Category Archives: Labour

Prescribing Blairism today is mathematically illiterate

Happy St George's day
Happy St George's day by Nick Veitch, on Flickr.
Seumas Milne had an interesting wee article in The Guardian yesterday, which rather backs up my recent blog post about Labour:

The fallout from that mistake was clear last week: in the haemorrhage of votes to the Scottish National party, Ukip and the Greens, and the reluctance of many working-class voters to turn out at all. […] [T]he idea that New Labour-style politics would have fixed the problem is clearly delusional. Would Blairism have won back voters from the SNP, which had positioned itself to Labour’s left and campaigned against austerity, or the Greens, or the anti-immigration Ukip, many of whose voters are pro-nationalisation and state intervention, and want protection from corporate globalisation? Where exactly is the centre ground between the SNP, Greens, Ukip and middle-income English voters?

I thought it would be interesting to look at the numbers behind this. I consider Scotland to be a lost cause for Labour, so I’ll concentrate on England and Wales in the following.

Last week’s results were as follows: CON 329, GRN 1, LAB 231, LD 7, OTH 1, PC 3, UKIP 1.

Let’s assume that a successful Blairite strategy would make 10% of Tory voters swing to Labour, but that it would also make 5% of current Labour voters switch to the Green, another 5% to UKIP, and another 5% would go apathetic and stay home on the couch. The 2020 result would then look like this: CON 312, GRN 1, LAB 241, LD 12, OTH 1, PC 4, UKIP 2.

On the other hand, what if a new Labour leader instead decided to copy Nicola Sturgeon’s programme and style, adding 10% to the turnout (all Labour) and taking back half of UKIP’s votes (the half that aren’t xenophobic but just crave a genuine working-class voice), but losing 5% of voters to the Tories? The result of this would be CON 266, GRN 1, LAB 299, LD 4, OTH 1, PC 2 (in other words a clear Labour win).

Of course the swings above have been chosen more or less randomly, but not unfairly — I think getting 10% of Tory voters to vote Labour just because they had a handsome leader with Tory policies is very generous.

It’s very clear Seumas Milne is right. The Blairites cannot win the 2020 election, because the crucial voters that Labour needs are the ones that have deserted the party. 2020 is not 1997, when the political landscape looked completely different, and prescribing the old medicine will simply not work any more.

PS: In case any Labour person reading this doesn’t believe they cannot win Scotland back, the two scenarios above would look as follows north of the border: With Blairite swings Labour would retain their single seat but the SNP would win the remaining Tory seat; however, the alternative scenario sees Labour taking one seat from the SNP. I do realise that’s an increase of 100%, but it’s hardly going to determine whether the UK gets a Labour Prime Minister.

What should Labour do now?

2015_04_10_LabourParty_248_IMG_1104 by Labour Party, on Flickr.
I think Paul Mason might be right that the UK has effectively disintegrated into three tribes: Scandi-Scotland, the asset-rich south-east and post-industrial Britain. At least, when I sat down to write down some helpful advice for Labour, I realised I couldn’t think of any meaningful advice that would apply to both
Scottish and rUK Labour, and the latter might be easier to understand if seen as straddling two quite diverse areas. However, let’s first have a look at the pandaified party north of the border.

Scottish Labour

Some observers — mainly those based in London — seem to think Scottish Labour might bounce back in five years’ time. I don’t think so. Of course they might regain a few seats, but most of the new SNP voters have switched for good — they haven’t just temporarily lent their vote to another party.

Furthermore, they might still be Scotland’s second-largest party, but their voters are in the “wrong” places, making it very hard for them to stage a come-back. For instance, there are only four seats that can be taken from the SNP on a swing of less than 10%: Berwickshire, Roxburgh & Selkirk (which will fall to the Tories on a swing of 0.8%), Dunbartonshire East (4.9% to go Lib Dem), Edinburgh West (7.5% to go Lib Dem) and East Renfrewshire (8.1% to go Labour).

All other seats require a swing from the SNP of more than 10% to go Unionist, and a great number of Labour’s old seats require a swing of more than 20% to revert to the status quo ante referendum. This is simply not going to happen unless Labour completely reinvents itself, and even then it might take decades.

Which seats would a Better Together electoral alliance have won last Thursday (purple), and where would the SNP still have won (yellow)?
Which seats would a Better Together electoral alliance have won last Thursday (in purple), and where would the SNP still have won (in yellow)?
Even if the three Unionist parties decided to merge as the Better Together Party north of the border, it wouldn’t save them. If we imagine such a party had been standing last Thursday, only 19 of Scotland’s 59 seats would have gone Unionist (assuming that all current Labour, Tory and Lib Dem voters had supported it). Sadly for Labour, they were the largest of the three amigo parties in only 8 of them (4 lean towards the Tories and 7 towards the Lib Dems).

Nevertheless, the Better Together route is probably the least bad prospect for Labour. The swing required to retake most of the Central Belt seats is so enormous that it’s simply not going to happen. At least as a new Unionist party they will have a chance to win some seats back in five years’ time (if Scotland hasn’t left the Union by then, of course).

rUK Labour

In the rUK, Labour’s main rival isn’t a progressive Social Democratic party, so the way forward is likely to be very different.

At the moment, the most prominent candidates to take over the leadership of UK Labour (such as Chuka Umunna) seem to be focusing on the swing seats they failed to take from the Tories, and as a result they’re prescribing Blairite medicine, i.e., copying the Tories’ policies. However, we know well where that ends: Voter apathy in the first instance, and eventually it allows new parties to take over from the left — it would have been almost impossible for the SNP to become so popular if Tony Blair hadn’t pulled his party so far away from the Scottish consensus. In other words, a Blairite leader might retake some southern seats, but it will probably lead to huge advances for the Greens and UKIP (and perhaps even the Lib Dems) in Northern England in five years’ time. Triangulation might work in the US, where there are only two significant parties, but in multi-party Britain it leads to electoral disaster after a few years.

To return to Paul Mason’s tribes, the Blairite Third Way might work in the asset-rich south-east, but it will eventually cause Labour to collapse in post-industrial Britain, just like what happened last Thursday in Scotland.

I doubt UK Labour are mentally ready to set up two separate parties in England (just letting Scottish Labour go is going to be hard enough), so let me suggest another way forward for them:

In England, the Tories got 41% of the votes, while Labour got 32%, the Lib Dems 8%, UKIP 14% and the Greens 4%. Now, I don’t believe all UKIP’s voters are racists; many of them are just ordinary people who feel abandoned by the political classes in London, and UKIP seems to them to represent the most authentic working-class voice in England, so let’s assume that a more traditional working-class alliance could recapture at least half of them. If such an anti-Tory alliance could unite Labour, the Lib Dems, the Greens and half of UKIP, it would have won 51% of the votes in England last Thursday, which would have been translated into 299 seats (and the Tories would have got the remaining 234 seats). Given that this alliance would also have gained the majority of seats in Wales and would have found it easy to work together with the SNP, if would have been able to command an enormous majority in the House of Commons.

In other words, UK Labour doesn’t need to copy UKIP’s xenophobic ideas or the Tories’ austerity policies to win. All it takes is a genuine working-class alternative to the Tories, probably with policies very similar to the SNP’s in Scotland. Let’s not forget that the Tories got more than half the votes in only 175 constituencies, so the only reason they’re in power today is because the English opposition is fragmented.

Of course, assembling such an alliance wouldn’t work in Scotland because the SNP is already occupying this space, so here a better alternative for Labour is probably to set up a Unionist alliance, as discussed above.

Taking the whip

20100205 SDLP IMG_4715
20100205 SDLP IMG_4715 by Allan Leonard, on Flickr.
According to Wikipedia, Northern Ireland’s “SDLP is […] working to strengthen its ties with the Parliamentary Labour Party, whose whip they informally accept.” I must admit I’m not entirely sure what this means. Normally taking the whip means participating in a parliamentary group, including voting with it in important votes, but I don’t know how they do that informally — do they just vote with the Labour party without getting the influence that comes with participating in internal parliamentary party business?

Normally this wouldn’t interest me terribly, but like others I’m finding Labour’s different attitudes towards the SDLP on the one hand and the SNP on the other quite puzzling, given that both parties advocate independence from the UK through peaceful means. When you ask Scottish Labour, they reply that the difference is that the SDLP takes the Labour whip at Westminster.

In other words, it would appear that it’s not actually the SNP’s commitment to an independent Scotland that really upsets Labour, but the fact that the party won’t always vote with Labour in the UK Parliament. Of course, there’s also the fact that Labour is a major party in Scotland, so there is a lot of rivalry between the parties here, not like in Northern Ireland where Labour never contests elections (something which the local Labour members are quite upset about).

Would UK Labour be happy to disband Scottish Labour if the SNP in return promised to take the Labour whip at Westminster in perpetuity? From an SNP perspective, I think this would be disastrous, and I haven’t heard anybody advocating this ever. However, would it suit UK Labour? From their point of view, it would give them free rein to pursue their policies in the parliament that matters to them. In practice this would be very similar to the way the Scottish Unionist Party operated before 1965:

Independent from, though associated with, the Conservative Party in England and Wales, it stood for election at different periods of its history in alliance with a small number of Liberal Unionist and National Liberal candidates. Those who successfully became Members of Parliament (MPs) would then take the Conservative Whip at Westminster just as the Ulster Unionists did until 1973. At Westminster the differences between the Scottish Unionist and the English party could appear blurred or non-existent to the external casual observer, especially as many Scottish MPs were prominent in the parliamentary Conservative party, such as party leaders Andrew Bonar Law (1911-1921 & 1922-1923) and Sir Alec Douglas-Home (1963–1965), both of whom served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

This sounds rather similar to the current relationship between the CDU and the CSU in Germany. I’m not entirely sure how the Unionist/Conservative handled policy differences (it was probably easier in those days when political parties were less centralised), but it was clearly more attractive to Scottish voters than the post-1965 UK-wide Conservatives.

I can’t see the SNP would gain anything by being forced to vote in favour of austerity and Trident in return for Scottish Labour being dismantled, but it would clearly make things a lot easier for UK Labour.

To return to the SDLP, I’d love to find out whether it’s just the party whip that differentiates them from the SNP in the eyes of UK Labour. Surely Miliband should take one of the following two positions: (1) Peaceful sovereigntism is bad, so Labour will refuse to deal with the SDLP, not just with the SNP and Plaid Cymru, or (2) Taking the Labour whip is all that matters, so the SNP will be welcomed as a sister party if only they take the whip. Which one will it be?

Between Scylla and Charybdis

Scylla and CharybdisLord Ashcroft’s 16 constituency polls today confirmed that the national opinion polls are correct (if anything, the swing is larger in traditional Labour seats), and Labour and the LibDems are likely to join the Tories in panda territory soon.

Labour (and to some extent the other Unionist parties) are finding themselves in a horrible situation. The problem is basically that the party until recently had a large minority of independence-leaning supporters, who were happy to stay loyal to the party because independence wasn’t on the agenda; however, during the indyref campaign the parties made clear that Unionism was an important part of their identity, and these supporters departed for pastures new (mainly the SNP).

The way I see it, Labour must choose between Scylla and Charybdis. (Scylla and Charybdis were mythical sea monsters noted by Homer. They were regarded as a sea hazard located close enough to each other that they posed an inescapable threat to passing sailors; avoiding Charybdis meant passing too close to Scylla and vice versa. According to Homer, Odysseus was forced to choose which monster to confront while passing through the strait; he opted to pass by Scylla and lose only a few sailors rather than risk the loss of his entire ship in the whirlpool.)

Scylla: Labour could try to return to the status quo ante bellum by becoming a party that is agnostic with regard to Scottish independence. Basically, they would need to apologise for being part of Better Together and promote several big Yes campaigners to important positions within the party. Personally, I think it’s impossible now. It’s what they should have done two years ago instead of jumping into bed with the Tories, but it will look very hypocritical today.

Charybdis: Alternatively, the Unionist parties could all disband in Scotland and form one new party, the Better Together Party. This party would have the potential to compete successfully with the SNP if all the three main Unionist parties’ current voters decided to support it. However, would they really do this? Also, what would the Better Together MPs do at Westminster? Would they support Labour, the LibDems or the Tories? Would their long-term supporters really put up with this merger?

I really cannot see a good way forward for Scottish Labour. They can hope that the SNP for some bizarre reasons disintegrates, or that the Scottish Greens starts taking support away from the SNP, or that voters suddenly forget about the independence question, but I don’t see why any of this should happen quickly enough to save Labour. If they had a time machine, they could save themselves by going back in time and staying out of the independence campaign, but then Scotland would almost certainly have voted Yes to independence.

Before the referendum, I was speculating that the SNP wouldn’t prosper after a Yes vote, and that Labour might have been the big winner. We’ll never know, of course, but it’s definitely clear now that the No result wasn’t good news for Labour. I wonder whether Scottish Labour’s strategists are starting to regret they didn’t campaign for a Yes vote?

The decline of the Party of Necessity

Referendum Eve in Glasgow
Referendum Eve in Glasgow by Phyllis Buchanan, on Flickr.
Before the fall of the Iron Curtain, left-wing parties in Europe typically had left-wing policies, such as being in favour of universal benefits, free education (incl. university tuition), generous unemployment benefits and free healthcare.

However, the collapse of communism seems to have made many formerly left-wing politicians believe that neoliberalism was the only game in town, and they gradually started enacting almost exactly the same policies as their right-wing opponents, just presented in a slightly left-wing fashion.

Most of the politicians from both formerly left-wing and right-wing political parties have studied politics, economics and/or law at university and have learnt to treat neoliberal textbooks as gospel.

To a large extent, one cannot tell these former opponents apart. I’ve suggested in the past that the Tories, Labour and the LibDems should merge into one Better Together party in Scotland, but in an international context, I’d suggest the merger should be called the Party of Necessity, because its politicians always claim their unpopular policies are “necessary” according to their textbooks.

So when the banks started collapsing in 2008, the reaction of the Party of Necessity governments was the same in all countries, namely to bail out the banks and introduce a version of austerity protecting the ultra-rich and sending the bill to the poorest citizens.

However, the beautiful thing about democracy is that if all the existing parties get something completely and utterly wrong, new parties will emerge from nowhere and replace them, or existing small parties will suddenly become huge. This is what we saw in Greece yesterday, and very similar things are happening all over Europe and beyond. (The Scottish Yes campaign, which nearly achieved Scottish independence last year, was of course also part of this international trend.)

Here are a few examples of the decline of the Party of Necessity:

Greece (PASOK + New Democracy): 2007: 79.9%, 2009: 77.4%, 2012: 32.1%, 2012 (again): 42%, 2015: 32.5%.

Spain (PP + PSOE): 2008: 83.8%, 2012: 73.4%, latest opinion polls: ~45%.

Italy (Democratic Party + People of Freedom): 2006: 99.5%, 2008: 84.3%, 2013: 58.6%, latest opinion polls: ~50%.

Scotland (Tory + Lab + LibDem), Westminster elections: 2005: 77.9%, 2010: 77.6%, latest opinion polls: ~45%.

UK (Tory + Lab + LibDem): 2005: 89.6%, 2010: 88.1%, latest opinion polls: ~68%.

Denmark (SocDem + SocLib + Cons + Lib): 2007: 67.2%, 2011: 65.9%, latest opinion polls: ~55%.

Germany (CDU/CSU + SPD + FDP): 2005: 79.2%, 2009: 71.4%, 2013: 72.0%, latest opinion polls: ~67%.

It’s clear that different countries aren’t at the same stage — as a rule of thumb it seems to be linked to how well they have coped with the recession. However, it seems likely that many European countries soon won’t be governed by the Party of Necessity. It’s already the case in Scotland and Greece, but the figures above makes me think it’s simply a question of time before a majority of European governments are anti-Necessity.

I’ve said it before, but we truly do live in interesting times.

Addendum (27/01/14): Aditya Chakrabortty has written a very interesting article about how Labour risks ending up like PASOK. His name for what I have called the Party of Necessity above is TINA (“there is no alternative”), which is a very accurate description, too.

Triangulator extraordinary and plenipotentiary

Tony Blair spin doctor Private Eye cover at Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Tony Blair spin doctor Private Eye cover at Victoria & Albert Museum, London by Karen Bryan, on Flickr.
Alea jacta est. Labour’s Scottish Branch Office has chosen Jim Murphy to lead it, and he in turn has chosen his strategy: Triangulation.

It’s already abundantly clear that Murphy intends to steal the SNP’s clothes (or at least the most popular garments), in exactly the same way that Tony Blair used triangulation (or the Third Way) to marginalise and confuse the Tories in the late 1990s. Murphy’s claim in his victory speech that “the prize is a fairer country” is clearly based on the Sunday Herald’s main reasons for supporting a Yes: “the prize is a better country”. Indeed, ever since his election he seems to have focused on saying everything the Labour-SNP swing voters would want to hear.

As I argued recently, Labour’s problems in Scotland to a large extent have been caused by insisting on triangulating only against the Tories, making it ridiculously easy for the SNP to outmanoeuvre them in Scotland.

Jim Murphy seems to have decided to focus solely on the SNP, which makes him much more dangerous for the SNP, but will UK Labour put up with it? Has Murphy really been given free rein to beat the SNP, even if it means having dramatically different policies north and south of the border? Or will he like Wendy Alexander before him be forced into a humiliating climbdown at some point?

I fully expect Jim Murphy to sound almost like a Nationalist from now on — all his previous views will be youthful errors of judgment or something like that. He’ll promise just about anything that would be popular with voters — he knows that there’s no way he’ll get an absolutely majority in 2016, so even if Labour wins, he can blame his coalition partner for any divergences from his promises.

Where Jim Murphy will necessarily be weak will be with regard to reserved policy areas. If for instance UK Labour continues to be in favour of austerity, he can’t be against it while promising to toe the UK line at Westminster. If he decides to go against the UK line, will he force Labour’s Scottish MPs to follow him or Ed Miliband? And if he doesn’t, the SNP will quickly exploit that there are triangulation-free zones that can be used to differentiate themselves from Labour.

I don’t think many people expected Jim Murphy to change his political views so comprehensively. In the short term it’ll make things much harder for the SNP — he won’t simply repeat London’s anti-Tory slogans mindlessly. However, the history of Tony Blair’s premiership has demonstrated that eventually voters will see through triangulated policies, so in the longer term voters will realise that Jim Murphy never wears his own clothes, but always the opponent’s.

The Murphy/Dugdale era

Iain Gray, Jim Murphy, Gordon Brown
Iain Gray, Jim Murphy, Gordon Brown by Scottish Labour, on Flickr.
It’s just been announced that Jim Murphy has been elected leader of Labour’s Scottish Branch Office with a vote share of 22.36% (MPs/MSPs) + 20.14% (party members) + 13.26% (affiliates), and Kezia Dugdale has been elected depute leader.

The Guardian has some interesting information from his victory speech:

  1. he doesn’t intend to lose a single Labour seat to the SNP in next May’s general election
  2. he’s not trying to convince yes voters that they were wrong
  3. he will make clear where he intends to stand for Holyrood in the new year
  4. Kezia Dugdale will take on first minister’s questions in the Scottish parliament in the interim

Let’s have a quick look at these four points:

Firstly, holding on to all of Labour’s Scottish seats sounds about as likely as the SNP losing all of theirs. It’s certainly possible the SNP won’t do nearly as well as predicted by current polls, and I would have thought a realistic goal for Labour would have been to remain Scotland’s largest party in terms of Westminster seats, but he seems to be setting himself up for failure here.

Secondly, if you don’t convince the (ex-)Labour Yes voters that they were wrong to vote in favour of independence, why on Earth would they vote Labour again? Surely voting Labour only makes sense if you swallow the Unionist bait hook, line and sinker? I’m not at all sure that a argument along the lines of “let’s just agree to disagree on independence, but you must admit Labour’s commitment to continued austerity, as well as our track record on conducting illegal wars, is admirable” will go down at all well with many Scottish voters.

Thirdly, it’s interesting Murphy only intends to comment on where he’ll stand for Holyrood, not when. Surely the most interesting question is whether he can convince somebody to vacate their seat soon (potentially costing them £58.000), or whether he’ll have to remain in Westminster for ages. It sounds like there’ll be a lot of arm-twisting going on around Labour’s Christmas tree this Yuletide. It will also be interesting to see whether he’ll stand for his Westminster seat in May if he doesn’t find a Holyrood seat in time, or whether he’ll state soon that his constituency party needs to find a new candidate now. Also, what will be his role in Westminster for now? Will he be leading the Scottish MPs, or will he basically be a general without an army?

Fourthly, it will be interesting to see how well Kezia Dugdale can present Jim Murphy’s policies at Holyrood. When Nicola Sturgeon did the same for Alex Salmond, at least he was already a household name with well-known views, but Murphy will somehow need to backpedal frantically away from his New Labour past in absentia, which will be fun to watch.

To conclude, it will be fascinating to observe whether the Scottish Branch Office will tread water or collapse during the Murphy/Dugdale era. Murphy is certainly a very capable politician, but also one of the least liked MPs in Scotland — many people here in East Renfrewshire seem to develop an acute rash whenever they see him. Perhaps he’ll manage to ditch all his former views and present himself in a way that will appeal to Scottish Labour voters. Perhaps he’ll present himself as the unifying figure for all right-of-centre Unionist voters, whether Labour, Tory or LibDem, but losing Labour’s traditional supporters in the process. Or perhaps he’ll simply be a failure, presiding over such a catastrophic loss in the next two elections that his leadership will be extremely short-lived. We live in interesting times.