Peter Rowlands sees a necessary discussion to be engaged with, but also some conclusions to be rejected
The independent inquiry by Jon Cruddas and others – ‘Why Labour lost in 2015 and how it can win again’ – has just been published (late May 2016), although much of the material has already appeared. It does I think deserve another look, as there is fresh material. It is serious, as opposed to just being a means of attacking Corbyn, and it poses the ultimate question. Its conclusions are, I believe, largely but by no means completely wrong, and I will try to explain why.
The report uses a ‘Values mode analysis’, which classifies voters into three types: pioneers, (34%) who are socially liberal, idealistic and hold universal values, prospectors (37%) who are aspirational, acquisitive and pragmatic, and settlers (29%) who are socially conservative, traditional and value social order, family and community. (I do not have the expertise to assess whether this type of analysis is useful or just a form of spurious academic gloss which could have been expressed in more straightforward ways, but I will take it at its face value).
The analysis shows that Labour consists increasingly of pioneers, and is consequently less representative of the electorate as a whole, with prospectors having been lost to the Conservatives and settlers to UKIP. Although the report does not say so, this helps to explain the support for Corbyn. Since 2005, with broadly the same level of support, Labour‘s support is more left wing. This is probably due in the main to a switch from the Lib-Dems.
In Scotland the report notes the successful fusion of nationalism and radicalism by the SNP. The report also suggests that an English Labour Party could pursue a similar good idea. Quite possibly this could let us explore the whole question of English identity, federalism and regionalism. The problem is however that the political manifestations of Englishness are, unlike Scottishness, are largely reactionary and accommodation in this area is fraught with difficulty
The report claims that Labour lost because it did not convince voters that it would deal with the deficit or manage the economy competently. There is much in this, although that does not mean that there was no support, or potential support, for an anti-austerity agenda. Labour however never put this forward, its messages on the economy came across as confused, and it effectively admitted its incompetence by failing to defend its record in government. Given that no-one was saying that the deficit didn’t matter (I can recall Bob Crow saying how important deficit reduction was!) it was hardly surprising that pragmatic ‘prospector’ voters backed the Conservatives whose messages on this were clear.
In Scotland the report notes the successful fusion of nationalism and radicalism by the SNP. The report also suggests that an English Labour Party could pursue a similar good idea. Quite possibly this could let us explore the whole question of English identity, federalism and regionalism. The problem is however that the political manifestations of Englishness are, unlike Scottishness, are largely reactionary and accommodation in this area is fraught with difficulty. But the report is right to say that those who have deserted Labour for UKIP, many of whom have been loyal Labour voters for most of their lives, must be taken seriously ( as opposed to the appalling bunch of chancers and ne’er do wells that lead them).
But this should not mean that Labour should become socially conservative, even if it does promote a more radical economic agenda. A move to the right on immigration, welfare, or the EU may attract some back from UKIP, but would be at the cost of huge demoralisation for those who were inspired by the radical vision so successfully promoted during the leadership election by Corbyn. The ‘Blue Labour’ route, which is what is being advocated by this report, leads nowhere, and is unlikely to increase Labour’s appeal.
That does not mean that the things like family, community and individual responsibility are not important, but there will always be a tension between the desire for and the resistance to change, and older people will tend towards the latter, which is why a higher proportion of them vote Conservative, although many of these have gone to UKIP as well. This does however remain much more of a problem for Labour, because of the much higher propensity to vote amongst older people than younger people, and even if the latter was improved Labour must increase its ’grey’ vote. One way might be to remind this group of one of New Labour’s most significant reforms, surprisingly little remembered, which introduced ‘Pension Credit’ in the late 90s which lifted large numbers of pensioners and older workers out of the poverty they had endured under previous Conservative governments. There must be many UKIP voters who are beneficiaries of this.
Labour will only succeed if it has a vision and an agenda for change, as it did in 1945, 1964 and 1997. The key problem with the report is that it is essentially passive in that it sees no alternative to an accommodation with social conservatism. This is highly debateable, particularly in a period which has seen so much political volatility and switches of political allegiance. Thinking and outlook does and can change, as the values methodology in the report accepts. Support can be built, but this will not happen until the left stops talking to itself and starts to fashion and widely promote a radical vision for change, backed by detailed policy proposals and a strategy for their implementation. This is the challenge for the coming period.
Peter Rowlands is a long-standing member of the CHARTIST collective and writes in an individual capacity