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Labour will not win until it rejects the politics of austerity

Austerity is failingIrrespective of who succeeds Ed Miliband as leader of the Labour Party, there needs to be a thorough-going discussion about its future strategy. On one side, there will be a new offensive from the remnants of New Labour, claiming it was the radicalism of the 2015 Manifesto that was the cause of Labours dire showing. While some of these policies may have inspired the print media to plumb new depths in fear  and hate-mongering, the idea that these policies were inherently unpopular should be treated with extreme caution.

Firstly, Labours lead over the Tories on the NHS was in double-digits throughout the campaign. A majority of voters – even of Tory and UKIP voters – favoured rail renationalisation and other policies that put public services ahead of deficit reduction. This policy lead explains why Conservative tactics relied so much on demonising Miliband as an individual and why the long political campaign focused on such a narrow range of issues.

With public opinion to the left of Labour on so many issues, it is a travesty that the party did so poorly. For its part, Labour were hampered throughout by its commitment to austerity lite. David Blunkett had it right on election night when he criticised Labour front-benchers failure to nail the Coalition lie that excessive spending by the last Labour government caused the financial crisis. Balls’ continued insistence on fiscal discipline gave further credibility to this lie – and by the time Ed Miliband got round to debunking it in a pre-election debate, he was greeted with incredulity and ridicule. It was way too late for Labour to put out an alternative narrative at this stage – crucial ground had already been lost to the Coalition.

And this was the key problem. As blogger Adam Bienkov observed:

To describe Ed Miliband’s Labour party as “traditionally left-wing” is a gross parody of the truth. After all, this was a party which claimed to be tougher than the Tories on welfare and which chiselled plans to restrict immigration into an eight foot obelisk… Miliband and Ed Balls largely accepted the need for cuts and only differed with the Tories on the speed and scale. In fact if anything it was the Tories who looked like the high-spending lefties during their election campaign with their unfunded commitments to increase NHS spending by £8 billion. A promise Miliband refused to match.”

This lesson will not be drawn by mainstream commentators, who are queuing up to argue the party must reclaim the centre ground, in short, return to the approach that allowed Tony Blair to win landslide victories in 1997 and 2001. But as blogger Ian Dunt points out:

Blairism was based on the assumption that Labour had a monopoly hold on its voters. This allowed him to encroach far into enemy territory – triangulation, they called it – attacking the Tories from the right on law and order or welfare and playing merry hell with them. They could do this, much to the dismay of their core supporters, because they had nowhere to go.” 

The rise of the SNP, UKIP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens means that now of course, Labour voters have a range of alternatives.

But the Blairite offensive against the few decent policies that Labour did put forward in 2015 will be accompanied by a new offensive on other fronts. Already just weeks before the election, welfare spokesperson Rachel Reeves said:

We are not the party of people on benefits. We don’t want to be seen, and we’re not, the party to represent those who are out of work.” 

There will be more of this. The strong showing of UKIP will precipitate a similar offensive on immigration. Well before the election, Dudlley MP Ian Austin was preparing the ground, complaining in the Daily Mail about migrants scrounging benefits, all the while claiming what a lone voice he is as he rails against the Westminster elite. 

He additionally told Ed Miliband to get tougher on immigration and was thought to be one of the MPs who was plotting internally to remove him as leader last November. 

On election night itself, Bassetlaw MP John Mann tweeted:

Can’t say that Labour leadership weren’t warned repeatedly – those who he even bothered to meet that is. Never hurts to listen.”

So a dual offensive, marrying the dated nostrums of New Labour with the faux-populist authoritarian agenda of Blue Labour will hit the airwaves, all in the interests of Labour needing to “listen”.

One place where Labour signally failed to listen was Scotland. Jim Murphy’s decision to attack the SNP from a unionist perspective unleashed a perhaps insurmountable disaster for the Party north of the border. This, combined with the message of continued austerity, made for an especially toxic cocktail. But there was more, as Ben Sellers points out:

The anger towards the Labour Party is blowback from two decades of New Labourite politics. Particularly in Scotland, where the Scottish Labour Party was used as an incubator for the careers of many a Blairite politician. In so doing, the party machine also wrecked the internal life of the party north of the border, closing down democracy and evacuating the party of real, decent socialist and trade union activists. Scotland has blown first because it was the most extreme example, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that this process hasn’t happened all over the UK. The election of Jim Murphy was the final straw, illustrating that the party hadn’t learnt the lessons of Better Together, and the scene was set for Thursday’s cataclysm.”

Jon Lansman wrote a few days before the election:

Yesterday, canvassing the streets of Stevenston in North Ayrshire, a former Labour voter told me that the only way forward was for Scottish Labour and the SNP to merge.”

While Party tribalists continued to debate the perils of nationalism and challenge the social democratic credentials of the SNP, many socialist south of the border felt it was barmy for Labour to take such a hostile approach to a party with overwhelming mass support and the most popular leader in the whole UK. Neal Lawson of the think tank Compass now goes further, advocating, as part of a bold platform of modernisation, Labour‘s “striking of a German style CDU/CSU relationship with the SNP”, whereby Labour would cease to run in Scotland and go into long-term partnership with a left-leaning anti-austerity SNP.

This will be unthinkable to many. But is it worse than a Labour Party committed to austerity north and south of the border? Party loyalists will object that there is nothing inherently progressive about Scottish nationalism and the closer they get to independence the more the leftist rhetoric will disappear. Well, in the long term all parties degrade – just look at Labour. But the comfort of being proved right in twenty years is not a particularly good guide to what Labour needs to do now to help the working class resist Tory austerity in Scotland.

Nor is this a uniquely Scottish problem. If Labour is to have a meaningful electoral future elsewhere, it is going to have to relate to the grassroots movements that are already burgeoning around benefit cuts, the housing crisis, the escalating attack on trade union rights and a range of other campaigns. If this is to be meaningful, the Party – at all levels, including local branches – will need to develop a more cooperative relationship with other parties that are part of the anti-austerity alliance, specifically the Greens and Plaid Cymru in Wales.

A useful start would be to look at how London – and other big cities – bucked the national trend, with Labour winning seats from the Conservatives. It was a similar story in last year’s local elections. As Labour Briefing noted at the time, pundits were quick to attribute this to:

more educated, prosperous voters in the capital. Actually, it’s more about a multicultural electorate who in many areas have come into the Party to fight on class politics for things that local councils should provide for all – affordable housing, free school meals, heating schemes and more, as opposed to the divisive means testing, migrant bashing and benefit cuts that the national Party leadership accepts.”

There were strong swings to Labour in Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham too, as well as other large cities, including Leeds, where the ambitions of Ed Balls, architect of Labour‘s failed economic strategy in office and opposition, were spectacularly dashed. He won’t be leader now, but there are plenty like him. While money will pour into the coffers of some of the emerging candidates for leadership and mainstream commentators will hail them as the great new hope, these simple lessons amid the ashes of this disastrous defeat should not be forgotten. Labour will not win until it rejects completely the politics of austerity and articulates a platform that can offer hope and unity with all forces engaged in fighting Tory attacks over the next years.



  1. John p Reid says:

    Look at labour in the late 60’s ecenomically in 1965, labour inherited a mess, then after the devaluation,had to cut back public spending in 1969′ and labour support went up after Jenkins budget, not enough to win the 70 election, but nearly

    Anger towards labour goes back to ablairism, particularly in Scotland ,mainly in Scotland, you mean only in Scotland

  2. James Martin says:

    Mike, you appear to miss entirely the real danger of Scottish nationalism right now. It is not in that there is a party that appears to be more left wing (even though it isn’t of course), it is that it is succeeding in splitting British workers along national lines, and that is a danger far greater in it’s disastrous consequences than the temporary loss of MPs.

    1. Mike says:

      I don’t see Scottish nationalism as expressed by the SNP as a danger. I think the SNP is not only more leftwing than the current Labour leadership, but it will be even more leftwing than the future Labour leadership in all probability. Its support for the anti-austerity alliance and opposition to Trident renewal alone underline this. The issue of splitting British workers along national lines is increasingly an abstraction, which would lead progressives to oppose any form of devolution – for example, Scottish teachers now have separate pay settlements to the rest of the UK: does this divide workers on national lines? On the other hand, the very real possibility of a break-up of the British state would deal a colossal blow to the global pretensions of the ruling elite.

      1. James Martin says:

        Mike, Scottish teachers have ALWAYS had separate pay and conditions to the rest of the UK, that ain’t a new thing you know!

        Education has always been devolved (which now a very good thing actually, given that unlike England Scotland, Wales and NI have no academies or free schools), and Scotland has always had a separate teachers union, the EIS (NUT and ATL don’t organise in Scotland, and NASUWT which do is very much a minority union, with most teachers being in EIS).

        But I think your biggest problem is that your political analysis is so superficial. Opposing Trident and claiming to be anti-austerity (while their councillors make cuts) does not make the SNP ‘left wing’ any more than the Lib-Dems were ‘left wing’ before 2010 when they could pretend to be radical and to the left in relation to New Labour and when they (correctly) opposed the Iraq war.

        The real issue with the SNP is that they are inherently anti-socialist and anti-working class because they will happily split workers on nationalist lines if they can. Just like with Ireland such a split will strengthen reaction on both sides of any border.

        To the SNP and Scottish nationalists a Glasgow bus driver has more in common with the anti-union homophobic SNP supporting tosser Brian Souter than with a Stagecoach driver in Birmingham, Cardiff or London. To a socialist and trade unionist that is reactionary anti-working class nonsense, but the tragedy here is that if we soft-peddle of reactionary nationalism as you appear to be doing then we retreat on that basic truth, and with disastrous consequences for workers in both Scotland and the rest of the UK.

        1. Mike says:

          Of course the SNP are not socialist but neither are the current – or future – Labour leadership. Yes, SNP councils make cuts as does every single Labour council in all parts of the UK. The Labour Party fought this election as a unionist party first and foremost, rather than seeking common ground where it should exist on the issues I mentioned with the SNP. That doesn’t make me a nationalist, but yes I’m not opposed to independence either – there is a difference.

  3. Robert says:

    Will Progress make a move, with Mandy and his New labour middle class..

  4. ian Austin put out a newspaper in his Dudley North constituency in which the Labour Party is not mentioned once. I have a copy. He held his seat, but the overall vote was for the right. He held it by the Tory vote splitting and UKIP surging because the Tory candidate had tried negotiating with the EDL and had to be removed

    Where is Neal Lawson advocating Labour abandoning Scotland? His compass group is meeting on Saturday to celebrate glorious achievement, but the latest communications are from an organization in shock.

    Not that anyone should crow, the massive shift to the right shown by the tory and ukip election gains do not allow for points scoring,.

    trevor Fisher

  5. dear mike

    thanks for this, very informative. All should read it. Compass called a radical hope conference months ago for this Saturday. I have already told Neal Lawson they should call it off. They were blindly optimistic.

    Now going from optimism to blind panic. As Compass did not call for Miliband to be elected, as they thought there would be a coalition with small parties and they now favour the greens, they had not thought about what to do if it all went wrong. No understanding that no game is ever over till the final whistle, which is the basic rule in sport and politics.

    I was never going to their bash, but if anyone is going on Saturday it would be good to have a report.,

    Trevor Fisher

  6. Pauline Bryan says:

    I read with despair the comments on Scotland and being characterised as a ‘tribalist’ because I do not want an independent Scotland. What the writer may not have experienced is the vitriol directed at activists who oppose independence. The SNP is not benign. It is a pan class party that will do what it can to keep support of large and small businesses. It has off loaded austerity on to local government at the same time as claiming that it is opposing it. It will be more than happy to destroy the LP in Scotland and be the ‘national party’. Anyone with any historical understanding knows that the working class movement will pay for this in the long run.

  7. Barry Ewart says:

    Good piece Mike and I belive Tariq Ali has a book out soon called I think, ‘The Exreme Centre’ (Neo-Liberals).
    Labour needs a pro-Trade Union Leader and a radical vision of how we want society (and working with sister parties internationally) how we would like the World to be and argue for it simply and clearly and offer examples as I always try to do.
    Labour seems to have forgotten it is a political party and should be about political education so we empower people and do things with and not always just for them.
    We also seem to have become dominated by a middle class Oxbridge elite at the top and the grassroots needs to get confrence back, we should have a membership fee of £5 and have at least 2 working class democratic socialists (social classes 3-6) on every Parliamentary shortlist and may then the best democratic socialist win.
    We should also be democratic socialists first and not politicians. Speak from our hearts and minds.
    With a powerful vision we then need to appeal to working class people and the millions of non-voters, the progressive middle class, and tto try to politicise the general middle class (who are socialised to vote Tory) to try to win them to the progressive middle class and the side of progress.
    We should also “Boldly go where no man has been before” I.e. have a strategy for the South/South East of England.
    But we should be about more than elections and should campaign all year round.
    We need to be a political party about political education to win people to our ideas.
    It is by the way such an interesting contrast between the generaly working class grassroots activists and progressive middle class Councillors and with those at the top.
    I was thinking about this as 4 of us working class people and one progressive middle class person sat in the pub after our local election count and victory – and why aren’t more of the likes of us leading the party?
    That the unions are here is the main reason I am still in Labour.
    I would choose John McDonnel but he probably won’t get the MPs, of the rest I wouldn’t have any apart from Andy Burnham and although I know little about him from what I do know he seems a decent working class man and I think is pro trade union.
    At times some of us feel like lions led by donkeys!
    I am only interested in progressive policies for humanity, I am a democratic socialist and not a politician but it is clearly a time for us all to reflect as we try to support oppressed people who will be crushed further.
    Yours in hope and solidarity!

  8. we should note and support Pauline bryan and those comrades in Scotland who are opposed to independence. THe SNP is certainly not benign, and the Salmonds line he would wait till there was a Labour government and then present a big bill may have won votes for his party – but it rebounded down here. In the last week the tories had a billboard in marginal constituencies in the west midlands (where the tories did very well) showing SALMONDS picking a pocket.

    Any viable future strategy has to defend the Uk. Time for a UK OK campaign, we have nothing to gain from a split. Incidentally, I met an SNP supporter recently and they could not explain how independent Scotland could be financed… the oil money has collapsed, the banks would leave, the IFS study showed serious problems, and the ageing population with one third of scots over 60 by 2013 means they couldn’t finance their pensions.

    Despite this, cries of an independent Scotland would make loads of money are all that could be heard.

    Time to talk turkey I think before the Turkeys vote for Christmas. Certainly there is no tribalism in wanting to keep the UK together or the Labour movement in one party. However there is going to have to be much tactical manoevering. I will work with the other unionists parties to keep the union, but on the EU referendum I will work with the SNP. Its time for a 50 shades of gray approach. There are now few simple issues.

    Trevor Fisher.

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