This election has coincided with me being more ill than I can ever remember. A dose of real flu, the sort of uncontrollable-shivering-sweat-dripping-eyeball-aching-nearly-passing-out kind of flu which has made me, perhaps for the first time, genuinely question my mortality. As a result, I suspect I’m quite unique amongst non-Tories in that the election result couldn’t make me feel worse than I already did.
Still, it is now starting to sink in. I’ll be 50 years old before there’s another chance of getting rid of the Tories, and with the boundary changes they’re about to force through, plus the likely departure of Scotland, it’s actually quite hard to see how that’s going to happen. This is terrible news for me, of course, as I’m a teacher in a state school, and the education policy changes the Tories are about to impose are horrific. The changes to A-Level and GCSE exams, SATs “resits”, the enforced Ebacc, the death of vocational qualifications, these will all hurt my own children, and many thousands of other children. That’s before we even get to the big budget cuts on the way (I heard that the Pupil Premium might be in Tory sights now those pesky LibDems aren’t there any more), and the enforced privatisation of schools into private companies. Frankly, it couldn’t be grimmer. I was no fan of Tristram Hunt’s timidity, but it would have been a thousand times better than this forthcoming nightmare. It says something that my best hope now is that, as a teacher near the top of the pay scale, I’ll be offered redundancy as a cost-saving measure by my school. If I am, I’ll bite their hands off.
DC : “And I’ll be in charge until you’re in secondary school….”
Child : “Shit. SATS resits here I come.”
I see the post-mortem has already begun of why we’ve ended up with this situation, and positions are already being drawn up. From the right of the spectrum comes the Tory argument that “Red Ed” was too much of a lefty, and by adopting such appalling marxist policies as imposing a 50% tax on very rich people, he lost the support of middle England. From the left comes the argument that the huge increase in votes to the SNP and Greens suggest that a more explicitly left-wing anti-austerity stance by Labour would have won sufficient anti-Tory voters to claim victory. In a sense, this is the difference between a position of despair or hope, I guess. The former position says that the 35% of the electorate who don’t vote are unreachable and not worth the effort – the only people who count are those swing-voters in a handful of Lab-Tory marginals. The latter position says that there are millions of voters out there who used to vote Labour, who could be persuaded to do so, if only there was a coherent message which chimed with them. This has been the argument in Labour now for a decade. I don’t see it ending any time soon. The right will point to the absence of a swing in Swindon, Nuneaton and other battleground seats, while the left will ask which of those millions of Green, SNP – or indeed, UKIP – voters didn’t vote Labour because they saw it as too left-wing ?
My natural inclination is towards the latter position, and I’d point to the Green voters, the no-shows and the disenchanted Ukippers in Lab-Con marginals as the people to target with a convincing narrative that Labour isn’t just a red Tory party which doesn’t speak to them. But I understand why those on the right will feel that this result vindicates their belief that only by returning to Blairism will Labour return to power, even if few of them (see arch-Blairite Martin Kettle in the Guardian for an example of this) have yet come up with a convincing explanation of how one wins back seats in Scotland by moving further towards the Tories.
Tony Blair’s suggestion that Labour simply needs to be more like the Tories to win back those lost voters is embraced enthusiastically north of the border
To a certain extent, though, I feel this all misses the point a bit. My old politics professor at university used to say that we only have two kinds of elections in this country : “steady as she goes“, and “kick the buggers out“. Effectively – and this is a general principle I continue to subscribe to today – Opposition parties don’t win elections; Governments lose them. The history of post-1945 British politics is one of Governments being maintained in power up until the point when they’re either derailed by some sort of economic crisis (eg 1974, 1979, 2010), or when they lose their reputation for basic competence, either in handling the economy, or in terms of the honesty or competence of their members (eg 1964, 1970, 1997). Heath didn’t lose in ’74 because voters thought his Selsdon Man Agenda was too right-wing; he lost because of power-cuts and the 3-day week. Callaghan didn’t lose in ’79 because he was seen as too far left (he was actually moving the Labour Party to the right at the time); he lost because of the Winter of Discontent. Elections are fundamentally judgements on the perceived competence of sitting Governments, not assessments of the relative merits on a left-right scale of Opposition parties. They’re also often very short-term judgments, and it wouldn’t be unreasonable to draw a parallel between the Tory “stop-go” economics of the 1950s and Osborne’s last 5 years – a pre-election “go” happily wipes out memories of an early-cycle “stop” for plenty of voters.
There’s only one election which I’d argue is an exception to this general rule, and that was 1983, when Thatcher was going to the polls on the back of an economic meltdown which her Falklands victory had only partially obscured. She lost 700,000 votes in 1983, while the opposition added 500,000, and in any other election she would have been out. The saving grace for her then was the catastrophic split of the anti-Thatcher left into not one but two large parties in the SDP/Lib-Alliance and Labour, which duly split the increased anti-Tory vote almost evenly. The British electoral system (as we’ve just discovered again) does not reward multiple parties trying to occupy similar ground, and Thatcher effectively won that election by default.
Apart from that, the rule holds. Blair and Mandelson made a lot of hay arguing that they won in 1997 because of the changes they made to Labour. I’ve never bought that argument at all. Major’s government was exhausted after 18 years, tearing at its own entrails, and had developed a reputation for incompetence and corruption. John Smith would have won that election without any Blairite changes. Hell, Neil Kinnock would have won that election. https://www.ipsos-mori.com/newsevents/ca/96/10-Myths-About-The-1997-Election.aspx It was a kick-the-buggers-out election, and in my view – and the view of plenty others – the Blairite claim that Labour “won” only because it jettisoned anything remotely approaching “left-wing” policy was always inaccurate, and is the basis for the Blairite arguments which are now being dusted off and rehashed today.
Following this argument, one arrives at a couple of conclusions :
- On Thursday, the Tories hadn’t done enough wrong to lose the support of those who voted for them last time. I personally don’t think I perceive much of an economic recovery, and I live in one of the most affluent parts of the UK. But clearly enough people in enough seats believed the economy was doing ok that they were willing to vote to retain the current government. You and I might know it’s all built on sand, and we can nod along to Krugman as much as we like, but many voters just don’t think that way. Or, perhaps, even if they accept that analysis of an economy which isn’t working for a large number of people, they just don’t care because it IS working for them. For that third of the voters who are doing fine, there was no reason for them to change horses. Exactly the same happened in ’55, ’59, ’66, ’87, ’92, ’01 and ’05 – an economy with underlying weaknesses for sure, but which on the surface seemed to be delivering increased affluence to sufficient people to return the Government.
- Arguments about left and right are very interesting for political anoraks like myself, but as most commentators and political organisers know, most voters simply don’t think about politics in that way; I’d be very surprised, for example, if most of the 20,000 UKIP voters in Sunderland were fully supportive of UKIP policies on the NHS, or education, or income tax rates; so to describe that vote as a clear shift to the right would, I think, be a mistake. Those UKIP votes, representing a disenchanted group of largely white working class people who feel hammered by the economy and unrepresented by the main political parties, are probably more amenable to being won over by Labour than the Tories, if Labour can construct a narrative which appeals to them – certainly not easy given the current importance of “identity politics” to the Labour party. This isn’t an outlandish view, and certainly one which Blue Labour-types have explored in depth.
As the only way Labour can get elected is to replicate exactly what was done in previous victories, I suggest all Labour leadership hopefuls learn to smoke a pipe, fast.
So where does this leave us ? Well it seems to me to undermine the Blairite argument that what Labour needs to do is visibly shift to the right in search of those swing voters in marginal Tory-Lab seats. Because fundamentally, those voters are simply not free-floaters approaching each election completely as a clean slate, and comparing the specific policies in Tory and Labour manifestos on a left-right slide-rule. We know, for example, that plenty of Tory voters really liked the plan to end Non-Dom status, and quite a few supported the mansion tax and higher income tax rate proposals. Some pollsters have found a majority of Tory voters in favour of renationalising the railways ! Yet they still voted Tory. Similarly, we know that the bulk of big business is horrified at the prospect of Brexit, yet that didn’t stop them doing everything in their power to get the party elected which is most likely to make that happen. This is why I think it’s a bit illogical for Blair et al to now claim that by adopting a few more Tory policies, more voters will come over. Labour already has a number of policies preferred by Tory voters and funders to the policies of the Tory party itself. They still didn’t come. It wasn’t the Labour Opposition which hadn’t pulled those people, it was the Tory Government which hadn’t pushed them. I suppose one could go the whole hog and adopt the entire Tory manifesto, as Labour Party policy, but then one might – not unreasonably – ask what the point of not simply voting Conservative was in the first place ?
So the same people who voted Tory this time are going to go to the polls next time and vote, not on what they think about the Labour Opposition, but on what they think about the Tory Government. If the economy is still working for them, and the Tories haven’t eaten themselves over Europe, then they’re going to vote Tory again. If the economy has nosedived, or major scandal has risen to the surface, or the party seems chaotic and incompetent (say, pulling itself apart over Europe) then they’re going to vote for someone else – again irrespective of the actual policies Labour put forward. In other words, those votes are not Labour’s to win – they’re the Tories’ to lose. The good news, as Blair found out in ’02 and ’05, is that once they switch to Labour, as long as Labour oversees a perceived effective economy competently, then they’re unlikely to switch back to the Tories.
Why am I so confident about this, when we already have talk about how it was Ed’s personality which lost it, or those communist plans to cap energy prices ? Well, because of the reasons the polls were wrong. Effectively, this election saw the return of the “shy Tory”, or voter who plans to vote Tory but is too ashamed to admit that to a pollster. If the reason why those voters were reluctant to vote Labour was because they thought Miliband looked a bit odd eating bacon, they’d say so – there’s no shame in saying you don’t rate someone – plenty did on all sides. If they weren’t going to vote Labour because they thought they were too left-wing, then again, why would they disguise that perfectly shame-free position which plenty of Blairite Labour members themselves would agree with. No, the only possible reason why people would hide their intentions is because they believe that their choices are not ones which they want to be publicly associated with – essentially, they’re knowingly making a selfish choice which they don’t want to advertise. What this means is that their votes are not up for grabs by Labour, as long as the Tories keep delivering for them. This seems to me to make the whole Blairite argument irrelevant. They can move as far right as they like, they could appoint Mandelson leader, or they could swear fealty to the Great God Mammon Himself in a ceremony in the City, but they won’t win those floating voters unless the Tories lose them first.
Which is why I come back to the idea that the only way forward for Labour now is not some retreat to a Blairite comfort zone in the hope of a rehash of ’97. The fact is that we probably can’t do much about those 11 million voters who voted Tory this time. They’re not up for grabs. Yet. The people who are looking for an excuse to vote Labour next time round are not those the Tories currently have stitched up, but those who are already opposed to a Tory government, but who, for whatever reason, have gathered under a range of different banners : Lab, SNP, PC, Green, and yes, UKIP. If the economy is still delivering for those 11m Tory voters in 2020, then the only way of booting out this government will not be by winning over a handful of Tory voters, because they won’t be willing to be won over, but by mobilising the non-Tory voters behind a Labour Party which speaks for far more of them than it currently does. Now hands up who thinks those people who voted Green, SNP, PC or UKIP (or those many millions who felt so unrepresented that they didn’t even bother to vote) did so because they wanted Labour to be more of a right-wing conservative party ?
Now, I’m off back to bed. Bleurrrgh.
This is an interesting read. A little more conspiracist than I would normally go for, and I don’t agree with all of it, but it’s certainly well-argued, and he argues a similar line to me that the Tories hadn’t done enough to lose the election at least as much as Labour hadn’t done enough to win it. I absolutely agree with this quote :
“That huge bloc of traditional support (the latest chunk of which voted SNP and Ukip last night) must be won back; the sense of alienation they feel must be listened to and engaged with. Their aspirations – as well as those of small business or bigger business – must be met: a much larger, much more coherent coalition of Labour support than is ever generally appreciated is out there, but has been almost entirely neglected for a whole generation.
Further edit :
I see my thoughts have already been described as “utterly delusional” by those who take the more right-wing line. I wouldn’t really expect any Blair supporter to agree with me, and I suspect the unpleasant playing of the man not the ball is an indication of the quite serious battle which is already beginning within the Labour Party. But really, chaps, while I disagree with your arguments, I don’t find them “delusional”, and indeed said so in this piece. I just disagree with them. More to the point, screaming “delusional” at anyone who disagrees with you, as if they’re somehow so far outside mainstream opinion that the author must be mad, requires people not to be aware of such articles as the link above. You need to keep it civil. Otherwise you do nothing to counter the belief that some Blairites seem an awful lot more comfortable joining the Tories to attack people to their left, than they do joining the people on their left to attack the Tories.
Further edit :
This link is quite interesting. Bearing in mind my first edit, take this with a pinch of salt, as it’s Ashcroft’s. However, on the face of it, what this seems to show includes :
- Miliband attracted slightly more 2010 Tory voters to Labour than made the return journey, which certainly seems to give the lie to the “left-wing policies frightened floating voters” narrative a whole host of Blairite leadership hopefuls are currently treating us to.
- He also seems to have attracted a remarkable number of 2010 LibDem voters. Given these voters deserted the LibDems because they felt the party became too similar to the Tories, there are questions to be asked there about why Blairites think those voters will stay put if a New-New Labour follows the same Cleggite trajectory.
- Labour lost a lot of 2010 voters to the Greens and SNP (fair to describe both as adopting positions to the left of Labour), and a good number to UKIP (see points above about not assuming these are right-wing voters). One could argue that the shift to UKIP and Greens in England is very analogous to the shift to the SNP in Scotland – previous Labour voters feeling their party no longer represents them and thus choosing a less small “c” conservative option.
Now a Blairite would undoubtedly respond that if the Labour Party went chasing after those lost voters, it would automatically lose voters on its right-wing to the Tories. Well, maybe, but the evidence of this suggests that even after what the Blairites seem convinced was a shift leftwards matched in scale only by the Bolshevik Revolution, Labour actually made a net gain from the Tories. Moreover, I suppose I would say to the Blairites that there’s rather more evidence that if they go chasing after more current Conservative voters, they’ll lose far more existing Labour voters to other parties. And even then, unless that economic or political crisis arrives before 2020, those Tory target voters will still back the horse which is already delivering for them.