Why Labour Lost

September 30, 2015

I’ve read a lot of commentary in the press, re: Corbyn’s leadership of the UK Labour Party, along these lines (the quote is Pippa Crerar on Twitter, but it could be one of many UK journalists, the theme is widespread):

I do wonder how much Corbyn has reflected on Labour losing the election. Badly. And on what it means.

When media commentators write like this, they mean the following: Ed Miliband’s Labour lost the 2015 election because it moved too far left; Corbyn’s strategy of taking the party even further left is therefore absurd.

But although most of the UK commentariat and political class share this analysis of Labour’s 2015 defeat, it is not a good one. Here, imo, is a better one – which, as it happens, Corbyn seems to also hold. Of course, political reality is complex, and the following is crass – but to a first approximation, I think it’s useful to see Labour as losing in 2015 for two reasons.

1) Labour disregarded the base for years. The New Labour strategy was, essentially: take the base for granted, and appeal to the ‘floating voter’ in the centre ground. This works while it works – but it cannot work indefinitely. It relies on a reputation with the base established over the years in which the base was actively appealed to, and it eats into that reputation, gradually destroying it. Furthermore, as the party is remade in accordance with the new strategy, organisational ties with the traditional base diminish. All of that is bad, but not fatal, as long as voters have nowhere else to go. But the SNP provided Scottish voters with somewhere else to go. Labour’s mishandling of the referendum exemplified their disregard of their Scottish base, and so Labour lost 40 seats ‘overnight’, in one of their traditional ‘heartlands’.

2) Labour permitted the Conservatives to establish the following narrative on the economy: Blair-Brown era Labour spent too much on welfare, creating a huge budget deficit; the budget deficit (somehow?) caused the global financial crisis, and the recession that followed; getting out of that recession requires balancing the budget; which requires cutting welfare. Labour failed to effectively challenge any of the steps in this argument, even though (as I see it) they are all incorrect. Having permitted the Conservatives to portray them as fiscally irresponsible, and to blame for the great recession, they further accepted the Conservative line that ‘austerity’ is the only way to demonstrate fiscal responsibility. On this framing, Labour are always going to appear weaker than the Conservatives, because if austerity = responsibility, even ‘austerity light’ policies are less fiscally responsible than ‘austerity heavy’ policies. So Labour lost the ‘floating voter’ because they seemed weak and irresponsible on economic policy.

That’s why Labour lost in 2015, in a nutshell – losing votes both in the centre ground and among their (former) base. And although the commentariat can’t seem to see it, Corbyn’s strategy aims to address both of these weaknesses.

1) Corbyn appeals to the base, with traditional labour policies denigrated by New Labour – this observation is uncontroversial. Unfortunately New Labour fucked up in Scotland so comprehensively that the party has a mountain to climb to regain ground there. But you’ve got to start somewhere.

2) Corbyn aims to ‘reframe’ the discourse on economic policy, by presenting ‘anti-austerity’ arguments on two fronts. First – progressive taxation-funded government investment expenditure can be a major driver of economic growth, increasing overall prosperity; second – redistributive policies can provide the traditional social safety net, increasing individual economic security. Conservative economic policies, by contrast, are recessionary, at the macro level, and remove the economic security associated with social safety net measures, at the individual level. Therefore Labour are the economically responsible ones, and the Conservatives are a source of economic insecurity, at least for low and middle income voters. Bolted on to this is the insistence that Labour will eliminate the deficit, because apparently everyone has to say that now.

Most of the commentariat and political class think these two strategies are silly. They think (1) is silly because they think the concerns and interests of the traditional Labour base are silly; this is a problem of class perspective, at root. They think (2) is silly because they’ve bought the austerity ideology – they think that a perfectly sound left Keynesian economic approach is absurd and unfeasible – and they can only hear voters’ ‘concerns about the economy’ as meaning ‘cut welfare’.

But Corbyn’s strategy isn’t silly. It might very well not work – politics is hard, the party is divided, and the media are hostile – but as I see it there’s no intrinsic reason why it couldn’t work. Despite the consensus among journalists and politicians, there is a strong case to be made that social-democratic, Keynesian economic policies increase the prosperity and economic security that voters care about, while austerity policies reduce them. If Corbyn’s Labour can persuasively make that case, it should in principle be possible for the party to make significant electoral gains.

By contrast, the ongoing ‘moderate’ Labour strategy of telling the base to go fuck itself, while agreeing fulsomely with the Conservatives about how poor Labour’s economic record has been, seems on its face to be a poor electoral strategy. Anything is possible in politics, of course, and I claim no great insight – but there is reason enough to see Corbyn’s strategy as sounder in important ways than the conventional ‘centrist’ approach, even in electoral terms alone.

I don’t have any great insights into the Corbyn phenomenon – but I do have something to say about the New Labour reaction. It is of course the aggrieved rage of an elite suddenly confronted by the agency of their supposedly passive inferiors. But the incomprehension in that rage comes not just from the isolation of the political class’s social echo-chamber, but also from a faulty theory of history adopted within that echo-chamber. The New Labour elite saw itself as progressivist in a literal sense: history has a direction, and the task of political leaders is to align with history’s movement. Just as much as any stagist Marxist, they saw a teleology in history, and saw themselves as the vanguard of the inevitable. As with all such theories of history, actual political events were taken both to validate their sense of progress, when they matched expectations, and to sometimes, sadly, depart from history’s truth, demanding remedial political action. This teleological view informed both New Labour’s domestic policy – where the structural transformation of the ’80s, and the shift in the political balance of power associated it, was seen as showing the direction that any future politics must take – and its foreign policy – where nations could be ranked on a progressive scale of development and civilisation, with US geopolitical power expressing high advancement on that scale, warranting civilising and humanitarian military interventions into the affairs of the brutes.

Because New Labour understood their historical task in this way, they saw radical politics of both the left and right as something that had been superseded, on the way to a more civilised ‘centrist’ consensus – rather than as the expression of social interests and social movements that were only contingently diminished or transformed. The postwar settlement, wherein radicalism was tamed through social-democratic compromise, was seen by New Labour as a waystation towards fuller achievement of elite political goals, rather than a concession made to diminish otherwise unmanageable dissent. For New Labour the masses are atavistic – and can be manipulated by appealing to this atavism, in the form of racist dogwhistling and law-and-order demagoguery – but they are, at base, on the wrong side of history, when they challenge elite policies and power. The New Labour horror at Corbyn’s ‘regression’ to ‘old Labour’ policies is therefore more than just a rejection of Corbyn’s politics; it is more than a conviction that this politics forfeits electorability; Corbyn’s politics are repulsive to New Labour because they are, from the New Labour perspective, quite literally unnatural; they prompt the horror and unease associated with those moments when the fantastical becomes real.