Archive for May 2011
The last of Britain’s troops left Iraq on Sunday with just a cursory mention in the press. What a contrast to eight years earlier, when they poured across the border with Kuwait in a hail of missiles, bombs and bullets, the international media following their every move.
It’s true that a national debate on Iraq has raged ever since it was clear that London and Washington were determined to take the country by force. But I still don’t think that Labour has learned the right lessons in its whole approach to foreign policy.
It’s worth noting the role that Labour members played in the struggle against this bloody and unjust war. Activists across the country marched against the war. Such was the strength of the mood in the party that 139 Labour MPs – in the face of huge pressure from the party leadership – voted against the war. British bombs only fell on Iraq on the back of Tory votes.
The war was a damning indictment of Labour’s Blairite faction. From the beginning they claimed to be moderates, pragmatists, those who resisted the supposed unbending extremism of left-wing ideologues. And yet they wholeheartedly backed a war initiated by the most right-wing US Presidency of modern times; a war that was in direct violation of international law – as former UN General Secretary Kofi Annan has pointed out.
I never thought I’d say but it but, Christ, I don’t half know how Thatcher felt. Until her administration came and put the ‘Great’ back into ‘Great Britain’ (and all that), post-war Britain was a picture of despair for Maggie. The Tories had capitulated to the political settlement established by Clement Attlee’s 1945 government, with just a few tweaks. Post-war politics were a “socialist ratchet”, she claimed: “Labour moved Britain towards more statism; the Tories stood pat; and the next Labour Government moved the country a little further left. The Tories loosened the corset of socialism; they never removed it.”
When I read an article by Labour’s former General Secretary, Peter Watt, calling on the party to accept the Tories’ cuts agenda wholesale, I was reminded about how much this has all been turned around. You could say: “The Tories move Britain towards more neo-liberalism, New Labour stands pat; and the next Tory Government moved the country a little further right. New Labour loosened the corset of neo-liberalism, they never removed it.” If the likes of Watt have their way, that is what will happen if Labour win the next election.
There are a whole range of reasons for the British left to be disappointed with Barack Obama’s Presidency, and the US political situation is radically different from our own. Right, I got the caveats out of the way. But is there anything that Labour can learn from his historic election victory in 2008? Predictably, for a leading question, the answer is ‘yes’.
Obama was the first Democratic Presidential candidate to win a majority of the vote since Jimmy Carter narrowly won the 1976 election in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. Sure, Obama rode a wave of disillusion with the utterly discredited Presidency of George Bush. But his victory owed much to a strategy of ‘expanding the electorate’: focusing on registering and getting out the votes of those traditionally less likely to vote – like African-Americans and younger voters.
If Labour is going to win the next election – which, let’s face it, is hardly in the bag – it must adopt an ‘expand the electorate’ strategy. Here’s why. According to pollsters Ipsos MORI, Labour’s support among the top social categories (the ABs) declined by just five percentage points between 1997 and 2010. But among the bottom two social categories (the C2s and DEs), a fifth went AWOL. While just half a million AB voters abandoned Labour, 1.6 million voters in each of the C2 and DE groups evaporated.
‘m sure you know the type. Workshy, embracing unemployment as a lifestyle choice, sometimes one inherited from the parents, and spending money scrounged off others on booze and drugs. No, I’m not talking about the feckless “chav” caricatures who regularly feature in tabloid horror stories, used to justify further attacks on Britain’s besieged welfare state. It’s a new generation of young, wealthy freeloaders we should be worried about: the “funemployed”, if you will.
The concept of the funemployed has actually been bouncing around US newspaper columns since the start of the global economic crisis three years ago. With a new TV programme essentially dedicated to the phenomenon and reports in the British press, it looks like we too are finally getting our head around the concept. According to the ever-reliable Urban Dictionary, “funemployment” describes “the condition of a person who takes advantage of being out of a job to have the time of their life”. Journalists across the pond describe it as a sort of coping mechanism for young professionals abruptly thrown on the scrapheap. With so much free time suddenly available, the American funemployed can spend time doing what they really want to do: playing golf, a spot of travelling, or massaging consciences with a bit of volunteering.
Like most other people on the left, Margaret Thatcher is my biggest political influence. Because of her ruthlessness and determination, and the inept, divided opposition she was up against, her governments transformed British society beyond recognition. My politics were forged in opposition to everything she achieved – and God, she achieved a lot.
Thatcher managed what only Clement Attlee’s government had pulled off in the 20th century: she established a new political consensus, forcing her opponents to accept the key tenets of her political programme. Weak trade unions, low taxes on the rich and big business, the dominance of the market in every sphere of life: New Labour ended up embracing (but tweaking) all of the pillars of Thatcherism, just as the patrician Tories of the 1950s had no choice but to accept Attlee’s welfare capitalism settlement.
“The real triumph was to have transformed not just one party, but two,” as her former deputy, Geoffrey Howe, put it.
Thatcherism was probably the most audacious attempt at social engineering in Britain since the Puritans ruled over three hundred years earlier. Thatcher made clear she wanted to create a new Briton: “We have to move this country in a new direction, to change the way we look at things, to create a wholly new attitude of mind.”
For many Labour supporters who woke up this morning, this is what ‘schadenfreude’ was introduced into the lexicon for. The smell of toast Lib Dem wafted through their windows up and down the country. In the year since Britain fell back under Tory domination, the most passionate vitriol has been reserved for the Lib Dems: it’s the sense many had that, after all, you expect to be screwed by the Tories, but the Lib Dems should really know better.
That’s suited the Tories just fine. They have ingeniously crafted the Lib Dems into human shields, allowing them to absorb rising popular anger at the Government’s onslaught against the welfare state.
The Lib Dems are stuck. If they withdraw from the Government, an election will be held which will wipe them out as a major political force. The Tories know this, and they also know that Labour is completely unprepared – financially as well as politically – for a snap election. With a gun to the Lib Dems’ heads, the party can occasionally squeal in staged attempts to distinguish themselves from their Tory allies – as Paddy Ashdown has done – but they are trapped in power. For a party that has been trapped out of power for such a long time, there is something deeply ironic about the Lib Dem plight.
These results have exposed a lot about the Lib Dems. Their support was always soft and, unlike the Tories and Labour, they have no real identifiable, substantial core vote to speak of. Yes, they functioned as a kind of South West regional party; in the North, they won by posturing to the left of Labour; in the South, they presented themselves as a more acceptable, rational alternative to the Tories. After a year of being allied to the Tories, many of their disgusted Northern erstwhile voters have returned to the Labour fold. Sheffield (the city I was born in) and Stockport (where I grew up) are among those who have kicked the Lib Dems out of office.
In the South, some have gone blue: after all, this Government’s programme is so polarising, if you support it, why not just vote Tory?
And, when the referendum results later show that the Alternative Vote has been rejected – forever, in all likelihood – the total humiliation of the Lib Dems will be confirmed.
It’s difficult to know where this baseless party is headed. It has a habit of splitting, with factions being absorbed by the Conservative Party. That’s what happened to Joseph Chamberlain’s Liberal Unionists in 1912 and the National Liberals after World War II. It’s certainly easy to imagine the likes of Nick Clegg and David Laws eventually defecting to the Tories although, given the plummeting Lib Dem vote, they may end up representing them in the House of Lords.
Protected by the Lib Dems, the Tory vote has remained steady (currently projected at around 35%, or around what they got in the general election a year ago). They’ve even made some gains. In other words, the Tories’ political strategy is working pretty well. Although it was easy to forget when they were languishing in the doldrums under the leaderships of William Hague and Iain Duncan-Smith, the Tories are the most successful political party on Earth. They governed for two thirds of the 20th Century. They don’t just lust for power: they expect it.
It was always comforting to pretend that anger over cuts would end up with the Tories being turfed out of power. But Labour has yet to present any coherent alternative to the Tory agenda. It hasn’t really won back those working-class voters who abandoned it, costing it the election.
It’s of course easy to overstate what has happened in Scotland, where Labour got a kicking at the hands of the SNP. It says more about Iain Gray’s woeful leadership – it seems as though the only substantial policy being offered by Labour was being tough on knife crime – than it does about Labour nationally. I strongly doubt the results would be replicated at a general election, and opinion polls suggest not. The SNP has stitched together a coalition of dedicated nationalists, disillusioned Labour supporters attracted by social democratic aspects of Alex Salmond’s leadership and, particularly in this election, former Lib Dem supporters.
But it does provide a case study of what happens to Labour when it fails to win back its natural supporters. Anyone who thinks that a lurch into hardcore New Labour territory will win Labour voters back from the clutches of the nationalists needs their heads examined.
Labour has made decent inroads in much of England and Wales. There were landslides in cities like Manchester, where it looks as though all other parties have been purged from the council. Those who believe it is not enough progress need to be quickly reminded that the party suffered its second worst result since the fall of Hitler just a year ago. The idea we were ever going to win a landslide after systematically alienating many of our supporters over so many years was always bonkers, no matter how much the Tory press cynically talked it up. And again, people need to be reminded: we lost 4 out of the 5 million voters who went AWOL between 1997 and 2005 under Blair. Blairites must not be allowed to whip up the idea that these are disappointing results in an effort to retreat to a failed New Labour policy agenda.
But, that said, there can be no underestimating just how potent a threat the Tories remain. They are political geniuses who are determined to remain in power at all costs, and unless Labour provides a convincing alternative that wins back its working-class voters, then Cameron’s cabal may well achieve that aim.