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After the General Election, What Next for British Labour?

The shock result of Britain’s general election last week, with Cameron’s Conservatives achieving a parliamentary majority against all expectations, masked the fact that, in England, the public could only choose between a blatantly bankers’ party and one that proposed minor restrictions on the activities of the super-rich. Even though Scottish voters decisively rejected austerity policies, the banking class won Westminster overall – attested to by the surge in the stock market after the Tory win. The UK is now headed for massive cuts in the welfare state and privatization of the National Health Service in order to force through more tax cuts for the rich.

The Guardian reported: “It couldn’t have been clearer who were the real winners from Thursday’s poll. Buy-to-let investors have dodged the threat of long-term, rent-controlled tenancies; City bankers have avoided a new bonus tax; utilities will not be forced to submit to tougher market intervention. As one Financial Times headline had it, ‘Wealthy breathe a sigh of relief at Tory victory’.”

The Conservatives didn’t so much win the election as Labour spectacularly lost it. The Tories were able to manipulate the first-past-the-post electoral system, targeting marginal seats in middle England with a fear campaign about Labour’s management of the economy, immigration, and how the SNP might dominate a minority Labour government, while Labour retained the hardcore loyalty of cities like Newcastle and Liverpool.

John Lanchester blogged: “Labour’s share of the vote in England went up by 3.6 per cent. That’s more than the Tories: their share of the English vote only went up by 1.4 per cent. … The Tories smashed it in the marginals. In the battleground constituencies Labour were down on their 2010 performance by 0.7 per cent. Labour’s overall improvement in England was driven by success on their own turf: 3.5 per cent increase in the North East, 6 per cent in the North West. Where there was a genuine contest with the Tories, the Tories did better. … The Tories out-campaigned Labour in the places where they needed to.”

Miliband was unable to answer the Tories’ fear campaign because his party is internally divided between Blairite neo-liberals and union-backed social democrats, with Miliband performing a delicate balancing act between the two. Labour therefore never challenged the Conservative narrative, endlessly repeated by the media, that Gordon Brown’s Labour government was responsible for the 2008 recession, bank bailouts and the size of the public debt, and so had made spending cuts inevitable.

Cameron had slowed down austerity after 2012, leading to a slight improvement in the economy that was mainly confined to the prosperous south-east, but Labour candidates in some declining northern towns whose constituents had been hammered by the coalition government’s austerity measures had to struggle to convince them to vote at all – and if they did, it was likely for Ukip.

According to the Guardian, “The more a seat looked like London – young, ethnically diverse, highly educated, socially liberal, large public sector – the better Labour did, on the whole. … Labour fell short with voters outside this ‘London core’, leaking support in multiple directions. 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.”

What next for Labour? A special correspondent writes:

I am a Labour voter and, were I living in Scotland, I would be an SNP voter. I am very depressed at the outcome of a Tory government. The surprise defeat of Labour was a shock. The extent of the defeat is exaggerated by the voting system and the sudden resignations of three main party leaders, Ed Miliband for Labour, Nick Clegg for the LibDems and Nigel Farage of UKIP. All is not as it seems: Ed Miliband has not been a strong leader and Labour wanted rid of him before the election, although he ran a good campaign; Nick Clegg has been his party’s lightning conductor for their unpopularity when he campaigned on free university education and then participated in a 300% increase in university fees from £3000 to £9000 per year; Nigel Farage’s resignation is more Mirage than Farage as he proposes to stand for the leadership of UKIP again – he is just (temporarily) resigning to carry out a promise he made for the eventuality that he would lose his own personal election bid.

Labour were caught between two nationalisms: Scottish and English. They lost support in Scotland attempting to keep the Union together and campaigning with the Tories against Scottish independence and the Tories left them to it. The Tories’ reward for Labour was to accuse them of planning a coalition with seditious Scots whose main goal is to break the Union of England and Scotland. The Tories changed their election focus from their stewardship of the economy to attacking Labour for ‘siding with the enemy’ and from the outset of the Independence outcome, fuelling English nationalism.  The arguments on their ‘successful’ handling of the economy was founded on blaming Labour for the banking crash in 2008 when George Osborne opposed every attempt to regulate the banks at that time. As a global phenomenon emerging from dodgy US bank loans fuelling their housing boom, it is a transparent lie, but they have been successful with it.

The situation now faced by the new government is that they have stirred up a hornets’ nest of antagonisms between England and Scotland that can only lead to division of the union and with knock-on effects on Ireland, if not also in Wales and the Labour north of England. Statesmanship by the Tory party was noticeable only by its complete absence after the Scottish referendum campaign for independence. Short term party political interests were the only explanation for the stirring of English Nationalism by the “English Votes for English issues (?)” campaign that followed immediately after the referendum result.

We have divided parties: the Tories are split between its extreme anti-Europe right wing and its centrist ‘one nation’ Tories (an ever diminishing group); Labour is split between its Blairist centrist pro-business group that was able to work with Murdoch’s press and its more left-wing working class base; the LibDems are so shattered at all levels, local and national that its strong base of local activists in well-defined parts of the country is broken completely. The Scottish Nationalists are not split and have an inspirational leader: immediately on succeeding Alex Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon produced an anti-austerity policy and an inclusive policy that I only wish Labour had had the strength to follow, instead of opposing.

The collapse of the Lib Dems also explains a lot that is unique to this election. Their 23% share of the vote fell to below 8% and it fell everywhere including all their regional strongholds. 5 years of taking the blame for the coalition’s unpopular policies had broken the base of thousands of local councillors and activists. The last coalition government, as a group, lost 22 seats plus the remaining 8 LibDems are no longer part of government, so the coalition lost 30 seats overall. This is not much of a victory, even despite the election arithmetic. The government majority has fallen from over 70 to 12. Six by-election defeats over a government lifetime is to be expected and in the last parliament, the coalition lost 8 seats and the Conservative won zero seats. Should that happen again this government will lose its majority, which is likely as the Conservative austerity programme is more severe than before as they were held back in their ideologically-driven cutting of benefits by their LibDem partners.

We have two winners of this election, both elected on opposing manifestos: The SNP were overwhelmingly elected on an anti-austerity, socially fair ticket, and the Conservatives in England were underwhelming elected on an anti-Scottish, anti-Europe, anti-benefits, anti-immigrants but pro-big business ticket. The SNP is united with strong leadership. The Conservative are split and despite all his bluster, David Cameron is weak, as his unconvincing clashes with the EU and indeed by his fear of UKIP reveal. The coming clashes between these two winners starts now, over the federalisation of the UK. It moves over 2 years of uncertainty onto the EU referendum, which Cameron is very likely to lose. The Tories big business backers oppose withdrawal from Europe but the English nationalism set lose by Cameron in his attempt to win back UKIP supporters is virulently against the EU as is the greater part of his party. Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the SNP, has already posed the question that UK withdrawal from the EU requires all nations within the EU to agree to it. If the UK is a serious Union and not dictated to by its large English establishment, it must agree to this or accept the legitimacy of another referendum on Scottish independence should the UK take Scotland out of the EU against its wishes. The Scots overwhelmingly rejected austerity that England voted for and are very likely to vote for the EU when England doesn’t, as will the Irish too where the EU is also popular.

Where does Labour go now? It already has Tony Blair intervening saying it should abandon its left wing policies for a return to the middle ground. It certainly needs a more charismatic leadership, and not just the leader but all those who surround the new leader. I think the policies of Labour in 2015 were not its weakness but the failure to combat the Tory rewriting of history around the 2008 banking failures, the pincer movement of twin nationalism, so ably exploited by the Tories. The role of the press and the media including the BBC needs to be combatted by some means or other. Murdoch completely backed the Tory party as did the others, but Murdoch went further by promoting the SNP victory by the Scottish Sun while demonising them, on the same day, in their English Sun, the largest of the English gutter press. The model the Labour party needs to follow is already given to us by the one absolute success story, the SNP. For God’s sake, get an anti-inequality alliance and basic policies of gender and social equality and hence tax rises to pay for a rebuilding of the welfare state and decent jobs worth having. Form alliances with the SNP and the Greens on a platform of well-defined issues such as the environment and on federalism that is genuine. They can also support Scottish Nationalism and allow Scottish Labour to do its thing and be successful again in an independent Scotland. A successful social democratic state as our neighbour can only encourage English Labour to grow and fight harder. London and the North believe in more social justice, so there is a basis for change, even in the heart of England and those Tory shires. The problems of inequality, housing costs, soup kitchens and poverty are not suddenly going to go away.


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