The difficult coming weeks

On the eve of the general election it seems clear that, discounting any last minute, game-changing surprise, we are headed for a hung parliament. If the polls are right, and they may not be, the Conservatives may be the largest party, and receive more votes than Labour.

Both the Conservatives and Labour have fought cautious campaigns, and in marginal seats in England the two parties are grinding out every vote in a ground war, based more upon contact rates and organisation than on vision.

That is not to say that Labour have not engaged with voters’ concerns, and the millions of doorstep and telephone conversations have benefitted from a manifesto that makes a number of detailed and beneficial commitments, from ending the bedroom tax, to abolishing zero hour contracts, cutting tax for small businesses, the energy price freeze, reducing tuition fees, etc.

Nor have these policies been presented in a technocratic way. Ed Miliband has outlined a simple and compelling proposition that Britain only succeeds “when working families succeed”; that we need an economy and a society where prosperity is not built upon the exploitation of ordinary people, but by allowing everyone to share in prosperity, security and success. This is a message founded upon traditional labourist values of mutuality, solidarity and reciprocity.

It is important to understand that incumbent governments rarely lose an election after a single parliamentary term, and for Labour to get this close to the winning line is itself a success. Ed Miliband has been a remarkably successful leader of the opposition, setting the terms of the debate on bankers’ bonuses, on press regulation, on energy prices, and refusing to endorse ill-conceived military action over Syria.

He has shown that he will be an outstanding prime minister, unafraid to stand up to powerful interests, and he has kept the Labour Party united and focused upon the task of defeating the Conservatives. The next few weeks may require tough leadership, facing down a possible Conservative attempt to squat in Downing Street, backed by the Tory press, despite the fact that David Cameron will have neither the moral authority to continue after failing to win a general election for the second time; nor will Cameron have enough MPs to command a stable Commons majority.

The election aftermath will also require toughness in steering through the uncharted waters to achieve a Labour government. Ed Miliband is the man to do this, and the party and the wider labour movement, will need to stand united in its determination to back him.

Nevertheless, Labour’s election campaign has been weaker than it could have been, because we have failed to sufficiently challenge the narrative from the coalition parties when they have said that the financial crisis was Labour’s fault. Objectively, it should be the economic failure of the coalition that should now be under scrutiny from the electorate. It is a tragedy that George Osborne has been allowed to present himself as a competent chancellor. The BBC may have failed to effectively screen out Catherine Shuttleworth, from the Question Time audience, but her question was only damaging because Labour had failed to neutralize that line of attack in advance. The difficulty is adopting a more coherent stance on economics seems to be the coalitional nature of the Labour Party itself, and the legacy for some in the party of preferring to triangulate over minor differences, rather than set our own, distinct, Labour, agenda

Scotland has also had an entirely different election from the rest of Britain. Not only due to the enthusiastic legacy of political engagement from the Independence referendum, which has fed into a bizarre boosterism around the SNP, but also due to a toxic mixture of Scottish Labour’s historical sclerosis, a poor decision by the Scottish Party to elect Jim Murphy as leader, and strategic and tactical errors in the Labour camp. Whatever has happened in Scotland, needs to be understood in its own Scottish context.

The scale of Labour’s woes in Scotland are not yet known, but had we done as well in Scotland as we are doing in England, then Labour would clearly be set to be the largest party. What is more, the rise of the SNP is based upon arguing a sectional interest, and misrepresenting the SNP’s own political purpose and governmental record. To put the SNP’s potential clout in perspective, they are likely to achieve around the same number of MPs as Labour will have in London alone. At the time of writing, Labour is 13% ahead in the polls in London, and that is just as valid a surge of support as that being celebrated by the SNP. (The relative strength of the SNP’s bargaining position may anyway be overstated, as Colin Talbot argues, they will have no standing in parliament to block a Labour budget)

What the rise of the SNP (and UKIP) does show however, is that the political system is broken. A functioning party system requires that the major political issues of the day find expression through different competing parties, which themselves of course provide their own internal mechanisms for resolving the coalitions of interests that coalesce within parties. For this to work in a functioning democratic system, then the parties need to articulate alternative programmes of government, and for there to be scrutiny and debate.

Political parties are complex social institutions that comprise more than just their membership. They also have their own institutional interests and networks of patronage, they have ideological and iconographic traditions, they have relationships with other institutions that can either be transactional or based upon shared aims, they are shaped by think tanks and pressure groups, as well as their own supporters in the media, and they have an evolving relationship with the aspirations of their voting base.

Political parties therefore have an institutional resilience that can normally weather short or medium term fluctuations of the electoral cycle. However, where the major political debates and issues in society do not find reflection in the mainstream party system, then there can be ruptures. These ruptures may be localized and time limited, for example, there have been examples of minor parties with broadly labourist politics giving electoral expression to major issues that did not find an opportunity of expression through the Labour Party (Common Wealth with its wartime demand for an immediate second front, for example, or Respect giving expression to opposition to the Iraq war).

However, there can also be entire paradigm shifts, for example the dramatic collapse of the American party system in the 1850s, where neither the issues of non-protestant immigration nor that of slavery found expression through the existing party system of Whigs and Democrats.
Rather less combustible, but nevertheless equally transformational, was the eclipsing of liberalism by the Labour Party in the British political system, and the quiet, slow-burn demise of traditional Toryism within the Conservative Party. In the post war period all the mainstream British political parties have converged towards a model of economic and social liberalism, though with Labour constrained by its trade union and social democratic heritage, and the Conservatives constrained by its social traditionalism. This convergence to the liberal centre, combined with increased professionalisation, has led all the mainstream parties away from sharing the experiences of their voters.

The rise of the SNP and UKIP – in their rather different ways – seem to express an exasperation with a political system, and what is perceived as a political class, that has become professionalized and technocratic. In this general election neither Labour nor the Conservatives have approached the 40% or so traditionally regarded as the threshold of electoral success.

Too many people see politics as no longer being something that engages them as voters, but rather it has become something that happens to them, and which they may even feel the victim of. Voting for the SNP and UKIP – in different ways – becomes a mechanism that gives voice to people who feel taken for granted, whether because they have a perception that Scotland is disadvantaged or because they feel uncomfortable that Britain has changed in ways that leave them behind.

What the SNP and UKIP share in common is that their proposition to the electorate is not a programme of government to be scrutinized and debated, but an emotional pitch based upon sectional interest. The SNP’s actual economic programme does not match its “anti-austerity” rhetoric. And those seeking to present Labour’s actual policy and programme in Scotland have been presented by a wall of irrelevant noise about sharing platforms with Conservatives during the IndyRef, being “Red Tories” or the Iraq War.

For sure, Scotland has been ruled by Conservative governments that they did not vote for, but equally the South West of England has never in history returned a majority of Labour MPs, but folks here have not challenged the legitimacy of past Labour governments, even those sustained by Scottish and Welsh Labour MPs.

A politics based upon horse-trading between competing sectional interests will leave us all impoverished. Although a large part of the electorate may have tuned out and stopped listening, this general election has presented a very real choice between different sets of values. On the one hand the values of a Conservative Party that combines the naked self interest of the rich, an agenda to dismantle or privatize cherished institutions of social solidarity like the NHS, and a race to the bottom of pay, working conditions and employment rights. On the other hand a Labour Party that seeks to ensure that the rich pay a fairer share of taxes, that will seek to build social solidarity, and that will raise the minimum wage, abolish zero hour contracts, and abolish employment tribunal fees.

The next few weeks will be hard. There will be pressure on Miliband from some quarters that Labour should have won an outright victory. There will be pressure to accommodate to a Tory press seeking to legitimise Cameron staying on power. There will be pressure from those who cannot understand why a coalition with the SNP is impossible. We need to hold our nerve.

Reconnecting with those voters whom we have not yet convinced, means that we have to learn the right lessons from this election campaign. Where Ed Miliband has spoken about the real life struggles that people have in their daily lives, we have connected. But we have failed to challenge the Conservative’s over their economic record, because we hesitated to defend the economic record of the last Labour government, and that means that many voters are not convinced that a Labour government will address the problems in their lives caused by the coalition’s austerity measures. Labour can do better than that, because as someone once said, we are best when we are bold, and best when we are Labour.

22 comments on “The difficult coming weeks

  1. How I’m going to vote.

    From the left-wing point of view, the British electoral system is primarily an instrument for beating upon the Tories- the auld enemy. Labour’s last true vestige of value to the working class is as a blunt instrument for this purpose. So anti-Tory (tactical) Labour votes are nothing more than sanity: however grim the prospect appears the alternative is ALWAYS worse. As a socialist I find that the biggest of the old left alternatives- TUSC, is a bureaucratic factional lash-up on a spending spree in which it’ll be lucky to retain any of the 135 deposits paid for by its inheritance: it has no more long-term future than any other Trotskyist grouping in other words. A waste of a well-intentioned vote in short. So if local constituency conditions permit demonstrative votes of principle then I think the Greens are best option.

    This works in my constituency- Glasgow North, because the Labour/SNP slugfest looks well decided (https://election.38degrees.org.uk/constituencies/glasgow-north?postcode=g3%206jw), while a decent Green vote might knock thes Tories into 4th place!

  2. “a wall of irrelevant noise about sharing platforms with Conservatives during the IndyRef, being “Red Tories” or the Iraq War.”

    Maybe if the Labour Party listened to such criticisms and responded to them rather than arrogantly dismissing them then they would have nothing to worry about in Scotland.

    Seriously, “a wall of irrelevant noise”?! You’d be the same Andy Newman who’s standing for election as an MP himself, right? Because that’s an appalling attitude for an MP to have, though no doubt a fairly common one.

    Regarding Iraq, would you like to explain how that is in any way an irrelevancy when deciding whether or not to vote Labour? It’s not something minor that we can all just forget about after a few years. It was an immeasurable crime and it’s consequences are an ongoing disaster. The people primarily responsible for it remain members in good standing of the Labour Party, and are still a powerful faction within it, are they not? Current “leader of the Scottish Labour Party” (though perhaps not for long!) Jim Murphy being a good example.

    “There will be pressure from those who cannot understand why a coalition with the SNP is impossible”

    Why exactly is that?

    Given some of the people that the Labour Party accepts within it’s own ranks, and given it’s willingness to co-operate with the Tories and Lib-Dems in the referendum, why is any kind of co-operation or compromise with the SNP supposedly so unthinkable? Why are they beyond the pale?

    Because the Tories, + UKIP, the Sun, etc say so? Aye, let your opponents make your decisions for you. Good plan, Labour! (See also: being “tough on immigration”- why oppose ignorant bigotry when you can unsuccessfully pander to it?).

    Or is it that Scottish votes are no longer legitimate (unless they’re for Labour)? If Scotland is part of the UK, then it’s elected MP’s have as much right to participate in parliament and in government as those from any other part of the UK. If that’s not the case, and Scottish votes are somehow less legitimate than English votes, then maybe the Tory and Labour leaders should say so straight out and give us another referendum now that we know. You can’t have it both ways.

    And if English voters feel it’s unfair that there’s a Scottish parliament and not an English one, well, nobody in Scotland is stopping you having one.

  3. JN:
    “There will be pressure from those who cannot understand why a coalition with the SNP is impossible”

    Why exactly is that?

    Given some of the people that the Labour Party accepts within it’s own ranks, and given it’s willingness to co-operate with the Tories and Lib-Dems in the referendum, why is any kind of co-operation or compromise with the SNP supposedly so unthinkable? Why are they beyond the pale?

    Exactly JN. I think Labour have foolishly backed themselves into a corner over their minority government options. They seem to have made the mistake of accepting the terms of the Tories ‘legitimacy’ debate, about which we will no doubt hear much more from a pliant media should Cameron attempt to cling to power in the face of a clear anti-Tory majority.

  4. Sam64 on said:

    If anybody needs a little lift check the debate clip here for the odious Niall Ferguson getting owned by Zoe Williams of the Guardian.

  5. StevieB on said:

    Coalition with the SNP is regarded as impossible because the Labour leadership is committed to an economic policy which involves turning the public sector deficit into a surplus in the next parliament; honouring the Tory spending limits on the welfare budget, and maintaining a broad policy of austerity. That is why it regards coalition with the Lib-Dems as possible and desirable.

    Coalition with the SNP is ruled out not because of a “threat” to the Union. Refusing to work with SNP is a far greater threat to the Union. The Labour leadership is saying to the bourgeoisie that nothing will turn it from austerity in government.

    That said, we must support the return of a Labour government. There will be immediate concessions on bedroom tax, minimum wage, etc. And the contradiction between the demands of millions of Labour’s working class voters and it’s austerity policy can best be resolved in government.

  6. Uncle Albert on said:

    JN: “There will be pressure from those who cannot understand why a coalition with the SNP is impossible”

    Why exactly is that?

    Because the Progress/Blairite-heavy PLP would not countenance a coalition with the legitimate representatives of an Leftward-shifting Scottish electorate. Nick Clegg has pledged, if a Lab/Libdem coalitional opportunity arises, to prevent Labour from lurching to the Left – this will be music to Blairite ears – so a coalition with the LibDems will be the preferred option.

    What remains of the Left within Labour are in no position to counter the power and influence of the Blairites (as exampled by Falkirk). The Left’s influence is so diminished that even some Labour-supporting contributors to this blog felt they had to join in with the vilification of the Scottish electorate.

  7. John on said:

    StevieB:
    Coalition with the SNP is regarded as impossible because the Labour leadership is committed to an economic policy which involves turning the public sector deficit into a surplus in the next parliament; honouring the Tory spending limits on the welfare budget, and maintaining a broad policy of austerity.That is why it regards coalition with the Lib-Dems as possible and desirable.

    Coalition with the SNP is ruled out not because of a “threat” to the Union.Refusing to work with SNP is a far greater threat to the Union.The Labour leadership is saying to the bourgeoisie that nothing will turn it from austerity in government.

    Precisely. Being bold at this stage and under these particular circumstances requires positive and constructive engagement with the SNP to lock the Tories out, not preparing the ground for buckling under the pressure of the Tory press while blaming the Scottish electorate for another Tory government.

  8. anonymous on said:

    This of course is part of the reason there will be no deal with the SNP.
    ##
    ‘Paul Waugh @paulwaugh · 13 hrs 13 hours ago

    Tory sources tell @BBCAllegra they fear they would have been ‘trounced’ by Labour in this election but for the SNP.’

    ##

    Another reason is that there’s no need to do a deal with the SNP.

    The SNP either back Labour or the Tories.

    It really is that simple.

    They can no doubt try to turn that reality to their political advantage up here by telling us that we’ve been shunned and ignored by Labour but that’s as much as they can do.

    I still suspect the SNP will try to engineer a Tory government but how they can do that without being seen to be responsible I just don’t know.

    It’s going to be an interesting few days.

  9. Mark on said:

    StevieB:
    Coalition with the SNP is regarded as impossible because the Labour leadership is committed to an economic policy which involves turning the public sector deficit into a surplus in the next parliament; honouring the Tory spending limits on the welfare budget, and maintaining a broad policy of austerity.That is why it regards coalition with the Lib-Dems as possible and desirable.

    Coalition with the SNP is ruled out not because of a “threat” to the Union.Refusing to work with SNP is a far greater threat to the Union.The Labour leadership is saying to the bourgeoisie that nothing will turn it from austerity in government.

    That said, we must support the return of a Labour government.There will be immediate concessions on bedroom tax, minimum wage, etc.And the contradiction between the demands of millions of Labour’s working class voters and it’s austerity policy can best be resolved in government.

    Hits the nail on the head.

  10. Uncle Albert on said:

    anonymous: I still suspect the SNP will try to engineer a Tory government

    .

    They’ll get their chance on June 2nd when the vote on the Queen’s Speech is said to be taking place.

    If Cameron is still holding out against an apparent anti-Tory majority Miliband could propose a motion of no confidence. The assertion that the SNP want a Tory government will then be tested.

  11. anonymous,

    I’ll tell you what’s simple: if Labour lose this election, the responsibility will be their own. No one else’s. Labour does not have a god given right to Scottish support, or for that matter working class, or left-wing support. They’re meant to convince us that they represent our views and interests better than any other party. Clearly they are failing to do that in Scotland. That’s on them, not us.

    Take it as a warning. If it can happen in Scotland, it can happen in Wales and it can happen in England.

    “I still suspect the SNP will try to engineer a Tory government”

    How? How would the SNP conceivably “engineer a Tory government” without openly supporting them (IE: committing political suicide)? Does Nicola Sturgeon have control of dark powers of which we know nothing?

    What the SNP HAVE done is explicitly offer to support Labour against the Tories, and THAT is the cunning plan because whether Labour accepts or rejects the SNP’s offer, the SNP will gain politically.

    Meanwhile, Ed Milliband and Labour, have preemptively rejected their best possible option (if they don’t win a majority on their own) in order to appease their primary opponents (assuming that Milliband and Labour actually wanted to win this election). That’s some quality leadership!

    If Labour refuses to co-operate with the SNP after the election in order to achieve the common aims that both parties claim to have (like abolishing the bed room tax), that would contrast sharply with their willingness to co-operate with the Tories during the independence referendum, and would be very instructive as to Labour’s real priorities.

  12. Uncle Albert,

    Aye, and the SNP have explicitly stated that they would vote against a minority Tory government if that happens.

    From their manifesto:
    An end to Tory government
    If there is an anti-Tory majority in the House of Commons, we will vote in a motion of confidence against a Tory government getting off the ground.”

    While the SNP might well benefit politically from a Tory government (in terms of increased support for independence), for them to actually support a Tory government, particularly after making such a big deal of being against the Tories and ‘austerity’ etc, would be political suicide.

  13. anonymous on said:

    JN,

    I’m repeating myself here, but it seems I have to.

    Labour do not have to cooperate with the SNP.

    It’s up to the SNP if they will back Labour.

    If the SNP decide they won’t back Labour, then they’re backing the Tories.

  14. George Hallam on said:

    John Grimshaw: The polls were wrong.

    If it makes you feel better then, yes.

    On the other hand most polls have a margin of error of 3 per cent at the 95% level. The last YouGov poll had Conservatives and Labour tied on 34 per cent. With nine seats to go the actual result looks like being 36.8 for the Conservatives and 30.5 per cent for Labour. This is within the edge of the margin of error for the Conservatives and just over for Labour, so in terms of the share of the vote the result was not entirely unexpected.

  15. John Grimshaw on said:

    A man came on the radio…..sounds like the Stones a bit…..just now from a poll company sounding very contrite. Apparently they’re in trouble with the media for getting it wrong.