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.


11 Responses to “Why Labour Lost”

  1. Hi, Duncan,

    Even though you’ve said you won’t reply, the following comment seems worthwhile:

    Your position is based on the assumptions, (1) That Labour can only exercise power by securing a majority of seats and governing alone, and therefore (2) That Corbyn’s position should be evaluated on its probability of achieving that outcome. But (1) is false: Labour could exercise power in a coalition, as Syriza did, so (2) must also be false.

    What Corbyn should do is offer all non-Tory parties an electoral pact based on agreeing a system of PR before 2020 to be implemented immediately after the election without a referendum, and another election to be called under that system immediately thereafter. SNP, UKIP, LDs and Greens would snap that up. That would destroy the Tories and produce a completely new electoral landscape.

    ATB, Chris

  2. duncan Says:

    Hi Chris – On the current system: I’m not assuming Labour needs a majority, just that it needs to increase its seats and share of the vote, perhaps aiming for the hung parliament and confidence-and-supply (or coalition) arrangement Miliband presumably thought he was going to get. Your suggestion for changing the electoral system would certainly seem to have merit (though I’m no expert) – it doesn’t appear to be on the table at present though, perhaps unfortunately. The SNP would lose seats under such a system, so I can’t see them backing the proposal – and if the electoral landscape remains similar to present (which of course it may not, but…), the SNP would seem to be a necessary partner in a minority Labour government.

  3. duncan Says:

    Ugh, typing in haste, “a necessary partner” is of course far too strong – there are certainly other possible scenarios. But still.

  4. Hi, Duncan,

    First, the SNP might risk losing seats, but would find it very difficult to justify refusing to engage in an anti-Tory electoral pact for PR. After all, the central plank in the independence platform is not (as I understand it) nationalism for its own sake, but only as a remedy for the lack of fair representation for Scotland. If they did refuse, they’d lose a large chunk of their credibility.

    Second, Labour doesn’t need more seats than it has in order to be the largest party in a coalition.

    Third, the fact that Corbyn hasn’t raised the PR question tells us something important: he’s still, – like the Blairites, – thinking in terms of a two-party system in which both “major parties” compete for the “centre ground”, – necessitating the blandness that all the new people who voted for him are totally fed up with.

    Perhaps I should add your “imo” caveat: tell me I’m wrong if you like.

  5. duncan Says:

    Well maybe. Hard to see the SNP not losing seats imo. They have PR in their manifesto, so perhaps they’d follow through, I may be too cynical. Where do you see the seats coming from if Labour doesn’t gain but the Tories can’t form a coalition? A lib dem revival and left turn?

  6. duncan Says:

    Ugh – sorry – again typing hastily – I mean if the Tories can’t form a government.

  7. duncan Says:

    As in – PR aside – I guess my basic issue here is: the Tories have a majority; that majority needs to go away if any kind of left or indeed centrist government is to be possible; for Corbyn the best way to make that majority go away is to try to gain seats for Labour, even in the (very likely) scenario that Labour can’t form a majority, but has to rely on a coalition or confidence and supply arrangement. PR-pact or no, someone needs to get seats back from the Tories for anything else to be possible…

  8. Blairism is dead and there is no majority support for a radical left Labour Party, but there is an anti-Tory majority that can achieve power only under PR.

    The first strategic aim, therefore, should be to break the FPTP system. This can only be through an agreement before 2020 among anti-Tory parties on a system of PR and on an electoral pact with only two commitments by all parties to the pact (1) to implement that system immediately after the election (2020a) without a referendum and then immediately (2) to call another election (2020b) under the new PR system. At election 2020b the electoral pact would cease and it would be each party for itself.

    The electoral-pact strategy involves some risk: The Tories might defeat the anti-Tory parties and gain an overall majority in 2020a, but that possibility already exists; indeed, in the absence of an electoral pact it’s a probability. The strength of the pact strategy is that it brackets the conflict over policy and converts election 2020a into a referendum on PR as the only route to the birth of the “new politics” that the young are so hungry for. It could have the same effect of generating that hope in England as the SNP had in Scotland.

    With the offer of a pact as its flagship for 2020/a, Labour could give itself a breathing space in which to thrash out its policies and sort out its personnel for 2020b. Labour could also be seen as giving a lead, challenging the other anti-Tory parties to embrace a big, simple, once-and-for-all change, and leaving the Tories as the defenders of politics-as-usual. That could put Labour on the front foot again in Scotland if the SNP were seen to be dragging their feet.

    The danger I see in your idea of Labour “winning back seats” is that it looks very like playing it safe and waiting for the Tories to lose seats, which leaves us exactly where we were.

  9. duncan Says:

    Well it’s certainly a plan. Personally I’d prefer to see a separate referendum on electoral reform, so that the vote for or against the Tories isn’t conflated with the vote for or against PR.

  10. PR bores most people to death: it’s only when PR is seen as anti-Tory and it’s a general election that you’ll get a majority in favour. Remember what happened in the referendum on AV!

    Of course, we’re all guessing in the dark, but … keep on trucking!

  11. […] of Corbyn’s project shortly after he won the leadership, in September 2015 – you can read it here. Reasonable people can of course differ on these issues – a ‘model’ can never be […]

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