Sunday, 3 May 2015

Right for the wrong reasons

The Right of the Labour Party has had it in for Ed Miliband since the day he was elected. Because their criticism of him encompasses some things a lot of people agree with, like his failure to connect with the public, it can seem like a 'pragmatic' view based on the 'realities' of Britain. But the Blairite bit of the party, whether it acknowledges it or not, has a quite rigid view of things and I think this leads them to misinterpret Labour's position. They have done during the current campaign and I believe they will do it after the result.

It should be pretty clear to anyone who reads the papers that Blairite commentators - who are over-represented in the media - have been significantly more sceptical about Labour's chances from the outset than many of the rest of us. Unless we think that they are able to interpret polling data better than others that in itself to me suggests a bias (and I accept I too am biased, though in the other direction). What will be interesting is what happens in response to the election result.

As the polls stand, I think Labour will end up behind the Tories on votes and seats, though if the polling is broadly accurate it might be relatively close on both. Labour will have gained both seats and vote share (and the Tories will have lost both) but may well still end up behind. And if that's the outcome it won't be the win we all hoped, and I have no doubt that Blairites will interpret this as evidence that Miliband's programme was flawed, too left-wing rather than pitched at the centre ground etc. So their pessimism will seemingly have been proven correct.

That's why it will be important to understand which votes and seats Labour won, and which it lost. Again, as it stands, Labour's major gains look to be coming in England, but these will be offset by catastrophic losses in Scotland. No-one in the commentariat, as far as I am aware, was predicting the probable meltdown in Scotland which will play such a significant part in Labour's results. If it was not occurring you could add several dozen seats to the Labour total and as a result I think this basically static election campaign would see Labour pretty safe (though probably still short of a majority). Ed would now be thinking about whether to go it alone as a minority Labour government or agree some deal with the Lib Dems.

But, of course, we can't just exclude Scotland. Those seats are going to be lost, and with them go the hopes of Labour having a solid route to Number 10. What is more, this is happening on Miliband's watch, so he must bear at least some responsibility for it. Therefore, for the Blairites to be correct in their overall analysis, presumably Scots are voting SNP rather than Labour because Ed Miliband's programme  is too left-wing, and Scottish Labour should have aimed more at the centre ground.

But that isn't happening. For starters Scots aren't shifting to the Tories or Lib Dems, they are switching to a party which (currently) dresses to the Left. The fact that Jim Murphy has become a born-again socialist and advocate of nationalising ScotRail is all the evidence you need that Scottish Labour sees a major problem in being seen as insufficiently Left.

And for what it's worth I think Labour's part in the Better Together campaign was pitched pretty much in at the centre ground. The main messages I got from watching Alistair Darling were that there was a big question mark over Scotland's use of the pound, and that a lot of major businesses would think about relocating. That isn't to say there wasn't a lot of passion about retaining the Union, but the main lines were about the negative consequences of voting Yes. It was all sensible, sober stuff, and Labour looked and sounded small c conservative.

None of this is to claim that the SNP surge is an inherently Left thing either. I don't understand Scottish politics very well but to me the SNP look like they will say anything to advance their primary objective of independence. Currently that means sounding Left, but if the wind changes so will they. But one thing I am quite confident in is that the SNP surge is not driven by aspirational middle class families who have been put off Labour because of the mansion tax or caps on energy prices.

So, the biggest factor currently driving Labour's likely failure to gain a clear win - the loss of Scottish seats - simply does not bear out the Blairite criticism of the programme under Ed's leadership.

Aside from the SNP, we will also see some form of UKIP surge driven partly by disaffected white working class voters who would have been Labour in the past. It is possible that UKIP manage to get into double figures and displace the Lib Dems as fourth party in terms of votes cast. It is striking that Blairites have tended to be the most sceptical about UKIP's prospects and have already declared them to have 'peaked' several times before they have gone on and notched up bigger wins.

Now it's quite possible that UKIP will under perform on Thursday, but they will be well up on 2010. And if we look at other European countries it seems quite possible to form a relatively stable radical Right vote drawing on formerly socialist/social democratic voters. At the risk of stating the obvious, this is not the centre ground either. In fact, punters place the Lib Dems almost smack bang in the middle. So if this is where elections are won it is surprising that 'centrists' could fall to fifth place behind UKIP. It looks to be the opposite of what the 'focus on the centre ground' approach would expect to happen.

Finally, as I've blogged before, I am very wary of the Blairite argument that Labour under Ed has become too "anti-business". I don't think there is enough of substance to justify this claim, and I worry about the inability of some to grasp that businesses don't always play with a straight bat when commenting on politics. Just because a 'business leader' says a policy is bad news doesn't mean it is a bad policy. And when you hear that former Labour voter telling you that this time it's the SNP, or UKIP, do we really think if Digby Jones had had warm words for the manifesto this would have made it any different?

The Tories have had a few cracks at getting businesses to 'speak out' in this election. To people on the Right of the party it appears to be self-evident that this is bad news for Labour. Personally I am not at all convinced it has done the Tories any good. Some polling suggests that there is a bigger danger in being seen as too close to business, rather than being seen as "anti business". So if lots of punters are wary about the influence of corporate interests on politics, what kind of message does a letter from a bunch of people in big business saying "we support this party" really send? It isn't obviously a good one.

Where does all that leave us? In a mess. British politics is continuing to fragment. It is possible that the combined Labour and Tory share nudges above where it was in 2010, but if so that will largely be about Lib Dem to Labour switchers. It will definitely be the case that the combined Labour, Tory and Liberal share will be down, and, more scarily, the combined Labour-Liberal total will likely be very low compared to previous elections.

These are big long-term challenges for Labour, and solving them is a job for much smarter people than I. But one thing I am sure of - Blairites have largely called it wrong for the past five years. If Ed falls short this week they will have got the result right, but for the wrong reasons. Therefore it is extremely important that Labour in general does not misinterpret the result.

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