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?

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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.