Currently the Labour party finds itself in what Jon Cruddas has called ‘the greatest crisis [it] has faced’ … epic in its scale’. In the recent election campaign Labour ‘play[ed] it safe’ by thinking it could ‘get over the line’ by not taking any risks (which probably means saying anything of substance). According to Will Straw Ed Miliband is ‘a decent and principled man … who never connected with the electorate’. One imagines he didn’t mean the electorate is not decent or principled. Straw does go on to point out that Labour’s middle-class vote was steady; it was working-class voters who were unpersuaded by Labour. Specifically, he refers to ‘the working-class voters, many of whom are highly aspirational, that we have lost in post-industrial areas’, before saying ‘we need more than a telegenic leader talking about aspiration’. So – to sum up, a failure to persuade traditional Labour supporters to vote for the party, perhaps because there seemed little to vote for; and then the word apparently on everyone’s lips at the moment, aspiration. A circle that needs squaring, but more of that later.
Meanwhile, with regard to the vote on 7 May, David Cameron is praised for his success in increasing the number of Conservative MPs, while media commentators also insist that politics is not what it was; there is a new game in town. However, if the latter is the case, then comparisons with what has gone before are problematic. If voting statistics have any validity (and any social science student should be able to drive a bus through the holes in that argument), an elementary reading might lead us to infer that the Conservatives, far from having a mandate to govern, let alone an overwhelming mandate, are only slightly less unpopular than Labour (if anything, Labour did win the contest to increase its popular vote and share of the vote). Given the role played by so-called small parties, this kind of number-crunching speculation could go on indefinitely; and so, predictably, sooner or later, proportional representation will have to be invoked as the dashing hero who will save us all. If we accept that there is a new game in town, we must focus on the inadequacies of first past the post, married to emergent regional features.
One common narrative, then, concerns Labour’s decline, over-shadowed by the SNP in Scotland, the UKIP in the north of England, the Conservatives in the south-east, and the Greens in Brighton. Funnily enough, there is greater reluctance to talk about the relentless decline of the Conservatives, which only remains an electoral force because, well, because: the Conservatives have become less popular over time and Labour has failed to replace them as a party of government on anything more than a temporary basis. One might argue that unpopularity works for the Conservative party since it depends on voter passivity. Labour, on the other hand, depends on voter activity (the problem then is that voter activity might mean raised expectations, something Labour is quite uncomfortable about). All of which suggests the game is anything but new in a class society that remains stubbornly resistant to change. In the 1960s, Harold Wilson wanted to make Labour the natural party of government; however, for whatever reason, before and since Wilson, Labour has only ever seemed to be a squatter awaiting eviction (as Cruddas might have put it, if we keep the noise down, perhaps the neighbours won’t call the police just yet).
In the 1930s, George Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England sought to explain the rise of Labour at the start of the twentieth century. In spite of a landslide victory in the 1906 election the Liberals, wrote Dangerfield, ‘[were] already doomed’ because of the rise of Labour (22), even as ‘those scandalous and impertinent revolutionaries’ quickly demonstrated there was nothing for respectable society to fear, ‘becom[ing] as time passed just a minor and far from militant act in the pantomime at Westminster’ (23). Dangerfield’s readers (the book was first published in 1935) would have had the Labour government of 1929-1931 in mind: since then, the party had split and ceased to be of relevance, or so it seemed, the failure of one alternative to the Conservatives followed by the failure of its replacement. Dangerfield has come to mind here because a recent article on Counterfire charts the decline of the party led until 8 May by Nick Clegg (not Dangerfield’s Liberal party, of course, although the mistake is often made). On Counterfire, Alistair Stephens describes ‘the second strange death of Liberalism’, evidently a reference to Dangerfield, although he focuses on the split in the Liberal party after 1916. As has just happened, the Liberals suffered then after an electoral coalition with the Conservatives, firstly in wartime, then in the 1918 election (although the 2010-2015 period has not been quite the same). According to Stephens, Clegg wanted to make the Liberal Democrats into a party of government, that is, trustworthy. Perhaps, another way of putting it, another media cliché, Clegg wanted to follow Blair in demonstrating that he has ‘a safe pair of hands’. But demonstrate to whom? The electorate? Parts of the electorate? Perhaps this is no more than the project of the company deciding to sponsor the arts or sport: get the brand in the public eye, get them used to seeing it in that context (a theatre, Lord’s cricket ground), become part of the furniture, not out of place. The more one thinks about it, then, far from a new game in town, the story is depressingly familiar.
If one does recall Wilson’s aim to establish Labour governments as more than a deviation from the Conservative norm, it is worth going back to David Coates’ article in New Left Review in 1996: just a few months before the election of a Blair government so desperate to prove it could be trusted with the economy it committed to Conservative spending plans (on Blairite gradualism after 1997 see Emmerson & Frayne’s 2005 Election Briefing for the IFS; or Coates’ chapter, The character of New Labour, in New Labour in Power, Coates & Lawlor eds, Manchester University Press, 2000). In 1997 Labour’s majority of 179 ‘apparently put them in the driving seat for electoral contests into the next century’ (Russell, New Labour and the electorate, in Coates & Lawlor, 16). However, this majority rested on tactical voting and was therefore somewhat brittle. One might infer an association between anti‑Conservative tactical voting and the Labour strategy of appealing to non‑traditional (that is, middle-class) support (25-29; see also Evans, Curtice & Norris, 1998). If the party does benefit from tactical voting by non-traditional voters they cannot do anything shocking, which might be said to make the exercise pretty pointless. If Labour is only ever prepared to play the nice version of the nasty party, is it surprising that voters of all persuasions remain unconvinced? In which case the failure is not one of radicalism.
Nonetheless, to date, the 2015 post-mortem has simply recycled the same old arguments about Labour’s need to be realistic and modernise; and so Peter Mandelson and David Miliband have been wheeled out to tell us Blair was right all along. Not mischievously rocking the boat, or settling scores, but simply telling us the truth. Labour is threatened by the UKIP in ‘its northern heartlands’ but that doesn’t mean some kind of social democracy; rather, they have to become the party of the aspirational. In Miliband’s words, Labour must ‘embrace a politics of aspiration and inclusion, a politics that defies some of the traditional labels that have dogged politics for so long’. However these ‘labels’ only apply to Labour politics, it seems. Clegg has been attacked for betraying his principles; but Labour is attacked for not being pragmatic and cynical, for not doing whatever needs to be done to get into office (if not, following Benn, into power).
So what does aspirational mean? A moment’s consideration should expose it as the kind of vacuous term likely preferred by those who fear the hard work involved in explaining anything. Would anyone admit to not being aspirational? Mandelson referred to ‘middle income earners’, while Tristram Hunt spoke of ‘the aspirational John Lewis couple’. So aspirational is code for those who want to think themselves middle class; but the term only makes sense if there are two clearly identifiable groups, each defined by their distance from the other, those who are aspirational and those who, one imagines, couldn’t care less.
Has Labour, then, become the party of those who couldn’t care less? Those who are apathetic, happy to wallow in non‑aspirational squalor? Well, yes – perhaps. For those on the right frequently invoke an underclass, a folk devil whose apathy and cynicism have exposed the inadequacies of a welfare state associated with Labour (more and more, Labour’s grasp of the kind of conviction politics that shapes the marketing of a Thatcher or Farage, say, is to claim ownership of a fetishised NHS). The underclass includes anyone working hard solely at auditioning for Shameless or Benefit Street; wherever they shop, it seems it isn’t at Waitrose. And this is not to forget the benefit tourists who flock here from all over the world to rip ‘us’ off.
This sponger element is a neoliberal fantasy, but one that has been allowed to pass for reality because Labour confirms it. Here we do come, finally, to what has emerged, since the 1980s, as the purpose of the Labour party: to make what Conservatives do seem reasonable. If Labour has failed to become the natural party of government, it still has an important ideological function in establishing neoliberal ideas as unavoidably, even painfully, normal. Just the way things are and the way things have to be. Since 2010 many Conservative reforms (if that word can be used) have been made a lot easier because the government was pushing at a door left open by Labour. Hence, the NHS and education have suffered from attacks on local authorities made acceptable by Labour before 2010. Similarly, the Blair government demonised welfare claimants, establishing the assumption that they have to be presumed guilty of cheating and must therefore prove their innocence. And so, if Conservative hegemony does rest on Labour acquiescence, a new game in town is certainly needed.