Why did Labour lose? Conversation with a Blairite

An imaginary conversation with a Blairite after 7 May.

Blairite: Labour has gone too far left and must move back to the centre ground.

SCLV: Like the Lib Dems? The Lib Dems were the one party which carefully positioned itself as the golden mean, the happy medium, the equipoise. They got thrashed. Tories, Ukip, SNP, Greens — all those parties did well by coming out with something a bit left-field (or right-field).

B: So you think Labour just has to be more and more radical, and it will automatically win?

S: I didn’t say that. I do say that Labour’s half-and-half combination of vague generalities against “predators” and for “working people” with only microscopic, geeky adjustments in actual policy (cuts, NHS, tax, zero-hours, minimum wage, banks) made it seem, weirdly, both conservative and flaky. A clear and confident stand for improved social provision and worker rights, with higher taxes on the rich and more controls on the banks, would have won more votes.

B: Tony Blair knew how. He won three elections by presenting Labour as centre ground.

S: People wearied and sceptical of changes introduced by one party can be swayed to another party which promises “normalcy” (US Republicans, 1920) or a “relaxed and comfortable” future (Australian Liberals, 1988) or “stable government… not inflamed by the passions of class warfare” (Tories, 1951). In 1997, with people fed up after 18 years of Tory restructuring, Blair could win support with a spiel about a “third way” between left and right. But only shallow, thin-rooted support. The centre ground must usually belong to conservatives. And when people think the economy is in crisis — as now — they will distrust a party which promises above all to be careful and to make only marginal changes.

B: You really think people believed the Tories’ economic policy?

S: No. But in disasters and crises people turn more to religion. Failing an alternative, in a crisis people will vote for a party which seems confident and tough, even if they can’t see how its promises make sense.

B: Labour appealed only to the poor against the rich, and disregarded the vast middle ground. Labour must offer more to the “aspirers”.

S: You mean poor people don’t aspire to success? And want education and health services, worker protections, union rights, welfare benefits to give them a better chance? And, indeed, “aspire” to be let into Britain in the first place if they are migrants “aspiring” to escape wars, terrorist regimes, and extreme poverty?

B: I mean the higher aspirers.

S: Hmmm. Like people who aspire to go to university? The Blair governments did a few things to help the poorest (minimum wage, tax credits, pension credit, new school buildings in poor areas). But they blocked the way for better-off sections of the working class by scrapping student grants, introducing tuition fees (1998), and raising tuition fees (2004). Those “aspirers” want a Labour Party committed to free education.

B: What about those who have already graduated from university?

S: They want worker rights which mean they can get good jobs, using their education, without first having to work for long periods unpaid as interns.

B: What about those who already have fairly stable, well-paid jobs?

S: They want their unions (almost always strongest in the stabler, better-paid sections of the working class) to regain their rights and their strength. They want to be able to advance in their jobs without endless restructures and “performance management”, to be able to rent or buy homes near their work at reasonable rents or prices and with security, and to get a good pension at a reasonable age. They also want those things for their children. If you want to offer them something, go for union rights, tenant rights, rent control, more social house-building…

B: Labour has to be “pro-business”, because good jobs can only be created by prosperous businesses.

S: Pro-predator, you mean? Probably Peter Mandelson does mean that: he famously said he was “intensely relaxed” about people (himself included, I think) becoming “filthy rich”.

B: No, even Tony Blair admits he was wrong to neglect inequality. But pro-business.

S: You might as well say that to stand up for slaves you must be pro-slavedriver. The slaves get fed only if the slavedriver gives them food. Industries would be more efficient if workers controlled them and the gains were not siphoned off into dividends, profits, and vast pay-outs to top bosses.

B: You must face up to the fact that people believe that excessive Labour social spending caused the economic crisis.

S: But it didn’t. The profiteering excesses of the banks caused the crisis. Labour should indict the banks and call for public ownership and social control.

B: You’re arguing old-style 1970s politics. Nationalising the banks, indeed!

S: But the New Labour government did nationalise banks — Northern Rock, RBS, Lloyds! So did George W Bush’s right-wing administration in the USA. You’re just saying that nationalisation should be with the same sort of people continuing to run the banks, on the same profit criteria, with the same lack of democratic control. Your case comes down to saying that democratic control is too “old-style”.

B: I argue for Labour to reconnect with the people!

S: Tony Blair talked about that. In fact he dispersed almost all the 150,000 new members Labour in 1993-7; largely disenfranchised the remaining members and Labour’s bedrock, the unions; and thus blighted Labour’s roots.

A sound new policy can come only from reopening labour movement democracy.