The Labour Party is in flux. Following its defeat in last week’s general election, arguments are raging within the party about why it lost—and what it needs to do to win again.
The election wascontradictory for Labour. On one hand, it was thrown out of government and lost one million votes since 2005.
On the other, Labour took control of a number of councils and many left wing Labour MPs saw their votes rise.
In the ten days following the election, 12,000 people joined the party in response to the Tories taking office and the Lib Dems shedding their radical plumage.
While there is some mumbling over the Iraq war and Labour being too friendly to the bosses, the most common explanation, inside the party, for its defeat is that the party was too left wing for its working class base.
Some say this disconnection is over issues such as immigration and benefits. This is being used to turn some dubious facts into a rightward moving Labour orthodoxy.
A string of leading Labour figures have said that workers were angry because of the “unfairness” of immigrants
getting jobs and services, and people on benefits “living an easy life”.
For instance, as Ed Miliband threw his hat into the ring for the election for Labour leader last Saturday. He said Labour had “lost touch with the values that made us a progressive force”.
Unfortunately, many of his conclusions about how to recapture support were far from progressive.
He described immigration as “a class issue”.
He did not mean that workers who were born here should unite in common cause with immigrant workers.
He meant that immigrants undermined wages and Labour needed to identify with such “concerns” to win back the white manual working class to Labour.
Miliband also signalled that Labour should be harder on those claiming incapacity benefit. He argued that had led to resentment by those in work towards “people who can work but don’t”.
He argued the welfare state must be about “contribution as well as need”.
This is becoming the consensus of what was wrong with Labour. In fact it is not that the party was to the left of workers over immigration, it was that the government pandered to every prejudice of the right wing media.
For instance, Gordon Brown’s first speech as leader to the Labour Party conference raised the poisonous slogan of “British jobs for British workers”.
But in any case the decline of Labour has much deeper roots than scares about immigration and benefits.
In 1997 Labour won 13.5 million votes and 418 MPs. Thirteen years later it had lost five million of those votes and was reduced to 258 seats.
Nearly three million votes disapeared between 1997 and 2001.
This was because Labour stuck to Tory spending limits for two years and left the NHS to rot.
It refused to renationalise the railways and brought in tuition fees for university students.
In 2001 workers did not vote Tory in response—but millions stayed away from the polls altogether as turnout slumped to 58 percent.
“Things can only get better,” Labour’s campaign song from 1997, became “Things can only get bitter” for many.
The war in Iraq sealed this process.
If there is a single act that drove votes away it was Tony Blair acting as George Bush’s attack dog.
The main fury was directed at the lies and hypocrisy that underpinned the bloody war.
Millions took to the streets against the slaughter, but Blair was not for turning.
Many of those who marched turned their back on New Labour.
But the war also summed up a wider mood that Labour’s priorities were all wrong, that it had become the party of big business and of being “intensely relaxed about the filthy rich”, as Peter Mandelson put it.
Anger against the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, combined with frustration at Labour’s failure to improve working people’s lives, lie behind its defeat.
In the end the fear of the Tories and, for some, the memory of Margaret Thatcher, saved Labour from a much worse one. But the disillusion was strong enough to sweep Labour from office.
New Labour has followed the same pattern of hopes dashed as earlier Labour governments.