I wrote this piece early on Friday, 8 May 2015, a couple of hours after David Cameron’s Conservative Party achieved what most commentators had said was an impossible election victory. A lack of sleep is evident in its slightly confused structure, but I’ve resisted the temptation to re-write. And the reason I’m reviving it here is that I think its talk of ‘a great gaping hole where once there had been the heart of the movement’ was a clumsy attempt to identify Labour’s central problem – even if I had no idea that the party was going to decide that the solution to the problem was Jeremy Corbyn…
In early 2013 I was part of a panel event under the banner of Crunch the News, alongside the excellent New Statesman writer Helen Lewis and the equally excellent comedian Josie Long.
The country was then just about halfway through the Coalition parliament, but already it was evident that an initial burst of Left activism – centred on tuition fees and UK Uncut – was flagging a little. Indeed Long had written a piece on precisely this subject only a month or so earlier, talking about how 2012 had been ‘tiring and saddening’.
I was there to plug Things Can Only Get Bitter, an e-book I’d written about the devastating impact of the 1992 general election, and my message that day was that the anti-Tory opposition needed to learn from the crushed hopes of my generation. It had to recognise that it was in for the long haul, because in 2015 the Conservative Party was going to win a majority in the election.
Despite my best intentions, I’m sure I came over as irritating, pompous and patronising. And none of that will have been ameliorated by the fact that I turned out to be right.
There were two main reasons why I was always convinced that the Conservatives would win: one of them was David Cameron, to whom I shall return, and the other was Ed Miliband.
In 2010 I went to the first hustings for the Labour leadership, having been invited by Sam Harrison (the best editor a boy could have). As we were coming out of the hall, I ended my assessment of the five candidates with the words: ‘What’s the point of Ed Miliband?’ and Sam dug me in the ribs. A couple of paces in front of us was the man himself with a sidekick.
My immediate feeling was: Oh no, I hope I haven’t upset him. And my second feeling was: That’s not the response one ought to have to a man who wants to be prime minister. Fear possibly, respect certainly, but not concern over hurting his feelings.
Nothing I saw subsequently convinced me that he was up to the job. In July 2011, I wrote: ‘Ed Miliband was – to be generous – only the third best candidate in the leadership election last year, and he’s been going downhill ever since he won.’ Later that year, I pointed out that the Labour Party’s poll ratings of 40 to 42 per cent were inadequate, that at a similar point in Margaret Thatcher’s first term, Labour was touching 50 per cent (and went on to lose).
In 2012 I wrote that Miliband ‘still doesn’t look like a serious candidate to be prime minister’, and in 2014, I returned to the theme: ‘I’ve never believed Ed Miliband was capable of winning the general election. I still don’t believe he will.’
The key problem, I argued in August last year, was nothing to do with his image as being a nerdy policy wonk. Precisely the opposite, it was that his appeal was purely to the emotions. His line on the economy (all his early forecasts of mass unemployment having proved wrong) was simply that Cameron didn’t ‘get it’ and wasn’t listening to ‘hard working families’ and ‘the most vulnerable in our society’. My point was: ‘A potential prime minister should aspire to being more than a sympathetic ear in times of trouble.’
Policy did come eventually, but it was piecemeal, on a small scale, and it didn’t hang together, except by that thread of ‘the Tories are out of touch’. And that was pathetically inadequate, just like everything else about Miliband’s ill-fated leadership.
And again I’m experiencing that same sensation from 2010. How can I be so mean to a nice young man like Ed Miliband? It feels almost as if I were bullying him, even though I so obviously don’t have the power, status or ability so to do.
My criticism, however, is not really of him at all. I thought – like everyone else – that he fought quite a good election campaign, given that he’s Ed Miliband. But he was trying to make bricks without straw. The real criticism is of a Labour Party that was stupid enough to elect him leader in the first place.
Beyond that, the sadness is that the vacuity of Miliband’s leadership was perfectly in tune with Labour in recent times.
One of the great mistakes of the Left in the years since 1992 has been the belief that the Conservative brand was fatally and permanently toxic.
In some circles, of course, this is how it appears. In Scotland, for example, where Nicola Sturgeon’s call to ‘lock the Tories out of Downing Street’ was so successful over the last month. More significantly, this is the perception in London, that multicultural, cosmopolitan city of the world that has so little to do with the rest of England, let alone the United Kingdom.
There was a certain irony that the day before Cameron’s great triumph, the death was announced of the Hot Chocolate singer Errol Brown. Apart from anything else, Brown was famous for having sung John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ at a Tory rally during the 1987 election campaign. In my book Rejoice! Rejoice! I joked that this ‘might well have been an act of subversive irony’, but the truth is that Brown was perhaps the last credible celebrity honest enough to admit in public that his interests were best represented by the Conservatives.
Nowadays musicians and writers, actors and comedians, in fact almost everyone who wants to hang on to a showbiz career, is careful to let us know that their sympathies are with the Left. Since this doesn’t match their material interests, one can only assume that there are an awful lot of ‘shy Tories’ in Luvvie Land.
But the anti-Tory attitude that is common currency in the cultural, broadcasting and new media circles of London is not universal. The fury that has been directed at newspapers like the Sun, the Mail and the Telegraph over the last week or so, as the election campaign got personal and unpleasant, never quite acknowledged just how successful these titles are.
Listen to phone-in programmes on the radio and a different picture emerges. One in which the Conservative Party can persuade two million more people to cast a vote than can the Labour Party. One in which UKIP can out-poll both the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party put together, attracting more than three times the support of the Green Party.
In short, the United Kingdom is still a conservative-minded country.
If the Labour Party is to get over this setback in England and Wales, it needs to recognise this fact. Being against the evil Tories is simply not enough. Admittedly, that feeling sustained Tony Blair through three election victories (albeit with terribly diminishing returns), but that moment has passed, killed by Cameron.
The pre-Blair Labour Party was essentially built on power. It understood that there was a class war (even if the conduct of the conflict was often quite civilised) and it took its stand alongside the power of the organised working class. That tradition died in the miners’ strike of 1984-85.
A new Left emerged at the same time, symbolised by the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone: an inclusive rainbow coalition of interest groups and identity politics. Primarily this socially liberal tendency had its great successes in the cultural field, though Blair was more than happy to hitch a ride on the bandwagon. So too was Cameron.
With success came obsolescence. There are obviously battles still to be fought on the grounds of gender, disability, race and so on. But compared with the culture wars of thirty years ago, these feel more like mopping-up operations than a fight to the death.
So what remains for the Left? A residual rant against ‘the hated Tories’ does not constitute a philosophy. And nor, it is clear from yesterday, is it effective, Even against an Old Etonian prime minister with an agenda of cutting the welfare state, the charge of being out of touch, irrelevant in modern Britain, simply didn’t work.
To put it another way, the old Clause IV of the Labour Party constitution – the one demanding ‘the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange’ – was a call to arms.
The new version, introduced by Blair in 1995 is not. There’s vague waffling about ‘the strength of our common endeavour’, there’s talk of ‘duties’ as well as ‘rights’, there’s an espousal of ‘solidarity, tolerance and respect’. There is literally nothing here with which Cameron would disagree, save for the unsubstantiated claim that Labour is ‘a democratic socialist party’.
As long ago as the 1950s, of course, people had stopped believing that the old Clause IV would ever be implemented by Labour. But it remained as a statement of ultimate faith. Its removal left a great gaping hole where once there had been the heart of the movement.
That absence is what the Labour Party has now to address. It’s what Miliband failed so comprehensively to do. He did try from time to time, but it was unconvincing and half-hearted. At the 2012 conference, for example, he tried out the slogan ‘One-Nation Socialism’ (as used by John Prescott in 1995), but who remembers that now?
The consequence was that Miliband took the party down to a humiliating defeat. It was a dreadful performance. Forget the parallels with 1992, Labour yesterday secured fewer votes and a smaller share of the vote than did Neil Kinnock when losing to Margaret Thatcher in 1987. That was when the SDP-Liberal Alliance was still a major force, splitting the Left. This time it was supposed to be the Right that was split.
The Miliband leadership has been a complete waste of five years, and still the question has yet to be answered: What is the Labour Party for?