Analysis on the recent local elections

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It’s the economy, stupid ..... What Labour needs to learn from last week’s elections results and why the Party has an opportunity to steal a march on the Right

Last week saw UKIP upset the Tory apple cart and ever since we have seen Tory after Tory calling for a further shift to the Right.   As I write, Tory MPs are clamouring for a debate and a vote in Parliament on whether or not to hold a referendum before 2015 on membership of the EU. 

They’re clearly not listening to Ed. It’s true, you can’t out Farage, Farage. Why, though, this seemingly catastrophic loss of confidence in the political mainstream on the part of voters?

The obvious response is to acknowledge that support for the two main political parties, Labour and Conservative, has been declining for some time and it may well be that we are heading towards a more pluralistic party system, which in the end would beg questions about our voting system.

I would contend, though, that there is another factor at work. Essentially, what we have unfurling before our eyes is nothing less than a profound sense of disillusionment with the leadership offered by Cameron, especially as far as the economy is concerned.   Equally, voters do not sense yet an alternative from Labour, but more on that later. Let me first explain what I think is one of the key factors underpinning voter disaffection with the Tories, and to do this we have to examine the direction taken by the Tory party after the election of David Cameron as leader back in 2005.

On the day that Cameron won the election, I remarked that the nature of his victory virtually guaranteed problems for his party and his leadership. Cameron was elected as a modernizing influence, the ‘heir to Blair’ who would go on to hug hoodies and have PV panels fitted to his house. He was a friend of the NHS, the man who wanted to fire up the Quattro and deliver for middle England.

But he was also the man who did a deal on Europe with the right of his Party, pulling his MEPs out of the mainstream right at Brussels and forcing them into a new, Eurosceptic alliance, the European Conservatives and Reformists.   In essence, Cameron’s leadership victory was based on a classic fudge which ignored the deep divisions between those who wanted change and those who harked back to the glory days of Thatcher. The Right, pacified by overtures as far as Europe was concerned, lived with the compromise because it thought Cameron would deliver a clear victory at the next election. The consequence of this uneasy compromise, however, was always going to be that Cameron would lead a largely unmodernized Tory party into the election campaign. Unlike Blair, whose New Labour had genuinely reformed by the time of his election as leader in 1994, Cameron inherited a party still living in the 1980s. Reform of his party was therefore very difficult and Cameron chose instead to present a superficial makeover of his party to the electorate.

No wonder the Tories didn’t win the election. There just wasn’t enough evidence on the table to persuade doubting voters that Cameron’s party was no longer the nasty party, a doubt confirmed after the election as it emerged that many of the 2010 Tory intake were indeed the spiritual sons and daughters of Thatcher. And no wonder too that the Tory programme for government, modified only marginally by the presence of the Liberal Democrats, presented in sharp relief the fault lines lying deep in the Tory party. On the one hand, the modernizing tendency expressed itself with a liberal agenda, for example with support for equal marriage and for maintaining spending on international aid. This was balanced, however, by a ferociously conservative fiscal agenda and a sense of antipathy towards the EU. Osborne himself typifies this new type of conservatism; socially liberal, fiscally conservative.

The problems emerging from this model have been twofold and startling in their impact. First of all, of course, Cameron is enduring an increasingly difficult set of relationships with his own MPs. As the austerity programme has increasingly impeded economic growth, both in the UK and in large parts of the Eurozone, backbench Tories have become increasingly restless, finding in the EU a convenient explanation as to why traditional, right-wing economic remedies are failing to produce the prosperity the government promised the electorate.   Secondly, the electorate itself has started to get increasingly frustrated, as the mantra about reducing debt has been seen to fail. Public borrowing has actually increased while living standards have continued to be squeezed. For voters, it has looked increasingly as though they have a government which is failing them economically but which at the same time dallies with social policy.   Voters suspect that the government, having staked everything on fiscal conservatism, is now busy attempting to obscure its own economic emasculation by focusing on other legislative matters, such as international aid and equal marriage, as mentioned earlier.

So the Tory party is in a mess, torn apart by the failures of its own economic policies and facing day by day the divisions and the tensions exposed by those in its ranks who always hated the modernizing agenda and who cling foolishly to a belief that exit from the EU is the answer to all the country’s problems.

So, what lessons for Labour? It is clear from the events triggered by Tory mismanagement of the economy that the electorate has little time for socially progressive policy when the economy is floundering. Now, let me be clear. I am socially liberal. I support progressive measures designed to strengthen our democracy and promote social equality. I know too that the vast majority of Labour party members feel the same way. But it has to be acknowledged that when economic desperation sets in, voters are far less tolerant of socially progressive ideas. Hence the scapegoating of welfare recipients and immigrants, encouraged hugely by the Tory party itself. 

First and foremost, therefore, Labour must remember Bill Clinton’s classic line: it’s the economy, stupid. And that means being bold about our economic programme at the next election. Peter Hain is right when he says we must be much more upfront with the electorate, much clearer and more confident about our belief that we need to borrow and to invest in order to get the deficit down in the medium term. Nothing else will do.

The remedies offered by the Right are failing and as they do, we see Tory MPs fall into the trap of fiddling with the EU question while Britain’s economy crashes and burns. We need to rise above this and to recognize that the centre-left has before it a unique opportunity to steal a march on the Tories. The electorate is getting increasingly sceptical of parties that fudge the issues, as we have seen recently with the Tories, and so we must spell out our economic alternative loudly and proudly.

Until we do that, and until we are seen to offer an economic programme that offers hope of climbing out of the spiral of decline we are currently experiencing, then the voters will remain stubbornly resistant to the concept of social progress that is so dear to every Labour Party member’s heart, and which should clearly be an essential part of any Labour manifesto.

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