16 May 2010

Reflections on the Fabian conference: exploring the wrong reasons for losing

Spent an enjoyable (yes, really) day at the Fabian Society post-election conference at SOAS yesterday. It was billed as the Ed Miliband show, and Ed didn't disappoint, announcing his candidacy for Labour leader. It was a pretty good keynote speech - Ed is an old lag at the DaveCam "strolling round the stage without notes" shtick. He didn't blow the audience away, though. What was weird was that two points, in particular, were stressed as to why Labour lost - and this wasn't just in Ed's speech, but all over the place in the panel sessions:

1. "voters on the doorstep" were worried about immigration;

2. "voters on the doorstep" were worried about an "unfair" tax and benefit system and in particular, lack of conditionality in the benefit system (this wasn't how voters expressed it, obviously, but this is what they meant; people who were getting benefits without doing any work).

Fair enough, but both of those were huge issues in 2005 as well - and Labour still won, albeit narrowly. Personally, I don't buy these issues as the main reason why Labour went from 2% in the lead to a 7% deficit against the Tories in a five year period.

So what's my explanation? A different kind of deficit - the fiscal deficit - is part of it. Mainly because the economic crisis badly damaged Labour's reputation for economic competence - and deservedly so, because Brown, in particular, had spent 10 years telling people that he'd abolished boom and bust. If you rely on a story that turns out to be obvious bullshit, don't be surprised if people turn on you very quickly when you get found out. The next Labour leader should deliver a bottle of champagne to George Osborne, because if it hadn't been for the fact that he was seen as a complete twerp even by most of his own supporters, the Tories would have done a lot better IMHO.

The other, easier-to-fix problem (in fact an already fixed problem) which wasn't mentioned at the Fabian conference yesterday (out of respect to Gordon Brown) is that Brown was, quite simply, fucking awful in an election campaign. With a few honourable exceptions his campaigning style was tired, awkward and offputting. Contenders for the leadership and other commentators are cautioning against blaming the whole result on Brown and I quite agree; but on the other hand, it's important to acknowledge that he was a huge problem. Any of the potential Labour leaders - even Ed Balls - would be vastly more comfortable in the election campaign.

So overall, Ed did OK, and despite efforts by his brother MicroBlair to lay down some frontrunner credentials in the Observer today, it seems to me that the Ed bandwagon is running and will be hard to stop. But he's gonna have to be a lot more specific over the next few months about how to win the next election. Some preliminary suggestions:

  • admitting that Labour got the economy wrong. The Tories were very good at this in their 1974-9 period of opposition; Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher basically junked their entire "post-war-consensus" approach to the economy (which they had supported in Ted Heath's cabinet) and argued that Labour was still stuck with the old model and only the Tories could run the economy effectively. It was largely bollocks - monetarism was a much bigger failure than anything Wilson or Callaghan attempted - but it played well with the voters. The key for Labour is to pigeonhole Coalition economic policies as stuck in the neoliberal orthodoxy that Blair and Brown signed up to. And then offering a more effective alternative to cuts, retrenchment and austerity, based on long-term investment and active industrial policy. (This skips over a lot of stuff that I'll be developing over the next few months).
  • do not degenerate (further than has happened already) into the party that best articulates the concerns of Daily Mail readers. Labour is not going to win the next election by being tougher on benefit "scroungers" or immigration than the Coalition. Partly because the Coalition is going to be extremely tough on both of these (and damage millions of lives in the process). There will not be a lot of space to the right of Iain Duncan Smith on welfare for example, and for Labour to try to live there would be a huge error. Better to promote a benefit system based on a "flexicurity" model; high benefits combined with job search conditions. On immigration, one thing that no-one really acknowledged at the Fabian meeting was that we can't restrict the numbers of workers coming in from central and Eastern Europe (even if we wanted to do so) without, er, leaving the EU? Pushing the coalition towards an ever-more-Eurosceptic stance (and pointing out the absurdity of the Lib Dems for supporting this shit and junking their own, progressive, policies on immigration) is the best way forward. The more Labour can push the Coalition up a UKIP-inspired cul-de-sac the better.
  • Take the reform ball and run hard with it. Political reform and civil liberties are two areas where the Coalition is probably going to be doing some very progressive things, and rather than clinging on to the most unpleasant aspects of the New Labour era, Labour post-2010 needs to challenge the coalition from the left rather than the right. The coalition is offering a referendum on AV? Great, we'll offer one on AV Plus if we get in. The coalition is scrapping ID cards? Great, we'll expand FOI measures. And so on. These areas provide an ideal opportunity to emphasis the differences between past and future Labour.
Anyway that's just some ideas for now. I enjoyed the conference; most of the general public wouldn't have.


Van Patten said...

Good point re: Eastern bloc workers, and it was interesting during 'Bigotgate' that the lady in question referred to 'Eastern Europeans'. One point not made by the Mail et al is that the bubble created by Brown would have imploded far sooner without the trickle of new arrivals which became a flood after May '04. I'd estimate London in particular saw a boom not seen since the 1920's as a result. Things such as domestic servants (in effect), primarily from Poland came back into fashion in a big way for the fashionable Cameronite and New Labour classes.

You are right to point out that the Libdems presence in the coalition makes a mockery of their 'immigrant amnesty'. I think the issue should be over what types of control (if any) should be practised regarding immigration. Believe me when I say that the BNP, for example lack any clue of what a blanket ban on immigration would mean. I have been flamed and personally attacked many times on the telegraph boards by people from that particular rabble because I point out that food would go up in price by around 50% in your local Asda without massive use of Indian and Eastern bloc Labour. Ditto most supermarket produce (Who do they think provides many of the drivers and pickers in the supermarket warehouses?)Nevertheless, I do think we need to have some idea of who is coming and going from and into the country as without it, people traffickers and unscrupulous businesses/organisations flourish in a netherworld, with exploitation rife.

Lest we forget, Enoch Powell (and even one of yer icons Paul Foot pointed out that Powell was amongst other things a stickler for being helpful on an intellectual level, even with those whom he passionately disagreed) was that the immigrants in the 1970's would be used as a fulcrum to change British society by political zealots of whatever hue. Who cannot observe the antics of both the BNP and CRUCIALLY the EHRC/ other professional 'anti racists' without seeing the veracity of this prediction?

Strangely your outlook (and that of the entertaining 'Voller') appears to be of a piece with some quite libertarian right wingers who argue for complete freedom of movement for Labour. I can see the merit in that argument. Where you seem to diverge is in thinking we can have such beings entitled to the full range of welfare benefits on offer without leading the country to bankruptcy - that is the circle you (and the rest of Compass) don't seem to have squared.

Anonymous said...

if there's one thing Boy George needs less of it's champagne