Because the Labour leadership and the dominant media are already imposing their preferred narrative, it is imperative that we work out what really happened, why, and what to do about it before that narrative is inducted into the Order of Received Truths.
Time and again, we find at times like these that Labour are capable of comprehending defeats in only one way: ‘We weren’t right-wing enough to be “electable”. In one recent article in the Guardian, we learn that Labour’s problem is that they didn’t embrace the legacy of Tony Blair (an odd claim, since the only part of the legacy they don’t embrace is the toxic figure of Tony Blair himself). Another version, which went on sale even before this dismal result, is that the Sun, Mail, Times, and Telegraph sabotaged Labour’s chances by making Ed Miliband look like an amalgam of Fidel Castro, Hugo Chávez, and Salvador Allende in disguise (the intended conclusion being that Labour should position themselves so far to the right that Murdoch and his cohorts endorse them as the only way to block the incipient communism of the Conservatives).
These narratives prove only that even the most obvious writing on the wall can be missed by someone who is paid to miss it.
Look at all one has to overlook in order for this version to rise beyond the level of a particularly overdone Frye & Laurie sketch: For one thing, we have to overlook the entire framework in which this campaign was contested – to the extent it can said to have been contested at all! – between Labour and the Tories. To borrow John Kerry’s phrase from his 2004 campaign in the US, this was not about two competing visions of how to run the country, but ‘who is in a position to execute’. This election did not see Labour actually oppose the policies whose devastating results their house organ, the Mirror, has regularly attacked. Yes, Labour belatedly expressed rhetorical support for the popular demand to abolish the bedroom tax (whilst their councillors pledged to continue evicting those who don’t pay it), but they also pledged to lower the benefit cap outside of London, which would result in families with three or more children losing their housing benefit altogether – effectively the end of social housing. And yes, they pledged to ban ‘exploitative’ zero-hour contracts, but only for people who manage to stay in the same job for three months (rendering the measure meaningless). Their perfunctory nod to the 80% of Britons who want to see the rail service renationalised was a wasteful tender process in which the public sector would compete with the spivs who have been enriching themselves off of public subsidies for years and provide one of the worst, and most expensive, rail services in Western Europe. On the overall cuts régime that is pervasively misnamed ‘austerity’, they pledged no cuts in a ‘protected area’ that did not include such essentials as housing benefit, unemployment benefit, social care, council housing, or tertiary education.
Labour actually echoed Tory positions on workfare, benefit sanctions, and the maintenance of the Trident WMD programme, and in portraying Scottish voters as pernicious interlopers in what supposedly is their own country. On immigration, they might as well have promised to hand the UKBA over to Nigel Farage and Nick Griffin.
Their response to one of the most hated governments in a generation was the political equivalent of a backward defensive.
Labour made no efforts to challenge the Big Lies of the past five years (and indeed of much of the 25 years preceding them). Their statements on unemployment were premised on the idea of unemployed workers as layabouts who just don’t want to take advantage of all the work available, even though there are over two unemployed people for every available job. Their immigration rhetoric was based on scapegoating immigrants for economic problems when the evidence is that immigration actually creates jobs and generates tax revenues.
No rebuke was forthcoming when Rachel ‘Tougher on Benefits than IDS’ Reeves declared that Labour was not interested in representing those most thoroughly screwed by thirty years of ‘austerity’ – the unemployed and those on benefit. Given the turnout, is it really implausible that poor people simply took her at her word?
If Eds Miliband and Balls were Pakistani cricketers, they’d have been done for match fixing.
Labour’s perennial journey to the right is conventionally justified by appeals to ‘electability’. This is a concept that requires unpacking. The most recent British Social Attitudes Report (BSAR), the most comprehensive study of its kind in the UK, provides a worthwhile background for this unpacking. The authors of the 2013 study, the most recent available, found it worth noting at the outset that three decades of short, sharp shock therapy (aka ‘austerity’) had not succeeded in fundamentally changing the political instincts of the majority. Depending on how the questions were phrased, between 60 and 80 % opposed benefit cuts. Over 80 % considered inequality one of the most pressing problems of the day and agreed that it was the responsibility of government to do something about it, including by direct intervention in the economy. Britain is one of many countries where the majority of the population is significantly to the left of the political class.
Even more notable are the answers of what we might call ‘knowledge questions’. From these answers, we learn that the vast majority actually believe the dominant – and patently false – stories that benefit fraud is a major problem and that there are jobs for everyone who needs one. This, in itself, is not surprising, since the dominant media have done nothing to correct these official lies, which are promoted not only by the government, but the Labour Party. What is interesting is that these figures mean that there is substantial overlap between people who believe the lies and people who oppose benefit cuts. In other words, they believe the mendacious public rationales for these policies, but oppose the policies these lies are meant to justify.
The Labour leadership are certainly aware of these results. All the major parties employ people whose entire job is to know these things. They know, in other words, that the best bet to win an election against a hated right-wing government is to come out against the signature policies of that government, breaking with their Thatcherite tradition. But they didn’t do that, in the name of ‘electability’, and now they are talking about becoming even more Tory than the Tories, in the name of ‘electability’.
‘Electability’, then, means standing for the exact opposite of what over 60 % of Britons want.
This may seem an odd strategy at first glance, but there are definite advantages that have led alleged ‘centre-left’ parties from Germany to Chile to adopt it. The underlying premise of this strategy is that voter abstention is beneficial and worth promoting. If there’s no viable alternative going, there’s no need to offer one. If the majority have no electoral home for their left-of-centre instincts, if there is no major party that promises to act in their economic interests, they will increasingly give the polls a miss, allowing the major parties to fight over affluent voters.
The official narrative of the recent general election concentrates on the unexpected Tory majority, and discourages any inquiry going beyond that superficial fact.
Because if we actually look beyond the gross election results that don’t take account of voter turnout, to look at the net results, unfiltered by first past the post and not distorted by the omission of the massive abstentionist contingent, we find that there has been no increase in support for the Tories. Their electoral support amounted to 20.8 %, which closely resembles the proportion of the population with a personal wealth upwards of £ 600,000 a year (17 % according to the Office of National Statistics) (1). We also find that the Greens, who stood on an anti-cuts manifesto, made significant gains that only did not equal seats in Westminster because of the FPTP system. We find that – as even the New York Times noticed – it was the leftmost candidates who made the biggest gains. We also have to ignore what happened in Scotland, where there is an alternative to the cuts regime that has demonstrated that it is serious and responsive to popular pressure. Labour’s biggest defeat was at the hands of a party that positioned itself to the left of them.
It should come as no surprise that we are not being invited to take a closer look at Scotland. We’re meant to blame them for spoiling Labour’s chances and to be offended at their ingratitude towards governments that ignore them until it’s time to collect Scotland’s subsidy to the City, or to patronise them for not supporting Jim Murphy’s Labour or Tommy Sheridan’s SSP.
It has been popular in the dominant narrative to use the word ‘nationalist’ to dismiss what is happening in Scotland, thus avoiding the danger that people in England and Wales might actually learn from it.
All of these efforts to dismiss the developments of recent years in Scotland merely confirm that Scotland is the political story of note in Britain. Scotland is the most dynamic part of the as-yet-United Kingdom. All forms of political participation, electoral and otherwise, are growing rapidly in Scotland whilst they stagnate and decline in England and Wales. It is the Scottish left that has made tangible gains and protected past ones whilst the left in England and Wales are fragmented and slow to mount a fightback.
It is popular in certain sectors of the English left to echo the disgraced former leader of One Nation Labour in declaring that the Scottish independence movement and the post-Vow explosion in support for the SNP is simply ‘nationalism’, because Scottish independence obviously involves the creation of a nation state. With the same intellectual rigour and depth of analysis, one could claim that a dentist who extracts an infected molar has jumped on the pro-tooth gap bandwagon.
Apart from being breathtakingly shallow and ahistorical, the illogic in this analysis lies in its conflation of the means with the end. Rather than ask who in Scotland is supporting independence, why they are dissatisfied with the current situation, and what sort of society they hope to build in an independent Scotland, we get independence = nationalism = bad.
For the sake of the future of the left in England and Wales (and elsewhere), one hopes we might do a bit better than that. Rather than lecturing the Scottish left – which overwhelmingly supported the Yes vote and favoured the SNP in this election on tactical grounds – we should be asking why the Scottish working class is so remarkably politically active whilst an atmosphere of resignation and cynicism prevails in so many of their English and Welsh counterparts.
Independence is not a live issue in Scotland because people there suddenly discovered a fervent love for thistles, haggis, and Saltires. When that was what independence was about – in the early days of the SNP- independence barely registered in Scottish politics because one didn’t need a separate state for those things, and the people for whom those were the most pressing concerns were and are, by and large, satisfied with things as they were. As Tartan Tories, the SNP were a niche vote that didn’t connect with popular interests and aspirations to form a real social movement.
The SNP – and the issue of independence – gained relevance as a shield against the worst depredations of successive Thatcherite governments, a way of ensuring that people in Scotland had at least some political representation in a UK where their votes did not – and do not – count. The increasing support for independence rather than limited autonomy grew from the realisation that only so much could be achieved at the Scottish level as long as the central government was dominated by right-wing votes from England.
In short, what is dismissed as mere ‘nationalism’ is in reality the realisation that, in the existing political configuration, the right-wing hold on politics is unbreakable, by design.
To my mind, the politicisation in Scotland is the result of what might be called a ‘gateway demand’, a simple demand, easily understood, within reach, that gave working-class people an occasion to deliberate seriously, individually and collectively, about what kind of society they wanted. Independence is merely the most readily available mechanism to make that political transformation feasible. Under other circumstances, it might have been federalism or union with France, but under the existing conditions, it ended up being independence.
And this is why – despite the odd asinine claim to the contrary – the British ruling class was and is terrified of the prospect of the breakup of the UK. Everyone from Labour and the Tories to the Civil Service, major banks, and the BBC, as well as virtually every mass-circulation newspaper in the country joined the scare campaign against independence. The spectre of ordinary people becoming politicised and trying to build a better society is something the ruling class have been trying to eradicate for over a generation (since Thatcher ended the era of co-option), and just as they thought they’d sorted it, it came back to life with a Scottish accent.
It is no coincidence that Scotland is the one place where popular disgust with Unpaid Labour did not help the Tories – it was the one place where there was an alternative that enjoyed mass confidence.
That the real difference between England and Scotland is not a fundamental difference on social and economic policy, but the availability of an alternative, can be seen from the reaction to the leaders’ debates. After years of being told that the SNP was made up of armour-plated, genetically modified blobs of deep-fried Mars bar capable only of exterminating the English, millions of English voters got their first unfiltered look at the SNP. The result? Nicola Sturgeon was widely hailed as the winner of the debate, and one of the top UK Google searches that night was ‘Can I vote SNP in England?’
The official narrative of the 2015 general election is a Little England fable about the fundamentally right-wing instincts of the great British public, explaining why the Labour Party must move even farther to the right in order to be ‘electable’. The moral is that we on the left are expecting too much of the Labour Party, and that our efforts to defend working-class interests against the neoliberal onslaught are not only doomed to fail, but not even wanted by the intended beneficiaries.
We are all meant to go home and resign ourselves to a life of shit jobs and consumerism, where our chief political activity is swearing at David Dimbleby on telly. We’re meant to learn from this exercise that the Scots are just mindless anti-English fanatics of the clan MacSkaro, and certainly not anyone to be taking lessons from on anything but curling.
If this election had, as predicted, resulted in a Labour government, we would be sold the same moral, packaged in a slightly different post-democratic fairy story in the name of ‘realism’ and ‘electability’.
Fascinating how ‘realism’ requires us to ignore so many facts and ‘electability’ is based on opposing the demands of the majority.
There is, however, another lesson to be learnt, if only we step out of the fantasy world of ‘realism’ and the rotten borough of ‘electability’. People throughout Britain don’t just want a left alternative to neoliberal orthodoxy – they are literally dying for it. Where one appears to be within reach, they flock to it. When they see one that is just out of reach (say, just north of Gretna or west of Offa’s Dyke), they envy it. More than thrice as many people opposed this ‘elected’ government as supported it. And outside the electoral realm, campaigns led by benefit claimants themselves against workfare, benefit sanctions, and (in Scotland) the bedroom tax have actually been able to force Iain Duncan Smith to dial back his attacks on workers, or neutralised them outright.
We might also learn that we may only be one well-posed ‘gateway demand’ away from seeing the same effervescence in England and Wales that we are seeing in Scotland.
Another worthwhile lesson would be the realisation, one and for all, that the Labour Party is, to borrow Glen Ford’s description of the US Democrats, ‘the more effective evil’. A strong Labour Party is one of the principal impediments – if not the principal impediment – to independent left politics, because Labour exist only to domesticate popular demands by scaremongering about the Tories. Their outright boycott of any party even slightly to their left (a tactic nicked off Germany’s SPD), is revealing: They know that their survival as an institution depends on being the only alternative to the Conservatives, and they are determined to prevent any alternative going beyond the level of a ‘protest vote’, Even at the cost of out-and-out throwing elections.
At the same time the likes of Owen Jones – who should know better, given that his parents were in Militant – come out of the woodwork to urge the left to change Labour from within. Why? Because as long as leftists are wasting time and energy trying to persuade a leadership who blithely ignore the conference resolutions of the rank-and-file membership of their party, the left can be contained and weakened. Inevitably, some involved in ‘Operation If We Love Him Enough He’ll Stop Beating Us’ will be bought out, and many others will be so exhausted by the vain effort that they no longer have any energy for political work of any kind at all. When in government, as Johnny Void pointed out recently, Labour go from standing ‘slack-jawed on the sidelines’ to being one more adversary for those struggling against the depredations of neoliberalism.
Labour’s defeat is not our defeat, and whilst the prospect of five more years of David Cameron is horrifying, we should take solace in the further weakening of the Labour Party. Every defeat they suffer is richly deserved, and reduces their ability to act as a bulwark against the left. There will be a lot of disillusionment with Labour after this defeat, and we need to speak to that disillusionment before the Labour Party are able to turn the page on it with whatever repulsive new leader they thaw out.
Five years of Labour in the nominal opposition is five years in which they have to pretend not to oppose the left, five years in which we’re fighting against people virtually no one is confused about. That, too, is a silver lining of sorts.
Written by Elise Hendrick
(1) In an earlier version, this piece erroneously stated that 20.8 % closely resembled the percentage of the population with an income upwards of £ 200,000 a year. The ONS figures represent the most recent available survey.