After defeat at the 2015 UK election Labour talks about appealing to the ‘aspirational’ and David Cameron pledges before his cabinet ‘to give everyone in our country the chance to get on’. If we accept the premise that speaking to material self-interest is what politics is now all about, we still need to point out that neither party has any analysis or policies that make their proffered goals more likely. Powerful economic forces are splitting apart the have-more from the have-less, with these forces accelerated by the way in which discrepancies in wealth inevitably lead to discrepancies in political power and voice. In a way it makes sense for the electorate to choose the party that is more comfortable with managing this process, revealingly accepting that ‘the dignity of a job’, and ‘the pride of a paycheck’ may be the limited best it can offer its citizens – since any promises over the quality and security of that job and how far that paycheck might stretch appear beyond modern governments to fulfill.
So the upside of Labour’s decisive defeat in the election is the avoidance of the inevitable disappointment many supporters would soon be feeling after victory. This is not to say that the economy would not have performed somewhat better and that the lives of many would not have been significantly easier while Labour were in office, but it is unlikely that the malign trends observed in the British economy and in British society would have been much disturbed. Ultimately we would have ended up in much the same place, with inequality of wealth, power and voice as the dominating features of British life.
It seems that many at the top of the Labour party either do not share this analysis of self-reinforcing national division, or more probably, think that pointing it out or acting on it is not electorally viable. Maybe that is so in the short or even in the medium term, but there is another critical lesson from this election. This lesson is that what is, or is not, going to gather votes beyond cleverly-constructed falsehoods and scare-mongering designed to appeal to a simple and hierarchical vision of the world (described by George Lakoff as the ‘strict father’ view), is difficult to discern in advance.
The Labour party should therefore decide whether it wishes to compete on the same sterile ground as the Tories in the attempt to gain electoral victory above all else (by, for example, offering Lynton Crosby more cash than the Tories did), or whether we are willing to take our chances promoting a positive analysis the vast majority of members can believe in, come what electorally may. If that analysis stands a good chance of being correct, then we should be equipped to weather short-term electoral swings knowing that reality must eventually prove itself over propaganda. Moreover, if we have confidence in this analysis it provides a firm and coherent basis to the difficult arguments we will have, the nuanced stories we must tell and the radical policies we must recommend.
The effective return of Labour to government, whether in a more greatly devolved or even independent Scotland or in a still United Kingdom, must start with this economic and social analysis rather than personnel or strategy debates. In this I believe Ed Miliband’s instincts were entirely correct, but ultimately he was unable or chose not to act on those instincts. That, counter intuitively, was perhaps his major error; he should have been more of a geek, not less.