Why Labour is in crisis: the disastrous 1997 election

The worst thing to happen to the Labour party in the last 30 years was its landslide victory at the 1997 general election.

Ed Miliband: a vacuum of leadership (Wikimedia Commons)

Labour is currently undergoing an ideological crisis, similar to the one the Conservative party went through between its overwhelming defeat in 1997, and the election of David Cameron as leader at the end of 2005. It has no idea what it stands for or how to persuade people to vote for it. It is haemorrhaging its core working class voters to apathy, UKIP or worse. Its leader, Ed Miliband, is a catastrophe: vilified as a union puppet by right-wing commentators, but simultaneously, completely incapable of speaking for working people or earning their trust and confidence. The fact that Labour sympathisers now wistfully imagine how much better things would have been if David Miliband had won the leadership – even though the criticisms of Ed (out-of-touch, middle-class, London, Oxbridge, career politician / policy wonk with unfortunate ties to the Blair/Brown years) apply equally well to David – shows how poor and uninspiring the potential Labour leadership pool is.

The existential plight Labour now finds itself in is a direct result of its long period of electoral failure in the ’80s, followed by its resurgence under Tony Blair in the ’90s. Throughout the ’80s, under Neil Kinnock, Labour maintained its ideological position as a socialist alternative to Thatcherism. It could see the damage that neo-liberal free-market policies were doing to society, and foresaw what they held for the future: extreme income inequality which would eventually impoverish and disenfranchise the majority of people (rather than increasing everyone’s wealth as Thatcherites claimed). Unfortunately for Kinnock, the voters weren’t as perceptive and chose not to believe Labour’s warnings. The Conservative government’s greatest stroke of luck was that rising house prices and credit availability meant that, for a while, the middle classes did enjoy improved living standards, and rewarded Thatcher with repeated election victories.

By the ’90s, recession, sleaze and political infighting had made the Conservatives deeply unpopular. They surprised everyone, including themselves, by winning the 1992 general election under John Major, but it was a narrow victory. The resulting government was always a dead duck: it started weak, and got weaker, losing seats throughout its term of office, and was already in minority by 1997. But Kinnock, following his second general election defeat, had already resigned, and been replaced by John Smith, who continued to lead the party in the traditional socialist mould. Two years later, Smith died suddenly of a heart attack, aged 55, and the party, suffering a crisis of confidence after 15 years in opposition, chose the young Tony Blair to replace him. Blair persuaded Labour that socialism would always be an electoral non-starter, and reformed Labour into a pro-free-market (essentially, neo-Thatcherite) party.

John Smith: the last Labour leader (Wikimedia Commons)

Consider what would have happened if Smith’s heart had been a little more reliable, and he’d survived to lead Labour into the 1997 election. It’s simple: he would have won. Probably not as big a landslide as the youthful and charismatic Blair got, but a solid one nevertheless. Certainly enough to dispel the notion that the British public were inherently opposed to left-wing politics, or that openly opposing the march of free-market globalisation was electoral suicide. Smith himself was no firebrand, and wouldn’t have been the man to lead the fight against pernicious big business and wealthy elites. But within his party, in government and with a regained confidence in its ideology, a new generation of radicals would have grown up, who’d be coming of political age now. They might even have included Ed Miliband, but an alternate-universe version of him who wasn’t paralysed by indecision and political cowardice, but self-assured, fired up and hungry for 1%-er blood.

Instead, it was Blair who enjoyed success in 1997. That the success would have been inevitable under practically any leader (maybe even Kinnock), was largely ignored and forgotten. The Labour party chose to believe its own hype, and under the personality cult of Blair, took the result as a vindication of his ideology – or rather, lack of one. This is the reason Labour’s big win was a long-term disaster, which it’s still suffering the consequences of now.

Tony Blair: a poisonous legacy (Wikimedia Commons)

It had long been a truism in British politics that to win an election, you had to win over the middle class. The working class would clearly always favour Labour’s pro-union policies; the wealthy would equally clearly always support pro-business Tories. But the middle classes could be persuaded to regard their interests as being aligned with either group, and whichever party was most successful at doing that would achieve a majority. Labour failed to do that from 1979 to 1992 because the middle classes were bought off with house price rises and the aspirational promises of Thatcherism. Blair’s great party-strategic gamble was to abandon the winning Labour formula of ‘working class + middle class = electoral victory’, instead opting for a simple ‘middle class = electoral victory’ tactic. Since the middle classes had by then been well-conditioned by the windfall of almost two decades of Thatcherism, he needed to move his party significantly to the right, into pro-capitalist Tory territory, to achieve it. Meanwhile, he bet on the fact that the working classes would still vote Labour out of habit, even as his free-market policies further impoverished them. The poisonous legacy of this strategy is that it worked, not just well, but so well, that Labour still isn’t questioning it, even long after its assumptions have unravelled, the middle classes have been impoverished and priced out of their homes, and the working classes have deserted the party altogether.

What Labour used to tell the poor and impoverished was this: that it was the actions of the wealthy and powerful, the mechanisms of capitalism, and the Conservative policies which supported them, which were to blame for their impoverishment. Now, when that argument is truer than it’s been for almost a century, no-one in mainstream politics is making it. There is a complete absence of coherent economic explanations for mass impoverishment from left-wing political leaders, the very people who should be providing them. In that explanatory void, people have been left to come up with their own scapegoats, and since humans are, and will always be, tribal animals, a large part of that blame has fallen on easy targets like Muslims, immigrants and benefit claimants.

That’s not to say Labour should veer off to the looney left and start endorsing Marxist class war, or even anti-business policies. It doesn’t need to. There is a clear ideological position available which stands itself in opposition to global corporate and financial elites, and the impoverishment of the public for the benefit of those elites, but is simultaneously pro-business. It’s small and medium-sized businesses, not global giants, which create wealth, and it’s demand for products and services, from middle and lower classes with disposable incomes, which drive job creation and build a thriving consumer economy. The crucial point Labour needs to make is that fighting rampant income inequality, to the detriment of the 1% who benefit from it, is good for business.

That’s a straightforward argument, but it’s not immediately obvious, especially to a population conditioned by Thatcher and Reagan to believe that any policy which favours workers is automatically bad for business and employment. Labour strategists – many of whom probably agree with the argument – are baffled as to why the working classes are abandoning them in droves. But what’s equally baffling is why they would think that their core voters – by definition, the less well-educated working classes – would somehow magically ‘get’ this without ever having it explained to them. Labour needs to get out there and shove the argument in their faces, not tip-toe around it for fear of seeming too left-wing.

Chuka Umunna: a corporate quisling (Wikimedia Commons)

What Labour needs now are firebrands, in the mould of Michael Foot or Tony Benn, to define its identity. They don’t need to be party leaders, but they do need to exist within the MPs’ ranks, and be given the opportunity to speak. Unfortunately, the influence of the Blair victories is that anyone of that ilk has been purged from the party, and replaced by corporate patsies like Chuka Umunna – a Labour shadow business secretary who takes donations from gambling companies and has his advisers provided gratis by global tax-dodging experts PwC.

Blair’s landslide victories entrenched Labour as a vacuum of ideology, completely lacking any passionate, sincere left-wing principles. He kept it going by force of personality alone, at least while he was still popular. Now, Labour is bereft of both ideas and personalities, just another group of unpopular elites, trying to fight a popularity contest.

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