Monday, 27 July 2015

How on earth did Labour sink so low?


Recall 2001 for a moment. The Labour Party, under Tony Blair, had just won its second landslide election victory. The Conservatives were a laughing stock. They'd just lost badly under an unelectable leader, and were about to pick another one in the shape of Iain Duncan Smith. The economy was humming along. The Prime Minister was pretty popular, especially given that he'd been in office for more than four years. All seemed set fair in the best of all possible Labourites worlds.

Scroll forward just fourteen years, and the party is seriously considering electing a leader - in the shape of Jeremy Corbyn (above) - whose views will assuredly mean winding up the party as a national force, and might even bring its hundred or so years of existence to a close via a series of convoluted Westminster confrontations, plots, coups and counter-coups that will make the fratricidal bloodletting of the early 1980s look like a warm and fuzzy love-in.

How did it all go so wrong? We thought that the best thing a historian could do would be to outline the ten moments when history turned against Labour, and brought it to where it stands today - on a thirtieth story windowsill, wondering whether to jump off or not. So here goes:

1. The Iraq War. The major element of the public's recent disillusionment with politics is the Iraq War. Now, voters were very disillusioned with politics in the 1990s as well, as a wave of Conservative 'sleaze' allegations hit a tired and not-particularly-competent government that had clearly run out of time. But New Labour's advent had, at least as measured in polls and social attitude surveys, done much to resuscitate Britons' faith in their leaders. Well, Tony Blair decided to take all that political and moral capital and chuck it on a bonfire marked 'stay close to the Americans'. He said that he wanted a second vote at the United Nations. He didn't get it. He said that there were WMDs in Iraq. There weren't. He said that he had evidence. Some of it turned out to be of questionable depth and veracity. It was a disaster of British governance akin to Suez in 1956: searing, for a whole generation, and especially for young people who saw that their leaders could not necessarily be trusted. And it did much to undermine faith in New Labour as a whole, and to bring the Blair era in No. 10 to an end.

2. David Cameron becomes Conservative leader. David Cameron is a deeply disingenuous and lucky leader - rather like Margaret Thatcher, actually, another enormously successful politician. In order to win the premiership, he said that he would lead 'the greenest government ever'. He hasn't. He said that he would govern as a 'compassionate conservative'. That didn't work out, either. He thought about all sorts of radical and counter-intuitive departures from mainstream Thatcherite thinking: witness his 'Big Society', all but forgotten now, but at the centre of the ill-fated 2010 Conservative campaign that tried to offer too much, too confusingly. Almost everything he started off saying has been junked. But you know what? It doesn't matter. Hug-a-hoodie and ride-a-husky are so deeply imprinted on the public mind - as are, to be fair, the Prime Minister's deep experience of the NHS given his son's illness - that he can do whatever he likes to public services and many voters will simply think 'that David Cameron, he's all right really'. Unfair, of course: also true. His election, from nowhere really and against the 'big beast' of David Davis from the Right of the party, was less than inevitable. He sealed it, really, with one single impressive speech. Had he not, the whole of the next ten years would have looked different: the chance election of a credible alternative to Labour changed everything.

3. The Brown premiership. Gordon Brown is a brilliant and impressive man, whether it's campaigning for child literacy in the developing world or speechifying about the dangers of Scottish independence. Unfortunately, he had nothing like the skill set to be Prime Minister in an era of hour-by-hour news cycles - and when electors, fairly or unfairly, expect their leaders to be able to emote and sympathise with them. His unchallenged rise to the top, scaring off possible rivals such as John Reid or David Miliband, meant that Labour lacked a really credible leader who could enthuse and convince the public. Now that actually turned out well for the world economy, because the G8 had someone on the bridge who actually knew what they were doing and talking about when the crisis hit in 2007-2008, but it was a terrible shame for Labour, support for which sat in something like suspended animation, just waiting for something better (or just credible) to turn up.

4. The election that never was. For a few months in 2007, Labour had the Conservatives on the run. The banking crisis, though looming ominously, hadn't yet broken; not-being-Tony-Blair, and a few well-chosen 'father of the nation' interventions, had made Gordon Brown pretty popular, on the whole. Labour Special Advisors strutted around behaving as if they would own the political world for decades to come - which they might have done. The natural honeymoon period meant that Labour could and should have held a General Election to give Brown his own mandate. They, and he, bottled it. Private polling showed that Labour might not hold on even to its majority of sixty or so; Mr Brown feared to look even less popular than Tony Blair had been in 2005, in the wake of the Iraq War. He reversed engines and looked absolutely ridiculous. The Great Clunking Fist had become someone who could be defeated. Who you could stand up to. And, like any feared dictator, once someone laughs, that's it, really.

5. Ed Miliband becomes Labour leader. The Labour Left, and some of its left-leaning trade unions, now sensed weakness. David Miliband, who on several occasions might have seized the crown from Mr Brown, now stood for leader, and won the backing of a majority of party members, MPs, MEPs and socialist societies. Unfortunately for Labour, he was beaten narrowly into second place by his younger brother - one of the least accomplished, and least successful, political leaders of modern times. The unions had already met,  decided that the younger Miliband would be more likely to do their bidding than the elder. They proceeded to break the rules governing elections by mailing out ballot papers wrapped in pro-Ed literature. Labour's left were enthused by Ed. He was a thinker, they said. He'd energise the young and non-voters. Above all, he 'spoke human'. No, he didn't. Or at least not any 'human' that the marginal seat voters of (say) Nuneaton or Carlisle recognised, anyway. His self-indulgence and student debating society leftism took Labour to its third-worst share of the vote ever, and saw it wiped out in large swathes of the UK.

6. The Falkirk imbroglio. Mr Miliband was a reactive leader - he let crises build up, worried about them, and then acted to try to shore up his own position. Thereby pleasing no-one, of course, but we've already made this point under (5). One disaster that he genuinely tried to clean up came in Falkirk, where a long-running party selection battle between a Unite-backed candidate and other party members boiled over into a nasty, poisonous old row straight from the textbook of Old Labour nastiness and street-fighting. In response, Mr Miliband brought Labour's electoral college - under which different parts of the party, for instance the unions, had a set share of the vote - to an end. He thought he'd be ending the 'block vote', spreading democracy. That sort of thing. The reform eventually came with a £3 'registered supporter' idea tagged onto it, whereby anyone could sign up and 'support' Labour - and thus have a vote for its leader. Although the degree of entryism to which Labour is now subject is deeply unclear, there is no doubt that the members of other parties - Liberal Democrats, Conservatives, the Greens, TUSC - are now registered, and will have a vote within a party whose values and ideology they do not share. It's a list of unintended but self-inflicted wounds that might never have happened if the party had been firmer in Falkirk from the start.

7. The Scottish independence referendum. Here we can be more understanding. Labour genuinely thought that a united front with all pro-Union parties would look good and seem smart in an era of nice, consensual, inclusive coalition politics. That was naive, but you can see where they were coming from. Unfortunately for Labour, politics never has been and never will be like this - at least not in the confrontational UK, and especially not in Scotland, where the Scottish National Party and Labour have been at each other's throats in a do-or-die battle for decades. What Labour's 'no' campaign achieved was therefore to make it look like they were 'close to the Tories', and all those 'Tory lite', 'they're all the same' and 'Westminster politics' jibes hit home all the harder. Saying 'you can't keep your own currency if you leave', and in concert with George Osborne, isn't the way to endear yourself to voters who've been Labour all their lives. Put that together with a good dose of buyer's remorse, when Scots began to feel as if perhaps they should have been a bit braver and put their crosses next to 'yes', and you had an electoral tsunami that Labour could do absolutely nothing about.

8. Labour's 2015 campaign. If Labour's Scottish retreat was a bit of an understandable balls-up, their 2015 General Election campaign was a total and utter horlicks. It tried to be all things to all voters. Tough on immigration? Oh yes. In favour of asylum and immigration rights? Yes, we're that too. Against cuts? Yep. For fiscal responsibility? Oh yes, we don't want to spend much more. Localist? You bet - we'll fight for you. Except, oh, actually, we don't have any really well worked-out plans for (say) Cornish or North-Eastern or city devolution. Mr Miliband's team thought that they could treat the vote like chunks of Lego. Take off seven or eight per cent of the electorate who'd previously voted for the Liberal Democrats but who leaned to the Left, and you were home and hosed. Unfortunately, if you tack and turn and hum and haw, and you've got a leader who the public never liked and never even wanted to warm to, then that won't work because you'll lose loads of votes - to UKIP and the Conservatives probably a shade more than to the Greens and the SNP, before anyone starts to speak up for the case that Labour was 'too Right-wing', thank you very much.

9. MPs allow Corbyn onto the ballot. Undoubtedly the most bone-headed disaster of the lot here was the decision of many Labour MPs to support Mr Corbyn's nomination for party leader - even though they don't agree with a word of what he says. Now actually this is - as they said at the time - 'good for democracy' and 'good for debate'. At least Labour is having it out, at last, after years of living in denial under Mr Miliband. The youthful enthusiasm of many of Mr Corbyn's supporters is something to behold, and on the whole a pretty good advert for grassroots politics and engagement. But the MPs in question (Margaret Beckett, for instance) now feel pretty foolish, because they've achieved the opposite of what they intended. Labour is now further from power than it was in May, and right now would probably struggle to make it to 200 seats (rather than the 232 seats they actually won back in the spring). Debate is always and forever a good thing - unless the public overhear you, laugh at you, and resolve never to vote for you again.

10. The welfare vote that wasn't. Harriet Harman has a pretty level head and a pretty strong stomach, all things considered. She garnered plenty of plaudits for her interim leadership of Labour after Mr Miliband's self-interested and selfish decision to stand down immediately after the election. All the while, that is, until she made the fateful decision to abstain on the Second Reading of the Government's Welfare Reform Bill. Now put aside the fact that Labour has put down lots of amendments, and indeed voted for its own amendment that night. Place to one side the fact that (despite untruths to the contrary spread on Twitter) the Opposition could never have won the vote anyway. And that Labour will vote against on Third Reading. This decision, borne out of a desire to show voters that Labour at least understood that welfare 'reform' is wildly popular, was political disastrous. It allowed the SNP and - brass neck of all brass necks - the Liberal Democrats, of all people, to pose as Left-wing tribunes of the people by voting against. And it did one other thing. It meant that all of Mr Corbyn's three rivals - Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall - looked both weak and Right-wing. Had Mr Burnham had the spirit to defy the party Whip and vote against, he would almost certainly be in pole position for the leadership right now. He didn't. So the decision is still in deep, deep doubt.

So what's the conclusion? That there's a great deal of chaos in political history. Had one or two - just one or two - of the debacles listed above played out differently, then Mr Corbyn would be nowhere near the leadership of the Labour Party. The idea would be parked exactly where it should be - among the fantastical and unlikely 'what ifs' of history. So think, Labour people: in the list of blunder, malice and aforethought above, who and what is it that's brought us to this place? Why are we here? Because Labour really needs to machine-gun itself in the face, or because it's stumbled into a hole of its own and others' making?

Think. Think about the implications of that question, before it's too late.

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