My thoughts are a little bit incoherent today. High emotion can do that to me. As a long-term unemployed, kinky, genderfluid, sufferer from a mental health condition, I can’t help but take this a little bit personally: I want to confront the people who voted Tory and ask them why they hate me.
My chief emotion is gut-wrenching dread. I imagine the country 5 years from now, and I can’t imagine there being anything left to save. No NHS. No human rights. No free speech (at least, for sexual minorities). No bodily autonomy. “You’ll be working for your benefits forever.” I’m sure the economy will look on paper as though everything’s hunky-dory but in people’s lives there will be naught but misery and despair, it will be the Right’s version of Stalin’s Russia or something. No, I don’t care if that counts as a Godwin fail. And yes, I get that Stalin’s pogroms and purges were mass murder and it might seem cras to compare the two. Well, fuck it, people ARE going to die because of this. They already were dying because of Tory cuts. It’s all going to be nice and civilised and on the surface clean and respectable, but it’s still going to be horrendous.
What do we do to ensure we aren’t stuck like it forever? Is there a way to salvage something, and to rebuild what’s lost when we come to it 5 years from now? What lessons can the Labour Party learn from this campaign?
The rightwing of the Labour Party will insist that Labour played it too far to the left. That the people were scared off by Ed’s rhetoric. I don’t think that’s true. I see two things in these results, neither of which support a “back to the Blair philosophy” message.
The first is that this is an election of punishment by the people. There are angry votes, rejections, everywhere. And what people are punishing, it seems to me, is what they perceive as betrayal.
In England and Wales, it’s the Liberal Democrats.
The Liberal Democrat manifesto in 2010 was a wonderful document, and it appealed more strongly to the idealist Left than perhaps the Labour manifesto did. It was attractive, principled, and offered hope. I was in a safe Tory seat, and I believe that manifesto was enough to get me voting tactically for the Liberal Democrat candidate to oust the Tory. I actually wanted to see a lot of the measures they proposed. The opinion polls told us that quite a lot of other people felt the same way. On the night, that didn’t translate into a bigger share of the vote, but they did win seats, and became a significant factor in determining what happened next.
We can’t blame them for not teaming up with Gordon Brown: there were enough dissenting voices within the Parliamentary Labour Party to make that coalition impossible. But the people could, and did, end up blaming them for selling out on every one of the liberal principles they espoused, to prop up a Conservative government for five years. They claim that they managed to curb the worst excesses of the Tory Right, and their desire to punish people for being poor or unlucky, but they still supported the punishments and cuts and viciousness that did get through.
We can’t blame Tories for being Tories, I suppose: we know what they are and what we can expect. But people expected better from the Liberal Democrats. We wanted them to have principles but instead, at the first whiff of power and a chance to be in government, they abandoned their principles and jumped into bed with the Tories. And at the time people were saying that this was going to destroy the LibDems. I swore on that day that I would never vote Liberal Democrat again, and I meant it. People don’t feel betrayed by the Tories, any more than you can feel betrayed by a ravening animal. You know what you’re dealing with, however vicious and brutal it may be. People feel betrayed by the Liberal Democrats, the sell-outs, and that’s why all the blame for austerity, cuts, human rights being rolled back, workfare, and the rest, lands squarely on the shoulders of the Liberal Democrats. They could have stopped it. They could have refused to have truck with the Tory programme. They thought being in Downing Street mattered more than their principles did.
And the other punishment is the Scottish vote. The Scots I saw interviewed cited numerous things for which they blamed Labour, going back to the Blair years and the Iraq war. And most of all, they felt betrayed by Labour’s “austerity-light”. They felt abandoned (“We haven’t left Labour. Labour left us”) and they voted with that emotion for the only viable party remaining in Scotland: the SNP.
The “punishment election” message tells us that Blair is a big reason why Labour got wiped out in Scotland, and doesn’t suggest that going back to those ways would do anything to revive Labour’s fortunes or rein in the Tories, or undo the damage they are plotting now.
The other point I see is that people wanted an end to austerity. After Nicola Sturgeon’s performance on the UK-wide debate English people were saying they wanted to vote for her and her anti-austerity message. The SNP are the big winners out of the election (although now we have a Tory majority, their wins mean nothing). The Labour message of “yes, we will make some cuts, but not as much as the Conservatives” just wasn’t different enough, distinctive enough, or attractive enough to win votes.
I’ve seen people pointing out how strong the UKIP vote was as evidence that the party was too far to the left. I disagree with that. Labour never tried to challenge the logic of austerity against the Tories, nor the logic of UKIP’s xenophobic (and yes, racist) policies.
There’s a scene in The West Wing where Josh is looking at the figures his pollster (I’ve forgotten her name) has brought him about a policy they want to champion in a region. He sees most people are against it and concludes, “We have to dial down the rhetoric”. She tells him the opposite; “The numbers mean we have to dial it up, not dial it down. The message isn’t getting through. We have to convince people.”
That’s what I feel happened to Labour: the message wasn’t getting through. It was not Left enough. It wasn’t different enough. Throughout the extended campaign, people were sending them the message “end austerity, don’t do austerity-light”. Hell, for five years people were campaigning for that, on protest marches and social media.
Ed Miliband persuaded Russell Brand. But it seems there’s a whole bunch of young people whom he didn’t reach, because his policies weren’t for them, and weren’t going to protect vital services because they still included cuts.
There are some voters Labour will never win. Some of them look like undecideds but they are instinctively Tory and the only way to get them is to chase the Tories down the rabbit hole and stop being Labour. It sort of worked for Blair, but in so doing then, it means there are far fewer who can be won that way now, just because there isn’t that much more to the right for Labour to go. But there are some who want to be Labour but for some reason aren’t. People who perhaps need to see the unique attractive features rather than see someone trying to be something they suspect they’re not. Labour needs to have the courage to be The Labour Party. It hasn’t done that since it elected Blair. Not really.
I don’t know what will be left after another five years. But we’re going to need someone Left enough to want to rebuild it, to believe in the principles of the Welfare State and the NHS as they were founded 70 years ago (or thereabouts) sufficiently that they will do what is right, not just what neo-capitalist liberals say is prudent.
When I joined the Labour Party just under a week ago, this scenario was one possibility in my mind: that Labour would lose, and would start looking for a new direction (indicated by choosing a new leader). One of the things in my mind was, I wanted to have a vote in that leadership election. I wanted to help build that future, and find someone to uphold those old-fashioned values that are under attack constantly by modern Toryism. We need to be ready in five years’ time to stand up for the idea of mutual support and compassion for all, the idea that the poorest and least heard deserve the same protections as the richest, and the idea that in an unsafe world, we have a duty to protect and help one another.