…and Prepare for a Gubbing.
The first day of Labour’s conference in Manchester was a standard affair and made even more standard by a rather plodding “don’t-frighten-the-horses” speech from an Ed Balls who normally likes to position himself as a bit of a radical. Although he said some un-Labour-like things like squeezing Child Benefit, that’s not how commentators saw it. BBC economics editor Robert Peston asked:
“Can Ed Balls be austere enough? The shadow chancellor has a difficult trick to pull off: to be seen to be austere and fiscally righteous but not as austere as George Osborne, because then there would be little reason to vote Labour”.
Today, Ed Milliband is to lay out his 10-point plan for a better Britain but the tone has already been set: Labour continues on its Blairite path of wooing the better-off South East England where it is chronically weak and trusting the unions and the poor will keep buying their hollow socialist rhetoric because they have nowhere else to go. But—given an Eton-mafia-run Tory government in a dire economic situation where £128bn more than an already-disastrous plan has been borrowed—shouldn’t Labour be doing rather better in the polls than a wobbly 5% lead?
The most excitement came from Unite’s Len McClusky. The head of Labour’s biggest union donor today called on Ed Miliband to stop wooing middle class voters and increase the minimum wage to £8 an hour immediately. He dismissed Labour’s pledge to increase the minimum wage by £1.50 over the next five years and attacked Ed Balls’s plan to make real terms cuts to child benefit.
“The Scottish referendum had exposed the anger of working class voters ignored by the main political parties. It’s time for Labour to stop tailoring policies to ‘a few marginal voters in southern England’ and to focus on ‘working people’. We’ve been calling for a £1.50 increase in the minimum wage with immediate effect, not over a five-year period.”
When the most radical and thought-provoking ideas come from the unions and not the leadership—as happened in the disastrous Labour governments of the 1970s—then you know the party is in trouble. That it is complacent about its great tracts of English Midland & Northern urban heartlands is bad enough; their imploding Lib-Dem opponents there do give them plausible hope that inertia may not be too damaging.
But the most deckchair-rearrangement moment came when those stalwarts of the Scottish Referendum ‘victory’ were invited up to crowd the stage to receive applause and acclaim from assembled delegates. Looking along the faces you did recognise Darling, Murphy and Alexander—all of whom undoubtedly contributed to the result and deserve recognition for effective (if not indelible) contributions. But those are all Westminster; lost among the crowd, although properly placed centre stage were Lamont, Boyack and a sprinkle of faces from Scottish Labour. Like their contributions up to September 18th, not one of them stood out.
There were fulsome congratulations for “the team that saved the union” and, indeed if anyone on the union side chapped significant numbers of doors or manned ubiquitous street stalls, it was Labour. Airdie’s MP Pamela Nash paid tribute to “the role of the solidarity of the Labour Party in securing the UK’s future last week“. In the corridor outside was a 3m tall map of the UK showing target constituencies. This included Argyll and Bute. To be fair, there was no triumphalism but any onlooker could be forgiven in thinking all was well.
Whether Labour manage to out-poll UKIP in target constituencies south of the border or the traditional back-and-forth sees them inherit enough Tory votes to unseat Cameron remains to be seen. However, this UKIP novelty isn’t really that novel (think of the Alliance in the 1980s) and so Labour psephologists and tacticians ought to be able to cope. No-one can deny they’re in with a shout ‘dahn saff’.
But what is different and appears little understood by either Scottish Labour or their unionist masters on the bridge of the Titanic yesterday was what has been going on in Scotland both before and after the referendum. Where the NO camp managed to get fellow unionists working together it was usually with some distaste on both sides—a revelation for Labour that Tories still existed in numbers as a bolshy lot of genteel individuals; a revelation for Tories just how tribal and Stalinist any operation run by Labour was.
But the net result was not any meeting of minds likely to affect the rapidly looming May 2015 General Election. Labour seems not to have noticed that NO won by cosy middle class and cosy elderly combining to vote against any change that cosiness much. This is not Labour heartland. However, the massive 45% YES came largely from the less well off and the young (71%) who normally do comprise Labour heartland. Actually, as many as 40% of Labour voters broke ranks and voted YES.
Now that the ranks of the Labour Clubs—not to mention activists who are not on the payroll vote as MP/MSP assistants/researchers—have dwindled, Labour finds it increasingly hard to talk to people. This is because of an increasing awareness of policy betrayal, of talking socialist and acting Tory makes more and more ‘supporters’ hostile. Vox pops outside the conference found uniform hostility to Milliband as leader. Typical is a letter in today’s Scotsman from an ex-Labour member who finds Milliband indistinguishable from Cameron in presentation and policy.
But their real problem lies north of the border where a viable political alternativr has been running the show for the last seven years and undermining the patronage that used to be a pillar of ensuring local support for Labour. And if the machine is falling apart, its leadership has been execrable.
Iain Gray piloted it to a disaster on a scale previously unimaginable in 2011. Half the Glasgow constituencies and many in the Lanarkshire and Fife heartlands fell to the SNP. SInce then, Johann Lamont has bettered (worsered?) that dismal record by losing every single one of the eight Glasgow constituencies (plus N. Lanarkshire and Dundee) to YES. It is arguable that the voters will come back but the simplistic rhteoric at Manchester about having beaten ‘narrow nationalism’ entirely misses the point.
The letter in the Scotsman represents thousands of other Scots who no longer support Labour because they no longer recognise the party, especially in its leadership and especially because that leadership is so obviously ‘B’ team when compared to the John Smiths and Donnie Dewars that preceded it. But they are not nationalists (and probably resent the imprecation) and, though they may not be 40% of Labour, they’re not in single digits either.
Compounding Labour’s problems are the 16,000 new SNP and 3,000 new Green party members who have signed up in the last week. While some will be ex-Labour and the vast bulk are from (ex-?) Labour heartlands, most come from the disenfranchised who see the YES campaign and the parties behind it as the only ones holding out a positive beacon of hope—very like the one Labour used to hold out—for the future; that life could be better and that a politics other than nihilistic buggins’ turn adherents is the only realistic way to achieve that. In Dewar’s day, 90% of such people would have voted Labour. Not now.
So the febrile forty-one Scottish Labour MPs basking in their unionist glow in Manchester should enjoy the acclaim while they can. Not only are no new constituencies likely to fall to Labour but from Greenock to Glenrothes there large holes will be torn in a once-red map and a number of the loyal-but-invisible MPs Labour is so adept at producing will find themselves suddenly staring at their jotters.