Labour’s defeat in the UK general election on May 7th was comprehensive and the post-mortem is well underway. Ed Miliband’s resignation as party leader has opened the way for a new leader to emerge and a new approach to be taken as Labour seeks to find a way to make itself electable in five years’ time.
The next Labour leader, even if he or she is more telegenic and media-friendly than Miliband, will face the same dilemma: How to appeal to a broad enough range of voters to secure a majority.
The loudest voices so far have been those of the party’s right who claim that defeat to the Conservatives was a direct result of Milibands failure to appeal to middle class voters. Once referred to as “Middle England,” this group is now being labelled as “aspirational” by the likes of Peter Mandelson, David Miliband and other prominent figures of the Tony Blair era. They argue that Labour would have won a majority, or at least brought about a hung parliament, if they had offered more to these “aspirational” people.
But the approach of Labour’s right wing ignores some key facts. Labour was virtually wiped out in Scotland by the Scottish National Party, who outflanked Labour to the left by opposing austerity. In Scotland voters knew exactly where they stood with the SNP and chose to vote for them. Millions of people across the UK, many of them disillusioned Labour voters, also backed the UK Independence Party or the Green party. They were not acting out of longing for a return to Blairism.
One of Labour’s problems is that it is seen as a party of the establishment: pro-austerity, indifferent to workers’ rights, indifferent to the consequences of its own disastrous foreign policy, indifferent to environmental concerns and in favour of globalisation, neo-liberal economics and many other Conservative policies. This perception of Labour as part of a comfortable Westminster elite has only increased the haemorrhaging of its traditional working class vote which began under Blair.
Under David Cameron, Britain has engaged in an extreme programme of impoverishment and punishment known as ‘austerity,’ with the Conservatives, backed by the Liberal Democrats and a compliant media, blaming the poorest in society for an economic crash caused by an unrestrained and corrupt system. Rather than rejecting this policy as the SNP did, Labour essentially backed it with policies widely understood to amount to ‘austerity-lite.’ Those hit hardest by the cuts to social spending are not in the equation of those on the right planning Labour’s resurgence, but they represent a large potential pool of support for the party.
Voices on the party’s left have been less prominent in recent days, and enjoy less media exposure generally. However, there are other options open to Labour other than a return to Blairite New Labour. The truth is that Labour already does more for “aspirational” people than the Conservatives ever will. Taxes on the super rich, a living wage, investment in social housing and education are all vote winners and all offer genuine reasons for people to think their aspirations can be met.
So far five candidates have declared their intention to stand for election to the party’s leadership, the result of which will be announced at a special conference on 12th September. All five fit the Blairite model. One has since withdrawn his bid.
Chuka Umunna was the bookmaker’s favourite and was firm in his belief in the need to appeal more to middle class voters, and was in favour of austerity and reducing the deficit. The 36 year old has since pulled out of the race citing personal reasons. What of the remaining candidates?
Yvette Cooper, the experienced Shadow home secretary who has been a front-bencher since 1999, is also a right winger, is viewed as highly competent and sensible but may be considered too wooden at a time when the public crave a more human approach (see Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP).
Andy Burnham has a good record of opposing Conservative health policies as Shadow health minister. He has the advantage of being able to present himself as genuine in his passion for improving people’s lives and being Northern may be an advantage. However, Burnham would likely face the same challenges as Miliband in being portrayed as a weak leader. As one current Labour MP told me following the 2010 leadership contest: “Andy Burnham is a very nice guy, but that’s about it”.
The current outsiders are Liz Kendall, the Shadow health secretary, and Mary Creagh, the Shadow international development secretary. Kendall is a firm right-winger who has criticised Labour’s economic approach but has taken up Miliband’s ‘austerity-lite’ policy. Creagh took the unusual step of declaring her intention to stand as leader on the website of the far-right Daily Mail. The party’s left will also nominate a candidate, who will have no chance of winning, but who may be able to force the debate away from its current narrow parameters.
Whoever the new leader is, he or she will need to go on the offensive and set out clearly where the Conservatives are going wrong and expose the lie that the Labour party caused the economic crisis through excessive borrowing and public spending. Ed Miliband’s approach failed to tackle these issues and left the electorate unsure about what Labour stood for. A hostile media awaits the new leader, and campaigns of fear regarding Scotland, immigration and the European Union are to be expected. Excessive coverage of the UK Independence Party pushed a rightward agenda which cowed any instinct Labour had to fight back from the left.
Labour in 2015 is a party of the establishment, but to be electable again, it will need an effective response to Conservative policies which include £12 billion of welfare cuts and the scrapping of the Human Rights Act. This will mean distinguishing itself from the pack and leading, rather than following, the debate.
Tom Charles is a freelance editor, proof reader and writer living in Notting Hill. He has written on Middle East politics and is Assistant Editor of the Journal of Palestinian Refugee Studies. He also blogs at https://urbandandylondon.wordpress.com