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.