…Now, where we are? Oh yes, that’s right: listening. Really listening. On that note, let’s look again at the themes that emerged from the last General Election, and what they might tell us about the results of the next one.
Here we’ve got a mass of quantitative data, but that’s not really listening to people in all their multifarious guises, is it? And, let’s face it: it can be dull. We know from the opinion polling where Labour lost out last time. It had a leader who no-one could see in No. 10 Downing Street; its economic policies were thought to lack credibility; it was still blamed (in some ways fairly) for the Great Recession of 2008-2010. We don’t need to trawl around all that ground again.
But what we can rake over is some of the qualitative evidence from that contest – some of the language, intuitive understanding, ways of seeing and speaking that are far more important to General Elections (and all political identity) than mere policies and manifestos. Here we’ve got some help, because there’s a welter of focus group evidence from May’s marginal seats to help us explore how real voters perceived the world as they actually saw it. The summarized musings of Lord Ashcroft’s focus groups, published just a couple of weeks ago under the title Pay Me Forty Quid and I’ll Tell You (above), is on its own voluminous. None of it makes comfortable reading for Labour, especially in its new guise as a Left party akin to Syriza, Podemos or Der Linke.
In January, voters from Brighton Kemptown and Solihull (both won by the Conservatives) met and reported the following about Labour’s professed ‘love’ of the National Health Service: ‘they care about it deep down and they would try to do more, but they’re a bit stupid with the money’. When asked about the Greek financial crisis, citizens in Sutton and Elmet expressly did not draw the same lesson as the Left, namely that international bankers and ‘neo-liberal’ governments had strangled a popular political uprising. Instead, they said that the lessons were: ‘don’t borrow too much’ and ‘don’t listen to fake promises’. As Left campaigners discerned a shift in the public mood towards them, swing voters were gathering around David Cameron, a beacon of solidity in what seemed increasingly like a dangerous world of debt and overspending. Instead of looking to Scotland for some sort of left-wing lesson in governance, these English voters felt only resentment, cleverly and nastily tapped into by the Conservatives’ campaign guru, Lynton Crosby. The question they asked was this: ‘why is Scotland so bloody special? Their kids get university for free, they get free prescriptions, and they’re still moaning’.
We could go on. Voters in Loughborough and Sheffield Hallam (Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg’s seat) summed up Labour’s economic pledges with the extremely succinct: ‘where will they get the money from?’ Halesowen and Taunton voters were keen to report their neighbours for benefit fraud, or indeed for receiving ‘more than their due’ (whatever that meant), rather than worrying about the negative impacts of austerity. Both seats voted Conservative. In Stevenage and Southampton Itchen (both, again, won by the Conservatives) voters thought that Ed Miliband’s pitch was ‘all very well, but it doesn’t work like that… Cameron communicates at a number of levels, but with Miliband it’s all up here, talking in theories’. The insecurity of the times helped the Conservatives, not Labour, because it created in voters a desire to hold on to what they had, rather than see it threatened by higher spending and taxes.
What did swing voters in Northampton and Cardiff North think, deep into March? That Mr Miliband ‘wants to appeal to the lowest common denominator. If someone gets something because they work hard, he wants to take if off them and give it to someone else’. And here’s some killer blows to Mr Miliband from Newquay and Plymouth Moor View (both eventual Conservative gains) in April: ‘he’s about spending more money. He’ll run us into debt again’; ‘he doesn’t say how he’s going to pay for it’; ‘they left that note, “there’s no money in the pot”. I saw it on Facebook’.
And what do we read now, when we check in on focus groups chatting about the resurgence of ‘energy’ and membership that Labour people like to boast about? Exactly the same views. Identical stuff. Interest in the apparently untutored, new, rather ragged and somehow authentic person Labour members and supporters have elevated to the office of Leader of the Opposition. And fascination with some ideas that most voters have never heard of – People’s Quantitative Easing, for instance (though that seems now to have been comprehensively binned). But what we can also see is deep, deep concern about the policies that lurk beneath – high spending, economic controls, profligacy with other people’s money, lack of contrition, and behind it all – most fatally, most devastatingly – a sense that Labour’s values (even more than the Conservatives’) somehow do not chime with what it is to be British and to love Britain.
We leave it up to you to imagine how these absolutely crucial voters will have regarded recent controversies about Trident, the anthem, the monarchy, the Privy Council, the Labour leader and Shadow Chancellor’s role in the publication of terrorist-supporting periodicals, and some of the scenes outside the Conservative Party Conference. Or what they might have thought of the idea of a magic money tree sprouting resources for better public services. Or what they probably felt about higher taxes rather than spending cuts serving as the main arm of austerity – which, under John McDonnell as Shadow Chancellor, would now hit them rather than the elderly, the weak and the poor. We don’t need to write too much about this. It’s pretty clear by now how they will perceive the whole thing. Labour will have further accentuated its reputation for fiscal incontinence and incoherence, yes, but (much more importantly) also have further undermined their very identity as trustworthy, competent, credible and even authentically ‘British’ in any way most voters understand it.
That’s an absolutely terrible look to set before any group. To feel as if you want to be part of a collective, to pay into any shared fund, to stand together with others, you have to feel like you’re part of something. Together with other people (or peoples) in a shared endeavour. That’s often what the European Union lacks, and why it totters when it comes to the real crunch moments of decision (think of Greece this past spring and summer). And that sense of fellow feeling is what Labour, with every passing week and each disastrous headline, is walking away from. George Orwell well understood these instincts: the most powerful and persuasive Labour writer of all detested the aridity and theorizing of Left academics for just this reason. Clement Attlee, one of the last men out of Gallipoli, felt this instinctively. The late and lamented Denis Healey, beachmaster at Anzio, knew this. Ernie Bevin and George Brown, union activists who had helped organize Britain for war and peace, felt this in their bones. James Callaghan, a Navy man who never lost what he saw as that Service’s sense of discipline and order, had this carved all the way through him. Michael Foot, warrior against Appeasement, fought in vain against the unfair and malicious claim that he was in some way less than a patriot.
But over the last few weeks, the fatal virus of ‘un-Britishness’ has been splattered all over the name of Labour itself. Entirely unfairly in many ways of course, as we on this blog have taken care to say. Many millions of Britons don’t much care for the National Anthem. Some don’t like the monarchy – and other politicians have treated the Privy Council with far more carelessness than Jeremy Corbyn. But you know what? In case you haven’t noticed, life isn’t fair. To fail to turn this story off, to fail to fight back, is one of the engaging mysteries of politics today. It’s almost as if Labour doesn’t care. Or wants to revel in its unpopularity. Because there may well be millions of people who don’t much like the anthem or the monarch. But there are many, many more (opens as PDF, with figures at the end) for whom these are touchstones of identity, of caring, of sharing, of identity – and, by the way, of their Labourness.
It might even be the case that this ‘new’ Labour Party is not interested in winning elections – or at least not for a long time. As was the case with the Left challenge in the 1970s and 1980s, capturing the commanding heights of party and trade union might be enough. Certainly that’s what recent pronouncements by some trade union leaders, making clear that they were ‘almost’ happy about losing the last General Election, would lead us to think. That’s what the marshalling of parties-within-parties, such as the Left’s Momentum movement and the rumours about mergers or co-operation between the more centrist Labour First and Progress, also portends. Capture the party first, despite the electoral damage; put Leftist views to the electorate; get rejected again and again; but at least conserve ideological purity and the virtues of your own self and your own opinions. And preserve key parts of that agenda for a potential and imagined victory – in the far future. Fair enough, in a way: although it must already have begun to dawn on Labour MPs and activists that this agenda would actually be well served by losing lots of seats next time, removing from the equation many Labour politicians who actually have to speak to middle-of-the-road voters in places such as Slough, Luton or Exeter. If Labour does get pulverized, the Party will be left with only between 130 and 150 MPs: all the better to launch a really hard Left agenda, among elected Labour Members who will then only represent Britain’s inner urban centres and radical university towns.
Let’s face it: Britain could well be coming apart anyway. In the years to come, Labour’s new masters will probably be ambivalent about the European Union, perhaps hastening the UK’s departure from that Union. Scotland will then undoubtedly depart from the UK and join the EU – and, given the size of her fiscal deficit and her need for currency stability, probably the Euro as well. England and Wales will be left floundering in a global world of renewed danger, without berth and without many allies – and without a Labour Party to give popular, patriotic and above all national voice to those who will suffer the most. And why? In part, and tragically, because Labour has stopped listening.