Labour’s Attempts to Move Further Right

After the general elections, former Labour policy chief Jon Cruddas sought to understand why the party had failed to win. And, by dividing the electorate into three main groups, he concluded that Labour had “only appealed to one section”. The support of ‘pioneers’ (the socially liberal, altruistic, metropolitan, open-minded, and educated people who made up a “large majority of the Labour Party membership”), he said, was the only backing that remained stable. The ‘prospectors’ (apolitical pragmatists who tend to vote for whoever can ensure their “social status and material wealth”) and the ‘settlers’ (socially conservative family people focussed on safety, tradition, risk evasion), meanwhile, had chosen to stick overwhelmingly with the Conservative Party in the elections.

Although Cruddas pointed out that “each individual has elements of all three values and their proportions shift and alter throughout our life course”, he also showed that, while Labour had held its ground between 2014 polls and 2015 elections with settlers and pioneers, it lost votes from prospectors. The Tories, meanwhile, “gained in all areas, gaining around 20% more votes among Settlers and Prospectors and 10% among Pioneers”. In short, the governing party had managed to put across more convincing arguments to the electorate than the Labour Party had in the run-up to the elections. The prospectors, for example, felt that Labour “lacked economic credibility” and “dealt Labour its devastating electoral defeat” by having more faith in “Tory messages on a strong economy, low taxes”. Not feeling any improvement in their living standards, they simply felt that a Miliband leadership “posed an untenable risk” to their chances of improving their economic conditions. In other words, the Tories’ misleading “rhetoric on being a party of the workers” helped them to “solidify their support among Prospectors” and even attract some pioneers.

For Cruddas, the above figures represented overwhelming proof that Labour wasbecoming dangerously out of touch with the electorate” (something that is not easy to argue against). As a party whose “historical task” was always “to represent the interests of working people”, then, Cruddas argued that the Labour Party had to start “listening to the people”, “trusting their judgment”, and “letting them decide the destiny of their country”. In this way, he actually argued unwittingly for a Corbyn-type approach of collaborative policy making and against New Labour’s harsh criticisms of Corbyn supporters.[1]

What Cruddas actually wanted to prove, however, was very different. He argued, for example, that “Tories didn’t win despite austerity, they won because of it”. The public, he stressed, appeared to “think anti-austerity is a vote loser”, and that Labour therefore lost because it was seen as “anti-austerity lite”. The big problem with Cruddas’s assumption, though, was that it was based primarily on the very directed statement that “we must live within our means so cutting the deficit is the top priority” (which most people agreed with). In other words, a question used to determine people’s opinions on the concept of austerity made absolutely no mention of the word ‘austerity’ itself.

Furthermore, in the same study, he found that people were more likely to vote for “the political party that redistributes wealth from rich to poor” and that “puts my financial interests first”. In other words, while Cruddas concluded that anti-austerity was unpopular, it was actually fiscal responsibility which was considered to be important. Also, judging by the study revealed by Cruddas, it is very doubtful that people would believe corporate subsidies and tax cuts for the rich were the same as fiscal responsibility. A key issue that Cruddas ignored, therefore, was the importance of political education and reliable information, a lack of which led enough citizens to vote Conservative in spite of the facts (which show it is austere when it comes to the poor but incredibly easy-going when it comes to the rich).

With those polled also agreeing that “the economic system in this country unfairly favours powerful interests”, it was fairly clear that the electorate was “economically radical”. Nonetheless, the Tories managed to convince a number of voters that they would help to change this system, while Labour did not succeed in counteracting that extreme falsehood (largely because its policies were very similar to those of its opponents). In other words, the Conservative Party succeeded in fooling people, and the Labour Party did not (even Cruddas found that “31 per cent of voters simply [didn’t] know what Labour [stood] for”).

In addition to coming to the wrong conclusions about Britons’ economic viewpoints (or about why they had them), Cruddas also suggested that Labour had to respond to the increase in nationalism in the UK by essentially accepting that Scotland was more progressive than England. Almost certainly as a result of media influence, 60% of people polled agreed that they “would be very concerned if the SNP were ever in government” (this was obviously not the case in Scotland). This stance appeared not necessarily to reflect opposition to SNP policies, but more a “growing political salience of a politics of identity and belonging” (with 63% saying that their “English or Welsh identity is important to them”). For Cruddas, Labour would have to “develop a more federal politics to accommodate the paradoxes of radical and conservative dispositions”.[2]

The Independent argued that Cruddas’s report had asked ““mostly pro-austerity groups” in the Labour Party for their perspectives”, whilst at the same time presenting them with “a leading question” which encouraged them “to answer a certain way”. In fact, Jeremy Corbyn’s own response to this ‘research’ was that it confirmed “exactly what we have been saying all along that Labour must have a credible method of tackling the deficit and that people insist that this must be fair”. That, he said, was precisely “why our economic strategy is based upon eliminating the deficit by making sure the corporations pay their taxes, halting the tax cuts to the wealthy and the subsidies to high rent landlords and low pay employers”.

For Corbyn, Labour had to “lead the economic debate and be confident in offering a clear, coherent alternative to the Tories’ pernicious austerity agenda” (which had not been offered either in 2010 or in 2015). “In accepting the economic narrative set by the Conservatives”, he stressed, the party had “surrendered its own economic credibility”, which was the main reason why a sufficient part of the electorate was not convinced by its proposals and was edged towards the Tories instead.[3]

In spite of criticising Tory policies consistently, the Guardian nonetheless backed Yvette Cooper in the leadership contest. Polly Toynbee, for example, stressed that voters in the race needed to “remember they are still a few straws in the giant haystack of the real electorate”. Blairites, she said, had been “so aggressive from day one in their support for the unlikely Liz Kendall” that they helped to both “stoke the Corbyn phenomenon and divide the party”. Nonetheless, she took Cooper’s stance that Corbyn’s key policies would send Labour deeper into the wilderness”. People’s quantitative easing with the aim of increasing spending and investment would “never be credible”, they said, however “seductive” they may appear. Cooper, Toynbee argued, had a “radical alternative”, but realised that it had to be “credible”. No evidence was provided to explain what could be considered ‘radical’ about Cooper’s policies.

Toynbee admits that “Corbynomics are appealing”, but claims that an opposition party has to “step cautiously” (in spite of the fact that ‘caution’ had thus far proven to be the Labour Party’s biggest problem when trying to convince the electorate that it actually had an alternative to the Conservative status quo). Then, without providing any figures to back up her assertion, she stated that “there just aren’t enough Greens and non-voting young for Labour to win a majority under Corbyn” (as if there were enough borderline Tories that could tip the balance if they were somehow attracted over to Labour). In summary, then, Toynbee uninspiringly and un-academically based her argument purely on unmeasurable (and largely subjective) points like electability, credibility, and competence, concluding that “Labour must be a credible alternative with a competent leader” (suggesting she had some hidden proof that Corbyn had neither credibility nor competence and that Cooper somehow had both).[4]

Meanwhile, Tony Blair wrote yet another article in The Guardian on August 29, in which he called Corbyn’s politics a “fantasy” similar to “Alice in Wonderland”. In the “parallel reality” of Corbyn supporters, he argued, “reason is an irritation, evidence a distraction, emotional impact is king and the only thing that counts is feeling good about it all”. Although he admitted the Corbyn campaign represented “a revolution”, he claimed that it was taking place “within a hermetically sealed bubble” (much like Blair’s private jet, for example) and would not “alter the “real” reality”. For him, Labour had lost the 2015 election “because it was considered anti-business and too left”, and because Miliband had not seemed “committed enough to tough economic decisions”. The “evidence”, he insisted, had been that “people feared Ed in Downing Street with SNP support”. Whilst asking ‘which people’ he is talking about there, we should also question the former prime minister’s use of the word ‘evidence’ (as sane assessment would suggest that Labour’s biggest loss had been in Scotland – where it had been considered too right wing, not too left wing).

Essentially, Britain was witnessing the emotional breakdown of a New Labour giant. While Blair conceded that there was “a vast wave of feeling against the unfairness of globalisation, [and] against elites” (like Blair himself), for example, he said “we don’t yet properly understand this” (presumably speaking from the standpoint of Labour’s insulated, out-of-touch right wing). He also admitted that he did not know whether Labour should attack the Corbyn movement or “to build a bridge between the two realities”, saying “I don’t get it, but I’m trying hard”. In the interest of not poking fun at the mentally ill, I will simply point out that Blair appeared to be talking more to himself rather than anyone else, with phrases like “oops, there I go again” and “anyone listening? Nope” characterising the mentality of a desperate and dejected demagogue.[5]

The paranoid fears of history perpetuating itself seemed to block out the fact that Blair himself was advocating a repeat of the New Labour experiment by encouraging a shift further to the right. Back in the 1980s, history did indeed conspire against the Labour Left, but that was in large part due to right-wingers splitting off from the party and Thatcher riding a nationalist wave after the Falklands War. Yes, the Left needed to move away from top-down policies and learn from the failures of the social experiments in the USSR and elsewhere. At the same time, though, the biggest threat to the survival of Labour as a political movement would be its definitive abandonment of the Left. Corbyn’s exact platform had never been enacted in the past, and the socio-political context of 2015 is far away from that of 1983 – when neoliberalism was still taking its first steps. Blair, in his own padded cell of make-believe, had fatally disconnected himself from popular opinion and from the zeitgeist of a post-2008 world. History can indeed be prevented from repeating itself, but that means embracing optimistic realism rather than the kind of pessimist realism that has pushed traditional Labour voters away and apparently led Tony Blair to insanity.

Andy Burnham, forever the flip-flopper, urged voters to “heed Tony Blair’s warnings” in what amount to an “about-turn” after he had previously criticised the former prime minister’s unhelpful and childish attacks on Corbyn. Labour, he now said, would have “lost the plot” if it did not listen to Blair.[6] MP Michael Meacher, however, insisted that there had never been “a truer example of “when you’re in a hole, stop digging””. Showing himself to be “an utterly broken man watching everything he stood for swept away before his eyes”. With supporters having suffered “a 20-year temporary hijacking of the party” which had taken it “down a route utterly alien to its founders”, Blair was blankly refusing “to acknowledge the passionate resentment which he and New Labour created”.[7]

[1] http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2015/08/why-did-labour-lose

[2] http://labourlist.org/2015/08/labour-lost-because-voters-believed-it-was-anti-austerity/

[3] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/jeremy-corbyn-poll-that-claims-to-find-voters-are-proausterity-actually-shows-the-opposite-10440245.html

[4] http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/aug/13/corbyn-labour-leader-not-credible

[5] http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/aug/29/tony-blair-labour-leadership-jeremy-corbyn

[6] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/labour-leadership-contest-andy-burnham-urges-voters-to-heed-tony-blairs-warnings-over-jeremy-corbyn-10479090.html

[7] http://www.morningstaronline.co.uk/a-5d16-Blair-is-living-in-a-state-of-deluded-denial#.VeeZL_Tuo8I

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