What phrase can I most remember from the campaign? Not ‘A Better Plan, a Better Future’, not even the decidedly fatal Coalition of Chaos. No, the Phrase of the Election surely has to be ‘Red Tory’. Mainly used by SNP advocates but a stinger from the wider Left directed at the Evil, Evil, Right of Centre Labour Party.
But I never heard it on the doorstep, though I did hear ‘betrayal’ and ‘not being for the working class anymore’, No. instead I saw it, repeatedly, on Twitter. While it turned out the perception stuck in Scotland, where the SNP’s effective but utterly dishonest narrative that, say, Labour voted for £30bn of cuts (they didn’t) or the SNP were anti-austerity (they aren’t), won the day among an electorate whose battleground for decades was one between three left-of-centre parties (Labour, the SNP, and the Lib Dems), the perception across England & Wales was not of ‘Red Tories’. In those nations, the Twitter accusations of this were coming from Green voters, who believed very much so in a ‘progressive majority’ out of which a ‘progressive alliance’ could be formed. In actual fact, those that believe in a progressive majority are way out of kilter with the rest of the public. First on Ed Miliband and Labour and secondly on the issues they believed Labour were too right wing on. A YouGov poll found that the public placed Labour firmly on the Left and Ed even more so. Polls, without a need to even cite them, consistently show our attitudes to welfare & immigration are increasingly conservative.
Yet we on the Left insulate ourselves from this.
This article from Sunny Hundal is astute:
During the election campaign there was boundless outrage about Miliband’s immigration policies even though on closer inspection most accepted the policies were actually quite sensible. I didn’t meet a single voter on the doorstep, even in London, who was turned off by the mugs, but plenty who wanted to know of Labour policies on immigration that would stop their wages being undercut. Yet all I heard online was blind outrage about those fucking mugs.
We talked often about the Tories being a virtual party on the campaign trial, but we never considered that our activists, supporters and leftist critics all exist in a virtual bubble too. We were confused as to why our Doorstep Adventures didn’t match our Twitter Adventures. On the doorstep, I never encountered anything about ‘left’ or ‘right’. The Blairite and Left arguments for why we lost have no corresponding evidence with what I recognised. I encountered, at least in the later weeks:
Immigration, the economy (THAT myth), Ed (Not the message, the messenger), and the SNP (Let us not forget we have sufficient data evidence now to say this was the main factor in the late swing back to the Tories).
I did not encounter arguments about ‘Red Tories’ anymore than I did about aspiration. I was bitten by more dogs and hospitalised, in fact.
Yet I still went home and spent hours arguing with SNPers and Green voters about austerity and Reeve’s comments on welfare, about immigration mugs. On whenever anyone in Labour said anything vaguely out of line with the strict rules of the Left. I sighed as the masochist in me scrolled through Guardian comments on how ‘The Labour Party is finished’ because, god I don’t even know anymore. I just know the reasons given were not the reasons I was picking up on the doorstep.
Don’t get me wrong. I got plenty of ‘Labour aren’t for working class anymore’. But it wasn’t to do with the policy programme. Undoubtedly the zero hours banning, minimum wage raising, rent capping manifesto would have absolutely helped millions of the low paid. So much so the SNP completely replicated it and transformed themselves as a social democratic party that was…well, Milibandite with added Murdoch. No, these cries against Labour were perfectly legitimate comments on the presentation of Labour as far away, metropolitan, SPADS. And if not, it was to do with welfare & immigration. Some of the complaints were actually demanding a rightward shift on such issues. Quite the opposite to what a lot of Middle Class Green Twitter folk were demanding.
The Left has such high standards for what is considered ‘left’ that they’ve made us an exclusive club that require strict preconditions for entering. Mostly these preconditions are for the Old Left. Take nationalisation. Ed was a remuneration committee, cooperative type of Labourite, all of which amounts to a form of public ownership. But that just wasn’t OLD SKOOL enough, dagnamit. NO ENTRY FOR YOU, ED.
The Left that yells ‘Red Tory’ accepts nothing more than Old Labour, refusing to see when an original idea is presented to them. For all its faults, ‘predistribution’ was an example of this. It was an entirely new concept for tackling inequality in a country where spending has fast become not an option. It is as dogmatic as the Blairites, failing to see the merits of new thinking. As the ‘modernisers’ are merely stuck in 1997, the nostalgic Left are still trapped in revisionist writings on the 1945 victory that don’t consider the social blue collar conservatism of working class communities Labour adopted by appealing to patriotism and empire, or the split between the Old Right and the Bevanites.
There are only two histories, with no accepted vision of the future other than returning to one of these strict visions of society.
You can apply this dichotomy to the huff and puff in inner circles over Ed Miliband.
Ed Miliband was too left for the Blairites and too right for the Old Left. He was ideologically lonely, but because he had his own ideologue.
When we look at Cameron, what do we see? What is Cameronism? In 2010, he positioned himself as a compassionate conservative, but since then has replicated Thatcherism bit by bit until the 2015 manifesto was simply an extension of her work, finishing off the job. We can discuss the merits of his success later, but the one word that sticks with him is ‘replication’. He isn’t original, there’s nothing about him that is new. He is a blank slate to be influenced by everyone else, instead of him influencing them.
(Added note: you never see the Right collapse into arguments about ‘Blue Labourites!’ whenever Cameron says anything slightly moderate, do you? A not-so-secret to their success is that they don’t break down over the internet! And then protest from the sidelines by joining 5 other minor parties because something something not right enough something something)
Ed Miliband was a different beast altogether. He tried to construct himself as a departure of both or every wing of Labour’s past. It was difficult to position him. He tried to construct a new centre ground. He was neither Compass nor Progress, and yet people in those groups tried to frame him as being part of the other. No matter his defeat, blaming him for being too left or too right is driven only by an agenda by either side, not by evidence. He abode to no convention. That may have produced an incoherent narrative that contributed to his downfall, but his pitch was nevertheless original.
And we seemed immune to the idea that someone could be original. Nevermind whether he was electable, we were too focused -on the Left- on infighting on Ed being a bloody ‘Red Tory.’ No-one outside of the internet actually cared, at least in England & Wales. The median voter is not dogmatic, so we shouldn’t be either.
I am a person of the Left, but one of a creative left, a new left. One that recognises that Miliband wasn’t a ‘Red Tory’, for crying out loud. One that recognises we are not the majority, and that just because a couple of Green voters on the internet thought Labour and Ed Miliband was ‘Right of Centre’, as even Josie Long for whom I admire put it, the public do not think as we do.
Instead of grimacing about the popularity of ‘welfare reforms’ -a phrase sinister to me but commonsense to most- we need to confront them. When Andy Burnham et al address this, and immigration, he is being populist. You wouldn’t get that from Twitter. That doesn’t make it right or just, as I have said here, but we need to recognise this isn’t being a ‘Red Tory’, this is recognising the Tories have ceded an issue and colonised a new centre ground. We need to reclaim that centre ground with arguments, rebuttals, and our own narratives. But we cannot start that by yelling at a candidate that recognises the public disagrees with us. We are not the majority. The 70% or so that support the welfare cuts are not all Tories or ‘Red Tories’. They are by definition being centrist on that issue. The centre gound on welfare & immigration has been ceded to the right because we are too busy laughing at Benefits Street on Twitter and expecting everyone else to laugh along with us.
Go out there and change minds, let’s not just assume Labour are seen as ‘Red Tories’ just because a young Green voter on Twitter is just so totally outraged at Andy Burnham. Question and address why the other 70% of the public seem to be influencing him to make this call instead. Question why populism isn’t always left wing. And most of all, question whether populism in our Twitterati bubble translates to populism in the real world.