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Blairite revisionism over Labour’s defeat must be challenged

Narratives are clever political devices. You take a particular event, particularly one that has confused or traumatised people; and, before anyone else gets there first, stamp on a story explaining why it happened. Repeat it enough, pass it off as commonsense, and soon it will become received wisdom. You can then cleverly use it for political purposes: as either a warning about what to avoid, or a prescription of what must be done next time around.

That’s what the Blairites have been trying to do with Labour’s devastating general election defeat in 2010. The gist of their argument is that Gordon Brown simply was not right-wing enough. Labour must run on an unashamedly Blairite ticket if it is ever to win office again, they would have us believe.

Here’s one striking example, courtesy of Progress, Labour’s organized Blairite faction. In an interview with Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, the authors casually slipped in the following sentence:

Many voters rejected Labour last May precisely because of its refusal to specify exactly where it would cut.

No evidence is provided to back up this assertion. It is passed off as a simple fact, one we must all agree on because it is so blindingly obvious. It isn’t: in fact, it’s just not true. This is why:

  1. The Tories didn’t specify where they were going to cut in any detail, either. Neither did the Liberal Democrats.
  2. Alistair Darling promised a re-elected Labour Government would introduce cuts that were “deeper and tougher” than Margaret Thatcher. This could not have been more provocative given how Thatcherism is regarded by millions of Labour supporters living in communities that were devastated in the 1980s.
  3. An uncomfortable fact that Blairites have no intention of facing up to is that the vast majority of Labour voters went AWOL under the premiership of their idol. Labour lost 4.9 million voters between 1997 and 2010. Nearly 4 million of those – or, to be exact, 80.79% – defected from the Labour camp when Tony Blair was in Number 10 between 1997 and 2005. Just three quarters of a million votes separated the two main parties in 2005, foreshadowing Labour’s later defeat – and that was long before economic collapse had hit (or before the Tories had a credible leader).
  4. If many of these voters were so desperate for cuts, they would surely have opted for the Tories. But there is no evidence of a dramatic shift to the right. The Conservatives gained just 1,102,811 new votes between their 1997 wipe-out and their, well, not as bad loss 13 years later. That’s 22.47% of the vote that drained away from Labour.

The real reason that Labour lost is because it was deserted by a large chunk of its working-class base: to the Liberal Democrats (tragically regarded by many as a progressive alternative to Labour, as surreal as that seems now), to the BNP or – above all – in favour of sitting on their hands.

According to pollsters Ipsos MORI, the decline in support for Labour between 1997 and 2010 in the top social categories (the ABs) was only five percentage points. Among the bottom two social categories (the C2s and DEs), on the other hand, a fifth went AWOL. While just half a million AB voters abandoned Labour, 1.6 million voters in each of the C2 and DE groups evaporated.

That’s why, during the Labour leadership contest, Ed Miliband spoke about “a crisis of working-class representation”, a phrase previously confined to left-wing conferences. “Put it at its starkest,” he wrote, “if we had enjoyed a 1997 result in 2010 among DEs, then on a uniform swing we would have won at least forty more seats and would still be the largest party in Parliament.” He hasn’t come up with any of this since he won, but it hasn’t stopped being true.

And why were so many working-class people driven away? To find out some of the answers, I don’t even have to click away from the Progress website. Luke Akehurst was long seen as the definitive, ‘Trot’-bashing Blairite blogger. But his surprising endorsement of Ed Miliband led some Blairites – not always the most forgiving types – to regard him as a traitor. When I referred to him as a Blairite to a member of David Miliband’s leadership campaign, they hissed back: “He’s not a Blairite. He’s Old Labour Right” – as if that made him sort of crypto-Communist.

I’ve always had time for Luke, because – unlike some Blairites who debate using vacuous slogans and the verbless sentences trademarked by their Leader – he can be very thoughtful and speaks the language of the labour movement, even when I passionately disagree with him. In his weekly Progress column, he approvingly draws some key conclusions from Ed Miliband’s speech on the cost of living crisis last Monday. And what do we have but an indictment of the disastrous effects of New Labour’s embrace of rampant neo-liberalism.

It’s worth reading, because it features many of the criticisms long made by people on the left. During the Blair era, of course, they were rounded on for besmirching the Party’s record in office. Luke’s article includes the observations that much of the economic growth of the last 30 years has been sucked into the bank accounts of the top 10%; that low and middle earners were working ‘harder for less’; and that little was done to stop the drain of decent, skilled jobs from the economy.

The hardcore Blairite faction (who are down, but certainly not out) want us to believe that Labour lost last year because it wasn’t sufficiently signed up to a manic cutting spree. No doubt many of them look to the prescriptions of Tony Blair himself, whose memoirs endorsed the Tories’ economic agenda and called on them (astonishingly) to resist the supposed “Old Labour” instincts of the Liberal Democrats.

But the reality is along the lines of Luke Akehurst’s column. Millions of working-class people deserted Labour because of its embrace of neo-liberalism. This led to rampant job insecurity; the disappearance of well-paid, well-regarded skilled jobs; and stagnating living standards. It was springtime for the wealthy, on the other hand. It is this Labour must address if it is to win again.

Nice try, though, Progress.

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