The other reasons why Labour lost in 2015

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For the most part, Margaret Beckett has managed to avoid the firing line for her 35 page report as to why Labour lost the 2015 GE.  Essentially, the report (which can be read here) does not fit easily into the Labour Right’s or the media’s frame of reference… vague or bland was the best they could come up with.  The press tried to whip up some excitement about ‘the suppression of a secret report’ about focus group findings but the task of blaming Jeremy Corbyn for Labour’s defeat in 2015 eventually proved too convoluted.  However, Jamie Reed MP did his best in a valiant effort for Progress:

Any Labour leader who refuses to listen to the country and who prizes the views of Labour members above Labour voters and former Labour voters will likely find that although they may secure the Labour crown, they will lose the Labour kingdom.’

In other words, the lesson from 2015 is that ‘the LP has the wrong membership’.. which reminds me of an old joke about the wrong electorate (but repetition of the word ‘Labour’ 6x in one sentence must be worth a mention).

 

Coming from the Left, I thought that the Beckett report was fair enough but that there were plenty of things left unsaid, that might have been usefully included.

But first, let’s be absolutely clear, the Tories won a majority because the Liberal Democrats imploded (-15.2%).  

Given that in most LD held seats, the Conservatives were in second place, it was unsurprisingly that they took LD constituencies.  Conservatives replaced 27 LD MPs, and now represent virtually the whole of Devon and Cornwall, coast to coast.  Those constituencies alone provided the Tory majority.

The unasked question is ‘Why were Labour in third place (gaining only a few thousand votes) in constituencies which have high levels of poverty, high unemployment, high self-employment, high housing costs, inadequate transport/infrastructure and a historical lack of investment?’

That blame cannot be laid on the 2015 campaign.  The fact is that New Labour governments never focused on addressing the problems of rural Britain… and there certainly are big problems in rural areas, all across the UK.  Although, to be fair, Huw Irranca-Davies MP did try his best to highlight them at the Labour Party Conference 2014.

So Scotland … what a tragedy for a few great Labour MPs, like Katy Clark and others, but the truth is that many, if not most, Scottish Labour-held seats were profoundly neglected by their Blairite MPs.  Their constituents really were ‘taken for granted’.  As Ben Margulies puts it, ‘the SNP won by defeating the “rotten structures of Scottish Labour”

Again, this cannot fairly be laid at Ed Miliband’s feet.

Ian Williams in Tribune describes the birth of New Labour:

‘Clinton set the model for New Labour – ostentatiously disavowing calumniated “special interest groups”, while pandering to the right…..  Unlike Clinton, the Blair administration did a lot of good work – but party bosses did not want anyone boasting about it, in case it alienated the financiers whom they hoped would replace the unions as bankrollers for the party.

In both cases, the plan was to hollow out the popular base of the parties, denying members effective input on policy or candidates, to reduce it to a PO box for corporate donations. As we saw in the Labour Party, it became a self-perpetuating career escalator for machine politicians that eventually ruthlessly weeded out any signs of dissent and any ties with the unions apart from topping up the collection box.

And nowhere was this model more surely adopted than by Scottish New Labour MPs.

Yes, the tipping point in Scotland was the referendum … and it was Ed Miliband’s fault for supporting the idea …. But who in their right minds thought it was a good idea for Labour to join forces with the Tories in the No campaign!!?

The idea is surely repugnant to any left-winger but yet again the transatlantacist right of the LP were seduced by US fantasy politics which promotes ‘bipartisanship’ as a high ideal to which they should aspire. Perhaps, if they had actually been in touch with their membership, they might have realised sooner that it wasn’t an aspiration shared by their fellow Scots who saw it as further evidence of ‘Red Tories’… and the dissipating Labour vote (ignored from 2007 onward) finally rotted away.

Anyway, the collapse of the LD vote and the loss of 40 Scottish MPs might have been mitigated, had Labour not made another fatal mistake.

What on earth possessed them to oppose the EU Referendum?

Was this ‘Hell yeah’ politics, toughing it out, holding the line?  Even pro-EU voters were invited to feel patronized.  Talk about handing a majority to the Tories.

ComRes opinion polling (post-election) found that 17% of Conservative and LD voters, and 33% of Ukip voters would have considered voting Labour, if Labour had been in support of a referendum on the EU.  In terms of MPs, that alone would have deprived the Tories of their majority.  ComRes estimated that Labour would have gained 8 seats leaving the Conservatives with 323, 3 short of a majority.

The amazing thing is that in spite of losing 40 Scottish MPs, and 27 LD seats going straight to the Tories, Labour still increased its vote in England and Wales by 1.5m in 2015 whereas the Tories only gained 500k.  But unfortunately, Labour largely built up its vote in unwinnable and safe seats, and although, there were 22 gains, the loss of 48 meant that Labour ended up with only 232 MPs.

In fact, the British Election Study team found that

‘Miliband was seen as having a more successful campaign than Cameron, perhaps against low expectations. This rating of who ‘performed best in the campaign’ switched in Cameron’s favour shortly before the election’

 

It also seems that the Ed Miliband team made the false assumption that the Tories would lose votes to Ukip, and disillusioned LDs would switch to Labour.  In the event, Labour probably only gained about 8% of the 2010 LD vote, former LDs being more than prepared to vote Conservative.  (Amazingly a lot of LD votes must have gone to Ukip – only half of Ukip’s 3.8m votes seem to have been taken from former Con or Lab voters )

The final cutting irony was that the collapse of the LD vote meant that the Tories gained a further 7 MPs because Labour supporters (and others) withdrew their tactical votes for the LD MP.  For example in Lewes constituency which was considered to be a safe LD seat, Norman Baker MP lost 7925 votes which split fourways between Ukip, Labour, Greens and Conservatives.  The new Tory MP was elected with only 805 votes above the 2010 losing result.

In the final analysis, Mark Doel of Sheffield sums it up…it was the UK electoral system that won it for the Tories. Not since universal suffrage has any party with less than 37% of the popular vote gained an absolute majority in the UK parliament. In fact, the swing to Labour (1.5%) was almost twice that to the Conservatives (0.8%) ….

Talk of David Cameron “sweeping to victory” adds wind to the sails of a government that acts as though it has a massive mandate when, by any account, a 12-seat majority is tiny, especially as it is built on the fluke distribution of an historically small proportion of votes. We must stop allowing the Tories to present this result as “a convincing victory”.

Charles Cronin of London adds:

‘…Lynton Crosby’s seeming effortless success in promoting the Tory party’s domination of the media could only have succeeded with the editorial support of the media. The BBC, as it must, covered and followed the press agenda. Don’t give too much praise to the creator of the message: it was the messengers that swung it.’

 

However, I cannot finish without pin-pointing the role of the Blairite wing of the Labour Party, in Ed Miliband’s failure to win the 2015 GE.  This is of overwhelming significance for the electability of Jeremy Corbyn in 2020.

Professor Eunice Goes‘ assessment of the 2015 campaign was that:

Ed Miliband was a flawed leader but the responsibility for the Labour’s colossal defeat on May 7 does not rest solely on his shoulders. Party divisions, plots, constant media attacks paralysed the party, in particular its policy development process. When the electoral manifesto was finally approved last spring the proposals that came out were confusing, unconvincing and uninspiring as Miliband tried to cater to all factions and ended up pleasing none….

And writing before his election as leader, her contention was that Jeremy Corbyn will not be allowed to lead the LP:

‘.. he will be de facto prevented from leading the Labour Party. The weekly duels in the House Commons with the Prime Minister David Cameron will be the least of Corbyn’s worries. He will be torn apart by his parliamentary party and the media. He will not be able to develop a single policy proposal, as he will be spending most of his time and energy explaining and justifying every single word he uttered during his long parliamentary career about Europe, Trident, coal mines, people’s quantitative easing or Israeli oranges. In other words, his leadership will collapse under pressure from opposition and resistance from all fronts.

But when this will happen the right of the party will have few reasons to rejoice as there is no greater electoral turn-off than to see – as we’ve witnessed in the past weeks – the spectacle of Labour apparatchiks treating the party’s membership and their democratic choices with such contempt.’

 

The experience of the last 4 months bears ample witness to Eunice Goes’ prediction… and yet, there is still room for hope.  I am not alone in feeling reassured that the Corbyn/ McDonnell team is much more experienced and streetwise, than Ed Miliband’s.  In addition, the membership have been exposed to the Labour Establishment’s contempt for democracy.

Let’s hope that the ‘We had to destroy the village in order to save it’ mentality from the Labour Right eventually fades away, even if it is only out of self-interest.

 

http://www.scribd.com/doc/295975145 /Learning-the-Lessons-from-Defeat-Taskforce-Report

http://www.progressonline.org.uk/2016/01/23/all-my-sons/

http://www.huwirranca-davies.org.uk/what-can-labour-do-to-win-the-rural-vote/

http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/53094-2/

http://www.tribunemagazine.org/2016/01/letter-from-america-ian-williams-3/

http://www.britishelectionstudy.com/bes-impact/learning-the-right-lessons-from-labours-2015-defeat/#.VqzyKuk27oA

http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jan/24/lynton-crosbys-role-in-the-tory-election-victory

http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/even-if-he-wins-jeremy-corbyn-will-never-be-able-to-lead-the-labour-party/

https://think-left.org/2015/08/30/what-the-labour-establishment-didnt-really-want-us-to-know/

Corbyn Danger? Danger for Whom?

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Backing Corbyn

The “Corbyn Danger”: Danger for Whom?

@johnweeks41

Fear & Loathing on the Campaign Trail 

Hunter Thompson chose the title above for his book relating his eccentric take on the 1972 US presidential election.  In a somewhat different way, it is singularly appropriate to the current campaign for the Labour leadership.  With the outstanding exception of Ed Miliband, the notables of the Blair-Brown era can contain neither their fear nor their loathing of the front-runner, Jeremy Corbyn.  From this collection of “yesterday’s men” the attacks on the MP from North Islington come thick and fast, slings and arrow of the outrageous (á la Hamlet, Act II, scene 1).  Ex-PM Blair advises supporters of Corbyn to consider heart transplants.  Ex-cabinet member (now Lord) Mandelson quakes before the threat of a “lurch to the left” by the Labour Party.  And to these I can add former leader Neil Kinnock, ex-spinner Alastair Campbell and in veiled language ex-PM Gordon Brown.

Equally thick and fast come the attacks on Corbyn’s economic policies, notably in the Financial Times where the insurgent is described as a doing “potential harm to…British public life” for his advocacy of “radical” policies.  An inspection of his policies seems relevant with this and other allegations including from members of the Labour Party that Corbyn inhabits some extreme/hard left territory,

To do this I went to the source, the website for Mr Corbyn’s leadership campaign a virtual visitor can download a statement of his economic policies, The Economy in 2020.

Anti-Austerity

I begin with a Corbyn policy certain to send the neoliberals into anxiety, public ownership (aka nationalization/re-nationalization).  A pledge to take the railroad into the public sector features prominently on the campaign website.  After 35 years spent selling off public assets, this commitment to public ownership comes as a shock.

But, is it radical or hard-left?  A look to the continent suggests otherwise, where the public sector owns the railroads in France, Germany, Italy and Spain.  None of these countries have or had radical governments.  In the United States, very much neoliberal territory, the passenger rail company Amtrak is publicly owned.  Further, in 2013 the citizens of Hamburg voted to bring all public utilities into public ownership.

While public ownership is less common today that in the past, it is sufficiently frequent across the globe not to be unusual or rare.  The same point applies to the Ten Priorities listed in The Economy in 2020, which fall into three categories, opposition to fiscal austerity, taxation and re-structuring of the UK economy.

We find no ambiguity in the candidate’s position on fiscal cuts.  “Austerity is a political choice not an economic necessity”, and Corbyn opposes it, promising “always to protect public services and support the most vulnerable”.  Closely related to opposition to austerity is “a publicly-led expansion and reconstruction of the economy with a big rise in investment levels”.

The commitment to “publicly-led” growth is likely to be more controversial that opposition to austerity, because anti-austerity does not necessity imply more expenditure while an increase in public investment would.  The implicit argument in defence of an increase in public investment is that it would generate faster growth and the taxation induced by the greater output would quickly eliminate the increase in the fiscal deficit required to fund the investment.

Also implicit is the “crowding in” process, that properly targeted public investment would foster private investment to restructure the economy.  Public investment priorities would be implemented through “a multibillion pound programme of infrastructure upgrades” including broadband networks.

Controversy has focused on the mechanism to fund the infrastructure update, “a National Investment Bank”, which some confuse with Corbyn’s references to a “People’s Quantitative Easing”.  The investment bank could fund its project either by sale of bonds to private buyers (“capital markets”), or by selling bonds to the Bank of England (“monetization of the deficit”).  The major difference between the two is that the former leaves the money supply unchanged, while the latter increases it by the amount of the investment.

The possibility of funding through selling bonds to the Bank of England prompted an attack on Corbyn from Labour shadow chancellor Chris Leslie, who alleged that this would be inflationary, and therefore “risks hurting some of the most poor, the most vulnerable, those on the lowest incomes”.

The “hurts those you wish to help” argument suffers from two serious problems.  First, the UK economy now suffers from pressures toward deflation not inflation, so that expansion of the monetary base is the appropriate policy.  Second, much empirical evidence indicates that contrary to Mr Leslie’s allegation very low inflation hurts the poor and benefits the rich.  One of the reasons should be obvious, inflationary pressures are associated with rising employment and wages.  In addition mild inflation devalues household debt and the poor are heavily indebted.

However, the mechanism to fund public investment and whether it would prove inflationary provides no support for the “hard left” accusation by Leslie.  We find national investment banks advocated by solidly mainstream economists (for example, Robert Skidelsky).  Funding of investment by borrowing from central banks is even more common – indeed, in the 1980s Ronald Reagan used this funding technique to cover current expenditure without generating notable inflationary pressures.

Taxation

The revenue generating policies in The Economy in 2020 focus on increasing the progressivity of the overall tax structure.  This has three components: 1) a shift from indirect to direct taxes for households, 2) stronger measures to eliminate personal and corporate tax avoidance, and 3) “large reductions” in corporate tax relief and subsidies.

Economists, even if they prefer indirect taxes (taxes on expenditures) agree that these are regressive;  their share of gross income falls as income rises.  A reduction in VAT and an increase in personal income taxes that leaves total tax take unchanged would reduce income inequality.  A reform of the tax structure that would reduce inequality hardly qualifies as “hard left”.  In a recent FT article the decidedly right of centre Chris Giles cited the negative impact of inequality on economic growth (drawing on a study by the OECD, which confirmed an earlier study by the IMF).

The tax policies proposed by Jeremy Corbyn are not hard left, but they are controversial because they would reverse the inequality-enhancing trend of our public finances over the last thirty years.

The Corbyn Danger

The economic policies proposed by Jeremy Corbyn are certainly a break with the current consensus in the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democratic Parties (though not so different the anti-austerity Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru).  This makes them radical only if one has an extremely narrow view of the limits of legitimate debate.

The surprising aspect of Corbyn’s economic policies is not that they are radical and hard left, but that they would be perceived as such, especially by prominent people in the Labour Party which has many MPs committed to social democratic values.

Since the other three candidates for the leadership profess to different degrees concern with inequality, I would have expected criticism to focus on the inadequacy of Corbyn’s policies rather than their radical nature.  For example, his programme could place more emphasis on enforcing a “living wage”, more on legislation to strengthen collective bargaining, plus policies to limit the grotesque inflation of corporate salaries.

It appears that the source of Jeremy Corbyn’s radicalism and the outrage his candidacy provokes in the Labour elite lies not in his policies.  While leader of the Labour Party Ed Miliband introduced fundamental reform in the process by which future party leaders would be chosen.  From a previous system of voting that gave the Parliamentary Party proportionally much greater election strength, the new system is one-member-one-vote, a change that two backbench MP called “disastrous” for which Miliband should apologize.

Therein, we find the profound radicalism of Jeremy Corbyn’s threat to  become Labour Party leader.  Should he win, it will be by a process that does not require the approval of the Labour Party elite.  Corbyn is not the danger that fills them with fear and loathing; it is the spectre of democracy.

Economist John Weeks is a Professor Emeritus of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.