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Labour is at a crossroads – socialism or austerity?

socialism and austerity signs, original pic by 123rf.comLabour must understand why it did so badly in the election, as it is unlikely to be able to mount a successful campaign in the future if it doesn’t. Much has been written already, although we await a full analysis in terms of voting patterns and movement by age, class, gender etc., but from what we know I believe that we can draw some valid conclusions.

The pollsters got it significantly wrong, at least for the two main parties, rendering all the debate about a ‘hung’ parliament redundant, and we await their explanations for that (There is an interesting article in Open Democracy on this, The polls and all but one of the forecasts were wrong, by Shaun Lawson’).

There were short run factors that counted. Of these the most significant by far was the unscrupulous use of the ‘Scottish Card’ by the Tories, tapping in to English nationalist fears that a Labour government would be controlled by the SNP. There would appear to be some evidence that this caused a disproportionate swing from ‘Don’t Knows’ to the Tories (which could help to explain the polls as ‘Don’t Knows’ are usually divided equally between the parties) and for previously intending Tory defectors to UKIP to remain where they had been.

The oil price fall was a bonus for the Tories as it helped to promote the impression that the recovery was well under way.

The continued treachery of Mandelson ( even in early March he said that he doubted that  Labour would win) was not unimportant, and I do not understand why he has not been suspended pending an investigation into his undermining of the party – or is it that such things only happen to those on the left?

While Miliband improved his standing in the first three TV appearances, his performance in the last and consequently his crucial appearance on Question Time didn’t help, while the bizarre ‘Edstone’ episode can only have confirmed prejudices that he was some sort of crank.

However, the election was not lost primarily for these reasons. There were, in my view, five major factors.

Firstly, Miliband. While I personally liked him and he came across as honest and principled he should not have been chosen as leader simply because he lacked the gravitas, authority and oratorical power that every leader in the television age needs. Much of this is contrived – Cameron comes across to me as a complete phoney, although large numbers do not see it that way, but Miliband was unable to inspire as a leader. This might not have been fatal, but because of other adverse factors it was telling.

Secondly, the party was divided. On one hand, the Blairite/Progress wing broadly believed that with suitable updating the policies pursued under Blair, if not Brown, were correct and were the only basis for a successful appeal to the country. On the other, a broad left saw the huge loss of support for Labour in 2005 and 2010 as indicative of the failure of Blairism in tackling the problems the ordinary people of the country faced  and looked to a renewed form of social democracy to as a means of tackling those. There were of course all sorts of variants of these positions, but this fundamental divide was reflected in the manifesto, in the shadow cabinet and PLP and at all other levels of the party. The result was the failure to promote an over arching message or pattern, even though many individual policies were good in themselves.

Thirdly, the decision to avoid discussion of Labour’s economic record in government, particularly in its third term, was disastrous as it effectively conceded the Tory lie that  the deficit was due to government overspending and not, as was the case, to bailing out the banks after their collapse. The lie was allowed to take root during the long leadership campaign in 2010 – are we making the same mistake again?

Fourthly, Labour’s effective capitulation to Tory austerity in 2013 meant that it was not possible to present Labour as committed to measures to stimulate the economy to promote the growth needed to provide the income required to pay off the deficit. It is admittedly difficult to persuade large numbers of people that a Keynesian stimulus was the only way to successfully move forward – as Polly Toynbee remarked ‘The paradox of thrift proved too paradoxical‘, but tragically no serious attempt was made to do so, and it was left to the heroic efforts of Michael Meacher and others to consistently argue that Labour should campaign on this as well as Labour’s economic record as in three above, but to no avail.

Fifthly, and perhaps most tellingly, the electoral strategy was fundamentally misconceived, in that it was based, as in 2010, on appealing to the centre ground. The 2010 election conclusively demonstrated that in one sense the strategy was successful in that social group A/B voters were attracted to Labour in 1997 and later largely stayed; but it was disastrous in a more important sense in that large numbers of Labour’s traditional core supporters in the C2 and D/E social groups went elsewhere or didn’t vote.

The assumption that those to the ‘left’ of the centre have nowhere else to go was proved wrong. But exactly the same circumstances presented themselves in 2015, and exactly the same mistakes were made. The article by Jon Trickett on this blog (Why any leader who can’t reach working class voters will lose again) reproduces figures for social class movement which prove this, with once again a substantial falling away in the D/E vote but the A/B vote remaining steady.

At the same time it is likely that many of those leftish middle class voters attracted to the Lib-Dems over Iraq and other things in the noughties but who left them after 2010 and came to Labour decided to go elsewhere: to the Greens, who recorded their highest ever vote in a general election: to other left parties or to non-voting, on the grounds that Labour policies were not left wing enough.

Likewise the D/E voters, notwithstanding some good policies on housing tenure and rent, the bedroom tax, agency workers and zero hours contracts, were not given the impression that their interests, particularly with regard to housing, jobs, and living standards, were of the greatest concern to Labour, and thus went elsewhere, particularly to UKIP who probably took more votes from Labour than from the Tories, or remained as part of the one third of voters who didn’t vote. Some of the better policies were introduced too late or were not given enough prominence.

What we know about the class basis of the recent vote renders all the talk by the Blairites about the manifesto being anti-business, too left wing and not in tune with ‘aspirational’ voters as nonsense. On this it is surely the task of Labour governments to seek to make possible the aspirations of most people for a job with decent pay and conditions, decent housing at affordable cost and decent education, health and social services. Or is it just the middle class that has aspirations?

Labour is at a crossroads. It can either continue on the path falteringly begun under Ed Miliband towards a renewed form of social democracy, seeking to provide real solutions to the problems faced by ordinary people, or it can revert to being a party that ultimately accepts the dictates of the market and is thus incapable of providing those solutions. I hope it chooses the right path.

Image credit: socialism and austerity signs, original pic by



  1. David Pavett says:

    I don’t know if Peter chose the title, perhaps not, but “Social democracy or austerity” would have reflected better the content of his article – unless one is is inclined to think that social democracy = socialism. I don’t and I doubt that Peter does.

    In fact the difference between social democracy and socialism (thought of as a distinctive post-capitalist form of social and economic organisation) is surely something that more than ever requires clarification.

    We have become so used to the embeddng of neo-liberal, marketising and individualising concepts and discourse that anything that show a hint of accepting the superiority of public enterprise (e.g. de-privatising the NHS) and of public solutions (e.g. increased social housing) is grasped as a break in the relentless pressure of the dominant ideology. But socialism it ain’t, as the experience of the Blair/Brown governments illustrates only too clearly.

    It is surely important to discuss not only Labour’s failure but the contraction/collapse of support for social democratic parties across Europe. Of course it can be argued that the problem is that these parties have given into neo-liberalism and given up their own social democratic objectives. But then it needs to be explained why this has happened across Europe.

    Could it be that capitalism has not developed to the point where solutions in the “spirit of ’45” are no longer possible. For example a world in which competitions rules are monitored and enforced by international agencies such as the IMF and the EU is rather different from that of 1945.

    Might it not be argued that it is social democracy that is at a cross-road. It could carry on with its current neo-liberal lite version of politics. It could turn clearly to the right and give up any substantial social democratic pretensions. Or it could turn to the left and debate the limits of capitalism and where public solutions must be preferred to private ones and develop policies accordingly.

  2. Peter Rowlands says:

    My article was about the detail of why Labour lost, but the points David makes are of course pertinent. The crisis of social democracy in Europe is reflected here, and I would not want to give the impression that the reestablishment of social democracy by Labour will solve allour problems, although reversion to ultra Blairism would be to cut off the possibility of travelling in a leftward direction. In Europe the crisis of social democracy has seen the establishment of a number of socialist parties in Europe, in Germany and elsewhwere, and it is likely that sooner or later it is these parties that will provide answers to the problems that social democracy has not been able to. Unfortunately the establishment of a viable socialist party ( which Labour could become) is conditional, in my view, to changing to a system of proportional representation, although achieving it will not be easy, as there is still substantial opposition to it even within Labour

  3. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

    If you can get yourself a fancy title,
    Though no one knows just what your job’s about,
    If you can screw up projects that are vital,
    Then shift the blame before they find you out;
    If you can treat a rival like a brother,
    Then stab him in the back each chance you can;
    If you can steal the program of another,
    Then take the credit that it was your plan;

    If you can rig expenses that are phony,
    While everyone believes that they are real;
    If you can take long lunches with a crony,
    And make your boss believe you’ve closed a deal;
    If you can get the office staff to love you,
    When in your heart of hearts you think they’re dirt;
    If you can look alive to those above you,
    When nine to five no effort you exert;

    If you can seem free-thinking and courageous,
    Yet always end up siding with your boss;
    If you can get a mammoth raise in wages,
    Yet make him feel you’re working at a loss;
    If every line that’s written here you’ve noted,
    And every rule and precept you obey,
    Then to the highest spot you’ll be promoted,
    Unless, of course, you’re knifed along the way.”

    If you can keep your wealth when all about you
    Are losing theirs from paying income tax;
    If you can make quite sure that no one doubts you
    By selling to the networks your own “facts”;
    If you can reap the harvest that is waiting
    For those who fight both sides of one same war;
    If you spend hours televised, debating
    For bussing and for “welfare” for the “poor”;

    If you can trade with Reds, and all the while
    Be charging what they owe to our own banks;
    If you can have us lose a war, then smile,
    Because you know you’re only getting thanks;
    If you can hold an office, but each minute
    Be out afloat, and calmly goin’ fishin’,
    The U.S.A. is yours, and all that’s in it,
    Because, my son, you’ll be a politician.

    1. James Martin says:

      But we are not in the USA are we, so yet another trolling cut and paste from someone who only knows how to criticise using someone else’s words and never has anything useful, positive or interesting to say of their own.

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