Sunday, May 10, 2015

What Next For Labour?

Last one about politics for a good long time, I promise!

Probably the big issue for UK politics for the next five years, more important than the EU referendum, is the question of how the Labour party are going to respond to this defeat, how they're going to rebuild, and what they can do to stop the Tories in 2020. Because otherwise, we're going to be looking at Tory rule for a very long time.

But before they can go too far, Labour have to work out just why they lost. Because if the answer is one thing, the response goes one way; if it is another, then the response is quite different.

I think, but am not certain, that the problems are threefold:

#1: Jim Murphy is almost right

In his speech after the defeat, JM commented that the SNP had cost Labour votes outwith Scotland. This is wrong, but it's almost right. In truth, the SNP couldn't take any votes from Labour down South, for the simple reason that they weren't standing. But the threat of the SNP almost certainly did cause some people to vote Tory.

(But the nuance is important - it doesn't actually matter how Scots voted; even if every single Scot had voted Labour instead of SNP, it would still have looked like we were going to send 50 SNP MPs down to Westminster, so the threat would still have worked. And it will work next time, too.)

#2: I was wrong

My big objection to Labour, the reason I'll probably never vote for them again, and indeed the reason I dislike them even more than the Tories, is their move to the Right under Tony Blair. And, in particular, their rejection of a principled position in favour of triangulating to capture votes in middle England.

The problem is that Tony Blair and his team are right - there's no point in taking a principled position if you don't have power. In order to do anything useful, Labour must first win an election, and in order to win that election, Labour must win in England. Scotland might add a few MPs here and there (but don't count on it), but if middle England demands a right-of-centre government, then that's what they'll have - be it the Tories or a Blairite Labour.

#3: The Wrong Man for the Job

But it's also the case that Ed Miliband simply couldn't beat David Cameron. In fact, he was defeated by a bacon sandwich.

No, seriously - that one image was the end of his hopes of being Prime Minister. Because, stupid as it is, what we want from our leaders is that they're tall with good hair. Ed Miliband may be a perfectly nice guy, he might be a complete genius, but in the court of public opinion he's not the man for the job. Sorry Ed.


I don't like to say it, but the future's Blairite. In order to come back with a winning proposition, Labour need to do a few things:

Firstly, they need a new leader. Someone tall and polished, with clear speech and refined manners, and someone who absolutely won't scare middle England. Chuka Umunna seems to be the media's preferred candidate, and also seems to be Tony Blair's choice. And he's probably as close to being the right man (person) for the job as anyone.

Secondly, they do indeed need to move back to the right. Not, as Tony Blair inaccurately says, the "centre ground", because even under Ed Labour were already on the right. They need to move further that way, and towards the Tories. And they absolutely must find someone, somewhere, with a rock-solid understanding of economics as Shadow Chancellor. (And if they don't have someone, then they need to make an interim appointment and send someone off to become an expert for a couple of years. Make no mistake, though - by the time of the next election they need someone with impeccable credentials in that role in order to win.)

Thirdly, UK Labour need to quietly but firmly push Scotland out of the door. There are, again, two reasons for this. Firstly, Scotland has rejected the Blairite approach, so the strategy Labour would need to win back Scotland is very different from the one in the rest of the UK, and that won't work. Secondly, as long as Scotland looks like sending a bunch of SNP MPs, the Tories have a great big stick to batter Labour with. (And unless the SNP implode spectacularly or Scottish Labour produces a Messiah, Scotland will look like sending a whole bunch of SNP MPs.)

Incidentally, it's worth noting that the Tories are just better at this politics lark than the rest of us. They know that a strong SNP operating in the UK is a potent weapon for them to use to hold power. So expect to see David Cameron picking lots of high-profile but symbolic fights with Alex Salmond over the next five years, and indeed publicly losing a few. Further, expect to see Scotland being devolved greater and greater responsibility for itself within the UK, but stopping short of Devo-Max/Full Fiscal Autonomy. (Frankly, I think the Tories would be quite happy for Scotland to leave - provided it doesn't actually happen while they're in power. David Cameron won't want to go down in history as "the Prime Minister who lost Scotland"... but if it can be arranged such that that blow hits just after Labour's next PM takes office, so much the better.)

Problem is, I'm not sure even that would be enough - I suspect the next Tory leader will be the inexplicably popular Boris Johnson, and I'm not sure any Labour leader could beat him.

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