Today we have awoke to one of the most stunning results in British politics for decades. The Conservative party managed to increase their vote and seat share – a feat that hasn’t been seen in this manner since 1900, UKIP achieved a decent third place and the SNP saw swings up to 39%. However, what this is, and we should make no bones about it, is an unmitigated disaster for the Left in England.
I am sure as time goes on we will get more detailed information about the breakdown of votes and why we got the result we did, but before we do I wish to offer a few of my reflections and opinions on the the whole sorry affair.
1. There’s no point in Labour blaming the Scots
Throughout the campaign, Labour supporters got very angry about SNP voters, and I would be lying if I were to say that I was not one of them. As it turned out, however, it was Labour’s failure in England that was the big story of the night, and our real failing. I still hate nationalism, and I still question the rationality of the SNP voters who rejected any evidence that controverted their beliefs about the ideal world the SNP’s rhetoric promised, but we cannot deny that the Labour Party in Scotland must share some of the blame. Attacking SNP voters after the election will just make us look graceless in defeat, uncaring about Scottish concerns and it will focus our fire on the left rather than the right, where it crucially needs to be. Don’t bother.
2. This was not a left/right issue. Ignore them both.
After the bloodbath last night, the inevitable soul-searching has already started. The Blairites in Labour have redoubled their smug and patronising narrative towards the left in an ‘I told you so. Grow up’ manner, while the wider left in and outside Labour are blaming the defeat on a failure to reject austerity, trident etc wholesale and not embrace a Keynesian, high-tax platform. They are both wrong and I have no time for either of them.
When it comes to Labour’s right, there is no evidence at all to suggest that Labour lost because it was ‘too left-wing’. Obviously, this isn’t actually an exercise in trying to discover the real truth; these attack lines have been honed since Miliband’s election, primed to be whipped out in a fury in such an event as last night. It is a very tenuous position to hold when you see that the SNP achieved vast swings and the Green Party saw their vote share increase by twice that of Labour’s. Yes, there were deeper causes of the SNP revolt, but there is no denying that the voters there genuinely saw the SNP as an anti-austerity, radical party. These people voted in Blair three times, it is not like they are some relic who have always supported left-wing policies. As for the Greens, while they had too many wacky policies to ever be a serious contender in this election, it is a fact that a good chunk ended up voting Labour or Lib Dem out of fear, without this factor the swing could have well been nearer 5% – not to be sneezed at.
Then there is the other obvious problem: the UKIP vote. This party ended up taking more votes from Labour than the Tories, particularly lower-educated, ex-industrial Labour heartlands. A hard-right party playing on concerns about race, tradition and immigration doing well in the North? Where have we heard that before? Oh that’s right: the BNP. It is basically established wisdom among the political community that the reason the BNP did so well in these old Labour heartlands is that the voters there felt abandoned by a Labour party which had given up its tradition of supporting working-class jobs and trade unions in favour of the city and managerial, professional politics. Couple this with the fact that Blairism was always strongly supportive of immigration and I struggle to see how the right can *truly* argue that a return to it will solve all our woes.
Nevertheless, I must still offer some criticism of the left. There is still far too great a tendency among the hard left to view working class people as some homogeneous throwback to an L.S. Lowry painting, who return from backbreaking, belt-and-braces work to discuss their copies of Marx and concepts like international worker’s solidarity over a pint in the union lodge. This is as stupid as the right’s worshipping of the mythical ‘centre-ground’. Yes, there is still a tendency towards left-wing policies among working-class voters, yet often their views on welfare, immigration and social issues will be fairly on the right. They are the kind of people the famed ‘Liberal metropolitan elite’ baulk at when they discover in horror that they have booked a holiday in a place full of working class people. I offer you the example of some ex-retail colleagues who exemplified ‘Blue Labour’. They believed in reducing social inequality and wanted to tax the rich more, yet they were just as critical of ‘migrants using our NHS and getting council houses’, ‘people having kids just so they can get benefit’ and were very dismissive of feminism and gay rights.
Of course there are working-class radicals, who are often far more genuine than middle class ones. However, the left have to stop pretending that this demographic is almost entirely populated with people who believe in purist left ideals of internationalism, solidarity and even collectivism. It is unrealistic, and frankly just looks a bit silly.
3. Politicians need to start looking a bit more human
Okay, everyone’s been saying this for years, but it seriously cannot be said enough. Last night was disheartening enough without hearing Lucy Powell reeling out spin lines about Cameron maybe not being able to command confidence in the commons and the exit poll perhaps being off. Even the Tories were just repeating lines clearly sent to them from the press office. It’s so deadening. Just imagine if in an interview a Labour MP was clearly distraught and told us how heartbroken they were for both the party and the country. If we want people to believe in politics again, they first have to believe that politicians are real people with real emotions rather than droids who are there to work and not feel.