May 7th and after: not all doomed
The result of the May 7th Election was not good news, particularly for those who are hit by the bedroom tax, benefit cuts and zero hours contracts.
There is a debate about how bad the news was. Some echo Private Fraser in Dad’s Army whose often expressed view covering many situations was to utter ‘we’re doomed, all doomed’.
That is going too far certainly not least because while Elections are an important way of changing things, organising, petitioning, demonstrating and taking industrial action can also have a significant impact.
Indeed since the Election large anti-austerity protests in London, Bristol, Cardiff and elsewhere have underlined that electoral legitimacy- claimed by the Tories- only goes so far in what many see as a broken political system.
This was the point made by the father of the now former Labour leader, Ralph Miliband in his book Parliamentary Socialism. Namely that Labour was obsessed about the first of those words but not unfortunately about the second.
In addition there are those, particularly supporters of what was once ‘New Labour’ who are determined to paint Labour’s performance on 7th May as bleakly as possible so that can shift the party way off to the right. We have heard a lot from them in the media over the last week.
Historically speaking the matter is more complex.
Seats won determine Parliamentary majorities while the number of votes cast is a crude but interesting measure of basis class politics.
In the 1959 Election which Labour lost it got 12.2 million votes. That defeat led to a period of soul searching about Labour’s direction. On May 7th Labour got just 9.3 million votes.
It is possible to argue that Labour is in long term decline, but that is equally likely to be true of the Tories. They got 11.3 million votes this time yet as recently as 1983 they totalled 13 million
Taken together both parties got less than 70% of the vote in 2015. Other parties such as the SNP, Greens and UKIP took significant shares of the poll as well.
Another argument is that Labour’s result was its worst since 1983.
1983 saw Michael Foot as Labour leader and a Manifesto that was dubbed ‘the longest suicide note in history’. Time moves on and much of it, for example on not having nuclear weapons, and controlling banks, would find much support now.
That said while in 2015 Labour ended on 232 seats, in 1983 it got 209 and after Neil Kinnock took charge in 1987 it achieved 229. In 1983 Labour got 8.4 million votes.
So bad as May 7th was for Labour it was not another 1983.
It is interesting to note that Labour lost just 3 deposits, underlining that of the major parties it retains the most widespread core support
It will be debated whether Labour can recover and if so in what form, or whether other left political formulations will develop, as Labour itself over took Lib-Labism a century ago.
The argument of neo-Blairites that Labour needs to be centrist (that is closer to the Tories) hardly fits the clear anti-austerity mood in Scotland. Nor does the idea that Labour didn’t appeal to those who are prospering or at least aiming to even in an austerity economy fit. Labour did well in London (it could have done even better) which is certainly the most prosperous part of the UK.
The refrain that Labour needs to distance itself from the trade unions, which occurs from time to time is back. Those who support that need to ask themselves where they think funding and activists are going to come from if that happens. Given it was the unions that founded Labour in the first place though, union members and activists might well ponder whether there are more effective ways of organising and funding political representation. It is a debate that should be had, and it should be had in the labour movement not the Murdoch media.
But the obsession of rich right-wing media owners with Labour’s and the wider lefts future, or lack of it as they would hope, should not allow our gaze to wander off the Tories.
When Blair won his first Election in 1997, the Tories achieved just 165 Parliamentary seats. Less than 20 years on they have formed a Government with a small majority. Yet the Tories are a party with an ageing membership, activist base and core support. David Cameron’s attempt to grapple with this, his so called ‘modern conservatism’ has long since gone out of the window.
Finally we should say something about one group that is doomed at least in the format it has pursued over the last 10 years or so- the LibDems. Since they failed to split when Clegg backed the Tories, as they did in the 1930s when Liberals joined the National Government, the electorate has done the job for them. They now probably have a generation at least to ponder whether they are anything but history.