I had no sooner remarked on the absence of serious analysis of the results of the British General election of 7 May than I was almost overwhelmed by numerous analyses – but none of it, significantly, from newspaper sources.
Ross McKibbin is an Oxford University political scientist whose well-informed pieces in the London Review of Books are always a joy to read – with hard analysis combining with good writing. The lead piece in the current LRB, his Labour Dies Again achieves the standard we expect from him
Henning Meyer is editor of the leftist Think Tank “Social Europe” which has produced some booklets on social democracy’s contemporary travails and his brief commentary on the lessons will reflect thinking in that quarter.
But the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute is a bit more hardnosed and less easy to dismiss and this analysis is a sound dissection of Miliband’s attempt to supply a convincing “story” during the past 5 years
None of Miliband’s attempts at creating an underpinning narrative for his agenda focused on empowering people through collective action. Instead, Labour’s message was marred by a confusing mix of well-meaning managerialism and romanticised communitarianism.Miliband’s only public critique of New Labour statecraft arose from his flirtation with Maurice Glasman’s campaign. Central to Blue Labour is the notion that the state, as well as the market economy, has dispossessed local communities of autonomy. In 2011, Glasman New Labour’s ‘embrace of the state’ as ‘manic’ and ‘almost Maoist’. But the question of communities can defend themselves against market forces is left bafflingly unaddressed. Blue Labour has little to say about how the retrenchment of the state, through austerity, is the biggest threat to strong communities in Britain.
Miliband adopted ‘‘ in 2011. By suggesting capitalism can be reformed, the concept sounded a bit lefty – New Labour suggested capitalism could be harnessed, but never tamed. Yet it offered no substantive role for citizens in taking back control over a rampant economy. Rather, we look to capitalists themselves to lead the change.
In 2012 Miliband introduced the odd ‘predistribution’ concept. It presented government as both limited in its interventions – eschewing the politics of distribution – and overtly technocratic, in that it suggested state managers know best how to create good citizens.
Finally, Miliband gave us ‘‘, the most blue of all his rhetorical ploys. ‘One-nation’ is a traditionally conservative concept, associated with Benjamin Disraeli. Indeed, reclaimed the term in his first public remarks after his election victory had become clear. It suggests a version of society in which our common humanity matters as much as social order (or more precisely, that achieving the latter is dependent on recognising the former). It is, in a social democratic context, almost entirely meaningless.
‘One-nation’ presents the nation as an association, not a polity, and offered people looking to Miliband for hope nothing that they would not have already expected to hear from the Labour Party, even under Tony Blair. The prominence given to the concept in subsequent Labour communications tells us that, essentially, Ed Miliband did not know what kind of government he wanted to lead. It left him defenceless against the primitive appeal of austerity rhetoric. Labour lost this election to the Conservatives. Conservatism has little ideological appeal in a post-crisis environment, as there is no order left to defend, but the Conservatives were extremely successful in perpetrating a politics of fear, against vaguely lefty otherness and incompetence, in order to acquire a vote share just about high enough (36.8%) to deliver a majority under our flawed electoral system.
Yet the election was lost to too. The SNP offered Scottish voters something that Labour did not: re-empowerment through transformed statehood. One does not really have to take a view on the plausibility of the SNP’s approach (I made my views clear at the time of the independence referendum) to recognise its appeal. Labour should be thankful the SNP’s nationalism restricts it to standing in Scotland alone – because it could well have demolished Labour candidates further south as well.
Ed Miliband should have done more to change the conversation. But crippled as he was by an ambivalence towards the state, he failed to convince himself what he wanted to do with power – so it is little wonder he failed to convince the electorate.
The title I have given this post is actually the title of a Penguin Special produced in 1960 by Mark Abrams. The surprise of this election is not Labour losing (the polls never had good news for Labour) but the Tories winning an overall majority (even if a very small one). The Labour Party has been in decline for more than a decade….it certainly lost my affections in 2000 when I realised (largely through George Monbiot’s expose in The Captive State – the corporate takeover of Britain) the scale of the concessions New Labour had made to Big Business
Part 6 of Boffy’s series of posts puts it all in an even longer historical context -
The idea that Miliband lost the election because he was too left-wing is risible. Not only was Miliband's political stance to the right of successful Labour leaders such as Wilson or Attlee, but it was even to the right of Tory leaders like Heath, or even Home, and Macmillan before him, who in the post-war period governed within the social democratic consensus of Buttskellism. Even those Tory leaders saw no reason not to follow a Keynesian policy of deficit spending, even when Britain's debt to GDP ratio was 250%, rather than the 70% it is today. Heath even nationalised industries like Rolls Royce when they ran into trouble, a measure that would have been anathema to Miliband's outlook, let alone that of the Blairites.