The people and the politicians

Writing in the Guardian on 13th May Len McCluskey, Unite’s General Secretary, was right on the money explaining Labour’s defeat. Once the party accepted that the election would be fought on terrain defined by the Tories it was on a hiding to nothing. Its message about austerity was muddled, its commitments on balanced budgets and a welfare cap sitting uneasily alongside pledges to borrow for ‘investment’. The manifesto wasn’t too ‘left-wing’, it wasn’t even particularly radical. It had attractive elements of policy but no coherent narrative and no central theme defining what it stood for.

The Blairites blamed an ‘old labour’ obsession with the core vote and a failure to speak for ‘aspirational’ voters, the better off workers and many in the middle class. It had this element of truth. Labour is still distinguished from the Tories by its support for the ‘disadvantaged’, and people think of the disadvantaged as the bottom 20%, the poor, the disabled and the unemployed. A lot of the disadvantaged in the other 80% stayed at home or voted UKIP. Many voted Tory because they thought them a safer bet. They didn’t identify with Labour or, for the most part, with the ‘disadvantaged’.

In her own clumsy way Rachel Reeves was trying to address this when she declared that Labour was ‘not the party of people on benefits’. Herbert Morrison made a similar point in the 1940s without getting quite the same reaction. The welfare state was a good thing, he thought, but it was for the ambulance cases. Like Morrison, Reeves thought Labour should be seen as ‘a party of working people, formed for and by working people’ but he could still say what the party of working people was trying to achieve. Reeves couldn’t.

New Labour couldn’t either. It was already a failed political project when it came to grief in 2008. It had tried to be the party of ‘the community’, of ‘stakeholders’, of the third way and public sector reform but never quite settled on anything. Labour certainly can’t reinvent itself as even newer Labour.

It could try remixing the elements of its recent appeal, finding even more electoral goodies for even more diverse segments of the voting population, but it will never out-bid shameless Conservatism. In fact, it cannot recover at all by searching for formulas that will appeal to voters. It has to have convictions of its own, find the courage to sustain them, and take the argument to the electors.

Labour didn’t lose only because it didn’t get the message right. There isn’t an electorate out there just waiting for its labour-buttons to be pressed, its ‘interests’ to be accurately identified and catered for in a short list of pledges. Much of it is as selfish, deluded and conservative as the Conservatives. Inertia and fear are strong forces for the status quo; politicians that want to change something must have bigger ambitions and be prepared to fight for them. Where are the Labour people prepared to take on the audience and debate them.

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