The results of Thursday’s election in the UK took us all by surprise. None of the P’s predicted it, neither pollsters, nor politicians, nor pundits. As the exit polls came in and the final results were predicted, political leaders vowed to eat their hats, or their kilts, if they were right, and now they must make good on those promises.
To my mind there was only one interesting surprise, the Labour Party’s failure outside Scotland.
That the Scottish National Party did well was no surprise at all. It was accurately predicted. The Referendum on Independence had energised politics in Scotland and Scottish consideration of Scotland’s interests. But I hope that the rejection of the Unionist parties doesn’t mean that Independence is the goal of all those who voted SNP.
The shocking collapse of the Lib-Dem vote (to which I would have added my own if I were not disenfranchised by 15 years’ residency outside the UK) was predictable, if not its appalling extent.
UKIP polled more or less as expected, and, unjustly, won only a single seat.
The real surprise was the failure of Labour. After the left-centrist politics of the Blair years, and encouraged by the Unions (whose influence won Ed Miliband the party leadership), the Labour Party moved consciously to the left, towards the ground it occupied in the 1970s and 1980s, both in policy and in language. Ed Miliband’s rhetoric, no doubt milder and more digestible than that of his Marxist intellectual father, was still based on an academic vision of class war, of the proletariat asserting its power. He saw the financial crisis of eight years ago as the predictable result of unfettered capitalism, a manifestation of its theoretical evils ,to be improved, if not entirely replaced by a socialist economic system designed in the university laboratory. New Labour’s cool about people becoming filthy rich as long as they pay their taxes, has no place in Ed Miliband’s emotional palette.
This old-socialist model is the prism (red and dead) through which Ed Miliband sees the world, but I suspect it’s not a vision that appeals to the ‘working families’ of today to whom he repeatedly referred in his speeches (though, who are they?). In reality he’s no more comfortable having tea with the ‘working classes’ than David Cameron, though I fancy Dave can eat a hamburger more elegantly. But I don’t think the geeky academic other-worldliness lost him the election, rather an ideology that doesn’t make sense any longer, that doesn’t chime with how people see themselves, and that can’t be applied to the economy we live and work in.
Of course, socialism can be a good thing, even without the Marxist theory. Let’s regulate capitalism, but not replace it. (To her credit, Margaret Thatcher saw that what ‘working people’ want is not class war, but a share of what the richer folks have – property and possibility. Fairness, not collective ownership.)
Ed is now out, so what comes next? I’d suggest the Party put aside Das Kapital, but take some account, instead, of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. There’s a good argument to be made that inequality is a danger in itself. So, keep the proposals for an asset-value-oriented Mansion Tax, abolish the Non-Dom status, keep bashing down the walls of privilege and exclusion, don’t pander to xenophobia, but don’t be the Party of ‘working people’. Forget class. Take the vision and argue the case with everyone. The Labour Party needn’t be the party of ‘working families’ alone.
As for a new leader, jump a generation. Don’t choose between the Blair-ites and the Brown-ites. Choose someone new. I’d vote for Chuka Umunna myself.
And as for the SNP, whoever rules must now bow to the pressure for devolution. It’s fair that Scotland is asserting its own interests (I’m sure it’s that sense of making Scotland heard in Westminster rather than the ‘progressive’ aspect of Nicola Sturgeon’s policies that won the SNP their seats). But let’s keep the Union. Don’t let legitimate regionalism mutate further into toxic nationalism.
Why didn’t anyone foresee what was going to happen? Why were there so many ‘shy Conservatives’, saying one thing to the pollsters and then doing another? Could it be because Labour misguidedly puts itself forward as the ‘moral’, rather than the ‘pragmatic’ choice, and that we tell the pollsters how we would like to vote, not how we will.
Socialists don’t accept human nature as it is (Marx supposed that it could be transformed through Socialism). They have a generous but unreal idea of our human capacity for altruism. When we get to the ballot box we usually vote in our own narrower interests. At that moment, in private, we vote as we are, not as we would wish to be. The new Labour leadership must recognise that.