Balls austerity lite chains around his leadership neck he was never able to really shift the focus on to a different agenda. Neo-liberalism remained the default setting.
Labour now needs to reflect deeply on what went wrong, build an effective popular social democratic message while at the same time savaging the Cameron government. With the trade unions, individual members and supporters and the 232 MPs Labour needs to mount a programme review alongside a leadership contest culminating in elections at the October conference.
There can be no going back to new Labour or old Labour. It is not a name change Labour needs but a changed analysis of the workings of modern capitalism and a libertarian, democratic redistributive programme cast in a European framework. Allying with progressives in the nationalist and Green parties in developing ideas for a new constitutional settlement will be part of this process. Whilst a new economy will be central to this programme it will also have to consider a cultural and social revolution that puts the values of social solidarity, social justice and internationalism at the heart of its concerns.
The left, civil society and its largest part, the trade union movement, have a huge battle ahead. It will involve extra-parliamentary action, strikes, demonstrations and imaginative actions to highlight the iniquities of the Cameron government. Labour must learn to connect with active social movements whilst mounting its political challenge to the coming assaults of the Tory government.
Mike Davis is Editor of CHARTIST magazine