Why the left lost

This blog was started a year so, but it’s taken all that time to gather my thoughts – now taking shape as a short book on politics. In any case, the aftermath of an election defeat seems a good time to start enunciating the basis of a better politics for the left.

I voted Liberal democrat in 2010, because I thought they were more committed to equality than Labour, and because of electoral reform and Iraq. The election of Ed Miliband made it possible for me to vote Labour again, but in the event my MP (Harriet Harman) was safe and I voted Green because I liked the universal basic income which they had, if not exactly proposed, at least put on the table.

On the 7th of May, the Conservatives won the election: and half the electorate voted for clearly right-wing parties (the Conservatives and UKIP). Oddly, these two things have little to do with each other. The Tories won in 2015 not because they gained votes but because the Liberal Democrat vote collapsed; even if the Liberal Democrat votes migrate to Labour (as some must have done, since the national Labour share held despite Scotland), under our electoral system this can help the Conservatives. And the outright left (counting Labour, the SNP and Greens but not counting the Liberal Democrats) did better in 2015 than 2010, in both seats and votes.


But this is small comfort to the left. Labour did not poll enough to come close to winning, and the left as a whole is not prevailing. What has gone wrong ? Four things strike me:

- Labour is seen as ‘unsafe’ on the economy and on Scotland
- the Tories are good at stigmatising the people they are going to hurt, making it harder to argue for protecting them. They are also good at building their own constituency, whereas Labour, when its policies succeed, can find it has worked itself out of a job.
- our current economic instutions mean that there can be a tension between the left’s liberal instincts on immigration and the interests of the indigenous working class in the labour and housing markets
- Labour looked reactive rather than creative. To look both reactive and unsafe is problematic. Even the SNP’s and Greens’ attack on ‘austerity’ and ‘cuts’ can sound like an attempt to preserve existing institutions rather than improve them.

It is said, truly, that Labour needs to appeal to a broader range of people: and, more dubiously, that this means moving to the centre – though the centre was a dangerous place for a party to be last week.

The left draws on a sense of injustice. That’s right, but not enough. The left needs to identify what is wrong with people’s lives, and how politics might change that.

I suggest: many people are working too hard, at jobs over which they have little control, on things they do not believe in and do not love. The inequality of wealth and income matters because it affects what people can do with their lives.

A politics that addresses this might include a universal basic income, worker ownership and management, and institutions that encourage a shorter working week. These are radical ideas, but ones of broad appeal; and it is always possible to start small.

Can such a politics be sustained within our existing electoral system ? Electoral reform could help, provided it doesn’t increase the control of party managers within parties. These policies will appeal to many already on the left; but, presented on their merits they could appeal to many who have never thought of themselves as left-wing at all. The left needs to surprise.