The defeat of the Labour Party in the British General Elections on 7 May has triggered a new slide to the right in the party, with Blairites rushing to reinforce the sense that ‘there is no alternative’ to neoliberalism; that no left-wing party can be elected to government in the UK. Former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair met the party’s defeat by insinuating that the party had gone ‘too far left’ under Ed Miliband. Blair once again argued that Labour needed to be willing to accept ‘solutions’ that ‘cross traditional boundaries of left and right’, and ‘appeal to those running businesses as well as those working in them’.
It’s true that in terms of seats won in Parliament, this was the worst result for Labour since 1983. But Labour didn’t do so badly in terms of votes won, and it is clear that the loss of members of parliament (MPs) was not because the party had gone ‘too far left’.
The first troubling piece of evidence for the Blairites is that the one unquestioned winner of the 2015 UK elections was the left-wing Scottish National Party – which won 56 of the 59 seats available in Scotland (it won only six in 2010).
The SNP unequivocally rejected both Britain’s Trident nuclear missile submarine system (housed in Scotland), and the UK government’s neoliberal programme. SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon said in February that the UK government’s ‘austerity economics’ was ‘morally unjustifiable and economically unsustainable’. Instead of relying on ‘individual households taking on more debt than at any time in history’, as the Conservative Chancellor’s plans did, she said the SNP would increase public spending by 0.5% in real terms, ‘free[ing] up something in the region of £180bn over the UK to invest in infrastructure, in innovation, in growing the economy’.
With these and other unsettling promises, the party increased its share of the vote in Scotland from 20% to 50%. The Labour Party lost 17.7% of the vote in Scotland, and 40 seats in Parliament as a result. This was clearly not because the Labour Party was too left-wing for the Scots.
Despite the wipe-out in Scotland, Labour actually increased its number of votes across the UK, as well as its share of the vote. Labour’s gains were even larger than those of the winning Conservative Party.
The Conservatives got 608,006 more votes in 2015 than they did in 2010. Ed Miliband’s Labour increased its vote by 737,799.
The Labour Party increased its share of the vote by 1.4% but decreased its share of seats in Parliament by -4.0%.
The Conservatives only increased their share of the vote by 0.8%, but (because of workings of Britain’s bizarre electoral system), they increased their share of seats in Parliament by 3.7%.
The Conservatives’ smaller gains were in the right places, so they took 24 more seats than in 2010. Labour’s larger gains were in the wrong places, so they ended up with 26 fewer MPs than in 2010.
An opinion poll of 4,000 people immediately after the election found that, far from being ‘too left-wing’ for the public, some Miliband policies were not left-wing enough. James Morris, who was involved in running the poll for the Trade Union Congress, summarised some of the findings in the New Statesman:
‘By 11 points, voters are more likely to support Labour raising tax on the rich than criticise Labour for risking driving investors abroad. Voters are 20 points more likely to think Labour is too soft on big business and the banks, than too tough. Just 1 in 10 say they were put off from voting Labour because they are “hostile to aspiration”.’
It has become received wisdom in the mainstream media and in the Labour leadership race that Labour lost because it was ‘hostile to aspiration’, meaning individualistic, pro-business ambition.
Far from seeing Labour as too left-wing, voters not only thought Labour was too soft on big business and the banks; they also thought Miliband was too enthusiastic about austerity. Morris notes: ‘by a 5 point margin voters thought Labour should cut spending more slowly than they planned rather than faster’.
A poll by the Conservative peer, Lord Ashcroft, just before the election, found that while 46% of voters believed that austerity needed to continue, 54% did not believe in another five years of cuts in government spending. 30% thought that austerity had been needed, but was no longer necessary; 24% agreed that: ‘Austerity and cuts in government spending were never really needed to fix the national economy, it was just used as an excuse to cut public services’.
The general secretary of one of Britain’s biggest trade unions, Unite, criticised Miliband’s election pledge to bring the deficit down by the end of the five-year parliament, and to cut the deficit every year. Len McCluskey wrote that the Labour Party had ignored the views of many economists, and accepted a need to balance the budget and eliminate the deficit, ‘which left them playing on Tory ground’. Protecting the victims of the Tory cuts agenda, while accepting its underlying premises, deprived Labour of ‘a coherent narrative linking together popular individual policies’, McCluskey pointed out.
Party like it’s 1997
In the leadership election race that has followed Ed Miliband’s resignation, many people have invoked Tony Blair’s landslide victory in 1997, when Labour won 418 seats. Ed Miliband was a special adviser to Chancellor Gordon Brown from 1997 to 2002. After the 7 May elections, right-wing commentator Dan Hodges noted Miliband’s close involvement in the New Labour project, and stated: ‘Ed Miliband knew how to win. But for reasons no one will ever fully understand, he chose not to.’ Hodges suggested: ‘Tony Blair moved towards the voters. Ed Miliband [indicated that he] would drag the voters towards him. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t come.’
This is a neat encapsulation of two myths. Firstly, that it was Blair who won over the voters in 1997. Secondly, that Miliband’s positions were too left-wing for the voters. We’ve already seen evidence contradicting the Miliband myth.
As for Blair’s role in Labour’s 1997 victory, the most detailed analysis of the polling evidence indicates that Blair and his neoliberal, super-efficient party machine were almost irrelevant to that victory. Robert Worcester, head of the polling group MORI, and fellow pollster Roger Mortimer found that ‘the way the Tories self-destructed in 1992, Labour probably would have won under Neil Kinnock [who lost the 1992 election]; certainly, the election was already won and lost for the Tories before John Smith died’ in 1994. It was Smith’s death that opened the door for Blair’s leadership.
In their 1999 book, Explaining Labour’s Landslide, Worcester and Mortimer argue that the Conservatives made four critical errors in the run-up to the 1997 election. They took sterling into the Exchange Rate Mechanism at an unsustainable exchange rate, which eventually ruined their credibility. They failed to call a referendum on the European Union’s Maastricht treaty, which meant that they did not transfer responsibility for Europe to the public at large, and stoked the divisions over the EU that tore the party apart. They launched moral crusades and exercised indecisive leadership which allowed ‘sleaze’ to define the Conservative Party. This meant that the shadow of mistrust which had lost the Labour Party the 1992 election was transferred to the Conservatives. Finally, when the Prime Minister John Major himself initiated a leadership contest within the Conservatives in 1995, the party did not take the opportunity to replace him, wipe the slate clean and recast their image as they had in 1990, by when they replaced Margaret Thatcher.
For all these reasons, the Conservatives had lost the ‘long campaign’ well before Blair was elected Labour leader. According to MORI polls, Blair did not actually manage to match the proportion of people having a positive view of the party on a range of attributes (compared to 1992) – apart from a slight increase in people seeing Labour as ‘representing all classes’. His achievement was to reduce negative perceptions of the party. Only one negative attribute increased between 1994 and 1997. The proportion of people who saw Labour as ‘too dominated by its leader’ doubled from 7% to 15%.
One interesting result in the TUC poll just after the 7 May election was in relation to Labour’s Blairite past. Only 27 per cent of voters thought Labour could look back with pride on its record in office. Of those who seriously considered voting Labour, but in the end didn’t, only 36 per cent thought Labour had ‘a good track record in government’. Pollster James Morris observes: ‘In voters’ eyes, Labour’s problem over the last five years was too little change, not too much.’ So much for the Blairite insistence on returning to the centre ground.
The ‘longest suicide note in history’
The other iconic election result that has shaped the modern Labour Party was 1983. The party went into that election with the most challenging manifesto it has ever signed up to. It proposed a Keynesian £11bn ’emergency programme of action’, a ‘national investment bank’ and a ‘powerful national oil company’ to counter the recession. Industries already sold off would be re-nationalised, and ‘significant public stakes would be taken in electronics, pharmaceuticals, health equipment’ and in ‘other important sectors’. A new annual wealth tax would be introduced, part-time workers would be given the same employment rights as full-time workers, and the link between pensions and average earnings would be restored. Labour would withdraw Britain from the European Economic Community (now the EU), in order to have the freedom to pursue socialist policies. There would be a Freedom of Information Act, devolution of powers to Scotland and Wales, and more democratic participation in the planning system (including a new fund to help objectors at major public inquiries).
Significantly, Labour pledged to cancel the replacement of the Polaris nuclear weapon system with Trident.
This manifesto was largely built out of the resolutions passed by Labour Party conference. It was later described by right-wing Labour MP Gerald Kaufman as ‘the longest suicide note in history’. The phrase is now pretty much the consensus view of the Labour campaign, and is taken to mean that Labour lost the election because it was unelectably left-wing. In other words, that the ‘suicide note’ was the primary if not the sole reason for the party’s disastrous loss in 1983.
There are two big factors outside the control of the Labour leadership that this view leaves out. Firstly, Thatcher’s successful conduct of the 1982 Falklands War (unnecessary as it was), which created a wave of patriotism that rescued the Tories from the political consequences of their early 1980s version of neoliberal austerity. Secondly, the defection of a large part of the Labour right-wing in 1981, to form the Social Democratic Party.
Michael Foot, who was party leader at the time, said 20 years later that the Labour Party was actually successful in 1983 – in that it managed to survive this defection: ‘It was touch and go whether the party was going to be wrecked prior to 1983 – and the wrecking was not done by the left. Much more dangerous than what the left was up to were the actions of Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams and co’, who left to form the SDP.
For three months leading up to the Falklands War, the SDP-Liberal Alliance were leading the polls in Britain, with several polls giving them over 40% support, and one Gallup poll in December 1981 putting them at 50.5%. The SDP were threatening to destroy the Labour Party, perhaps even become the party of government. In the event, Labour won only 2.2% more votes than the SDP, but the unfairness of the electoral system worked in Labour’s favour, so that it gained 209 seats, while the SDP/Liberal alliance, less than 700,000 votes behind, won only 23 seats.
The SDP did take votes from Labour, and that often resulted in Conservative MPs being elected, even when the Tory vote declined in that constituency.
Labour lost three million voters in that election, and they pretty much all went to the SDP/Liberal Alliance. The Conservatives lost around 700,000 votes compared to 1979, and those mostly went to the Alliance.
It’s worth remembering that the right-wingers who stayed in the Labour Party also contributed to the party’s defeat. One of the party’s biggest weaknesses was its incoherent position on the Polaris nuclear weapon system. At the insistence of right-wingers such as Denis Healey, the party was not simply for unilateral disarmament, though this was the clear position of the party conference.
Instead, the manifesto said: ‘We will propose that Britain’s Polaris force be included in the nuclear disarmament negotiations in which Britain must take part. We will, after consultation, carry through in the lifetime of the next parliament our non-nuclear defence policy.’
So Britain’s main nuclear weapon would be negotiated away in multilateral negotiations, and also, at the same time, abolished unilaterally during the next parliament. This caused problems.
Jim Callaghan, former Labour Prime Minister (and popular in the country), publicly attacked the manifesto’s commitment to disarmament during the election campaign, which also caused serious damage to the party.
Before his intervention on 25 May, Labour had been averaging 33% in the polls. By the end of the following week, it was down to 28%. However, there was no fall in the proportion of voters saying that Labour had the best policies on defence and nuclear weapons (in a MORI/Sunday Times panel). There were falls that week in relation to Labour’s policies on unemployment, the National Health Service and education. According to British election specialist John Curtice, what hurt Labour was not so much the disarmament policy itself as the visible divisions within Labour about the policy, and the doubt this cast on Labour’s ability to govern.
Based on a number of carefully-considered polls, Curtice concludes that: ‘Despite the apparent importance of defence in the [1983 election] campaign, defection from Labour was more likely to be stimulated by a loss of confidence in Labour’s ability to handle the central bread-and-butter issues of the economy and the welfare state, rather than its defence and nuclear weapons policy’. In his view, ‘Opposition to Labour’s unilateralist policy appears not to have been a particular impediment to voting Labour’.
What all of this means is that the fog of pessimism about left-wing political parties in Britain is not justified. England and Wales may yet show that left-wing parties can gain power in the rest of the UK, not just in Scotland.
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