The balancing act: Labour needs to get real



After sudden, brutal, unforeseen disasters we seek answers in order to tell ourselves it will never happen again. We expect to be able to halt nature, that with enough will we can protect ourselves from a callous and uncaring world. After the Labour Party’s defeat, as crushing as it was because it was so unexpected, the temptation is there to prescribe a remedy to cure all ills. The SNP’s tartan tsunami washed away the likes of Douglas Alexander, the party’s election chief. UKIP’s purple tornado swirled across left-behind areas of the country Labour would previously have called its heartlands. Meanwhile, Labour could not thaw through the Tory vote in the South, which remained blue as voters gave the prospect of a Miliband government an icy reception. Now that the battle is lost, the war has broken loose within Labour about how to win lost votes with a shift to the right, or the left; or away from metropolitan values or towards them.

But there are wider forces at play which make it hard for the party to find answers whatever they decide. I do not attempt to provide them here. After the crisis it was expected centre-left parties around Europe would be well-placed to benefit. But instead in many countries we have seen a rise in populist, anti-establishment parties, whether they be extreme-right, extreme-left or nationalist.

Such is the case in France; the Front National have been the lightning rod for the stormy political mood. A historically racist party, Marine Le Pen has softened their image (her outspoken father Jean-Marie, founder and ex-leader of the party, has just been suspended after reaffirming his opinion that the Holocaust was “a detail of history” and other views which even this branch of the extreme right consigned to the dustbin of history a long time ago). The party has also moved to the left economically, wanting a strong state to cushion French workers against the uncertainty of globalisation. The Front National are essentially an anti-modernity party – against the EU, against markets, against ‘Americanisation’, against immigration, against social liberalism – but still with a nasty bigoted side. Its war on the ‘Islamification’ of France sounds like a war on French Muslims in general. It is feared Le Pen could make the second round of the Presidential elections in 2017 and even win, were she against François Hollande.

UKIP’s success, particularly among traditional Labour voters in the north of England bears certain similarities. While originally both parties were thought to threaten the centre-right, they now pose a threat to the base of left-wing parties, who are disorientated and destabilised after industrial decline and globalisation and are receptive to criticisms of immigration.

The governing French Socialist Party won on a populist platform in 2012, with Hollande railing against austerity and promising to soak the rich with a top tax rate of 75%. Yet once in power this project came up at odds against the European establishment and the markets, and taking a more pragmatic approach does not seem to have done the party any favours with voters. Hollande’s tone softened and the more liberal Prime Minister Manuel Valls and Finance Minister Emmanuel Macron have embarked on loosening labour regulations. Valls has said employers are “frightened of hiring” because of job market inflexibility; an extraordinary declaration for someone in the French Socialist Party. Hollande’s ratings plummeted as voters saw a weak, powerless leader who had betrayed his promises. This was the danger for Miliband too if he had won. Once forced to execute cuts, the backlash against a Miliband government from left-wing voters and the left of his party could have severely tested his resolve.

Spain offers other parallels for Labour. Positioning itself in contrast to a corrupt elite, Podemos has emerged as a radical alternative to the traditional two-party system made up of the Socialist Party and the Popular Party. It claims to be above the left-right divide, but in reality it is the equivalent of the Green Party in Britain, promising a much bigger state, presumably funded by wildly fantastical levels of tax return. Its surge means it could well be in government (most likely as part of a coalition) by the end of the year. Young voters in Spain see how their generation has been hit worse by the crisis through consigning half of them to unemployment, and the Socialist Party finds itself out-of-touch and part of the establishment.

Many of these continent-wide trends of rejection of the establishment and the embracing of national identity stem from a lack of control in a globalised world. They are trends which would have weighed heavily on Labour, as the traditional centre-left party, whatever the Miliband leadership had done: there were going to be several EdStones hurtling down the hill towards him, as it were, each one engraved with a different manifestation of populism.

The next Labour leader will be confronted with this problem. There are not many votes in telling the electorate that wrapping the flag of nationalism around you – whether the Saltire, the Union Jack or St. George’s cross – just binds your arms and legs and separates you from others; that national governments are to a large extent forced to obey market forces; that open borders are necessary and unavoidable in order to be an active part of Europe and grow the economy. Yet for as long as Labour wants to be a party of power, being dishonest will fail as well. Minor parties can afford to be mendacious and wishy-washy because until they are in power they can always find an answer to any problem that fits their world view. This stops once you have responsibility and can be punished for your actions.

As I said, I provide no answer for Labour. The party must forge a convincing economic narrative, one that concedes the fact that the state cannot master globalisation and market forces, but must instead ride them like a wave.


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