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Asking the Wrong Questions

No, the British Labour Party didn't lose last month because they were too left-wing.

Labour Party leader Ed Miliband makes his resignation speech last month in London. Matt Cardy / Getty Images

The Conservative Party didn’t “win” last month’s election in Britain. They barely even ran a campaign, except for making “woo, scary” noises about the Scottish National Party (SNP). But the Right did. And the dynamic force in 2015 was the UK Independence Party (UKIP).

This is not because UKIP parked its tanks on Labour’s lawn. Like previously successful parties of the radical right, it has achieved some limited degree of cross-class, cross-party support, but the fable about UKIP being the party of the “white working class” cheated by globalization is not supported by the figures. UKIP’s base is overwhelmingly right-wing, disproportionately middle class, and its support includes a significant minority of the capitalist class.

UKIP succeeded because it recognized that the political center was and is in crisis, that the power bloc’s traditional means of maintaining its control of the political process was in some crisis, and that there was a chance for realignment.

Having taken the step of breaking organizationally from the Conservatives some time ago, it was well-placed to consolidate the entire right-of-Tory vote in a single electoral bloc. It used classically populist articulations in doing so, bashing politicians and the media, and in the final run opted to polarize the debate in order to firm up its core vote, rather than reach out to more “moderate” voters.

In the south of England, this meant that most center votes were redistributed from the Liberals to the Tories, and hard-right votes accumulated by UKIP. In the north of England, it meant that UKIP took over from the Tories, the BNP, and the English Democrats, hegemonizing the right-of-center vote and effectively becoming the local Tories.

This is typical in Labour-controlled constituencies — where a party of the far right emerges with some fight, it displaces a moribund and lifeless local Conservative Party. UKIP was entirely ruthless about this. It certainly had to be take into account a degree of moral blackmail about “letting in Labour,” but — the Right not being as tribal, sentimental or timid as the Left — it pursued its course single-mindedly and built a mass base as a result.

In the weeks after the election, UKIP leaders and Labour-supporting journalists alike repeated to anyone who would listen that UKIP had helped the Conservatives by tearing chunks out of the Labour Party in the postindustrial North. This is not what happened.

But what did UKIP did do was to spare the Conservatives the difficult and unpleasant job of having to politicize the election and polarize the debate to the right. The Tories had but one weapon to put Labour on the defensive, and that was the leftover apparatus from “Project Fear.” But ultimately, Scotland isn’t that scary. UKIP had the whole arsenal of anti-multicultural, anti-European, anti-PC, racist, nationalist chauvinism to batter a weak Labour Party with. The Tories didn’t win this; UKIP won it for them.

As for Labour, they “lost” the election. They lost badly. The reason the polls didn’t see this coming was because the polling companies’ methodology did not foresee the extent of abstention on the part of Labour supporters.

Ipsos Mori referred to this process in the market-friendly terminology of “lazy Labour,” but this is to blame voters for the pollsters’ psephological failure, and for Labour’s political failure. ComRes put it more soberly. The voter turnout model was wrong, and they hadn’t factored in the extent to which “less affluent” voters exaggerated their turnout likelihood.

This is also borne out in Ipsos Mori’s post-election polls: the voters grouped as DE (unskilled and unemployed workers, the poorest by and large) in the “social grades” used as a proxy for class by polling companies, were the most likely to support Labour and the least likely to actually vote.

Notably, the voters who abandoned Labour on the day were disproportionately young, from the eighteen to twenty-four bracket, not the aging white males who supposedly fled to UKIP. This was the group among whom Labour had a big lead, but it was also about half as likely to vote as those over sixty-five. So much for the mobilizing pull of “Milibrand.”

Why didn’t the polls anticipate this? My sense is that it’s because they don’t think historically. The historic decline of Labourism, the decimation of the party’s relationship to its base, is not something they would think about until it became visible as a statistical effect — i.e., after the fact. The underlying dynamic was that Labour’s support among working-class voters had declined by about 5 million since 1997, and would continue to decline if nothing was done to reverse the trend.

Miliband overreached in promising not just to stanch the loss but to reverse it; he did not have the means or the politics to do so. His entire strategic orientation was based on the idea of a new left-right synthesis, as a successor to New Labour. The result was a pathetic, blundering opposition followed by an blundering campaign that ended up triangulating UKIP more than the Tories.

Now to the stupid question: did Labour lose for being “too left-wing”? As phrased by the Daily Mail and Liz Kendall, this is indeed a stupid suggestion: but taking it seriously, it does not in fact have a straightforwardly objective answer. It is a strategic question, the answer to which hinges on what kind of coalition you think it is important to build.

There is no evidence to suggest that the Labour supporters who didn’t turn out were in any sense alienated by some moderate energy price-capping policies, any more than they were scandalized by Labour politician Ed Balls’s loony left pledge to not cut spending as ferociously as the Tories. In fact, from what I hear of the coming data, it will show that what social-democratic policies Miliband dared to offer were actually fairly popular; and clearly, they were outflanked on this front by the SNP in Scotland.

But let’s try to put the most charitable and intelligent possible gloss on the “too left-wing” position. Perhaps Labour could in principle be a lot more left-wing and win elections, even with a first-past-the-post system that places a disproportionate emphasis on middle-class swing voters. But it’s not clear that this would be sustainable, because it’s not clear that Labour would be able to deliver on an even moderately left-wing agenda. Social democracy depends on capitalist growth, and there isn’t much to go around.

Even if the old corporatist remedies to induce growth were availing, there isn’t a viable institutional or class basis for them at the moment. Any promises on austerity or spending might just end up being as historically discredited as then–Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg’s “tuition fees” pledge. Better promise nothing and deliver it, than shred your credibility like that.

On top of that, being even a little more left-wing would probably necessitate trying to rebuild Labour’s lost working-class support, as Miliband tried to do. But you could argue that this is political Quixote-ism.

You can’t arrest the tectonic shifts of history. Globalization, changing class structures, new communications, and fragmenting political identities, all mean that the old material basis for that kind of Labourism is finished.

Any sensible, modern, professional political party will become more middle class, and adopt a more distant, client-based relationship to a trade union movement that is evolving into a business lobby like any other. Insofar as working class people vote, it will not be as a class-corporate bloc, but largely as individuals who want to get on in life and have some sort of stake in the system.

Given this view, any approach other than triangulating the right to monopolize the center ground and take over the middle-class vote is a waste of time. And if we take AB voters as being a very broad proxy for the professional and managerial middle class, we see that the biggest thing that happened with them in 2015 is that they abandoned the Liberal Democrats. In almost every election before 2015, a quarter of these voters supported the Liberals, with the share rising to almost 30% in 2005 and 2010. In 2015, that fell to 12%: almost all of those votes seem to have gone to the Tories.

This is only fair, since the Conservatives had broadly governed from the center and proved that they didn’t need any help from Clegg to do so. Clegg was there to be ritually beaten for a few years, before his exhausted, wan, and aged body was thrown to the lions. Labour’s share of the AB vote, meanwhile, didn’t move an inch.

If that — Labour’s failure to take over the middle-class vote — strikes you as a world-historic tragedy, then yes, in this sense Labour lost for being “too left-wing.” And give this argument its due: it is far more realistic than the idea that Labour will be “reclaimed,” or that Miliband ever had a chance of winning. The answer isn’t to give up on reconstituting a working-class left, of course; it is to give up entirely on the idea that this can be done through the Labour Party, and take the hard-nosed, unsentimental, necessary decision to break the spine of that party and move on.