Could Labour have won in 2010?

In the final days of last year’s general election campaign, Gordon Brown visited Skelmersdale, to a raw emotional reception. This was an election where Labour was too slow to realise that working class memories of what a Tory government is like were strong. Polly Toynbee, to her credit, did pick up that it was different from politics as usual, and she commented that the film from the Telegraph failed to fully capture the genuine warmth for Gordon Brown:

Today mothers with prams in the Skelmersdale shopping concourse crushed round Brown and several spontaneously called out: “Keep family credits! Keep him out, Gordon!” in a great scrum of unaccustomed adulation. Not party plants but a mob of ordinary people shouting out: “Come on Gordon!”

The last week of the campaign showed how it could have been fought. Gordon Brown’s speech to Citizens UK was powerful and assured, putting social justice at the heart of Labour’s message; and there was a strong story to tell about Gordon Brown as leader: he was a man of substance not spin, and the first university educated Prime Minister for a century not to have been to Oxbridge. Decisive action by the Labour Party in response to the banking crisis of 2008 had prevented economic meltdown, and saved tens of thousands of jobs.

Instead of building a campaign around Labour’s strengths, the Prime Minister was treated as a liability in the early weeks, wheeling him around like a minor royal, having cups of tea with hand picked voters to  generate photo-ops for local newspapers. Peter Mandelson allegedly devised the disastrous “I agree with Nick” tactic for the televised leader debates, that gave such a boost to the Lib Dems.

Labour’s weakness was not Gordon Brown, nor its record in office; the weaknesses were the public and damaging disloyalty of the Blairite right, and a widespread misunderstanding in the party about the true nature of the Liberal Democrats.

In 2009 a handful of Blairite ministers resigned on the eve of the Euro elections; and in the run up to last year’s general election Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon orchestrated a diversion, calling for a leadership challenge to Brown. The Blairites therefore created a self-fulfilling prophecy, deliberately destabilising the Labour Party and seeking to discredit Gordon Brown, and then blaming Gordon Brown for the impression of disunity they themselves had created.

Their self-deceiving justification was the belief that Labour could only win an election by moving further to the right; this mixed with naked careerism, as they were now further from the baubles of office as their own clique was out of favour.

Chris McLaughlin in Tribune wrote in the immediate aftermath of the election how Peter Mandelson had sidelined Gordon Brown’s allies, and was flirting with the Liberals during the campaign.

By the second week, some of Brown’s closest aides were becoming convinced that the plot was aimed at ensuring his swift removal on the morning after the election. He was to be replaced by David Miliband in a “bloodless coup”.

The speculation was as detailed as it was impossible to confirm: exploratory talks had already been had with Nick Clegg over the possibility of a post-election deal; Clegg had delivered what the plotters wanted to hear: he could work with Labour, but not with Brown; in the event that Labour came third in the poll of votes, but with enough seats to form a coalition government and keep the Tories out, Brown would have to go – and quickly.

… The quid pro quo for Liberal Democrat support was predicted to be pledges from David Miliband on reform of party funding (reducing the role of the unions), a referendum on full proportional representation, constitutional reform and talks about the creation of a new centre-left party – one which would jettison what remained of the left and the historic link with the trade union movement.

As always in politics, even those who are mistaken have some valid insight. The historical high-tide of labourism is passed; and Labour has never been able to win elections based upon working class voters alone, it has always been necessary to build a coalition with progressive professionals and managers; and with liberal intellectuals. Even among the working class, the traditional iconography still beloved of the Labour left can be nostalgic and backwards looking.

The Blairite strategy for resolving this problem was both a cynical triangulation towards the priorities of swing voters in marginal constituencies; and a consequent abandonment of any transformative political objectives that potentially challenged the prejudices of that constituency. Indeed it is a paradox of Tony Blair that his government undersold its progressive achievements.

The Blairites share with the leadership of the centre-left Compass group, the conceit that the Liberals are natural partners with Labour; and therefore the historical legacy of labourism is an obstacle to realigning British politics to consolidate this putative progressive coalition.

However, the Liberal ideological tradition rest upon individualism, and the belief that as John Stuart Mill puts it:

The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental or spiritual.”

The Liberals see organised labour and trade unions as just another vested interest, a force of conservatism, and a constraint upon liberty.

In stark contrast, the mainstream values of our labour movement, both for good and ill, derive from the experience of collective organisation. Our values, the values of solidarity, of advocacy for the poor and disadvantaged, of fighting against inequality and privilege, are built upon the rock of the trade unions. If we are honest, there is also a strong ethical Christian tradition within labourism, from R H Tawney to Tony Benn that rejects the self interest of the liberal tradition.

The astute observation of RH Tawney is that liberty is related to equality. If freedom is defined as absence of restraint, then liberty promotes inequality, because the more powerful in our society have less constraints upon them, and the majority of the population will always be unfree.

For Tawney, true liberty is the freedom to act positively for the benefit of the community, and being empowered to resist the tyrannical demands of the rich and powerful. This is not the same tradition as liberalism. They do not share our principles.

Blairism triumphed in the Labour Party because it offered a plausible strategy for electoral victory; but was there an alternative option?

Given that the Blairites prided themselves on their electoral savvy and ability to manage public opinion, then the Iraq war was disastrous in their own terms, quite independent of the criminal nature of their policy. Furthermore their illiberal and authoritarian approach to civil liberties and social non-conformity were also damaging to their support among the professional middle classes. Sadly Gordon Brown and his supporters were often no better than the Blairites over these specific issues.

The lost opportunity was to recognise that the skilled working class, the managerial and professional grades and the intelligentsia share a common desire for economic and social stability that is jeopardised by the untrammelled and impersonal power of big business.

The traditional labourist message of using state power to seek to protect individuals from the power of capital, and to democratically steer the economy towards meeting the needs of people not of corporations was, and is, an inherently modern one; and a mission around which a progressive electoral coalition could, and can, be built.

Labour does not need to reinvent itself to adapt to the individualism of the liberals; we need to confidently assert that traditional and collective labour values better serve the interests of the majority of the electorate.

  1. The Skelmersdale mums’ story is very moving. I felt the same & still do. Re the election, I think it would have been hard for Labour to win. Because of the media campaign against Gordon & the disunity in the party, but I do think the campaign was terribly mismanaged. What’s interesting is that the Tories didn’t win outright. And from the way things have gone downhill ever since, I’d say Labour may recover quite quickly. But Ed Miliband needs to show he is on the side of working class people & not just a tamer version of Cameron, Clegg et al.

  2. Why is it a badge of honour NOT to have been to Oxbridge? Getting to Oxbridge is a fantastic achievement. Stop bashing excellence!

  3. As long as Labour continues to be the special interest group of public sector professionals it will never be able to represent the interests of the “skilled working class, the managerial and professional grades” who work in the private sector. Without those it will struggle to win elections.

  4. Thanks for the article!
    One thing which puzzles me is that nobody ever seems to mention context. Some say that Labour cannot win Elections if left of centre – and this seems to me to be in denial of the reality that the Soviet Union is no more and we aren’t living in the 1980s.
    It is claimed that Labour “needs” to move further to the right – yet the banking crash & recession ought to be seen as the failure of cumulative neoliberal policies over a 30 years’ period.
    New Labour could only win Elections – if the Conservatives conveniently make themselves unelectable.
    Surely in the 21st Century, the time is right for the Labour party to develop itself as a moderate sensible left of centre party, representing the many not the few?
    Or is it me who’s out of touch?