Thursday, 5 March 2015

This is why Labour is losing this election

Well, we're nearly there. Nine weeks today, the polls will only be open for a few more hours in the UK General Election - and politicians will be asked, none too politely, to stop hassling voters for another few years.

But it's an election that's showing up the faultlines in British politics. Like a sudden lightning strike, everything is illuminated: all the cracks and divides, all the follies and foibles.

The first thing that's been illuminated is the precise reason Labour is finding things such tough going. Sure, they're holding off the Conservatives for now, still just about at parity in the opinion polls, and making great hay with such issues as tax avoidance and the Prime Minister's reluctance to take part in one-on-one television debates with Labour leader Ed Miliband (above). But there's no doubt that Labour's long-established lead has now evaporated altogether, and that the party is very likely to trail the Conservatives in both seats and votes come the May election. That's partly because they're about to be administered a historic and catastrophic beating in Scotland, only the scale of which - and whether it leads in short order to another Scottish independence referendum - is now really in doubt.

The Conservatives have much more to spend as we enter the short, formal phase of the campaign. The country will be covered in anti-Labour posters - and you'll get quite a few glossy Conservative flyers through your door if you live in anything like a marginal seat. They also have a great big load of cash stashed in the Treasury, ready to fire from the big bazooka of tax cuts they're going to wheel out in the Budget. They are increasingly confident. Why do you think Mr Cameron is refusing to debate Mr Miliband? It's because he's convinced that he's already won, and all that remains is to count the votes.

We've been heading this way for some time. Back in 2011, we at 'Public Policy and the Past' pointed out that Labour's performance in local (and Welsh and Scottish elections) was way below par. That Labour should be doing much better in the polls than they actually were. Then, in 2013, we ruled out the possibility of a Labour majority government. Late in 2014, we noted how senior Labour figures now approached the very idea of the General Election with dread, rather than a sense of opportunity. Earlier this year, we made the call that it was the Conservatives who were likely to be in power for the next few years. Have a look at pretty much any data-driven model right now. They show that we were right: Labour is just not strong enough to win this election.

But what are the really deep-seated, long-burning reasons for this? Despite popular opinion (and much off-kilter comment), it's not much to do with Labour's rather unpopular leader, failure to eat bacon sandwiches and slightly daft lack of photo opportunity nous notwithstanding. It's much more fundamental than that, and it speaks to the reason why all social democratic parties, across the developed world - but especially in Europe - are struggling to make an impact.

It's because Labour is trying to bridge a vast intellectual gap in tough times. Between the Greens and the Scottish National Party to their Left, and the central weight of most of middle England's swing voters to their Right, there is a fixed gulf. There's not much of a divide between the bulk of actual Scottish and English voters, we should note, but we'll come to that another time.

But Labour is trying to hold on to left-leaning defectors it's gained from the Liberal Democrats while still appealing to 'practically-minded', moderate and apolitical people who don't really think of themselves as having much of an ideology at all. The result is some indistinct messaging. So Labour wants to allow state-run agencies to bid for rail franchises, but it can't back full-on renationalisation. It backs massive new powers for the Scottish Parliament, but not budgetary independence. It will reduce, but not eliminate, austerity. All of those policies may or may not be good ones (mostly they're right, in our view), but they do not have the virtue of clarity. Labour, unlike the SNP and the Greens, cannot say 'we're going to bring austerity to an end'. That's because it might actually have to try to form a government. But unlike the Conservatives, it doesn't want to to put out (and doesn't believe in) a string of platitudes about how great deficit reduction really is. So it ends up trying to be all things to all voters.

Consider this quote from a voter talking as part of one of Lord Ashcroft's focus groups: 'Cameron is cutting council budgets, but is Miliband going to do anything different? So you might as well go for someone who gives you confidence'.

Labour is between a rock and a hard place: more radical left parties menace its flank, but it can't turn aside and fight them without losing a load of voters to its right. Labour can't be Syriza. It can't be a nationalist, leftist liberationist movement. It's too much of a broad church for that. 

It also faces the classic problem of hard times, just as it did when it split in 1931, and its more centrist MPs defected to join the National Government alongside the Conservatives and many of the Liberals: who should bear the brunt of budgetary choices? Where should the money come from, if we want to spend and invest our way out of trouble? And most of all: just how radical can a party that aspires to be truly national really afford to be? Labour in the 'thirties was threatened on its right by a centrist, national-minded, 'progressive' Conservative leader in Stanley Baldwin, and on its left by the Communists and the Independent Labour Party. Well, Mr Cameron is no Stanley Baldwin, that's for sure, but the cruel vice of fate looks rather similar.

At the moment, in trying to avoid or slide over those questions, Labour is stretched to breaking point trying to straddle the entire political spectrum from radical Greens to the most centrist ex-Conservatives in England's suburbs. It's no wonder that the effort bids fair to fail.