Saturday 9 May 2015

Fear, Loathing, and the UK General Election

We now know what happened, but why did it happen? How was it that an election campaign characterised by two different approaches, one upbeat, one defeated-looking; one that had momentum and enthusiasm and the other little more than desperate personal attacks, climaxed as it did? The result, which was unexpectedly very bad for Labour, is going to be scrutinised and analysed for years to come. But over the coming months dominant narratives about what happened will emerge in labour movement circles, and the story we tell about the shock catastrophe of 2015 will heavily condition the stories the leadership contenders in waiting tell and the subsequent trajectory of the party. A lot turns on getting this right - not merely the outcome of the next election, which will be difficult after the coming boundary review anyway, but also the viability of the party itself. Here are some thoughts that are not exhaustive by any means. If I don't mention some issues, that doesn't necessarily mean they're being ruled out.

First things first, we have to look to ourselves why things went wrong: the political technologies of modern campaigning, and the huge strategic blunders. There's no use blaming the Greens or the SNP - that way lies the road to avoid asking tough questions. Neither will blaming the media do, though of course there is a huge democratic and accountability deficit when so much is concentrated in the hands of wealthy right wing tax dodgers. Nor do I think changing the programme Labour stood on, whether to the left or to the right, would have got different result. There is something about our tactics and our strategy that was off.

The size and efficiency of Labour's ground game was impressive, even to the extent of contacting more voters in Scotland than the mammoth-sized SNP. 200,000 members, five million contacts, a campaign that, if you were close up, fizzed with energy. And there is the problem. I think Labour had a very good campaign. More or less everyone who actively participated probably feels the same. From the outside though, not so much. Turnout was at 66.1%, a measly one per cent greater than last time. If it wasn't for the "special circumstances" in Scotland it might have proven less than 2010. Yet again, a third of eligible adults completely tuned out from what mainstream politics had to say. The messaging, more of which shortly, didn't cut through. The greater range of more viable electoral choices failed to engage. Even hitting areas notorious for low turnouts produced little in the way of joy. Yet none of this registered in the campaign at the time. On the day, my impression of the campaign in Stafford (where I'd mostly been volunteering this year) was excellent. Turnout in Labour areas looked good. Speaking to comrades elsewhere gave me a sense that the same was true everywhere else. Social media provided similar anecdotes. And yet, we were wrong. As insiders speaking to other insiders, listening to other insiders, and following Twitter feeds plastered with encouraging words from, yes, more insiders, we got caught up in a campaign bubble of our own.

This leads to the second technical problem. The best antidote to self-referentialism is to talking to people outside that little enclosed world. And activists did that in their tens of thousands. So never mind the polls failing to pick up the Tory/UKIP swing, why is it that the largest sustained canvassing operation for many years didn't catch the vibes that must have existed out there. It it simply shy Tory syndrome? I'm not buying it. Sure, some people might say Labour to just get rid of an annoying doorstepper, but in such numbers? There has to be something about the questions we ask when activists go and bother voters. Our database, Contact Creator, records information (with regional variation) about voting intention, previous votes, and - sometimes - whether the punter prefers a Labour or Tory government. Experienced activists are able to to glean this information using whatever talking and listening strategies they think appropriate at the time, but others - including some who should know better - jump in with both feet. "Hello there madam, it's general election time, are you going to vote Labour?" The party used to record the strength of the pledge which, for reasons unknown, was done away with. Maybe the powers that be believed this was too subjective and so dispensed with it whereas it seemed like a potentially useful tool for identifying soft supporters and the level of hostility - time for a comeback? Nevertheless, we need to look at the quality of our "conversations" and work out why accurate information was not getting relayed, and why it didn't pick up a turn away from Labour.

Also, we must be weary of fetishising activism. Turning out thousands of members and supporters every weekend is important and necessary, but it is not sufficient. No amount of door knocking is going to turn Bill Cash's Stone constituency red. Political strategy is key, and this is where we made a catastrophic mistake.

Going all utilitarian and starting from the premise of the greatest good for the greatest number, one strong argument against Scottish independence was 'what about England?' The fear - and I certainly feared it - was that a yes vote in Scotland would have galvanised a poisonous English reaction that could have blighted politics in the rest-of-UK for years to come. What were the needs of five million vis a vis a population 11 times larger? Independence didn't happen, but the SNP took off for reasons. The Tories, eager to seize anything to shift polling in their favour, started hammering the spectre of Scottish nationalism for all it was worth. "The gravest constitutional crisis since the abdication!" wailed Theresa May. The SNP are going to rinse the English taxpayer. They threaten our security and promise full communism. You've seen and heard the nonsense pouring from Tory mouthpieces. They would stop it. The Tories would save the union from the bag-piping Bolsheviks and tartan Trots, and keep Britain. As one woman put it to me on the campaign trail, "I think Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon are dangerous people ... he has some really silly idea on getting rid of our nuclear subs in Scotland." This woman was a low paid residential carer for disabled children. She didn't follow politics, but it was a message that cut through, a message that played up the fears one falls pray to when living a precarious existence fraught with insecurities.

Here was the problem. The SNP not only stole Labour's social democratic wardrobe, they added to it swish items like hope. They allowed its supporters leeway to project their own desires onto their canvass. Labour's response in Scotland was basically "don't let the Tories in". The Conservatives whipped up English nationalism, suggesting the SNP were purveyors of existential terror. If you wanted to save the union and get a fair deal for England, vote Tory. Labour? "Save the NHS!" We had nothing to say, nothing to counter it. And the evidence? Look at those UKIP vote shares. Long held to hurt the Tories more than us, in seats Labour should have easily picked up Tory majorities increased, and this was because blue leaning voters supporting UKIP returned home in number while red-tinged kippers stayed put. To use the old vernacular, Labour lapsed into economism. The Tories took hold of the question of how we're ruled while Labour neglected it completely. And we need to. It's not as if Labour has nothing to say on this topic. Not only was the party responsible for a more inclusive 'official' Britishness during its time in government, it saved the union. Ed Miliband (remember him?) once made a great deal of fuss about One Nationism. He did it in a wonkish way, but at least it indicated an understanding of the emotive power national identity has. Yet, where was this? Where were we as champions of the union, as the people responsible for securing a popular mandate for a voluntary union between Scotland and the rest of the UK? Nowhere. Labour, the party that saved the UK, was easily painted by the Tories as the party that wanted to destroy it. And the fear mongering worked.

We need to start thinking seriously about England and Englishness. It is seen as something backward, thoroughly imperial, small-minded, a little bit racist by the left. I know, I'm of this view myself. However, Englishness doesn't have to be like this. It needs to change and we have to be the people who shape it for the better, because if we don't the Tories and UKIP will continue monopolising it. In British politics, where Scotland goes England tends to follow. The struggle against the poll tax and the breaking of the political mold into multi-party politics. In both, the latter followed the former. My worst nightmare is this. We elect a new leader and carry on carrying on framing policies, whatever they may be, as technocratic. If values come into it, fairness is about as far as it goes. England and Englishness gets ignored because, after all, it's the economy, stupid. And come 2020 Labour gets steamrollered because, again, the Tories and UKIP exploit the fear and insecurity of the many by appealing to English nationalism.

Our biggest misstep since the Scottish referendum was this. Let's not do it again.


asquith said...

So it's UK-wide and not just English, and not conventionally left or right, but this may have something to do with it:

As you can see it was reviewed by your mate Hunt, whose company I "look forward" to at that literary festival at Emma Bridgewater in JJubne.

Anonymous said...

Interesting that your linked post on Real England referred to Little Englandism, when Little England was the derisive name for those that opposed nineteenth century imperialism. The loss of Scotland will deny the epithet British of its force for a supra-national(ist) identity. If you could, which all shades of opinion accepted, be English and British and Scottish and British; then by extension you could be Black and British, Asian and British. But this has left English , or has diminished English into an ethnicity ( I notice you tried also to deny in your replies to another post that English was an ethnicity, but it surely must be; the majority ethnicity against which 'black and minority ethnic' is defined).

I cannot see how this can play well for the left, which is so firmly aligned with identity politics and in courting minority ethnic votes.

For example the current mayor of Stoke-on-Trent is a British Pakistani, as this Kashmiri rally in the Kings Hall demonstrates . Whatever his Pakistani political ambitions might be it is difficult to imagine that he is English in any meaningful sense. It would be as insulting as describing Gerry Adams as English.

David Timoney said...

Re the "campaign bubble of our own", it's worth noting that you didn't mention the LibDems at all, yet it was the movement in their vote that determined the election outcome.

Both Tories and Labour barely increased their vote share on 2010 (up 0.8% and 1.4% respectively). The eddies and currents between parties will be complex, but the net result was that the LibDems lost 4.4 million votes and UKIP gained 3 million. Obviously, most of this didn't shift directly. Labour's loss to UKIP and the Greens was more than offset by LibDems (and perhaps some Tories), with a net increase of 737k. The Tories loss to UKIP (and perhaps some Greens) was more than offset by LibDems as well, with a net increase of 631k.

The problem for Labour was that their net gains made no difference in marginals (with perhaps the exception of London), while the Tory net vote gains were decisive in previously LibDems seats. Labour's loss in Scotland was a sideshow. This election was won in Torbay and Twickenham, and there was little Labour could do about that. Even if it had run a better campaign - i.e. campaigning on something, rather than the inanities of the Ed-stone - it would not have stopped the LiDem haemorrhage to the Tories.

Vinyl Miner said...

80% agree, 20% on Lynton Crosby spotting the main weakness and driving in the wedge to seperate English and Scottish Nationalism.

Speedy said...

This was not a victory for conservatism but English nationalism - the blow back from the referendum.

Labour are to blame for this - in what universe did they "save" the union Phil? The utterly unnecessary devolution of Scotland led to this - and will lead to the union’s demise. There would be no referendum and no SNP surge without it.

Labour failed on many other fronts, not least by not addressing the Tory lie over the blame for the recession. Having failed to do so for five years, Ed left it until the final QT programme to try and explain himself before stumbling off and into oblivion.

There was a greater swing to UKIP in Labour rather than Tory marginals. We know why - Labour's strategy to replace its core white working class vote and make the rest of the UK more like London worked only in... London. Presumably that sounds a "little bit racist" but there's your problem - and you're never going to convince labour (that's the ordinary working people the party took its name from) that you stand for them while you're holding your nose. The vast majority of labour remains the white working class and they're no fools - they can sense with what contempt they are held, if not by the folk at the doorstep they see every couple of years, then by the ones on the telly they see a lot more often.

You are quite right however about the SNP nailing hope - but they did so by appealing to nationalism, the worst kind of us and them. Labour used to appeal to us the working people against them the bourgeois overlord, but instead since 1997 it has increasingly positioned itself as the bourgeois overlord telling them, the working people, what was good for them. Further, by focusing on welfare cuts (like the bedroom tax) it consolidated this position of being the party of handouts rather than the party of (working class) aspiration. Maybe the working class don't like to be thought of as people living on benefits street, and the people on benefits street are among the least likely to vote anyway.

Labour may regard "their" people as fools, but you can't fool all the people all the time. Could it be that rather than the ordinary working class people of Britain not knowing what’s good for them, that they know every well – and simply no longer believe the Labour Party sincerely represents their interests

Boffy said...

The answer to nationalism is never to pander to it. In the 1920's, the German Communists tried that, as nationalist sentiment was stoked by the Nazis. It simply further legitimised nationalist ideology, and led workers into a support for the real thing, rather than the imitation.

The answer does not lie in a panicked response of seeking to pander to the identity politics of Englishness, as the equivalent of the reactionary promotion of Scottishness.

Quite the opposite, for both social democracy and for socialists the emphasis now should be on the pressing need at least for "Europeanness". We need to give workers not only a more expansive, more hopeful horizon, but the only one that is likely to create the canvas upon which practical solutions will be possible.

Syriza and the Greek people, even in their desperate conditions seem to understand that lesson, in their continued desire to remain within the EU and Eurozone. They know that any solution outside that framework will in fact be no solution at all.

The solution to their problems, as isthe case for the problems of workers in Scotland, Britain, Spain, and everywhere else, lies not in narrow national introspection, but in building a European workers movement, and a working class, not nationalist response to austerity.

kailyard rules said...

By all means elect new leaders, but they must be principled socialists with inegrity and conviction.In Scotland the Labour collective byre must be mucked oot for a start.

BCFG said...

My advice to those who want to know how to get New labour back into power is this:

Get a leader who doesn’t look like a nerd. It really is that simple.

It is difficult not to appeal to nationalism when elections and much of politics is national, throughout the world. Boffy pretends he isn’t being nationalists but he is. In many ways if you don’t want to fall into nationalism then stay outside party politics altogether and start building solidarity movements with workers in Bangladesh, India, China, Indonesia etc etc etc.

Boffy’s belief that workers should gain control of their pension funds is a nationalist argument as those pension funds are bulked up by the exploitation of industrial workers oversees. He should be arguing that they hand over the loot!

If you are going to criticise nationalism then be prepared to be judged by your own standards!

Ed Miliband was far too defensive and accommodating to the propaganda of the BBC, the Daily Mail and the Sun - the abysmal triumvirate that delivered Cameron into Downing Street.

When asked about Labour overspending he should have said, yes, bailing the banks out was a mistake because it led to our people relying on food banks and having services decimated. He should have turned to that bloke who asked the question and promised that the private sector would have to stand on its own feet in future and that the government would not bear their risk anymore. He should have said that banks would never again be allowed to bring the nation to its knees and he should have outlined policies to ensure it. He should also have promised that the state would not subsidise the wages of low paying companies and he should have outlined policies for a living wage. He should have then turned round to that bloke in the QT audience and said, ominously, those businesses that couldn’t swim in this market would not survive.

He should then have pointed out that Britain was suffering from a Zombie economy and that massive structural changes were required to boost the economy, and he should have outlined those radical policies.

Instead he offered New labour window dressing, riding the train rather than creating real history.

The great historical mistake was to tack right as a response to being out of power for so long, eventually people would have tired of the Tories.

You can’t turn the clock back though, Blairism and New Labour effectively handed this nation over to the right in perpetuity and when change comes it won’t come from within.

davidjc said...

The good news is that for the next two years it should be easy to set course whoever wins the leadership, because the course has already been set: the EU referendum.

Labour has no choice but to become the pro-EU party. It the vote is to stay in, Labour automatically becomes the moderate, mainstream party and the Tories implode. If the vote is to get out, Scotland is gone and there would have to be a realignment in England, possibly the end of the Labour Party as we know it. I think it is that existential, which will hopefully concentrate minds.

Less set in stone, but Boffy has called these things right so far, it is likely there will be another crash. That will be on the Tories' watch, austerity exposed (again).

Both pro EU and anti cuts make Labour the pro growth party. Easy for everyone to unite over, job done.

Boffy said...


Thanks for your comment. There are other things I think need to be done.

1. Part of the reason Labour had a problem, was that Gordon Brown stood down immediately after the 2010 defeat. Labour should drop this practice. We are not a football club that needs to sack its manager each time it fails to win the championship. Defeats in themselves are not decisive or significant. Sometimes, you lose for the right reasons - to go back to the analogy, I'd rather watch a Brazil team that loses but plays like a Brazil team, than one that wins by playing boring football. Also, to use another sporting metaphor from my martial arts training, and a lesson for the Blairites, is that its impossible to punch or kick with any power if you are moving backwards.

The reason it was a problem, is that in the immediate period after the election, we lost the ability to defend the position prior to it. Remember in 2009, Brown was lauded across the globe, and the only reason he put off calling the election was because Osborne had promised to scrap Inheritance Tax, talk of economic crisis, and deficits etc. were nowhere on the agenda.

I've set out that the talk of Labour overspending, of the lack of growth, of interest rates are all lies. But, the only time I've hear any Labour frontbencher even give the data in the last five years, was a brief snatch from Chuka Umunna, this morning on Murnaghan! We should have nailed those lies five years ago, and kept hammering it home. We should still do that now, or it will come back to haunt us again over the next five years.

2. For the same reason Miliband should not have resigned. We will spend months navel gazing and involved in a leadership battle that will allow the Tories to determine the media agenda. Already, every politics show today has been stuffed with Blairites. Miliband should have stayed in place at least until the party has had time to undertake a rational assessment of how to proceed. The starting point should have been to prevent the Tories setting the agenda by attacking the basis on which Labour fought, and creating a new set of lies to promote.

3. The Blairite agenda is clearly nonsense. Thatcher didn't win by assuming the centre ground, nor has Cameron. Voters had the opportunity to vote or a party loudly claiming the Blairite centre ground at this election - the Liberals - how well did that work out?

4. The EU ground is vital. Labour should have, and should now be actively working to join up with Syriza, Podemos etc. and building an EU anti-austerity movement.

5.Any idea of going back to the old statist solutions is dead, precisely because only an internationalist movement can provide realistic solutions. That again as i wrote a long time ago, is the importance of co-operative organisations solutions rather than statist solutions.

More than 5 years ago I wrote that a co-operative federation at least initially based upon Europe could link workers together across borders. By establishing co-operative funds for the extension of co-operative organisations, and particularly if workers pension funds (and preferably also NI funds) were mobilised, this could help draw in workers into such co-operative organisations across the globe.

6. Paul at TCF points out that we can win by simply being seen as the people who "do stuff". Its an argument I've made myself in the past based on similar experience. Where I'd disagree with him, is that its necessary to actually link that up politically, and enable people who get involved in such activity to draw the lessons, and go from involvement in one area to a more general political activity.

davidjc said...

Yes exactly the anti cuts, let's do stuff, movement should link with like minds in Europe so the the two strands - high politics and low - dovetail.

Paul said...


I quite agree with you about the need to link 'just doing stuff' to the devt of a political movement. I just wanted to do a quick post at TCF as critique of the Labour election campaign, as I'm still formulating the words in my head for something much more substantive on the political agenda.

I'll be drawing on your insights, though my emphasis will be different - on the need to build legitimate institutions to hold public service providers (in their widest sense) as a route to worker coproduction/coperation.

But I think we're largely on the same hymn sheet

Boffy said...


You might want to have a look at this post I wrote back in 2008.

Phil said...

I think another result was possible, David, but we'd have to go back before the Scottish referendum. Yes, it was a 'sideshow' to the main battle in the English marginals but it was the fear and uncertainty the Tories projected that did for our wonkish and overly metropolitan take on things. Unfortunately, going with all the talk about "wealth creators" and "aspiration" it appears a good chunk of our would-be leaders have learned nothing.

Phil said...

I don't think taking questions of England and Englishness seriously mean pandering to it, Boffy. That's a game Labour can never win. But it can formulate a response and work to reinterpret English identity along more inclusive, less toxic lines vs that propounded by our anonymous friend at the top of this thread.

Boffy said...


Back in the 1980's as a Stoke City Councillor, I set out my stall as having no truck with the concept of "multiculturalism". As I said at the time, I consider all such expressions of "culture" as being only particular variants of the "culture" and ideology of the ruling class.

I have no desire to promote any "culture" as being superior to another, or the idea that all existing cultures are equally valid. They are only equally valid in the sense that they are all equally the culture of some ruling class, and consequently all equally reactionary.

As with the traditional Marxist attitude to religion, I have no reason to seek to deny someone the right to believe in some ridiculous supernatural being, just as I have no reason to deny someone the right to dress up in a similar costume, with bells on their feet, and prance around shaking sticks, or to take part in afternoon rituals at Tiffin, debating the advantages of China rather than Indian Tea. I simply see no reason to spend any time advocating their right to do so, or joining them in the practice!

The only culture I seek to promote is the culture of the working-class based upon internationalism. Rather than wasting time trying to arrive at definitions of Englishness and how we might develop it, I am far more interested in developing notions about the links we have with other workers across Europe, and how those links are the means for addressing the problems we have.