The myth of a ‘progressive majority’ mesmerises the Left. Fail to learn the lessons of defeat and Labour will lose next time too
I first saw Ed Miliband at the launch of a new book by Will Hutton. It was the autumn of 2010, and he had just become Labour’s leader. The party was full of leftish writers, who might be expected to help and support Miliband. But he didn’t want to charm them, or work the room and meet and greet. He just stood there awkward and alone. “Whatever his other qualities,” I thought, “this man isn’t a politician.”
It was the same every time I bumped into him. At a Miliband meet-the-press drinks party in Westminster, I kept wondering what was wrong. I scanned the party, double-checked and realised that the only journalists present were left-wing journalists. Miliband was making no attempt to woo reporters who weren’t already onside, to persuade them that he might have a case, or argue them into thinking twice before attacking him. He would talk only to the already convinced, and ignore anyone outside Labour’s “core”. He was living in a cocoon. But then so was much of the British Left.
I don’t think you can overestimate the disaster that has befallen it. The numbers don’t tell the full story — but the numbers are bad enough.
Labour saw the Tories win 99 more seats and two million more votes. It lost everywhere except in London. It lost Southampton Itchen, Ed Balls’s Morley and Outwood, Bolton West, Telford and Derby North: seats that even Gordon Brown had held in 2010, when an exhausted party staggered to the polls after presiding over the worst financial crisis of our lifetime. In what were once the Labour heartlands of Scotland, only one Labour MP survived. In virtually every one of the 40 seats the SNP took from Labour, the nationalists now have a five-figure majority. My friends in the Scottish Labour party say Scotland has been caught in a nationalist spasm, and Labour will come back when the mania passes. Perhaps they are right, but I suspect they are comforting themselves: you don’t push a landslide back up the hill just like that.
In the north of England and on the east coast the myth that UKIP would split the Right, while allowing a united Left to triumph, took the hammering it deserved. UKIP came second in 44 Labour and 76 Tory seats. It is not just that UKIP stopped Labour taking seats it should have won. It replaced Labour as the opposition in seats where it ought to be in contention. In working-class constituencies in Essex and Kent, where the Left ought to offer hope to struggling voters, Labour is not even in the game. The new battles are between Conservatives and UKIP. As for Wales, the lazy assumption is that it is a Labour fortress. But as Luke Akehurst — a hardheaded activist in a Labour movement filled with wishful thinkers — pointed out, the Tories held all their Welsh marginal seats and took two from Labour. Natalie Bennett, meanwhile, was one of the most useless party leaders Britain has ever seen — a mumbling ill-informed embarrassment. Nevertheless, the Greens took one million votes that in other circumstances Labour might have collected.
In short, despite being led by a mediocre Conservative prime minister, who has no answer to and often exacerbates the great problems Britain faces, despite the worst fall in real incomes since the 1920s, Britain has shifted to the Right.
The comforting notion that it has a “progressive majority,” which one way or another will keep the Conservatives in their box, died on May 7. In 2015, the combined vote share of all right-wing political parties (Conservatives, UKIP and the Ulster Unionists) rose to 50.5 per cent of all votes cast. The left-leaning political parties (Labour, SNP, Greens, Plaid Cymru and SDLP) gained just 39.8 per cent. My colleague Michael Harris of the Little Atoms website says that if you include Liberal Democrats on the right-hand side of the ledger — and as they were happy to vote for a party that had been in alliance with the Tories, you probably should — you get an even worse result for the Left. In all, 58.4 per cent of the public voted for parties on the Right.
I cannot tell you how influential and damaging the consoling belief that Britain is a “progressive” country has been. It stopped the Left being frightened of the Right. It stopped it taking the fight against it seriously. In his bedtime story for lefties, The Conservative Dilemma, Jon Trickett, an ally of Miliband, argued that the Tories could not cope with the 21st century. They couldn’t appeal to their base without appalling the “progressive majority”, or vice versa. Miliband’s Labour, he wrote in 2012, was now free to renounce the compromises of the hated Blair era. It could let rip, march leftwards, and “put an end to triangulation on to Tory territory”. Every assumption he and thousands like him made has now turned to dust.
Maybe you find these Left/Right divisions arbitrary. When you ask them to describe themselves, the overwhelming majority of sensible people do not use political labels. But nearly everyone knows which country they belong to, and national as much as political divisions destroyed the British Left last month.
The SNP swept Scotland by appealing to Scottish patriotism. Labour was a quisling party of foreigner-loving traitors, it said; “red Tories” who would sell out Scots to their English enemies. Labour tried to argue that the SNP, a movement supported by Rupert Murdoch, was hardly left-wing. It tried to raise the disgraceful state of Scotland’s schools and hospitals under SNP rule. No good did it do them. Nationalism thrashed social democracy, as it has done so often in the past. South of the border, Conservatives and the Kippers hit Labour with English nationalism. Far from being “red Tories”, Labour would ally with the “far-left” SNP and do down the people of England, they cried. Once again Labour were the quislings, the enemy within, only this time the charge was coming from English rather than Scottish nationalists.
I said earlier that Cameron was an inadequate prime minister unfit to meet the challenges of our time. Nowhere in my view is his mediocrity more evident than in his willingness to risk the union by setting up an arms race between Scottish and English nationalism. But why should he care? In the short term, which is the only term that matters to him, who can deny that his tactics worked, and that Labour could not cope with them?
After the election I wrote in the Observer that Labour was in crisis because the English Left, almost alone in the world, has got itself into a position where it has to pretend that it cannot abide its own country:
The universities, left press, and the arts characterise the English middle class as Mail-reading misers, who are sexist, racist and homophobic to boot. Meanwhile, they characterise the white working class as lardy Sun-reading slobs, who are, since you asked, also sexist, racist and homophobic. The national history is reduced to one long imperial crime, and the notion that the English are not such a bad bunch with many strong radical traditions worth preserving is rejected as risibly complacent.
It was worse than I said at the time. I should have remembered that after Scotland received greater autonomy Labour pulled every trick it could think of to stop England receiving compensatory powers. Its self-interest was transparent. Labour had to apply a double standard to England and allow Scottish MPs to vote on English laws because such a large proportion of its politicians were Scottish. At the election, it suffered for being seen as an anti-English party, while watching its mighty Scottish contingent reduced to one MP — a nice chap from Edinburgh called Ian Murray.
In other words, Miliband tried to construct a winning coalition as a child tries to build a house out of Lego. He would take bricks from his toy box — the Scots here, the intelligentsia, the Northern working class and selected ethnic minorities there — and place them on top of each other until his 35 per cent strategy was complete. So confident was he that, even on election night, when his house was crashing around him, he still thought he could win.
One Labour adviser, who was far too intelligent for Ed Miliband to talk to, said the party forgot that modern left-wing politics isn’t like building with Lego but playing with magnets. The groups you try to pull together into your coalition are just as likely to repel as attract each other.
This is why the calls for Labour to return to Blairism are not quite as convincing as they sound. The old saying “you can win from the centre-Left but not from the Left” remains as true as ever, of course. Equally obviously, it would help Labour if it had leaders who talked to the voters as if they came from the same human species — or if that is too much to ask, from close relatives among the higher primates. But if Labour in England move to the centre, the SNP will use its “Blairism” against it in Scotland. If it tries to reclaim some of the hundreds of thousands of supporters it lost to UKIP, it will alienate supporters in the ethnic minorities. If it carries on pandering to conservative religious minorities by segregating women at Labour hustings, it will carry on losing the support of those, including liberal Muslims, who find its endorsement of reactionary prejudices intolerable. If it concentrates on England, as it must when it has just one seat in Scotland, it will further help the SNP.
A way out will be found only if Labour and the wider Left stop being so dishonest, and I include myself in that criticism. After the election, I looked back on what I had written about Labour with embarrassment. I produced a couple of disobliging pieces about Miliband. But I did not campaign against him. I did not scream at the parliamentary Labour party that he would let the Tories in, and millions would suffer as a result. Nor did many others in the left-wing press. People who knew better stayed silent in part because we did not want to be accused of treacherously aiding and abetting the Conservative cause, and in part because we believed the opinion polls, and thought that somehow or other Labour could cobble together a government. Living in London aided self-deception. Immigration and the extortionate cost of housing is pushing its population leftwards, as is London’s arrogance. The capital is strong and self-confident; it makes the mistake of thinking that everywhere else thinks as London thinks.
If the left-wing press was not pulling the Labour party back towards sanity, then nor were Labour politicians. They stayed loyal too and kept themselves wrapped in a warm cocoon. It ought to shame them that in the years before an appalling defeat not one senior figure tried to overthrow Miliband. Not one even developed an alternative political programme Labour could adopt after defeat. The trade unions were as bad. They have often been a stabilising force in Labour history, but are now so mad that Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite, backed Lutfur Rahman, the former mayor of Tower Hamlets, who was not only an opponent of the Labour party but a demagogue whose electoral frauds provoked the courts into removing him from office.
As they face the consequences of defeat, men and women who have spent years avoiding self-criticism will need to understand where they went so badly wrong. They will need to make their choices clear to an electorate which barely heeds them. And they will need to get on with it. Because unless the Left snaps out of its trance, the Conservatives will be in power for another decade.