Well, no-one saw that coming. Apart from Michael Gove, if you believe his Radio 4 interview. All polls wrong, Paddy Ashdown almost eating a hat live on air, so much for ‘the closest election in decades’. Now, there are plenty out there who will give a more astute analysis of the election, based on their own research, a command of multiple statistics and complex modelling. However, it would be remiss of me not to offer my modest reflections on the election, from the point of view of a Political Sociologist, and as an interested and involved citizen. I don’t intend to provide an in-depth breakdown of the positives and negatives on a constituency by constituency basis, but rather based on preliminary thoughts gathered over the past couple of days. I’ll focus on overall strategies, and some of the individual surprises.
Overall Strategies and the Big Picture
My own hat (thankfully not eaten) was thrown in Labour’s ring. I don’t think anyone can deny that last night was terrible for Labour in a number of ways. The past five years for Labour was about developing and promoting an alternative vision for the country away from the Conservatives and from New Labour. The rationale behind this, as far as I am concerned, was (and still is) sound. The public did not want a return to New Labour, and plenty expressed their opposition to the Coalition government.
It is also true that to a large extent the struggle has been one of narratives. The Tories were in the perfect position of not being in power when the financial crisis hit, and were therefore ideally placed to blame Labour and inflate their role in causing the crisis. The reality is that although Labour must take some of the blame, Britain is a heavily financialised economy. A global financial crisis, as such, will hit the UK hard, regardless of the government. One of Labour’s major failings was the party’s inability to shake this image. The Tories were able to play the old card that Labour is irresponsible with money; Labour’s positive vision for the country, that of course involved higher taxes and increased spending, gave the Tories ammunition. This is presicely because they were able to associate a small state and laissez-faire economics (which is not the best choice to defend against financial crises as it is much harder to introduce regulation) with fiscal responsibility. They were able to associate austerity with balancing the books, rather than ideological drives to shrink the state and social protection.
My personal feeling is that Ed Miliband was neither the problem nor the solution to this narrative crisis. He was not the problem in that his leadership did not necessarily diminish the value or the impact of the narrative Labour was presenting. Certainly, amongst Labour supporters the narrative was popular. Yet Miliband’s big issue was that he didn’t have the charisma to deliver the message. Personally, I hate bringing up this argument because I’m one of these romantic idealistic people who believe in policies (and ideology, I won’t lie) over personality. But it would be hard to deny that the media and the Tories didn’t play on the public’s inability to identify with Miliband on a personal level.
Miliband is an astute theorist, academic, strategist, policy developer and so on. He has all the attributes to be a good leader, perhaps apart from having the innate ability to lead. That being said he was able to unite the Labour party around him – a party that is famous for in-fighting – so he must have had something going for him in this department. And indeed, if every voter could have met Miliband in person, maybe things would have been different. Alas, that’s not how things work. It is my hope that he stays on at a high level behind the scenes, in a significant policy development position, or indeed (shadow) cabinet post.
His resignation speech showed how much he genuinely cared about what he was doing, and the people he wanted to represent. We need more people with his passion and drive. Unfortunately modern politics also requires someone with media gravitas.
We knew we were in for a long night when Warwickshire North, an ultra marginal that Labour had to win without breaking a sweat, went to the Tories with an increased majority. Things generally went downhill from there. It was certainly interesting to watch the Lib Dem results: some of the biggest results for Labour came in constituencies where Lib Dem support had bottomed-out. I suspect this is a case of natural or previous Labour voters returning to the fold after feeling betrayed by the Lib Dems. For those Lib Dems who voted thinking they’d get a left-wing alternative to Labour and had to watch them enter a coalition with the Tories, I highly suspect they felt they had little choice. In that way Labour did well to reconnect with its core vote. But again it’s a harsh reality that the party, to win England, need to appeal to centre-ground voters. This will be the conundrum for the party in the coming months and years – how to do this whilst (I hope) retaining an identifiable left (of centre) position.
The SNP’s barnstorming result was I doubt a surprise to anyone. Sturgeon has already reasserted that their success was not a reflection of the desire for an independent Scotland as such, but for a clear voice independent of Tory England. This was Labour’s worst defeat, considering that they were all but wiped out in Scotland – precisely because they failed to articulate strongly and believably enough an alternative to the Conservatives’ proposals. The SNP surge has to be seen as more than a protest vote. It is rather a show of anger from a sizable population that feels that it has been marginalised and ignored. Labour have always needed Scotland to form a majority. In my mind, their biggest tactical error in Scotland was installing Jim Murphy as leader; someone who was not particularly liked by the Scottish public from what I can see, and far too connected to New Labour and the Blairism that the Scottish people outright rejected. If Labour in England is in trouble, Scottish Labour is doubly so.
Surprises and reliefs
The biggest surprise was the defeat of Ed Balls. The fact that it was by a small majority (400 or so votes) I think tells us a lot. He is a big name with a lot of support, particularly from core voters. But he did not have the trust of the people, and that showed throughout the campaign. It also doesn’t help that in interviews he comes across as brash and sometimes the way he responds can come across as petulant. He seems to exude aggression rather than confidence. I appreciate he has overcome a number of obstacles, and that behind the scenes he is by all accounts a shrewd economist. But as a public figure he does not give people confidence. I wonder the extent to which he kept his position in the shadow cabinet because of politics and tactics rather than being the right man for the job. Let’s not forget he had a reputation for being a bit of an attack dog, particularly in the Brown Years. Again, I think it is a loss to Labour in some ways that he has gone, but as with Ed I wonder if a more behind-the-scenes role would have been better for him.
I have two particular reliefs from the election. The first is from Thanet South. That Farage did not get elected is a tribute to the people of Thanet. To give UKIP any more legitimacy would be incredibly damaging for the fate of the UK in Europe. Of course, this must be balanced with the context that UKIP did poll well in the popular vote. Not only were they able to take votes away from Conservative voters, but also some of Labour’s traditional working class base. Again, in terms of Labour, this shows the party’s failure to articulate strongly enough a positive vision. In my view, the problems began as soon as top party figures began to acknowledge UKIP’s arguments, rather than outlining why they are largely baseless. It is right to address people’s fears. But if these fears are unfounded one must then explain clearly, and perhaps forcefully, why they are. Unfortunately, Labour’s strategy ended up too many times legitimising people’s baseless fears, which had the effect of dragging the party into water they simply can’t (and shouldn’t) swim in.
My other relief is George Galloway’s long-overdue exit from parliament. I don’t have much to say on this, except it has taken far too long for him to go.
The Labour Party is about to enter a period of introspection. Again, there will be a battle for Labour’s soul. I wonder if in years to come we will be talking of this time as the Second Wilderness Years. Either way, it is important that Labour find a leader that continues Ed Miliband’s work, rather than rejecting it and running back to the misplaced comfort of New Labour and Blairism. People want to see the party evolve, and if the polls have shown anything (apart from the result…) it is that Labour’s proposals, which were certainly more left wing than other recent offerings, had a good level of support in principle. As for grassroots lefties, it is now even more important to organise and support one another.
I will finish on a thought – many commentators are putting the Tories unexpected success at least partially down to the desire for stability, and for choosing the safest option. This highlights the small c conservative nature of the English population. The challenge for those on the left ideologically and discursively is to make progressive politics the safe option.