Gordon Campbell on lessons for Labour from the UK election

If the polls were right – and the pollsters kept telling us how accurate they’d been in 2010, and even Nate Silver was getting the same results – there seemed no way that the British Labour Party could lose last Thursday’s British election. With Labour predicted to win around 270 seats and the Scottish National Party batting around 55-60 seats, Labour seemed to be home free. But…as we now know, things didn’t turn out that way. Labour ended up with 232 seats and the Conservatives swept back to power with an outright majority, after winning only a little more than a third ( 36.9%) of the votes cast.

To be fair, the pollsters did call some things very accurately. They correctly estimated the extent of the SNP’s rout of Labour in Scotland, and the collapse of the Liberal-Democrats. They even predicted that UKIP leader Nigel Farage wasn’t going to win the South Thanet constituency. Where everyone got it spectacularly wrong was in the marginal seats in England – Midlands and the north – where traditional Labour voters deserted Labour in droves, and either (a) stayed home or (b) voted for UKIP and thereby delivered those seats to the Tories.

Weird flashback : under the heinous FPP voting system in 1984, Bob Jones and his New Zealand Party got 12.2% of the vote and no seats. In the FPP Britain of 2015, UKIP got 13% of the vote and only one seat in a 650 seat Parliament. In a proportional system, UKIP would have got 84 seats. The pull quote being :

“”Personally, I think the first-past-the-post system is bankrupt,” [Farage] said.

Amen to that. Here’s a fairly succinct version of the overall story :

The aspirational voters of suburban England – middle-class seats with falling unemployment and rising incomes – swung behind the Cameron-Osborne “long-term economic plan”, while UKIP surged in seats with large concentrations of poorer, white working-class English nationalists, many of whom sympathised with Labour’s economic message but not the people delivering it.

At the other end of the social spectrum to UKIP, many of the social liberals deserting the Lib Dems opted for the Greens rather than Labour. Meanwhile, in Scotland, the SNP decimated Scottish Labour by claiming to be the true party of left-wing politics.

So what does this disastrous result mean (a) for the British Labour Party under its next leader and for (b) the Labour Party in New Zealand under Andrew Little ? Typically, the old trolls like Tony Blair and his former henchman Peter Mandelson have already emerged from their caves to claim that Labour under Ed Miliband had been too radical, and Labour now needed to re-focus on winning the centre ground. This is complete rubbish. Yet the remnants of the Clark era who remain powerful in Labour here – the Phil Goffs, Grant Robertsons and Trevor Mallards – will also be portraying the British outcome as a defeat for radicalism, just as they did after last year’s Labour defeat.

Why is this ‘move to the centre” response such bullshit ? True, Ed Miliband was more “left” than his predecessors (Gordon Brown and Blair) in his rhetoric about predatory capitalism and his claim that Third Way economics was dead – but that only explains why Blair and his vindictive chums are now dancing on Miliband’s political grave.

But too left wing for the general public? That claim conveniently overlooks that Labour lost Scotland to the SNP by not being critical enough of Westminster neo-liberalism. and for taking a ‘me too” stance alongside the Tories during last year’s independence referendum, which Labour did for fear of offending those mythical centrist voters. That example of tactical centrism worked a treat, didn’t it ?

In England, the reality is that the Labour heartland either stayed home or voted UKIP because they still felt abandoned by Labour’s tacit embrace of the market economics that have ravaged their communities. Newsflash : there is no room on the right hand rail for Labour in Britain, or in New Zealand. No matter how far a Little-led Labour Party shifts to the right, does Labour really think it can ever look like a more convincing champion of the market economy than National? Hardly. All it will look is hypocritical, as it goes about supporting the very economic policies of austerity and budget-balancing whose social costs it pretends to bemoan.

Little cannot safely out-source Labour’s radical agenda to a coalition partner, either. Ultimately, the voting public – in England, anyway – concluded they had more to fear from a Labour-led government working hand in glove with a radical SNP, than they did from the Tories.

Incredible, but it happened. If a Greens /Labour combination ever got genuinely close to power here, the lesson from the UK outcome is that the scare tactics need to be met head-on, and not denied ineffectually from the back foot. Labour has to be willing to be proud – not apologetic – about espousing a genuine alternative to business as usual.

Which brings us to the main point at issue. According to the pundits, Labour here and in Britain needs to (somehow) become the party of the aspirational middle class and small business, and not merely be the champion of the underclass. That’s easier said than done. For one thing, it assumes that the current economic settings and the wellbeing of the middle class and small business are compatible. Yet what we are seeing with the rise of income inequality is the stifling of social mobility and the shrinking of the middle class. Small business is being squeezed by the unchecked concentration of economic power.

Market economics has killed the low skills jobs vital to the wellbeing of communities here and in Britain, and the same inexorable process (fed by digital technology) is now chewing its way through the white collar jobs that used to sustain the careers, incomes and aspirations of the middle class. Getting ahead is becoming a lottery where fewer and fewer people can hope to hold the winning tickets, for themselves or their children.

For Labour to pretend otherwise for its short term electoral advantage would not merely be dishonest. Ultimately it would be suicidal for Labour as a political movement if it chose to regard the current economic settings as being the only politically credible economic framework for a modern society. On election eve in Britain, Little and his Labour colleagues reportedly hosted a gathering of business leaders at Parliament with the aim of convincing them that Labour poses no threat to the status quo.

If it has the gumption for it, there’s a more challenging task facing Labour. No matter how hard it tries, it will never be able to sell a Tory Lite message to voters who embraced the real thing long ago, and seem relatively happy with it. The centre-left’s future doesn’t consist in trying to attract existing voters with the same bait as its more successful opponents, but to inspire those who currently see no point in voting at all. This isn’t just wishful thinking. Falling voter turnout aids the right. One of the ‘successes’ of neo-liberalism has been to induce a large slice of the electorate to give up on democracy altogether. The research evidence indicates that non-voters are more likely to reject the gospel of small government :

Voters, Leighley and Nagler found, are more economically conservative; whereas non-voters favor more robust unions and more government spending on things like health insurance and public schools….

In essence, poverty is eroding participation in democracy, and the income polarization that neo-liberalism brings in its wake is generating more of it :

In the 2012 [US presidential] election, 80.2 percent of those making more than $150,000 voted, while only 46.9 percent of those making less than $10,000 voted. This “class bias,” is so strong that in the three elections (2008, 2010 and 2012) examined, there was only one instance of a poorer income bracket turning out at a higher rate than the bracket above them. On average, each bracket turned out to vote at a rate 3.7 percentage points higher than the bracket below it.

That trend isn’t sustainable.

Obviously, this doesn’t mean that Labour should totally abandon those who currently vote and chase after only those who do not. It does mean that Labour can choose to deliver a message designed to resonate with (a) the progressive aspirations of the non-voting bloc, as well as with (b) the misgivings of many of those who do vote. Rather than cave in to the ruling consensus, a more rewarding political task would be to convince the electorate that the status quo is not socially – or economically – sustainable, not across the generations. As social mobility stalls and the middle class continues to shrink, the existing economic policy settings (which stack the deck in favour of privilege) will continue to steal the future from all but a few of us, and from our children.

Surely, Labour has to reject that dystopic future, not embrace it. A suspicious electorate won’t simply follow it on faith. If things are to change, voters will want to be convinced that this change will not put their already shaky grip on the income ladder further at risk. Ed Miliband wasn’t able to inspire the UK to embrace the risk of change. Unfortunately, Andrew Little hasn’t shown much sign of that spark, either. Or much inclination to light the fire.
Looking ahead

With our usual pinpoint accuracy. Nate Silver and I are picking that the 2017 election campaign will probably turn out pretty much like this railway station fight from the 2013 martial arts movie, The Grandmaster. By then, John Key will be so publicly reviled that he’ll need to hide behind a moustache, while Labour will have outsourced its leadership to She Whose Hair Shall Not Be Pulled, played here by Ziyi Zhang.

Here’s how the righteous will finally prevail :


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