Over the past week, Labour figures have come out of the shadows to say that the party lost the recent General Election – their most humbling reverse in over thirty years – because they had moved too far to the left and that the party needs to return to the centre ground it occupied under Tony Blair.
First of all, Labour presented a mostly centre-right message, which was in many ways to the right of anything Blair attempted (as regards immigration and the party’s relationship with Trade Unions) and could be summed up as austerity-lite, essentially promoting themselves disingenuously as the party of social justice by being fractionally less wealth-orientated than the Conservatives.
Of course, there were some progressive policies mixed in – the Mansion Tax and revocation of Non Dom status being the two most prominent and Labour saw a bump in the polls every time these were mooted, only for that progress to be destroyed every time Ed Balls said something like he wouldn’t change anything about George Osborne’s budget.
Essentially, Labour tried to split the difference – hang as close to the Conservative line as they could, and expect that everyone to the left would join up behind them.
They didn’t and never will again.
Blairites are always keen to interpret their landmark victory in 1997 as a victory of ‘centrist’ (meaning centre-right) policies by Labour, taking the working class with them while stealing the ‘aspirational’ middle class vote from the Conservatives.
This is a gross simplification of what actually happened and even less helpful in the more varied political landscape which has emerged a generation on.
Tony Blair’s victories were founded on the British public at large being tired of 18 years of Conservative rule – it was simply time for a change, and Blair’s ‘aspirational’ pitch simply made that easier for some former Conservative voters to get behind. It’s also worth remembering that this was a weak and divided Conservative party who had spent the parliament from 1992-97 bickering and infighting, with their eleven seat majority whittled away by by-election defeats and backbench rebellions.
Blair failed to present the broad ranging reforms that such a massive majority provided him the mandate for and then proceeded to steer the UK into an unpopular and illegal war. Labour have been bleeding votes ever since, as much to the left as to the right.
Ed Miliband actually managed to stop the rot in terms of Labour’s decreasing vote, but by failing to present a genuine alternative to the Conservative austerity agenda, taking a key role in the negative Better Together campaign and generally not being an effective opposition or differentiating enough from the Tory message, he lost some of his safest seats and failed to win over enough new voters.
Labour do need to return to the centre ground, but this necessitates a leftward step, not a rightward one.
It is no coincidence that Labour’s greatest reverses in this election came in Scotland where the SNP have presented themselves as a more authentic party of social democracy, straddling the centre ground and leaning to the left.
As much as the SNP can be called out for not being as progressive as they make themselves out to be, they are undoubtedly more so than Labour have been over the past twenty years.
In England, there was no such established option, yet Labour bled potential votes to the Greens – who presented in part the kind of radical, centre-left manifesto that Labour would have been proud of in the late 1970s, early 1980s – and UKIP who presented a much simpler message to a demographic which felt left behind by all the talk of austerity, wealth taxes and cuts in business rates.
Simply put, I do not believe that Labour can defeat a strong, well-lead Conservative party on their own ideological ground and what is more, they should not attempt to. What is the point of Labour, if their aim is to be as like the Conservatives as they can get away with?
If Labour takes another step to the right, their core vote will abandon them. They will lose Scotland entirely, Wales will follow and they will hemorrhage votes to the Greens, UKIP and a resurgent Liberal Democrats in England. Sure, they may win over a fraction of the Conservative support, but at best that would be a 5% gain to offset a 20-25% loss.
This would be a disaster for British democracy, effectively handing the Conservatives a three or four term government at least while a new party of opposition builds itself up.
Labour need to challenge the Conservative narrative, oppose austerity – there is plenty of evidence to show that the policy is flawed, indeed actually harmful. They need to again take up policies such as free education, nationalisation of public services, starting with the railways and energy companies. They need to listen to their grass roots members more, reconnect with the trade unions and stop taking their core vote for granted.
This may well be their last chance to do so.