The European and local election results were bad. The response to them from most of the Labour Party has been even worse. It feels as though the chances of getting rid of this awful Tory Government are now seeping away, completely unnecessarily. This is not another moan about Ed Miliband: the problems go much wider than the leadership issue, though that is always the aspect which fascinates the media.
Many of us who are not members of Labour and have little faith in it nevertheless understand that the only realistic alternative to a Tory-led government is a Labour-led government. Sadly from my point of view, the chances of Caroline Lucas becoming Prime Minister next year are not great. Although radical MPs and campaign groups can usefully put pressure on Labour, it will either be a Tory or a Labour leader who is Prime Minister after the next election.
Despite my expectations of Labour not being high, there are three minimum points which many people who view Labour as their second or third choice party in a tactical voting situation would want to see. All three are quite straightforward.
First, we expect to see from Labour some coherent critique of the Tory Government’s economic strategy. The only time that came close was when Ed Balls ran for the Leadership and put forward a clear set of Keynesian arguments, which he appears since to have completely abandoned. It’s hard, even for those of us who try to follow these things fairly closely, to know where Labour now stands.
Second, we want Labour to acknowledge that many of those who vote for it do so for tactical reasons which follow from the first-past-the-post electoral system and the many barriers which exist to newer political forces making their voices heard. There is an institutional inertia in British politics which leads Labour into an exaggerated view of how much support it has. I would like to see Labour acknowledge this and show a bit of humility, for instance by withdrawing its candidate standing in Brighton against Caroline Lucas. That would be an important acknowledgement that Labour recognises the existence of the multi-party coalition of voters it actually depends on to get elected.
Third, Labour is too attuned to the issues which loom large within the Westminster Bubble and not enough to those outside it. As someone who used to work as a House of Commons researcher, I know that the things which excite people there are not necessarily the same as those which concern what were quaintly called “people outside”.
There is one issue above all where Labour is still failing to be attuned: immigration. My fear is that most of those who voted UKIP a month or so ago will vote tactically for the Tories at the next election, putting Cameron back into Downing Street. That won’t principally be because of Europe, but because of immigration. The frightening levels of support for UKIP represent an attempt to send a message, and it’s not good enough for Labour to say it will listen, unless it is actually prepared to do so.
At first sight it’s an attractive vision of freedom if we could all live exactly where we choose – but this has to be balanced against the rights of the people who already live where we’d like to live. That balance needs to be struck as fairly as possible, and the electoral warning all non-Tories received recently indicates that has not been achieved. Many white working-class people feel they are losing out as a result. Labour’s retreat from class politics has often made it easier for it to be sensitive to other forms of disadvantage, but class hasn’t gone away. The claim that Labour would be more attuned to concern about immigration if it had remained closer to the working-class roots of the Labour movement looks very plausible.
The EU principle of the “free movement of labour” has often served the interests of capital better than it has served the interests of labour. It was a founding principle when there were just six EU member states, not very different from each other in terms of economic development. Today it has become dangerous to apply it over a far larger and much more economically unequal area, particularly now at a time of high unemployment. It would be much better to have some sort of agreed EU policy of automatic ceilings on numbers of people moving to areas of high stress, instead of the people who live in those areas feeling they have to vote for right-wing populists or even fascists in order to try to protect their interests.
In the late 60s and again in the late 70s, Labour failed to reform the trade union movement, with disastrous consequences which included the election of the Thatcher Government and its all-out assault on trade union rights. Today I’m afraid that if Labour and others on the left and centre-left don’t come up with a fair policy for limited immigration, a future right-wing Government – Tories under pressure from UKIP – will call into being something far far worse.