Dear Ed… on Labour losing the general election

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Dear Ed,

I too am sorry at your resignation letter in my in-box. I went to bed hoping the exit polls were wrong, but woke to grim news of another five Conservative years. And now talk flies that Labour went too far to the left, that they failed to convince those who then went and voted UKIP. We’ve been here before. Labour pushed into worrying they’ve become too left-wing. They worry before an election it will put off nervous voters; and they worry after an election that it did put them off. But when does Labour worry that they haven’t been left-wing enough? When do they pay attention to radicals who can’t bring themselves to vote Labour or who grit their teeth while doing so (fearing that to do otherwise, to vote their beliefs, might indulgently remove a much needed brick from the edifice keeping the right out of power)?

I’m not saying scooping up left votes would have brought Labour into power – if indeed “going into power” still describes forming a national government. But it speaks to the wider question, which is Labour’s perennial question, of where to situate itself – when some, inside the party and out, expect Labour to be properly socialist, while others expect no more than liberal social democracy. Labour prides itself on being a “broad church”, but this too often means it fudges the kind of social transformation it seeks. Terms such as progress and social justice, fairness and equality, appeal, but they don’t add clarity. What would an equal, socially just society, in Labour terms, look like – I have no idea.

Yes, I can understand the many reasons Labour, during an election, doesn’t rush to spell it out, banking people will fill these hopeful terms with their own beliefs and commitments.  Because, Ed, if I can call you that (since in the mass circulation electronic letters from Labour HQ we are both on first name terms), Labour has always reacted to people’s beliefs and ideologies as it finds them. It does a lot of polling and focus groups to uncover what it is people want, think and say, and then it frames its policies to appeal.

This is not a good way of doing politics – ideologically or practically. Voters don’t necessarily want their beliefs and preferences simplistically reflected back; or at least they don’t always vote for them. Margaret Thatcher’s appeal lay in the fact she had a bold vision that she was prepared to pursue despite it being unpopular. Many people found this captivating and convincing.

More importantly, treating polling data as a policy guide produces a scatter-gun effect in which shards of policy fail to cohere. Instead we have a list of discrete promises, but no sense of how they join up, either as a vision of a transformed future or as a critique of the present.

However good individual promises may be, like pens in a cup, they have no resilience or impact – one is added, one is taken away, nothing much changes.

Two challenges present themselves.

How can an organisation, like the Labour Party, help change prevailing understandings? By election-time, it’s too late to win arguments over immigration, armaments, welfare spending, and taxation.  (And, of course, they may not best be won as arguments; people’s views change but often from more indirect or practical influences.) Labour could be thinking now about what it needs to do to support and develop a longer-term movement for progressive politics; what conditions need to be in place for people to become politically generous, particularly towards those, in Britain and overseas, whose lives have grown precarious? What social and cultural materials are available – from arts to education to local governance initiatives – from which to grow support, inspiration and imagination for other worlds?

This involves working with others. What surfaced so troublingly in this election campaign was Labour’s public unwillingness to collaborate with other progressive forces – SNP, Green, PC, the smaller parties of the left. Watching this explicitly unfold during an electoral debate where you, Ed, repeatedly rejected the invitation to become part of a progressive coalition seemed to make a lie of Labour’s reiterated claims that we are all in this together.

Is it the fear of looking weak and less masterful that holds you and other Labour leaders back? And is it this same logic which led you, Ed, in email and on television, to say that you “take full responsibility for the result of the election” as if you entirely controlled all the forces at play. Surely, politics is a far more collaborative, socially embedded process. And surely, it should be. We have grown used to the language of war routinely expressed by politicians – of fights well fought, defeats sorely faced and the joys of victory, but political leaders aren’t generals. Labour’s future as a progressive party depends, I think, on moving away from this authoritarian, isolationist model.

Second, Labour needs to revisit its ideological foundations and make some decisions. What kind of social relations does it seek? How does it understand the global economy and the place of economic relations in our world? Labour has often claimed not to be a party of ideology. Yet, while it tends to skate the surface of critique and vision, it routinely produces its own normalised common-sense.

Consistently, during the election, Ed, you and others spoke to and on behalf of “hard-working families”. Like the middle-class, consistently addressed in the US elections by Obama, these hard-working families became the ground on which all promises were laid.  In some ways, this address was a strange choice given levels of under-employment, people residing without children or partners, and the growing cohort of pensioners. But aside from sweeping aside those of us who remain outsiders to this category, what also went unchallenged was the assumption people should work hard. But why should a progressive party value hard work, especially when jobs are unfulfilling, dangerous and sometimes degrading? Is it because only reproducers of the next generation who avidly sell their labour power deserve to be recognised and rewarded?

Has a liveable life itself become a reward?

Labour often gravitates towards a discourse of the deserving, and maybe this is its underlying ideological belief. If so, I and I think others would like to know.

Among the emailed letters I routinely get from Labour HQ, I have been offered the chance of meeting Lord Sugar (in return for a donation), encouraged to check out how many other people are called Davina in the electoral register, the chance to create a personalised version of the Labour manifesto in thirty seconds, a prompt to click to find my Tory kick-out count, and generally addressed in terms that wouldn’t be out of place in a tabloid paper. Labour, nationally, doesn’t treat its members as having nuanced political outlooks and it doesn’t encourage their development. Instead, it’s become a supporters’ club.

Labour has become a team – our team – that we support and cheer for. We want it to win; we’re glad when our opponents – whether Green, SNP, or UKIP – lose. We are “one nation politics”, “one nation Britain”, opposed to the country’s dismantling, and patriotically confident ours is the best in the world.

Or not.

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3 thoughts on “Dear Ed… on Labour losing the general election

  1. As usual, you have made a succinct and relevant precis of the key factors emanating from the election outcome! Another problem might be that the Labour Party has been led by a gang of well meaning but ultimately self-seeking and advantaged people who have little phenomenological knowledge of the lived-in experience of most of those they think they represent. Thus there is no real attachment between them and us other than slogans of concern. The supporters club you mention would possibly be composed of those of us who still remember the long gone sense of belonging and identification we had,coming out of the accidental experience of community that came out of conscription in the Second World War, which temporarily dissolved the class barriers and gave a real experience of equal joint endeavour to many participants. Nostalgia does not win elections…….
    In those days, the idea of trying to artificially discriminate between an artificially constructed idea of hardworking people and “Others” would have ben met with astonishment and disbelief.
    Do we not have to start from the bottom again, with an authentic dialogue about the real nature of our lives (including the virtual, paradoxically) which can allow us to re-attach to each other again?
    Thanks for your stimulation, and let’s keep on talking!
    Peter Leviné

  2. I agree with your thoughts, Davina. I don’t think Miliband’s lack of gumption was limited to the campaign, though. As leader of the opposition, one might of thought his opinions would have been stronger, his voice louder and his vision clearer. Alas, like many, I found it hard to discern what he actually believed in. His ideology, and by implication the ideology of his party, has had one clear message since 2010– to disagree with the Conservatives but offer no real alternative. Thus, all we had from Labour is empty rhetoric.

    I think voters are becoming less incline to support a party based on loyalty or because of previous achievements. Coming from a family that has always voted Labour, I was shocked to discover that not one member of my family, including myself, voted red at the recent election. My mother didn’t appreciate the pink ‘Labour for Ladies’ busses (voting Green instead). My father had no faith in a leader that forgot to mention the fiscal deficit in his conference speech (voting yellow instead). My sister, working full time and buying her first house, generally benefited under the blues: additional childcare, help to buy, and the lowering of stamp duty (voting conservative instead). I was stuck. I made a flash decision on the day and voted green. Well, apparently my mother and I were in the majority because the greens won our Hove seat. I think my point is, for the first time we didn’t feel represented by Labour; a feeling a have heard echoed numerous times.

    Labour may well have become a club, but if it is a club, what are they offering their members? How can I benefit? Labour’s vision of a fair, socialist utopia has become aged and frail, relying on the past for its watered-down colours. Who will be charged with recasting this vision? I have no doubt in Harriet Harman’s capabilities… But I do doubt the Unions’. I hope I can return to voting red in 2020. Time will tell.

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