speri.comment: the political economy blog

Ed Miliband didn’t convince the electorate, because he didn’t convince himself

An ambivalence towards the state meant Labour failed to offer a meaningful alternative to the Conservatives

Craig Berry, Deputy Director at SPERI

Craig BerryThe 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.

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Categories: Inequality, Politics and policy, SPERI Comment, Tax, Welfare | Tags: , , | 10 comments

Articles and comments posted on this blog reflect the views of the author(s) and not the position of SPERI or the University of Sheffield.

Comments (10)

  1. The result proves that the UK does not have an appetite for socialism, even the socialism-lite as described by Ed Miliband. Moving to the centre ground is the only option for Labour if it wants to get elected, however unpalatable that may be to many of the intellectuals analysing the result.

    • Thanks for your comment. The election result proved definitively that the UK does not have an appetite for conservatism or neoliberalism. For a governing Conservative Party to have received less than 37% of the vote is hardly a ringing endorsement, even if it is slightly higher than their last electoral disaster, and somehow mangled into a majority by a highly flawed electoral system. As usual, they would not have secured a majority at all had the centre-left vote not been split among 3-4 different parties in far too many constituencies. Politics is not simply about looking across the left-right political spectrum and picking what is the most electable point on it. How Labour can win is different to how the Conservatives can win. That was less true in 1997, but is very true now.

      • Totally agree with this, Craig. I read a couple of days ago – I can’t remember where – that the decisive factor in this election was simply the tens of thousands of voters in fifty or sixty key marginal seats. These are seats outside the cities which are neither horrendously impoverished nor particularly leafy. The crucial voters are people who are either at the upper-end of the working class and see themselves migrating from it, or at the lower end of the middle-class and not quite fully secure in their position. These are the people for whom mealy-mouthed Blairite platitudes about ‘aspiration’ actually mean something. But they’re not a representative sample of the ‘middle ground’ in the UK as a whole, even though they are critical to any party wishing to win a majority under our awful voting system. And let’s not forget: Labour were offering plenty of ‘aspiration’ between 1997 and 2010, and after the 2001 landslide they were haemorrhaging support even under Blair.

  2. Enjoyed yours and Andrew Gamble’s blog yesterday. It’s concerning that most commentators in the media seem to be pushing Labour to move more to a centre-right position. We have that already with the conservatives, Labour would be much better to push a clear alternative vision for the left.

  3. I agree that it is not just about a left-right spectrum. However, if Labour stick to the left they will lose again. As has been said in the media they need to appeal to the aspirational rather than just bashing the wealthy.

    Neoliberalism is an overused word these days – the Conservatives are actually rather statist and not neoliberal at all – think about housing policy as an example.

    • But what is ‘the left’? Opinion polls regularly show that the UK electorate is well to the left of the Tories on issues like the NHS, nationalisation of public assets etc. And, as Craig points out, 67% of voters (76% of the electorate) did not vote Tory in this election! I would suggest that the more than 3 million people who voted Green, SNP or Plaid (and a large chunk of the UKIP vote) were people for whom Labour was not left-wing enough (depending, of course, on how you define left-wing).

      As Zoe Williams rightly put it in yesterday’s Guardian, Labour’s problems will not be overcome by a change of leader or a calculated appeal to the aspirational. This is because its key challenge is fundamentally that it has lost its principled moorings, and in doing so misplaced its soul.

      Cynically trimming even further to the right won’t change that fundamental problem; it will simply alienate even greater swathes of the people who have donned their nose pegs and still voted Labour since around the time of Iraq. None of this is helped by the fact that whoever becomes leader will be yet another excessively young Oxbridge-educated policy wonk who has climbed the greasy pole and been parachuted into a safe seat via central office.

      • Neoliberalism is not an over-used word, it is an astonishingly under-used word. The commitment to all of our main parties to neoliberalism is something quite peculiar to British politics, yet most of the mainstream media never employs the term. You misunderstand what neoliberalism is; it is not the opposite of state intervention. It is essentially the valorisation of private enterprise above any sense of a public or collective realm. But this does not mean that neoliberals are not happy to use the state (which it itself redefined as apolitical) to enforce this order. Were it not for the state, collectivism would be impossible to prohibit.

        • That’s a really interesting point: the peculiarity of the UK. I find it quite intriguing that most of Britain’s neoliberal excesses of the past thirty years have taken inspiration from what is supposedly going on in the United States. Yet ironically, this increasingly misreads what is actually occurring across the pond. Just this week, Congress has scuppered fast-track trade negotiating authority for TPP and TTIP, and Hillary Clinton is rumoured to be considering finding ways to make college free. Both of these are stunning developments, not least since they come on top of a distinctly non-austere approach to dealing with the crisis, and an explosive growth rate out of it. Britain appears to be like a child self-flagellating on the basis of shared assumptions that others don’t actually share!

  4. Labour went wrong in many ways in this campaign. The area I live in went to a Tory, but one who was very engaged in his local community and has been for many years. People looked beyond his party (which he kept very low profile) to the personality. Labour brought in someone who, whilst sincere, no one had heard of and who seemed to offer very little. The big problem where I live was the collapse of the lib dem vote-that’s where the centre ground was where many people felt comfortable. It split between labour and the Tories, with the Tories getting the lion’s share-and at the same time, labour lost a lot to UKIP (yes, they came from Labour, not from the Tories as has been widely reported.) The combination of a charismatic local MP and a lack of centre ground led to a resounding Tory victory. I don’t know, in all honesty where Labour should sit but we certainly have gaps in the full spectrum of politics at the moment, with many people uncertain where they sit, confused by tactical voting and feeling unheard by the final result. That’s not healthy.

    • Absolutely. In the absence of any meaningful shift to PR, I would love to see a new Labour leader announce that, from now on, there were will be no candidate parachuted into any seats, and all Labour candidates will be people with genuinely local roots (say, who have lived in the constituency for five years) and selected by the local party in open primaries. Can’t see it happening, mind..!

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