The white-washing of Labour’s defeat must be challenged


12:02 pm - March 3rd 2011

by Owen Jones    


      Share on Tumblr

Narratives are clever political devices. You take a particular event, particularly one that has confused or traumatised people; and, before anyone else gets there first, stamp on a story explaining why it happened.

Repeat it enough, pass it off as commonsense, and soon it will become received wisdom. You can then cleverly use it for political purposes: as either a warning about what to avoid, or a prescription of what must be done next time around.

That’s what the Labour Right have been trying to do with Labour’s devastating general election defeat in 2010.

Here’s one striking example, courtesy of Progress, Labour’s organized Blairite faction. In an interview with Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, the authors casually slipped in the following sentence:

Many voters rejected Labour last May precisely because of its refusal to specify exactly where it would cut.

No evidence is provided to back up this assertion. It is passed off as a simple fact, one we must all agree on because it is so blindingly obvious. It isn’t: in fact, it’s just not true.

1. The Tories didn’t specify where they were going to cut in any detail, either. Neither did the Liberal Democrats.

2. Alistair Darling promised a re-elected Labour Government would introduce cuts that were “deeper and tougher” than Margaret Thatcher. This could not have been more provocative given how Thatcherism is regarded by millions of Labour supporters living in communities that were devastated in the 1980s.

3. An uncomfortable fact that Blairites have no intention of facing up to is that the vast majority of Labour voters went AWOL under the premiership of their idol. Labour lost 4.9 million voters between 1997 and 2010. Nearly 4 million of those – or, to be exact, 80.79% – defected from the Labour camp when Tony Blair was in Number 10 between 1997 and 2005. Just three quarters of a million votes separated the two main parties in 2005, foreshadowing Labour’s later defeat – and that was long before economic collapse had hit (or before the Tories had a credible leader).

4. If many of these voters were so desperate for cuts, they would surely have opted for the Tories. But there is no evidence of a dramatic shift to the right. The Conservatives gained just 1,102,811 new votes between their 1997 wipe-out and their, well, not as bad loss 13 years later. That’s 22.47% of the vote that drained away from Labour.

During the Labour leadership contest, Ed Miliband spoke about “a crisis of working-class representation”, a phrase previously confined to left-wing conferences. “Put it at its starkest,” he wrote, “if we had enjoyed a 1997 result in 2010 among DEs, then on a uniform swing we would have won at least forty more seats and would still be the largest party in Parliament.” He hasn’t come up with any of this since he won, but it hasn’t stopped being true.

And why were so many working-class people driven away? Luke Akehurst, long seen as the definitive, ‘Trot’-bashing Blairite blogger, approvingly drew some key conclusions from Ed Miliband’s speech on the cost of living crisis last Monday.

And what we have is an indictment of the disastrous effects of New Labour’s embrace of rampant neo-liberalism. Luke includes the observations that much of the economic growth of the last 30 years has been sucked into the bank accounts of the top 10%; that low and middle earners were working ‘harder for less’; and that little was done to stop the drain of decent, skilled jobs from the economy.

The Labour Right want us to believe that Labour lost last year because it wasn’t sufficiently signed up to a manic cutting spree. No doubt many of them look to the prescriptions of Tony Blair himself, whose memoirs endorsed the Tories’ economic agenda and called on them (astonishingly) to resist the supposed “Old Labour” instincts of the Liberal Democrats.

But the reality is along the lines of Luke Akehurst’s column. Millions of working-class people deserted Labour because of its embrace of neo-liberalism. This led to rampant job insecurity; the disappearance of well-paid, well-regarded skilled jobs; and stagnating living standards. It was springtime for the wealthy, on the other hand. It is this Labour must address if it is to win again.


A longer version of this article is at Owen’s blog

    Share on Tumblr   submit to reddit  


About the author
Owen Jones is author of ‘Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class’, to be published by Verso in May 2011. He blogs here and tweets here.
· Other posts by


Story Filed Under: Blog ,Labour party ,Westminster

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.


Reader comments


1. Edward Carlsson Browne

It’s not about the Labour Right – Luke Akehurst never knowingly puts himself on the left of an internal party fight. It’s the Stupid Labour Right.

Which is all the more reason not to let them win. I can live with the right of the party having hegemony when it proves it’s run by people smart enough to make coherent arguments and win things. That doesn’t really apply now.

Labour lost because (1) it had been power for more than a decade, and (2) because Gordon Brown was anything but friendly, trustworthy and cool.

Nevermind the Labour in-fighting. The most obvious example of a narrative is that being sold by the current Government, namely that the austerity programme is a result of Labour’s spending.

Up until November 2008, the Conservative economic policy was to *match* Labour’s spending not cut it back. I wonder how many readers remember that…

@2 Andreas Moser

The fact that it had been in power for 13 years does not in itself do much to explain the defeat. Granted there may be an element of ennui on the part of the voting public, but it is only one aspect of why they crashed to defeat in 2010.

Similarly, whilst the deeply flawed nature of Gordon Brown as a leader, his lack of charisma, toxic relationship with Blair, and unpopularity in the run up to the election, all contributed they are only one aspect of the whole picture. Do you honestly think things would have been much better if Labour had knifed him in the back in the run up to the election and had some Blairite nonentity at the helm?

Remember, if Brown had had the guts to call an early election after Blair stepped down (which he was advised by Ed Balls amongst others to do), he might well have won, as at that point everyone thought Cameron was a joke and the Tory rating in the opnion polls was pretty disasterous.

I’m not sure this analysis is fair. The writer of the Progress piece isn’t claiming that people were ‘desperate for cuts’ and Labour lost because it failed to sign itself up to enough of them; he’s claiming that they lost credibility, and therefore votes, by promising to make large cuts but refusing to say where.

That’s still a pretty questionable claim; as you say, the Tories and Lib Dems were equally vague on where their cuts would fall, so very plausibly Labour would have lost *more* votes if they’d tried to enhance their credibility by spelling out a detailed cuts program. But there might be something in the claim that Labour’s failure to get across how its cuts would be different from Tory cuts left people feeling they had no good reason to vote Labour rather that Tory.

As evidence that Labour’s credibility has suffered because of its refusal to specify where it would cut, I adduce myself. I still think their (our) credibility when criticising Tory cuts would be enhanced if they were more explicit about why their own cuts would not have had the same negative consequences: e.g. spell out that if such-and-such a budget had been cut by 10% rather than 20%, compulsory redundancies (or the loss of frontline services, or the closure of libraries, or whatever) could have been avoided.

(NB I’m not saying ‘we’d have cut by half as much’ is the right line for Labour to take, just that if that *is* the line Labour want to take, they’re better off spelling out just which services/benefits could have been preserved as a result.)

You’re right to take on the mythology of Blair as the consumate vote-winner. I’ve written about this elsewhere. Basically….

Blair’s first election victory in 1997 was won with only 44 per cent of the popular vote; and fewer individual votes were cast for New Labour that year than were cast for John Major’s Tories when the latter narrowly won their surprise victory in 1992. That Blair owed his 1997 win more to anti-Tory sentiment than any appetite for his “third-way” was further evidenced by the fact that between 1992 and 1997 the Tory vote collapsed by an massive 4 million.

Major’s 1992 victory had come in the wake of a recession and the disastrous implementation of the “poll tax”, and Labour’s failure to secure victory even in these favourable circumstances provided much of the justification for the party’s subsequent lurch to the right under Blair. Yet in his 2001 election victory, after 4 years of relative economic stability and a near total-absence of effective political opposition from the Conservatives, Blair won fewer popular votes than Neil Kinnock had won in the 1992 defeat. And the trend continued. In 2005, Blair won fewer popular votes than the Tories had in their seminal 1997 meltdown.

Between 1997 and 2005, the Labour vote plunged by nearly 4 million, just as the Tory vote had done during the living death of the Major years. In 97, 01 and 05 Blair was presented with open goals by a Tory party in historic crisis, tearing itself apart over its own internal contradictions. The moment the Conservatives recovered a bare level of political competance, it was all over for New Labour. And as Owen rightly points out, it was in no small part the loss of those voters the Labour right thought it could take for granted that led to its defeat last year.

Edward is spot on. I wouldn’t even mind so much if their narratives appealed to a broad range of people. But it doesn’t! These people delivered 29% and now they still haven’t learnt from the way in which Osborne has easily out-manoeuvred them from their attempts at moving to Tory territory.

The simple reality is that the “New Labour” project started to fail electorally almost immediately it succeeded. Rather than capitalising on the 1997 win, Blairites sat back and waited for the 2010 election defeat to happen. In my own constituency the “old guard” are still baffled by the defeat, but refuse to accept they were a part of it because of their own inactivity and complacency.

Just a query really – you mention the loss of 4.9 million Labour voters during the premiership of Tony Blair. But politicians lose votes anyway, it’s called death. What must be considered in the long term, surely, is what the young want (I’m not one of them, by the way) and so it’d how you capture the young voters, hopefully for a long period.

Blair would have lost them through the Iraq war.

Now, Clegg is losing them through the Liberal in government University fees position.

The question has to be where will they alight next?

“Up until November 2008, the Conservative economic policy was to *match* Labour’s spending not cut it back. I wonder how many readers remember that…”

This emphasises exactly the drive the article opens with, that of controlling the narrative. Prior to 2006/7 Labour sold & controlled the economic narrative very effectively. A great swath of the electorate bought into the idea that the steady growth that underpinned increases in public spending would not only keep pace with the growth of the public sector but would eventually mop up the small deficits of 2000-2007.

Labour dominated that market, from a Tory perspective it was sell what they were selling or expect to make no sales. But this was not narrative that comes naturally to Tories: they were always at a disadvantage. 2008 unwound that narrative and its replacement, a story of obligatory expenditure reductions, is ground on which Tories excel & Labour traditionally (& in its post-Blair guise) flounders.

11. Richard W

I agree with Ian that there is not much point in comparing aggregate total votes between different elections. They are not the same voters and it is not the same electorate.

For example, when you say things like the following statement.

” An uncomfortable fact that Blairites have no intention of facing up to is that the vast majority of Labour voters went AWOL under the premiership of their idol. Labour lost 4.9 million voters between 1997 and 2010. ”

What was the fall in turnout nationally between the different elections? How many of the ‘ lost ‘ voters were in safe seats that just decided to stay at home and their lack of voting did not make much difference. How many of the 4 million did he win in 1997? Where did they go? Did they start voting Conservative because Labour were not left-wing enough?

Invariably falls in total votes for Labour and the Tories mean the seats they win anyway just have smaller majorities.

The difference between winning and losing an election for Labour and the Conservatives is not building up huge majorities in safe seats. It is winning the swing voters in marginal seats earning between 30-60k. They are both competing for the same voters who make a difference between winning and losing.

Interesting piece, and Owen’s analysis seems accurate. For extra consideration in the ‘Why did labour lose?’ debate I’d like to put forward two points.
1) Oppositions don’t win elections – Governments lose them. This truism seems apposite here, and the defeat was (partly) the long accretion of problems that comes to all governments in power for lengthy terms. The Iraq war and the New Labour championing of the ‘Free Market’ economy were also significant.
2) In Scotland, where the electorate has long memories of what Tory governments do to services that ordinary people depend on, the Labour vote in fact went up (albeit slightly) in the election, and they won back two by-election losses. The electorate – who I think are far more sophisticated than psephologists give them credit for – clearly voting the way they judge most likely to frustrate a Tory victory.

@ 12 Chris

Although I agree with your general thrust, I’m not sure how far you can use my homeland as an example, given the fact that you are trying to compare a 4 party system elected using a sane voting system, with a 2 and half part system using an insane one.

I doubt the majority (either of the people or just those who voted) wanted a Tory or ConDem coalition…but that’s what they got. Perhaps it is true that they didn’t want New Labour even more strongly, which is where it all went Pete Tong last May as the lunatics were still in charge of the New Labour asylum.

For a left of centre victory last year, it would have been necessary for New Labour to have been buried, and for a realistic and believable de-toxification to have taken place. Instead, we had a mortally wounded party with no chance of outright victory, deciding that a spell in opposition was preferable. Blairite ultras honestly believed (and probably still do) that they could only win by being MORE New Labour, when in fact the opposite was the case.

“Millions of working-class people deserted Labour because of its embrace of neo-liberalism. This led to rampant job insecurity; the disappearance of well-paid, well-regarded skilled jobs; and stagnating living standards. It was springtime for the wealthy, on the other hand. It is this Labour must address if it is to win again.”

Absolutely true. Equally, though, it’s no use just letting the pendulum swing back from woo-the-middle-classes to woo-the-working-classes. You can’t win elections by wooing either group exclusively.

Nor should we have to, since Labour fundamentally represents the interests of all but the richest 5% or so of people (those who are *so* rich that they can afford to pay privately for the whole package of services and benefits the rest of us have to rely wholly or mainly on the state to provide – education, healthcare, pensions etc.) You know, the people to whom the money in their pockets is all that matters. The people whose interests the Tories represent.

So Labour shouldn’t be making enemies of (say) the three-child, one -earner family on £50k – who *as a household* are right in the middle of the income distribution, incidentally – which is about to lose £2.5k in Child Benefit. Middle-class or not, higher-rate taxpayers or not, at the end of the day the state of schools and hospitals matters as much to them as it does to the rest of us.

(This is why I think ‘progressive universalism’ was one of New Labour’s better ideas: of course benefits like tax credits should be weighted towards the poor, but exclude the better-off entirely and you just feed the Tory narrative that ‘hard-working middle class families’ get nothing in return for their taxes because all the money’s spent on ‘scroungers’.)

… to continue with my pontificating:

In my more optimistic moments, I think the tide may be turning in the Left’s favour in the following sense: whereas the Tories have historically managed to woo large numbers of bottom-95% voters with populist, socially conservative messages (back in the good old days of Section 28, backstreet abortions and ‘if you want a nigger for a neighbour…’), that strategy is becoming less and less viable. And as it becomes painfully obvious to 95% of people that most of their tax money has always been spent on services and benefits they themselves rely on, the ‘scrounger’ narrative is going to start looking a bit threadbare too. Where do the Tories go from there?

16. Planeshift

“Where do the Tories go from there?”

I suspect they have gambled on the finances recovering so strongly that the deficit is gone by 2013 not 2015. Then they’ll unleash a wave a tax-cuts designed to win the election – and probably succeed.

If growth does not return they themselves know they are in for a struggle. But I think they’ve calculated that it is better to achieve everything you want in 5 years then lose an election knowing much of what you do won’t be reversed than spend 13 years afraid of your own shadow.

G.O.

Where do the Tories go from there?

Where they already are, reforming public services to allow greater localism and personal choice?

You are too stuck in a single frame of reference – with the state as the only mode of delivery – for your points to be relevant – I think the Conservatives moved away from that frame of reference in the 1970s.

Watchman

“Where they already are, reforming public services to allow greater localism and personal choice?”

You are too stuck in a single frame of reference – with the state as the only mode of delivery”

Hmm… I don’t think I said anything about ‘modes of delivery’ of public services. You can imagine that I’m happy for education and healthcare to be contracted out to private providers, if you like. It will still be the case, though, that most people are going to have to rely on the state to *fund* those services. 95% of people just aren’t, and never will be, financially in a position to cover anything like the full cost of a lifetime’s health and social care, an adequate pension, their children’s education etc. out of the wages they earn over their working life.

I’m sure you’re right that the Tories will continue to talk about themes like ‘localism’ and ‘choice’ and probably ‘identity’ and ‘community’ and half-a-dozen other things that could equally well come from Labour or the Lib Dems or UKIP. But their core narrative as a party of the right – that we’d all be better off with a smaller state spending less money – is going to look less and less credible as people see services they rely on crumbling away, the economy stagnating, unemployment rising etc.

Of course, people are generally willing enough to believe that we could have excellent services *and* lower spending/taxes if we just stopped wasting money on bureaucrats, scroungers etc. But that narrative can’t be maintained indefinitely. The Tories can’t just continue to make out that there’s yet more flab to be trimmed, because the question will then be ‘why haven’t you trimmed it then, instead of sacking all these nurses and policemen?’

Labour lost the election for the following reasons:

1. The economy – failure to regulate the banking sector effectively.
2. Gordon Brown’s failings as a Prime Minister to deal with ‘events’ as they rose.
3. Gordon Brown not resigning before the election giving to give another candidate the chance to fight a better election against the Conservatives. We would have been able to have a Lib-Lab coalition and not this right-wing excuse for a government we have now.

20. john p_reid

before anyone else gets there first, stamp on a story explaining why it happened.
Repeat it enough, pass it off as commonsense

the Labour Right have been trying to do with Labour’s devastating general election defeat in 2010

Tony benn-‘Labour lost the 1983 election because it wasn’t left wing enough’,

uncomfortable fact that Blairites have no intention of facing up to is that the vast majority of Labour voters went AWOL under the premiership of their idol. Labour lost 4.9 million voters between 1997 and 2010

Yes and labour got 8.3 million in 1983 and 13.6 in 1997 so Kinnock and then Blair incresed labours vote by 5.3 million ,so maybe nu-labour and I include Brown did lose labour 4.8million votes but they increased it by 5.3 , the point it My parent fans of gaitksell didn’t agree with a word of teh 83 manfiesto and they still backed foot, the pople criticisng labour for the 2010 lection for not beinfg left wing enough, didn’t vote labour in 2010 and we still did better without the deserted lefts help than the left did in 83 when the right of the party still voted for foot,

21. Edward Carlsson Browne

John, why must you repeat this stuck-in-the-1980s-drivel? It’s perfectly possible to believe that Labour’s manifesto in 1983 was never going to work, but also to believe that the Labour right are producing absolutely no answers right now that would make people more likely to want to vote for us, and thus that their influence should be minimised. These are not mutually exclusive positions.

I believe that, and I didn’t just vote Labour in 2010, I canvassed for them on well over 50 occasions. A great many of us criticising Labour for not being left-wing enough did back Labour last time, so I’ll thank you to withdraw your unsubstantiated slur.

2. Alistair Darling promised a re-elected Labour Government would introduce cuts that were “deeper and tougher” than Margaret Thatcher. This could not have been more provocative given how Thatcherism is regarded by millions of Labour supporters living in communities that were devastated in the 1980s.

True but as the time passes she seems more and more like a decent politician now, even to the labour Party. My local labour or new labour CLP actually put up he photo, and they watched nearly al;l of us walk away, but the new labour stated they rebuild with the right people, yes all six of them.

Then we had a painting placed in the Welsh Assembly they stated the greatest leader, was Thatcher, the greatest Politician was Nye Bevan, seems odd then that labour kicked him out of the Party for a while.

Shows how we can twist things to suit us.

23. john p_reid

I’;m noty sure what you mean unsubstained slur, If it was the bit that the left of labour felt that labour was’nt elft wing enough at 2010 then somoe of them didn’t vote labour, I never said everyone and it wasn’t a slur to say that some on the left did’nt vote labour, as for me going on about a 1980’s myth, of the 83 manifesto, saying that the right of the party have nothing to offer, the right of the party had more to offer in 83 when more of the right of the party still stood by foot ,than the left of the party (not all) who didn’t back labour in 2010
Do you wish to withdrawl your slur that the right of the party have nothing to offer labour now,

23
Your’e damn right that many of the left didn’t vote labour and it was as @14 states.
Never mind, for all labour supporters, they can celebrate tonight after their victory in the Barnsley by-election. Sunny can write a post on LC tellling everyone how the resullts are a damning judgement of libdems and labour are on their way back to their rightful place, Ain’t life just wonderful.


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    The white-washing of Labour's defeat must be challenged http://bit.ly/fdn98o

  2. Brian Barefield

    RT @libcon: The white-washing of Labour's defeat must be challenged http://bit.ly/fdn98o

  3. Alison Charlton

    Really excellent piece by @OwenJones84 RT @libcon The white-washing of Labour's defeat must be challenged http://bit.ly/fdn98o #labour

  4. Soho Politico

    Article on @LibCon about how Blairism turned Lab from a popular, election-winning machine to a rump of losers. Really. http://t.co/wh9b1no

  5. Mathew Hobson

    RT @libcon: The white-washing of Labour's defeat must be challenged http://bit.ly/fdn98o

  6. Gordon Masterton

    RT @libcon: The white-washing of Labour's defeat must be challenged http://bit.ly/fdn98o

  7. Oxford Kevin

    RT @libcon The white-washing of Labour's defeat must be challenged http://bit.ly/fdn98o <But also why Labour is not the answer.

  8. jackr87

    RT @libcon: The white-washing of Labour's defeat must be challenged http://bit.ly/fdn98o

  9. jackr87

    RT @libcon: The white-washing of Labour's defeat must be challenged http://bit.ly/fdn98o

  10. The Election Blog

    Article on @LibCon about how Blairism turned Lab from a popular, election-winning machine to a rump of losers. Really. http://t.co/wh9b1no

  11. Elise Benjamin

    RT @oxkev: RT @libcon The white-washing of Labour's defeat must be challenged http://bit.ly/fdn98o <But also why Labour is not the an …

  12. Pucci Dellanno

    RT @libcon: The white-washing of Labour's defeat must be challenged http://bit.ly/fdn98o

  13. Danny Start

    The white-washing of Labour’s defeat must be challenged | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/CCMEdKc





Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.