An ambivalence towards the state meant Labour failed to offer a meaningful alternative to the Conservatives
The scene was set, at the recent UK general election, for a turn to the left – as we have seen in many other Western countries – of precisely the kind that Ed Miliband pitched to the Labour Party in his leadership campaign, and then to the public, albeit in a slightly milder form.
After a prolonged economic crisis, inequality has become a core concern of a large part of the electorate, and even the chattering classes. The coalition government has presided over deeply unpopular spending cuts and an economic recovery which is, at best, uneven and exclusionary. And yet: Miliband delivered an abysmal electoral outcome, as the Conservatives shed their Lib Dem shackles and waltzed their way to a majority.
Miliband’s key failure has little to do with his poor communication skills, or apparent lack of experience. The clamour among some within Labour for a lurch back to the right is horrendously anachronistic: British politics has no centre-ground any more – the Lib Dems’ even more awful results show this. Our economy remains at an impasse, stuck between one further throw of the neoliberal dice, and an alternative developmental path where the destructiveness of phoney free markets is recognised.
The common thread among successful centre-left leaders in recent years has been their emphasis on a sense of voter empowerment, a message that, as citizens, we have the right and the capacity to decide how our society is structured. Fundamentally, this requires political leaders to promote a positive conception of the state, and it is on this point that Miliband has consistently wavered since becoming Leader of the Opposition.
The economic crisis has brought the opportunity to rediscover the quintessentially social nature of citizenship, no matter how the organs of the state are configured institutionally or geographically. Without the state, politics is empty. Many find the petty politics that we now endure alienating. Some find it entertaining. In the grand scheme of things, it is largely irrelevant. The idea that there existed a significant gap between the three (then) main British political parties, more so than any election for a generation, is really quite absurd. All were committed to a severe and self-defeating austerity agenda. The Conservatives won the game of ‘cuts one-upmanship’ in the eyes of our blinkered mainstream media, but they offered deficit reduction on a scale that cannot possibly be achieved.
Miliband’s inability to chart an alternative course stems from his uncertainty about whether he is pursuing a brand of progressive elitism, as his brother would have done (continuing New Labour’s approach), or more of a movement-based collectivism in which the state is something we act through, not just transact with. Recall Barack Obama’s ingenious ‘Yes we can‘ refrain (irrespective of how his presidency may have turned out in practice). It may have seemed simplistic, even infantile, but its meaning was clear. These are not words you can ever imagine being uttered by a Labour leader.
‘Hell yes‘ was the closest Miliband came in this election, but it is important to keep in mind that Miliband uttered this phrase not in order to mobilise support for a change of direction, but rather to convince people that he was strong enough to make the kind of ‘tough’ decisions that come naturally, and sometimes gleefully, to the right.
None of Miliband’s attempts at creating an underpinning narrative for his agenda focused on empowering people through collective action. Instead, Labour’s message was marred by a confusing mix of well-meaning managerialism and romanticised communitarianism.
Miliband’s only public critique of New Labour statecraft arose from his flirtation with Maurice Glasman’s Blue Labour campaign. Central to Blue Labour is the notion that the state, as well as the market economy, has dispossessed local communities of autonomy. In 2011, Glasman described New Labour’s ’embrace of the state’ as ‘manic’ and ‘almost Maoist’. But the question of how communities can defend themselves against market forces is left bafflingly unaddressed. Blue Labour has little to say about how the retrenchment of the state, through austerity, is the biggest threat to strong communities in Britain.
Miliband adopted ‘responsible capitalism‘ in 2011. By suggesting capitalism can be reformed, the concept sounded a bit lefty – New Labour suggested capitalism could be harnessed, but never tamed. Yet it offered no substantive role for citizens in taking back control over a rampant economy. Rather, we look to capitalists themselves to lead the change.
In 2012 Miliband introduced the odd ‘predistribution’ concept. It presented government as both limited in its interventions – eschewing the politics of redistribution – and overtly technocratic, in that it suggested state managers know best how to create good citizens.
Finally, Miliband gave us ‘One Nation Labour‘, the most blue of all his rhetorical ploys. ‘One-nation’ is a traditionally conservative concept, associated with Benjamin Disraeli. Indeed, David Cameron reclaimed the term in his first public remarks after his election victory had become clear. It suggests a version of society in which our common humanity matters as much as social order (or more precisely, that achieving the latter is dependent on recognising the former). It is, in a social democratic context, almost entirely meaningless.
‘One-nation’ presents the nation as an association, not a polity, and offered people looking to Miliband for hope nothing that they would not have already expected to hear from the Labour Party, even under Tony Blair. The prominence given to the concept in subsequent Labour communications tells us that, essentially, Ed Miliband did not know what kind of government he wanted to lead. It left him defenceless against the primitive appeal of austerity rhetoric.
Labour lost this election to the Conservatives. Conservatism has little ideological appeal in a post-crisis environment, as there is no order left to defend, but the Conservatives were extremely successful in perpetrating a politics of fear, against vaguely lefty otherness and incompetence, in order to acquire a vote share just about high enough (36.8%) to deliver a majority under our flawed electoral system.
Yet the election was lost to the SNP too. The SNP offered Scottish voters something that Labour did not: re-empowerment through transformed statehood. One does not really have to take a view on the plausibility of the SNP’s approach (I made my views clear at the time of the independence referendum) to recognise its appeal. Labour should be thankful the SNP’s nationalism restricts it to standing in Scotland alone – because it could well have demolished Labour candidates further south as well.
Ed Miliband should have done more to change the conversation. But crippled as he was by an ambivalence towards the state, he failed to convince himself what he wanted to do with power – so it is little wonder he failed to convince the electorate.