Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Tony Blair is the Root Cause of Labour’s Election Problems

Ex Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair has joined the election fray this week, with a speech on the benefits of European Union (EU) membership and of not giving the people a say in referendum on the issue. He also heaped (fairly faint) praise on Ed Miliband’s leadership of Labour and his abilities as Prime minister.

The main aim of this intervention is to try and give some gravitas to Labour’s pro-business credentials, since most businesses are pro-membership of the EU, and to paint the Tories as creators of uncertainty for business with the promise of an in/out referendum on Britain’s continued membership.

Blair of course has ‘good business credentials’ so it is easy to see what Labour hopes to gain by wheeling out the former Prime Minister but it also displays a sign of desperation from the party. It is Blair (together with Gordon Brown, and characters like Peter Mandelson) who has caused the electoral problems afflicting Labour in this year’s general election campaign.

Blair’s new Labour (a term not bandied about much these days by the ‘People’s Party’) with its shift to the political right in the 1990s and penchant for overseas military misadventures, has corroded the left leaning public’s support for Labour.

New Labour types will point to Blair’s three election victories, but even this was lukewarm support. It what in many ways was a watershed election, voter turn out was 70% in 1997, historically on the low side, which plummeted to 59% in 2001, a historically modern day low, before recovering a little to 65% in 2005. If you look at the constituencies where turn out was lowest in the new Labour years, it was in Labour’s core areas, with parts of central Liverpool for example at barely 30%.

New Labour got away this because the Tories were so hated that they were unable to put up much of a fight of it, and in England at least, they didn’t have any opposition on their left, apart from the Lib Dems, who did gain steadily over the new Labour years, but are now in decline having spent the last five years being stooges for the Tories.

But now the chickens are well and truly coming home to roost. Although support has fallen for the Lib Dems, not all of these voters have returned to Labour in England. Many are now supporting the Greens or UKIP, but Labour’s big problem is in Scotland (and to a lesser extent Wales).

The Scots have increasingly warmed to the Scottish National Party (SNP), first putting the SNP in government in Scotland, under an electoral system designed specifically to deny any one party a majority, and now seem set to vote SNP for the Westminster parliament too.

The Scots by and large hate the Tories and grudgingly stayed with Labour at UK elections, and were rewarded by a Tory lite Labour government. Last year’s Scottish independence referendum has changed all of that now though. Public participation in the referendum was at an unprecedented 84% of the electorate and has galvanised civic involvement in party politics in Scotland. Party membership which has been in decline along side voter turn outs has risen sharply in Scotland for the SNP and Greens, (for the Greens in England and Wales too).

Opinion polls say that the SNP could win as many 50 MPs in Scotland, and the swing to the SNP is biggest in the traditional Labour strongholds of Glasgow and Edinburgh. The worm has finally turned it seems, in Scotland anyway, where something resembling a traditional social democrat alternative is on offer from the SNP. 

This all goes back to Blair with his triangulation politics and adoption of the prevailing neo-liberal consensus. Blair calculated that Labour’s traditional supporters ‘had nowhere else to go,’ and so must accept Labour’s lurch to the right. It wasn’t just in the UK that social democratic parties abandoned the left political ground, but all across Europe. But the fight-back has begun particularly in Greece and Spain, so left voters are increasingly being offered a viable left alternative.

Herbert Morrison, Labour deputy leader in Clem Attlee’s reforming 1945 government, (and incidentally, Peter Mandelson’s grandfather), once said, ‘Socialism is what a Labour government does’. Morrison was on the right of the Labour party in those days, I don’t think even what’s left of the Labour left will claim that now. 

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