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Is Labour legitimate?

David Clark says New Labour has ceased to be pragmatic.

Judging from the aura of triumphalism surrounding Tony Blair at this year’s Labour conference, the party hierarchy appears to have learned very little from its near death experience at the general election in May. Labour has secured its “historic third term” with a safe parliamentary majority and anyone expressing concern about the fact that this happened in spite of a big slump in the party’s electoral support is accused of disloyalty and defeatism. It’s a little reminiscent of the last Conservative government’s tactic of attacking anyone who pointed out that its policies had created two recessions for “talking the economy down”. Blaming the messenger is so much easier than facing up to the truth.

By historic standards, Labour’s majority of sixty-four seats is certainly high. On only two occasions prior to 1997 has the party managed to secure a majority of more than single figures – in 1945 under Attlee and in 1966 under Wilson. But that’s where the good news ends. In terms of share of the vote, Labour’s 35.2% is only marginally higher that the 34.4% Neil Kinnock scored in 1992 – a result deemed so bad that it required a programme of radical modernisation – and actually lower than the 36.9% Jim Callaghan secured when he lost in 1979. The scale of Labour’s reversal is even greater when we consider that another abnormally low turnout (61%) meant that Labour’s vote accounted for a mere 21.6% of the registered voters. Moreover, the closeness of the results means that Labour now holds forty-one ultra-marginals (those with a majority of less than 5%) compared to just twenty in the last parliament. Labour’s margin going into the next election will be much tighter than its sixty-four seat majority suggests.

For a single party to govern with such low levels of popular support is without precedent. As the Electoral Reform Society noted in its scathing analysis of the result: ‘In terms of active public consent for government, Britain is almost back in the pre-reform era of rotten boroughs.’ Yet there is very little recognition in the senior reaches of the Labour Party that this poses any particularly serious problems of democratic legitimacy or political strategy. The Government will carry on as if nothing has changed, using the parliamentary whip to drive through controversial and unpopular bills and refusing to act on its broken promise to give the British people a referendum on electoral reform. Blairite loyalists insist they have a moral as well as a constitutional mandate to govern based on polls showing that voters preferred a Labour to a Conservative government by a margin of 52% to 35%. While it is entirely plausible that most of those who voted for someone other than the main two parties saw Labour as the lesser of two evils, it would be extremely foolish to behave as if they had actually voted for the party. Therein lies the basis for the kind of backlash that could sweep Labour from power for another generation.

The electorate returned the Conservatives to power in 1992 for want of a credible alternative and turned savagely against them as soon as one appeared. The current political mood is more than a little reminiscent of that era. We have a visibly weary and demoralised governing party with an unpopular leader associated with a discredited policy (swap Iraq for poll tax) and nothing better to offer than more of the same. Add to this Labour’s crumbling local government base (a mirror image of the trend that prefigured the Conservative Party’s national collapse), and its dwindling, ageing and increasingly passive membership, and we have many of the classic ingredients for a seismic shift in the balance of political power.

Whether this happens at the next election will depend to a significant extent on the Conservatives’ ability to get their act together as a serious political force. It will also depend on whether Labour can renew itself in power in ways that allow it to reconnect with the four million voters it has lost since 1997.

The omens are not good. Instead of trying to build bridges to Labour’s disillusioned supporters, the prevailing reaction of Ministers and party managers has been to heap scorn on them. Even before polling day, those contemplating a protest vote were dismissed as self-indulgent, middle class liberals: “dinner party critics who quaff Shiraz or Chardonnay”, according to Peter Hain. Indeed, this curiously New Labour form of class hate has become something of a running theme. It has been advanced in a more subtle form by Health Minister Liam Byrne in his somewhat misnamed “freethinker paper” for the Fabian Society. On the basis of some rather doubtful psephological analysis, Byrne makes several points: that the liberal, urban intellectuals who feel most estranged from New Labour are a tiny segment (4%) of the electorate, that pandering to them would risk alienating larger and more important voter groups, that Labour lost votes to the right as well as the left and that the only battleground that counts at the next election will be the fight against the Conservatives for the political centre.

His conclusions ignore some rather important pieces of evidence to the contrary. As YouGov discovered, among the 32% of voters identifying themselves as Labour supporters, 13% voted Liberal Democrat and 9% failed to vote – a total of 7% of the electorate. Either there are more urban intellectuals than Byrne thinks or the phenomenon of Labour supporters deserting their party is more widespread. Evidence of a serious loss of support to the right is even thinner. Of the thirty-one seats the Conservatives gained from Labour, only twelve were won because of a rise in the Conservative vote. The rest fell because Labour lost votes to other parties, principally the Liberal Democrats.

There was only one region in the country (the South East) where the Conservatives recorded a bigger rise in their share of the vote than the Liberal Democrats. Everywhere else they were well behind and actually saw their vote drop in five out of nine English regions. Nor can there be any serious doubt about the reasons for this trend. On election day a Sky News poll showed that one-quarter of Liberal Democrats voters would have supported Labour but for the Iraq War, matching almost exactly the loss of Labour votes since 2001.

The collective refusal to come to terms with what has happened shows that New Labour, as a pragmatic political project, is now dead. Among the valuable contributions it made to the Labour’s revival as a party of power in the 1990s was a rejection of outdated shibboleths and an insistence that it should always engage with voters on their own terms. All of that is now history. It clearly never occurred to the Blairites that in a first-past-the-post electoral system their political coalition could fracture to the left as well as the right.

It was always assumed that the party’s core support would have nowhere else to go and could be ignored or even ridiculed for the purposes of triangulation. As a consequence they have none of the tools required to recoup Labour’s lost progressive votes, hence the regression to the old Bennite mentality of ‘no compromise with the electorate’. Where New Labour was once ruthlessly pragmatic in adapting to the times, its approach to political strategy has degenerated into a crude Pavlovian reflex. It doesn’t matter what the question is, the answer will always be a further lurch to the right.

Labour cannot begin to meet the challenge of renewal while Tony Blair remains in office, and the longer he stays, the harder it will be for his successor to arrest and reverse the party’s decline. New Labour’s inability to sustain the impressively broad electoral coalition of the centre and left that put it in power means that it must now be replaced by a new style of progressive politics.

The Blairites are right to warn against ‘a sharp swing to the left’, as Byrne puts it, but wrong to argue that their own brand centrist minimalism is the only serious option. There are plenty of things Labour could do to reconnect with its political base without threatening its hold on the centre. Adopting a foreign policy more independent of Washington would be a hugely popular step across the political spectrum. A new top rate of tax for those earning more than £100,000 would affect very few people, most of whom will never vote Labour. Replacing student fees with a graduate tax would be seen as a fairer way of funding higher education.

But there is one major change that Labour needs to embrace if it is to extend its period in office and create more space for progressive politics, and that is the adoption of a new electoral system for Westminster. It is ironic that Byrne makes the argument that Labour cannot afford to be hostage to 4% of the electorate, since that is precisely the proportion of voters holding the balance of power under first-past-the-post (20% of voters in the most marginal 20% of seats). Moreover, the socio-economic profile of this group is unrepresentative of Britain as a whole and creates a ‘centre ground’ well to the right of the nation’s true political centre. This option may be forced onto Labour’s political agenda anyway it loses those forty-one ultra marginals, so it would be preferable to make the change from a position of relative strength.

The skewed arithmetic of our current electoral system is already in danger of dragging the Liberal Democrats to the right and Labour needs a strategy for re-engaging with them as potential partners.

If it fails to develop one, the next phase of British politics may be a realignment of the right in the form of a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition.

David Clark is an ex-government advisor and writes for The Guardian.