Labour’s future: more Tony Crosland and less Tony Blair

Labour needs to win back poor voters who think it won’t do enough, and prosperous voters who fear it will do too much and wreck things. The next leader’s biggest battle will be to convince voters that Labour hasn’t just run out of road.

My review of Peter Hain’s Back to the Future of Socialism was published in the Summer 2015 issue of Public Service Magazine.

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The Corbyn insurgency

The Jeremy Corbyn phenomenon is an insurgency. Insurgencies don’t always involve riots, or people sitting around bonfires for weeks in city squares. Insurgencies occur when people in a country, an institution or political movement refuse to play by the established rules and that defiance strikes a popular chord. Insurgencies feed on their own enthusiasm. Every attempt by the established political leadership to “talk sense” into the insurgents usually backfires and feeds the revolt. That is exactly what is happening in the Labour leadership election.

With very few exceptions, established political leaders are hopeless at handling insurgent movements. They don’t understand the mixture of anger and hope that fuels them (even when they say they do, they don’t). The messages they send out – which boil down to telling people to play by the rules (in this case choosing the an “electable” candidate from among the party’s existing leadership) – not only fall flat, but give the insurgency more fuel. This happens not because people don’t understand the rules – as the leaders usually think – but because people believe they can change the rules. Whether they’re right or wrong, that’s a very powerful thing. It’s a mobilising thing. It’s the kind of thing that makes things happen.

The Labour leadership has got this so spectacularly wrong, it’s becoming hard to see them as credible politicians at all. The über-Blairite John McTernan doesn’t seem to realise that publicly plotting a coup against Corbyn before he’s even won (and threatening “retribution”) only fuels the sense of thwarted democracy and rage against injustice that is driving Corbyn’s campaign. Chuka Umunna calling party members “petulant children” for being angry about the defeats in 2010 and 2015 just makes people angrier still. Alastair Campbell at least acknowledged that a dressing-down from Tony Blair’s spin chief might help the defiantly “unspun” Corbyn, but he doesn’t seem to get that stern lectures on winning elections look ridiculous coming from a leadership that led Labour to two disastrous defeats in a row. And even a petulant child could have told Labour leaders that the timorous fudge over tax credits would push even moderate lefties in Corbyn’s direction. But no – on and on they go, piling stupidity on top of ineptitude.

The Labour party is not a fan club. Members are not there to cheerlead for the shadow cabinet or to fund the career paths of SPADS.What’s wrong with these people? How could they so misread the movement they’re supposed to lead? Did they really think that opening up the contest to “registered supporters” would lead to an influx of centrists and ex-Tory voters suddenly eager to help the party they just rejected at the polls? My 22-year-old stepdaughter has been involved with various left-wing causes since sixth form, but has never been near the Labour party. She has now joined, specifically to vote for Corbyn. She’s not an “entryist”, just one of the very large reservoir of people out there with left-of-centre views who’ve been doing their politics outside the Labour party. Those are exactly the kind of people who are driving the Corbyn insurgency.

And why not? What Labour’s leaders – including the three beardless candidates – don’t seem to get is that Labour is a political movement. It is not a British version of the political machines thrown up in the US to mobilise support for a particular candidate. It’s not a fan club. Party members are not there to cheerlead for the shadow cabinet or to fund the career paths of SPADS on their way to the green benches. Like any political movement, the Labour party is composed of people who give their time, energy and sometimes their money to a cause they believe in. Dismissing Corbyn’s campaign as a “protest movement” is a stupid way to try to change the mind of people who want to protest, and feel there is a lot to protest about. Protest is about persuasion, and persuasion is the stuff of politics. And isn’t politics what we’re supposed to be doing in the Labour party?

Campbell, McTernan and others like to lecture members about how elections are “won from the centre”. Of course, that cannot be literally true — the Tories are not a centre party and seem to be doing all right, while the Lib-Dems haven’t won an election for a while. In reality, elections are won by the party of left or right which best mobilises its own supporters at the same time as making a convincing appeal to voters who see themselves as neither left nor right.

But the lectures miss the point. The Labour party is not a centre party and never really has been. You can’t take a cow and convince people it’s really a horse. You can persuade them that it’s a really nice cow, that it’s a cow with some very horse-like qualities, but people still know it’s a cow. You can try to turn the Labour party into a centre party, a party which says more or less what it thinks centrist voters want to hear, but then you lose the movement. Because that isn’t politics, it’s just market research.

Politics involves a lot of compromise; that’s inevitable and even welcome. All effective political movements know that. But you have to have a position from which to compromise. What does Labour stand for? Do we accept the right-wing, neoliberal idea of society? How are we going to make a globalised, tech-driven economy work for most people? How are we going to reverse the transformation of London into an investment supermarket for overseas speculators? Are we actually going to do anything about ever-widening inequality and the sharp reversal of social mobility? If so, what? A political movement must be able to answer those questions, and many others too. You may not like the answers Jeremy Corbyn is coming up with, but the other candidates mostly dodge the questions, hiding behind platitudes like “ending child poverty” or trivia like changing the remit of the Low Pay Commission.

Once the accommodation with neoliberalism failed electorally, the movement was always likely to reject it sooner or later. The bloodless electoral calculus of McTernan, Campbell and others would leave the UK without a major socialist or social democratic political party. Whether you like it or not, there is at least very large minority who believe in and want to campaign for the ideas of the left. For the first time in a generation, many of them see the Labour party as a movement that can express those ideas. That is why Jeremy Corbyn will probably be elected leader of the Labour party next month.

Photo: Chris Beckett at flickr.com

Should I vote for Jeremy Corbyn?

In politics, I like to think of myself as principled but realistic. I’m a social democrat, not a Marxist. My political heroes were mostly practical, moderate socialists – intellectual heavyweights for sure, but people who didn’t mind dirtying their hands in getting something done: Denis Healey, Tony Crosland, Shirley Williams, François Mitterrand. People who understood the grubbiness of the material world and were prepared to work with it. People who had few illusions about how working people think, or about where extremism can lead.

When I was at university, 25 years ago, I was mocked (in a comradely way) for being the most right-wing member of the Labour club (although, as I remember, I was the only one prepared to join the Anti-Poll Tax Federation, a proscribed organisation in the Labour party at the time). When I left, the committee gave me a copy of The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, inscribed with warnings not move further to the right or become any more “careerist” (no worries on that score).

Inevitably, one or two of the wellwishers in that book went on to be leading lights in Tony Blair’s New Labour project. The party moved round me. What I thought of as mainstream social democracy went from being on the right of the party, to the centre and then to the left. Even “Red Ed” Miliband couldn’t put together a coherent social democratic programme – although that had as much to do with lack of confidence as lack of conviction. By about 2000, it was a mark of the hard left to be in possession of, to use Denis Healey’s preferred definition of democratic socialism, “an obstinate will to erode by inches the conditions that produce avoidable suffering”.

The definition is, I think, Kolakowski’s. But in his memoirs, Healey went on to expand on his own feeling for what socialism should be:

Socialism emphasises the community rather than the individual, consensus rather than confrontation, public welfare rather than private gain; it puts the quality of life before the quantity of goods. But its priorities are not absolute; it does not deny that the values which it normally puts second will sometimes need to come first, or that it’s opponents may also give some importance to socialist values. 1

Spot on. But that’s Denis Healey, one-time monetarist chancellor and bête-noire of the Labour left in the 1980s. Spout that kind of stuff within earshot of today’s shadow cabinet and they visibly flinch.

Every fibre of my being says I shouldn’t vote for Jeremy Corbyn, but the reasons just keep melting away like snow on a hotplate. I think austerity is nuts; Corbyn is the only anti-austerity candidate. I think the NHS has had enough marketisation and privatisation; he’s the only one to rule out any more of it. I’ve always supported renationalising the railways; Corbyn is only candidate to say he agrees (I suspect Burnham and Cooper agree too, but are afraid to say so – hardly a compelling reason to support them). I’m against the cuts in tax credits which, after years of both parties telling people they’d be looked after if they got a job, are cruel and unnecessary. Corbyn is the only candidate who voted against them in the Commons.

Don’t even get me started on the irony of a shadow cabinet which has led Labour to two disastrous defeats lecturing the rest of the movement about winning elections.

These are not extreme or “hard left” policies. They’re solid, social democratic positions. And I’m willing to bet that they’re shared by a majority, or at least a very large minority, of the British people.

And then, just when I thought I’d found my personal red line, Corbyn ruled out supporting Brexit in the EU referendum.

But, scream Corbyn’s enemies, he can’t possibly win the election! True, all conventional wisdom and experience says it’s very unlikely. (I actually remember 1983). But that argument only holds water if you think any of the other three can win. I don’t.

Liz Kendall is in many ways an admirable candidate, but I’ve already written about how her England-only strategy simply cannot work. Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper have so far offered little that’s new or interesting. And don’t even get me started on the delicious irony of a shadow cabinet which has led Labour to two disastrous defeats in a row lecturing the rest of the movement about winning elections.

What passes for Corbyn’s electoral strategy involves winning over non-voters and supporters of the Greens and the SNP. We don’t know if that can work; no one’s really tried it before. Election gurus tell us that non-voters are very hard to mobilise and many people think Scotland has “gone” already. So it looks optimistic, to say the least. But, after an election in which Labour lost 40 seats to the SNP and the Tory vote hardly changed, to say all we need to do is move closer to the Tories is just witless.

The best argument against Corbyn is simply that he isn’t a serious candidate. He doesn’t really want to be leader, still less prime minister. It’s hard to imagine him going up against Cameron at PMQs. He’s too old (71 at the next election). The rest of the shadow cabinet may not work with him. There are some unpleasant people associated with his campaign talking about purging the party. Corbyn himself has taken foolish positions with respect to the IRA and Hamas in the past, which will be ruthlessly deployed against him in the future.

Much more importantly, Corbyn’s policies, attractive as many are to people on the left, don’t add up to a coherent programme for a socialist government. I’m disappointed with Corbyn on policy; I hoped he’d be more imaginative and serious once it became clear he had a chance of winning. Corbyn’s campaign still prefers to chant slogans about the failures of free-market capitalism rather than do the hard work of transforming it into something better for working people. There’s no attempt to develop a serious political strategy that can unite more of the anti-Tory majority around a progressive platform. And I’m still baffled by Jeremy’s reluctance to back electoral reform. (Corbyn is now promising to make his website a forum for serious policy debate. Marina Mazzacuto and Will Hutton’s thinking about an “enabling” or “entrepreneurial” state – refracted into a political programme by Peter Hain – might be a good place to start.)

But if Corbyn’s campaign looks like a protest movement, that’s because it is. It increasingly resembles a typically English, cobbled-together version of the movement against austerity and neo-liberalism we’ve seen in Scotland, Greece, Spain and other parts of Europe. Young people, in particular, are flocking to Corbyn and his campaign seems to be igniting interest and passion in politics in the same way as the Scottish independence referendum did last year. If Corbyn can forge that movement – which stretches from moderate social democrats like me to the far fringes of the Occupy movement — into a political fighting force, that might be better for the left than trying to scrape together a Labour majority from soft Tories and refugee Lib Dems. But that’s a big “if”.

Voting for Corbyn means gambling with the life of the party we love for an uncertain, amorphous return. In normal circumstances I’d never go near it. But these aren’t normal times; across Europe, the future of the democratic left itself is at stake. It might just be worth rolling the dice.

  1. Denis Healey, The Time of my Life, London 1989, p 578-9. ↩︎

UPDATE 17 AUGUST 2015: Since this post was published Andy Burnham has announced a plan to renationalise the railways “line by line” as existing operator franchises expire.

Should I vote for Liz Kendall?

Liz_Kendall_August_2014I really envy those comrades who’ve made their choice in the Labour leadership election and can get stuck into what we love best – bickering among ourselves. I feel left out. I’m all over the place. I change my mind hourly. I’ve toyed with “interesting” preference votes (like Kendall 1, Corbyn 2, and vice-versa) and spoiling my ballot paper altogether (how do you do that online?). For wildly different reasons, I can still see myself voting for any of the four candidates.

So I thought I might try to flush myself out by blogging something about each one, starting, for no paticular reason, with Liz Kendall. Hopefully, I’ll get round to Jeremy, Andy and Yvette in the next couple of weeks.

Kendall sometimes seems to have gone out of her way to alienate traditionally-minded Labour members and has based her campaign so far largely on claims that she has the best chance of winning the 2020 election.

If that were anywhere near true, I would vote for her like a shot, even though winning elections on policies you don’t like seems almost as pointless to me as losing them on policies that you do. Principles without power are worthless, true, but so is power without principles (unless you happen to be the one wielding the power). But Labour is facing an existential crisis and there’s no viable left-wing alternative as a party of government. If Liz can turn it round, so be it.

But my real problem with backing Liz Kendall is that her election winning strategy doesn’t work. I’ve tried to get my head round it, but the numbers just don’t stack up.

I’ve seen nothing from Team Kendall which suggests that their plan is anything other than to try to repeat the New Labour strategy of the 1990s. That wasn’t as sophisticated as terms like “triangulation” made it sound. Basically, Tony Blair tried to win over “centrist” or “soft” Tories by adopting key elements of the Tory programme: privatisation, deregulation, benefit cuts and so on. The calculation, broadly correct in the 1990s, was that Labour’s “core” vote among working class people and middle-class lefties had nowhere else to go. It worked pretty well, although the long-term damage in terms of loss of faith among Labour’s traditional supporters is only now becoming apparent.

Kendall seems to me the least well placed of the four candidates to win back support from the SNP and Greens, and a Blairite leader seems unlikely to appeal to UKIP voters.I’ve no idea why intelligent people think this will work 23 years later. The numbers and political realities are completely different. There are far fewer soft Tories now, and fewer Tories full stop. The Conservatives polled 36.9% in May, compared to 41.9% in 1992. Long-term polling evidence suggest the Tory core vote is around 30% (roughly what they were reduced to in 1997 and 2001). So there aren’t many soft Tories for Labour to win over by pretending to like their policies.

Labour is also starting from a lower base than in 1992, when it polled 34.4% and won 271 seats. Professor John Curtice says that to win in 2020, Labour will need a swing even bigger than Tony Blair achieved in 1997. If all or most of that has to come from the Tories’ existing vote – 5% lower than in 1992 – the job looks impossible.

The other part of this revived New Labour strategy won’t work either. As the 2015 election brutally demonstrated, Labour’s traditional voters are now all too willing to go elsewhere, whether it’s white working class people switching to UKIP, middle-class liberals voting Green, or Scots backing the SNP. Kendall seems to me the least well placed of the four candidates to win back support from the SNP and Greens, and a Blairite leader seems unlikely to appeal to UKIP voters (Kendall is also very pro-EU). I know a lot of people like to think UKIP will simply implode but, even if that does happen, aren’t those disenchanted ex-Labour voters more likely to find another alternative, or give up voting altogether, than return to a Labour Party that looks a lot like the one that drove them away in the first place? And just ask yourself – honestly – how many of the 40 seats Labour lost in Scotland Kendall is likely to win back by moving Labour closer to the Tories.

If anything, Liz seems likely to accentuate the flight of Labour’s traditional supporters. And that means she’ll have to win even more votes from the slim pickings available from the Tories. This risks a ratchet effect where the need to pursue more and more Tory voters pulls the party ever further to the right. Far from being to only candidate who can win, Kendall’s strategy seems the least plausible route to power for Labour in 2020.

The only conceivable way it could work would be if there is a very large pool of non-voters who want a return to something like Blairism and weren’t prepared to make do with Miliband’s Labour or Cameron’s Tories in 2015. But I don’t see any evidence for that. And, in any case, Kendall supporters generally dismiss going after non-voters (at least when it’s suggested by Jeremy Corbyn supporters) as a “non-starter”.

I really hope Liz can come up with something else, because in many ways she’s the most engaging candidate: relatively untainted by the Blair-Brown years, brave, tough, committed, open to new ideas and likely to give Labour the kind of collegiate leadership it needs now (whether she wants to or not). Perhaps Liz can conjure up some of that political magic which can occasionally confound electoral arithmetic. She might still be worth a try. But if you base your appeal mainly on being able to win the election, having an electoral strategy that doesn’t seem to work seems like a big drawback.

Labour leadership candidates declared at 15 May 2015: Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh.

Wake up or smell the coffin

The UK, with or without Scotland, now faces permanent Conservative government. Once the Tories have redrawn the constituency boundaries in their favour, it will be virtually impossible for Labour to win a majority in England and Wales on its own, and Scotland is no longer willing to ride to its rescue. Exit poll guru John Curtice says Labour needs at least a 12% lead south of the border to form a majority government – greater even than Tony Blair achieved in 1997 – and that’s without the boundary changes.

Nevertheless, retired Blairites like Peter Mandelson, David Miliband and Alan Milburn insist the party must return to the New Labour strategy of the 1990s. If only it were that simple. The three Ms ought to understand their own project better: New Labour relied on both a two-party system and the existence of a substantial number of “soft” Tories willing to consider voting Labour. That way, Labour could safely move to the right knowing that its “core” support among working class people had nowhere else to go.

To borrow Jim Callaghan’s phrase, I tell you in all candour that that option no longer exists.

First, there aren’t that many soft Tories. The Conservatives polled only 36% in 2015, compared to the 43% in 1992. There are your soft Tories, right there in that 7%. Secondly, move to the right and Labour’s core voters now have other choices. The SNP tsunami in Scotland, the UKIP surge in the north and east of England and the more modest progress of the Greens in the south, shows they’re increasingly willing to exercise them. Slim pickings on the right and leaking votes to the left – pursue the New Labour strategy and the fate of the next Labour leader will look more like Nick Clegg’s than Tony Blair’s.

How does Labour solve this conundrum of having to be both more left-wing and more right-wing at the same time?

I don’t know. Perhaps someone can work out a programme that will be both convincing to working class voters and credible to the Tory-leaning middle classes. Perhaps the Tories will tear themselves to pieces over Europe and people will flock back to Labour. Perhaps a spectacularly charismatic new Labour leader will generate such enthusiasm that all these dilemmas and past disappointments will be swept aside. Perhaps if all three of these things happen, Labour will be able to win next time. But I doubt it. And I bet you do too.

So let’s look at this another way. Labour can’t solve the conundrum, but maybe it doesn’t have to. The conundrum isn’t the problem. The problem is Labour.

The Tory MEP Daniel Hannan said something very important on the BBC last Friday. He said people have stopped seeing Labour as part of the British radical tradition and now see the party as “something narrow” and Labour politicians as “just in it for themselves”. He’s right. Since the election, Labour politicians have been talking about Britain as if it was a political party with a small country attached.

Stop it! I’m sick and tired of hearing about how “only Labour can” save the NHS, solve the housing crisis, end poverty and deliver a better life for working people. As we’ve seen, all too often Labour can’t. And if I’m sick and tired of hearing it, you can bet your last penny working people are fed up with hearing it too.

I love the Labour party (I’ve been a member for 30 years) and the labour movement (ditto), but they aren’t the the only progressive forces in the country. We face a daunting task in opposing the Tories’ ruthless programme, which seems to be nothing less than reimposing the plutocratic rule of the pre-democratic era. To stop them we will have to take on and beat the most powerful alliance of right-wing forces we’ve ever seen: global financial capitalism, a ferocious right-wing media controlled from abroad and a deeply-rooted Conservative party establishment, which extends into most areas of national life. Yes, the coalition of opposition we could range against them is formidable too. But only some of it is in the Labour party and the wider labour movement. Labour can’t do this on its own. And it shouldn’t try to.

Instead, we need some sort progressive alliance of all the anti-Tory forces in the country. We need to get a government elected that will introduce a fair voting system so we can – for the first time – elect a parliament that actually represents us. This is no time to be tribal, narrow-minded or cynically detached from electoral politics. The alliance needs to stretch from the Liberal Democrats through Labour, Plaid and the SNP, to the Greens. At a minimum, would it really be that hard to come to some arrangement that would allow Labour supporters to vote for Caroline Lucas with a clear conscience or save social democrats like Vince Cable from defeat by another Tory?

I know I might lose some of you here, but we also need to reach out to UKIP, or at least the millions of working people who voted for them. UKIP’s support for PR is self-interested, but that doesn’t make it any less justified. A single seat is an insult to the four million people who voted for them and the left shouldn’t be afraid of saying so.

But a progressive alliance or popular front is about more than a pact between political parties. It has to include anyone who rejects the Tory vision of a society based entirely on market relationships, where working people are just hamsters on a wheel in a global race that ever ends, where nothing humans make or do has any value except the profit someone (usually someone else) can extract from it. There are enough things we can agree on – an end to ideological austerity, investment in housing, universal human rights, fairer wages, better rights at work, fair votes, to name but a few – for us to put aside our differences for a few years.

And the same alliance should work together to make the Tories sweat for the next five years and beyond. Progressive politics in this country needs to be much more robust. Too often we’re content to fling statistics around to win the intellectual argument, and then to give in. A progressive alliance needs to link up all the groups around the country who will otherwise spend the next five or ten years campaigning in isolation. We need to win and be seen to be winning. People like winners. They vote for winners.

We can spend the next five years working our socks off in our different parties and campaigning silos, and the odds are we’ll be wasting our time. Or we can try to change our islands for good. The choice is ours, for once, not theirs.

None of this will happen, of course. No Labour leadership candidate will dare whisper his or her nagging fear that Labour can’t win on its own. The collective ego of the labour movement can’t take that kind of honesty. Probably the best we can hope for is a minority Labour government with a pact for voting reform cobbled together after the voting’s done. But if we’re going to do deals, wouldn’t it be better to do them well before the election so everyone knows where they stand? And wouldn’t it be so much better, so much more powerful, if Labour were to grow up at last and take the lead in such a progressive alliance itself?

Yellow peril, turnout wilt and Tory bulge – three more things we didn’t catch

Three other things are worth noting from the weekend’s number crunching. Firstly, the Tories did much better out of the Lib-Dem collapse than Labour. Partly this is because there were far fewer seats for Labour to gain from the Lib-Dems, but also because Labour voters were very unwilling to vote tactically to save a Lib-Dem MP (as some might have done up until 2010). So, ironically, the disdain felt by many Labour voters for the Lib-Dems actually hurt their own party.

Secondly, the dog that didn’t bark – turnout. Everyone was expecting a high turnout but it hardly budged from the 65% in 2010. When we see the detailed analysis, my guess is we’ll see that the much-vaunted surge in young people voting didn’t materialise. I’m not sure where the expectation of a high turnout came from. Perhaps we were taken in by high levels of election activity of social media. We should have realised that people talking about the election on Facebook and Twitter were probably always going to vote.

This election also saw a differential turnout effect – with turnout rising in areas where the Tories were defending a slim majority. We might have hoped this would help Labour; but actually it was Tories turning out en masse to save their Tory MP. Quite simply, the Tory campaign engaged their people much more than Labour engaged theirs. (This should be another warning against an unthinking Labour lurch to the right.)

Finally, there’s our old friend the Tory “bonus”. We need to face the fact that there is a long-term tendency for the polls to underestimate Tory support by about three percentage points. It doesn’t happen in all elections (not in 2010 for example) but it does happen in most – locals and Europeans included. I’ve no idea if this is “shy Tories”, “late swing” or whether it’s just, as former Home Secretary Douglas Hurd suggested on Friday afternoon, a sort of natural English tendency to plump for the “safer”, establishment option, which for middle-ground voters, seems to be the Tories. Even Hurd said this showed the English to be “odd”. Well maybe we are odd but we’re not going to change overnight, so during this parliament I will be adding three points to the Tory poll score and knocking a couple off Labour before drawing any conclusions.

Clowns to the left, jokers to the right

The first step in making sense of this disaster for the left is to work out what happened. Understanding why the pollsters and everyone else misread the voters of English and Wales so badly will help us to work out what we’re going to do next.

First up, the polls didn’t get everything wrong. The scores for the SNP, UKIP, Lib-Dems, Greens and Plaid were more or less bang on. They correctly predicted the SNP landslide and Labour wipe-out in Scotland, even if no one quite believed it. But the polls got the Labour and Tory vote shares badly wrong, even if these were (just about) at the limit of the margins of error. And seat projections based on the polls totally failed to predict the extent of Liberal Democrat losses, especially to the Tories, or how the UKIP vote would hurt Labour so badly by stopping the party from picking up many key marginals from the Conservatives (and significantly reducing its overall vote share).

This last point is particularly important for Labour to get to grips with. It looks to me like we have vastly underestimated the loss of Labour and potential-Labour voters to UKIP over the last couple of years. These voters were probably telling pollsters they were undecided (which may have been true at the time they were asked, although the existence of “shy UKIP” voters seems plausible to me). I suspect many of these people were floating around between voting Labour (with little enthusiasm), UKIP, some other fringe party or not voting at all. Where UKIP seemed to be doing well, they went over to UKIP because Farage engaged them and Ed Miliband didn’t.

This would certainly explain UKIP’s unexpected surge to come within a whisker of nicking Heywood and Middleton from Labour in last year’s by-election. This, with hindsight, was much more of a straw in the wind than Rochester or Clacton. It might also explain the unexpectedly good showing on Thursday by UKIP in some Labour heartland seats, particularly in the north and east of England.

These voters – mostly working class, white and in insecure low-paid employment, have a disaffection from Labour stretching back into the Brown/Blair days. They have little stake in the system and so are easy prey for UKIP. They’re not worried by Farage’s clowning around or UKIP’s incoherent policies, because they think the political system’s broken anyway. They’re receptive to the idea that the EU and mass immigration are at least plausible explanations for their problems. Yes, some are probably racist, some are at least prejudiced. Most feel uneasy and insecure, and can’t see anyone else offering much by way of solutions. Reading James Meek’s excellent accounts of his forays into “Farageland” in Grimsby and Kent, could have told us much more than looking at the polls (warning: these essays are long but hard to put down).

My guess is we will find that a lot of these voters, alarmed by the SNP scare but unable to bring themselves to vote Tory, plumped for UKIP over the last couple of weeks. They were probably showing up in the polls as “undecided” or “weak Labour”. UKIP performed in line with the polls, so my guess is these “left-wing” Ukippers were offset by “right-wing” Ukippers (mostly ex-Tories) backing the Conservatives in order to avoid splitting the right-wing vote and letting in the Red-Tartan menace.

It’s important to remember that these ex-core Labour voters exist in every constituency, not just in Labour heartlands (yes, there are even some working class people in Surrey). There are certainly quite a lot of them in Tory-Labour marginals. In quite a few seats, they might have made the difference between Labour taking the seat from the Tories and falling a few hundred or a few thousand short (as happened all over the place). This would certainly explain why the UKIP vote was higher than expected in many key marginals but didn’t seem to hurt the Tories much. And for every one of these ex-Labour voters who voted UKIP, there are probably another two or three who felt the same but just stayed at home.

Labour really needs to get this before it plunges into the usual tug-of-war over whether it lost because it was “too right wing” or “too left wing”. For these voters, it was both. For what it’s worth, my view is that Labour lost because it was both not credible and not convincing. On the right, for middle ground voters, Labour’s economic programme wasn’t credible and the two Eds were not seen as credible alternatives to Cameron and Osborne. At the same time, on the left, it failed to convince working class voters who are seriously alienated from the political system (and from civic life generally) that it was going to do anything worthwhile for them.

Like Britpop nostalgists, Old Blairites like Peter Mandelson want to rehash all the old tunes from the 1990s, as if we still live in the comforting world of the old two party system (and they call themselves modernisers!) Putting all your energy into chasing after “soft” Tories doesn’t make much sense when there aren’t many of them (Cameron got 36% of the vote, John Major got 43% in 1992) and your core vote is slipping away faster than you can say Nick Robinson.

The idea that the millions of working class voters who voted for UKIP are really crying out for another Tony Blair is ridiculous. Yes, they may have voted for a nominally “right-wing” party, but their issues are ones left-wingers should have engraved on their hearts – jobs, housing, poverty, perpetual insecurity – as well as complex feelings about English identity and culture which are outside the conventional left-right framework. In the 1990s, these voters had no other choice than to vote Labour or stay at home. Now they do.

George Lakoff

Why are we still letting the right win?

Thinking about this election campaign and what might happen afterwards, I dug out this interview given by the American professor George Lakoff to the Guardian’s Zoe Williams back in February. It’s well worth a read if you want to know why the left has been generally losing the argument for the last 35 years.

Lakoff’s field is cognitive linguistics and his thing is “framing”. From what I can see this basically means the set of values we use to make sense of the world around us. They determine how we respond to events in our personal lives and well as things happening in the news. Frames “structure our ideas and concepts, they shape the way we reason… For the most part, our use of frames is unconscious and automatic,” says Lakoff. When we come across an idea that fits our frames, it strikes us as “common sense”. And in the long term political arguments are won by those who get most people to see their views as common sense.

Although he calls himself a “liberal” (US version), Lakoff is hyper-critical of both the American and European left. He reckons that by continually compromising with conservatives in spurious pursuit of the “middle ground” (which he says in value terms doesn’t exist — left and right are just two different ways of looking at the world), we are allowing politics to be shifted ever further to the right. Lefties are literally conniving with right-wingers in widening inequality, eroding human rights, trashing the planet and inflaming racial and national hatreds.

The left relies too heavily on reasoned argument and empirical evidence, when most people make political judgements on gut instincts about the world. Lakoff calls this emphasis on evidence, research and statistics (all produced within the framework set by global free market capitalism, of course) “Oxford philosophy”. Too often, the left ignores the emotional impact of political argument. Conservatives know this; they ruthlessly exploit emotion and present arguments that chime with people’s feelings. “Conservatives don’t follow the polls, they want to change them,” says Lakoff. “Oxford philosophy is killing the world.”

We’ve seen this during the British election campaign. Early on, the Tories’ blizzard of statistics purporting to show an “economic miracle” left voters cold and a bit mystified. The Tories panicked and spent a week trying to be more Labour than Labour with promises to splurge cash on the NHS and freeze rail fares. That didn’t work either – because it wasn’t credible coming from them. Finally, they reverted to what they do best: a highly emotional appeal to English nationalism coupled with lurid scare stories about the red and tartan menace about take over Britain. Everyone agrees that achieved “cut through” with voters, even if the Tories’ credibility is so shot that it doesn’t seem to have shifted many actual votes. But it did at least stabilise a campaign which seemed to be in meltdown three weeks ago.

One of the features of this later phase of the Tory campaign is the way they have stopped responding to arguments based on statistics at all: they just ignore them and press on with their emotional case. Household incomes down since 2010? “Alex Salmond is going to pick your pocket”. Record use of food banks? “The Labour recession.” Unbelievable cuts on the way? “Benefit scroungers.” Debt higher than in 2010? “Labour chaos! Greece! Jockalypse!” It ain’t pretty, it ain’t fair, but there’s a coherent message for people to respond to (think about how a novel can be completely coherent even though it’s all made up): Labour caused the recession. Labour spent too much of your money. Labour will do it again, aided and abetted by the SNP, who also want to steal your money. They want to break up the country. They’ll sell us out to Europe, and so on. Yes, it’s bollocks, but it’s coherent bollocks.

Labour has mostly tried to unpick the Tory case bit by bit – the recession was global, the deficit wasn’t that high by international standards, our plans are fully costed and set out in our manifesto and carved on a slab of stone we’re going to stick in the Downing Street garden – rather than make a coherent emotional appeal itself.

François Mitterrand speaking at Caen during the 1981 presidential campaign.

François Mitterrand wasn’t particularly left-wing but succeeded in making an emotional connection with voters.

Labour could say boldly that a decent welfare state is the cornerstone of a civilised society, especially in an uncertain globalised economy; it could argue that the recession was the product of decades of craven accommodation to the financial markets, pointing out how those markets can, in François Mitterrand’s memorable words, “ruin the work of millions of men and women in a few hours”; it could argue that public spending and collective endeavour built the world’s best universities, developed the internet, and established the world’s most successful universal healthcare system and the world’s most respected broadcaster (not to mention defeated the Nazis). When Labour has made some headway in this campaign, it’s been by making these emotional appeals rather than fighting on the Conservatives’ home ground.

For Lakoff, Tony Blair’s “third way” was just a symptom of the left’s confusion. We’re supposed to be against inequality but we’ve pursued free market policies which widened inequalities. We’re supposed to be against racism and xenophobia, but we’ve competed with Tories over who can be nastier to immigrants. We’re supposed to be against rampant corporate greed, but we’ve encouraged financial and property speculation and and let some very wealthy businesses pass their tax obligations onto working people. This isn’t compromise or moderation, it’s just weakness and incoherence.

And too often the left opposes the right in purely instrumental terms. We oppose benefit cuts by arguing the toss over the extent of the abuses. Instead we should be defending the principle of a welfare state and the values behind it — equality, human dignity, maintaining stable families and communities (remember when it was, rightly, called “social security”?) When the right attacks unions, we point out how far unions have been reformed, how little threat they pose to the oligarchs who control the global economy, how the “red menace” has been exaggerated. Instead, we should be asking how else working people are to supposed to get a fair day’s pay for a long day’s work.

This doesn’t mean a lurch to the left in policy terms. It’s more about emphasising what you stand for rather than the compromises you will inevitably have to make. There is a moral and emotional case for moderate social democracy as well as for more exotic forms of leftism. Labour’s policies in this election are actually more distinct from the Tories than at any time since 1992, but you’d never know it because the argument has been mostly about responding to what the Tories say is important. Which leads Labour wide open to allegations from nationalists and Greens that it’s betrayed working class voters.

If you think back over the last five years, it’s still much easier to grasp what the Tories stand for than what Labour is all about. From their campaign, you’d never guess the Tories have been in coalition and have achieved almost none of the objectives they set out in 2010. They’ve stuck to talking about what they stand for and what they’re against. Labour, on the other hand, has spent most the campaign talking about what they won’t do. That silly stone apart, Miliband’s done it quite well, but Labour had ceded too much ground before the campaign begun. It can take years for political ideas to resonate with the public: people didn’t really “get” Thatcherism until about 1985.

Lakoff’s argument doesn’t so much explain why Labour doesn’t win elections as why it fails to lay the foundations for future victories and build up the kind of loyalty that can see you through rough times. And it may explain why the left has to keep fighting the same battles over and over again.

Tenement tales

Here’s a quick thought on Labour’s plans for rent controls.

Existing private landlords are presumably making a profit. If they’re not, they wouldn’t be in business or would already be in the process of withdrawing their properties from the market. So, if they’re making a profit at current rents and are still allowed to raise them by inflation, they’ll still be making a profit next year. In fact, in real terms, they’ll be making the same profit as this year. And the same the year after that. So why would they withdraw from the rental market? Would they prefer to make nothing at all than the same – presumably satisfactory – level of profit they’re making already?

The argument that rent controls will always reduce the supply of property is based on the fantasy that we have a perfectly functioning market for rental property where landlords are just about breaking even. If we did, then aggressive rent controls might force some landlords out of the business. But does anyone seriously think we live in that world?

Tory views on the rental market are about as realistic as monopoly board prices.

Tory views on the rental market are about as realistic as monopoly board prices.

In any case, Labour isn’t proposing to set rent levels, cut rents or even freeze them, just to limit rent rises to inflation for three years. In other words, to protect the profits landlords are making already. So the Tories are asking us to accept the deeply stupid argument that private landlords are making losses and just haven’t got round to adjusting their rents yet. They seem to think it’s landlords, not tenants, who are struggling to make ends meet.

What Labour’s controls will do is stop some landlords exploiting the housing shortage and people’s desperation to stay in their own homes by jacking up rents way above inflation, often with little or no notice. The balance of power in the rental market is very unequal, as anyone who’s tried renting in the last 30 years knows only too well. So who are the Conservatives really protecting here?

Two other points: first, most other Western countries use some form of rent control, including France, Germany and many parts of America. And housing for rent is generally much cheaper and more plentiful there than it is here. Second, rent controls are massively popular – a recent poll showed supporters outnumbering opponents by more than eight to one. If I were Ed, I’d stick with this one.