By Alex Mistlin
Even if Ed Miliband ends up scraping his way into Downing Street after May 7th, probably with SNP or Lib Dem support, one certainty is that Labour will not govern alone. Under normal circumstances, Labour's opposition to the bedroom tax, ruthless cuts to the welfare budget and further privatisation of the NHS should represent a successful strategy for attracting left-of-centre voters weary of Tory austerity. However, the fallout from thirteen years of New Labour means Miliband will haemorrhage large swathes of his core vote to parties on both sides of the ideological spectrum. At present, this leaves Labour firmly mired on roughly 33% at the polls, just three weeks away from the general election. A far cry from the huge majorities of the Blair years. Rightly or wrongly, New Labour is largely derided as a catastrophic experiment. Criticised from the left for it's controversial invasion of Iraq in 2003 and betrayal of 'Old' Labour's commitment to genuine social democracy. Attacked on the right for it's perceived budget irresponsibility and commitment to open-door immigration.
Let’s face it, the Iraq War continues to bear a heavy toll on the Labour party. In both 2005 and 2010 this mainly meant a large swing from Labour to the Lib Dems. The fact that the Labour Party remain unable to regain disgruntled former voters from the Liberal Democrats, a party so marred by coalition, shows the depth of the self-inflicted wound that remains from a war Britain entered 12 years ago. Populist calls from Natalie Bennett, Green Party Leader, for Ed Miliband to personally apologise for his party’s handling of the conflict seem to suggest that there may still be votes in condemning Labour’s support for what many ordinary voters still consider to be an ‘illegal’ war. Meanwhile the media characterisation of Tony Blair as an “avaricious political zombie” has scored Labour absolutely no points amongst liberal voters who remain disgusted by Blair’s profiteering in his role as Middle East peace envoy. Ultimately, the perception of Labour as a party of warmongers whose unprincipled leader, ushered in a new era of dishonesty and spin has had enduring effects on Labour’s ability to garner left-wing support.
Speaking of unprincipled, Blair’s decision to fundamentally alter Labour’s constitution symbolises a discernible shift away from the democratic socialism that shaped party policy for more than half a century. Clause IV, Labour’s commitment to “secure for the workers...common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange” was discarded in favour of the blatantly insipid declaration “that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone.” Although Labour did admirably invest some much needed cash into Britain’s desperate public services, government expenditure increased by 4.8% in real terms between 2001 and 2005, it was Labour’s failure to reverse the prevailing tide of Thatcherism that really infuriated those idealists who had swept Blair to victory in 1997. For instance, not only were the utilities companies not re-nationalised but under New Labour they were further privatised. In previous years when Labour lacked a credible opponent to their left none of this would have mattered. But the irresistible rise of the SNP following their referendum loss last year could render Scottish Labour MPs an endangered species after the election. If Labour are reduced to single digits in Scotland it would be a damning indictment of the long-term electoral consequences of Blair’s third way. Whatever happens on May 7th, Nicola Sturgeon’s repeated insistence that Labour are merely Tory-lite will clearly have been detrimental to Labour’s campaign north of the border. It would be cruelly ironic if Ed Miliband was denied a majority because New Labour’s ambitious pursuit of centrists in Middle England caused it to abandon voters in labour’s Glaswegian heartlands.
Throughout this election campaign, the deficit has been a thorn in Labour’s side. The conservatives have pretty successfully allowed a narrative to develop around New Labour’s budget irresponsibility and its integral role in causing the recession. Arguably, Labour’s failure to adequately defend New Labour’s economic record has been their greatest failing in opposition. It was deregulation of the banks not Labour’s spending that was ultimately the problem and it appears Tory calls for even less regulation have been conveniently forgotten. Furthermore, despite creating more jobs than the rest of the EU combined, Osborne has failed to half the deficit and the National Debt has almost doubled to £1.26 trillion in this parliament. Consequently, there is a certain injustice in the fact that Labour’s economic credibility has polled consistently lower than the Tories over the past five years. Even Labour’s manifesto alludes to their perceived weakness in this area as they preface their policies with a “Budget Responsibility Lock” in what some might consider a desperate and insubstantial attempt to blunt Tory rhetoric around their “long-term economic plan”.
However, perhaps the most striking feature of this election campaign has been the rise of UKIP. Although most new kippers are former Tories, its not been all good news for Ed Miliband. A significant number of UKIP supporters are white working class people who used to be tribal Labour supporters. However, New Labour’s liberal approach to immigration has predictably not gone down well with this section of the electorate who feel as though their concerns are not being heard by a party of the ‘metropolitan elite’. These voters have had to contend with London’s re-emergence as a global centre of prosperity while being powerless to prevent their communities from being altered and their local economies from crumbling. UKIP are poised to come second in as many as 150 Labour seats and it must be concerning for Labour’s future electoral prospects that working class voters feel abandoned. It can only be a matter of time before Labour start to feel abandoned by them.
For all the positive features of New Labour’s tenure, sure-start centres and greater levels of female representation to name but two, perhaps the most regrettable aspect of Blair’s three majorities is what it seems to imply about the narrow future of Britain’s mainstream left. Blair himself warns that this election could become one “in which a traditional left-wing party competes with a traditional right-wing party, with the traditional result.” Probably wisely, Ed Miliband has chosen to largely follow his predecessor's advice by presenting a manifesto to the British public that proposes sensible solutions to the problem of extreme inequality in our society without simultaneously alienating the businesses that facilitate economic growth. However, it would be nice to see Labour attempting to win a majority in 2020 by convincingly stepping out of Tony Blair’s shadow. Unfortunately, it’s clear that this can’t happen until the party proposes genuinely radical reform of our market economy and political system and trusts in the British people to vote for it.