Political Short Termism: The (Second) Biggest Loser of GE2015

Conservative Party activists wear face masks of Scottish National party leader Nicola Sturgeon during a stunt outside the Houses of Parliament, in central London

One (very) last thing to say about the election, before a lengthy moratorium on posts about party politics. Here’s a rubbish intervention in more mundane matters, having essentially said secede from Westminster’s jurisdiction and start self-sustaining hippy communes the other day.

Really, second only to the vast majority of the population, political short-termism was the biggest loser of the 2015 General Election – most notably in relation to Clegg’s dalliance with the Tories, and the Labour Party’s embrace of New Labour.

In 2010, Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems threw aside most of their principles for a shot at power with the Tories.

They knew that minority partners in coalition governments tend to be smashed the next time an election comes around.They knew that five years in Downing Street with David Cameron was very likely to alienate three core components of the Lib Dem vote – rural progressives who’ve traditionally voted Liberal to keep the Tories out, students who supported their tuition fees stance, and directionless anti-establishment voters who used them as a protest vote.

And they really should’ve known that the Tories would do their utmost to destroy them. Chris Huhne, ex-Lib Dem MP, Coalition minister and jailbird, recently said he first realised Cameron was planning to annihilate his party when, during the Alternative Vote referendum campaign in 2011, the Tories personally attacked Clegg for going back on his tuition fees pledge, something they insisted he do as part of the coalition agreement.

On May the 7th, the Lib Dems were predictably massacred. They went from having 57 MPs in Parliament to having eight. It remains to be seen whether they can recover.

In the early 1990s, the Labour Party was desperate to win after losing four successive general elections. When party leader John Smith died suddenly, he was replaced by young ‘moderniser’ Tony Blair.

Blair argued that Labour kept losing because it was too left-wing, and too focused on the interests and values of its working-class core support. In order to win, the party had to embrace market economics and big business, abandoning what he portrayed as an outdated fixation with taxing the rich and nationalisation to win over aspirational middle-class voters in marginal constituencies.

In 1997, the strategy worked spectacularly well. ‘New’ Labour won the biggest landslide victory in its history. It worked again in 2001 and 2005, albeit to a lesser extent each time.

The New Labourites congratulated themselves on discovering what they saw as a formula for electoral success. Ever since, even under Miliband, Labour’s political strategy has always been about trying to out-Tory the Tories on certain issues.

But in the long run, that same formula will very likely prove to have been disastrously short-sighted, and actually spell the end of Labour as a party of majority government.

New Labour worked when it did because the Tory Party was profoundly unpopular after eighteen years in government, even among its own traditional supporters. New Labour’s rightward lurch managed to attract not just affluent swing-voters, but disgruntled Conservative supporters too.

But now the Conservatives have rejuvenated themselves. The kind of people attracted by Tory-style policies can now happily vote Tory again. And many do, especially given the now-widespread idea that even thoroughly neoliberal, respectability-obsessed New Labour spent too much in power – the kind of right-wing economic myth that the Blairites did nothing to refute during their years in office, and a hell of a lot to cement.

In the meantime, they also did a huge amount to alienate their long-suffering core supporters in post-industrial areas around the country. Armed with the kind of immense power a huge parliamentary majority gives a government, the New Labourites did little to help mend the communities that had been so battered by Thatcherism, and had so loyally voted Labour all the while.

Yes, there was talk of ‘regeneration’, but that usually meant knocking down bits of their industrial heritage to put up executive apartments. New Labour was too busy cheerleading for the rampant neoliberalism that’s brought precariousness and misery to millions to worry much about the little people.

Especially with Labour itself echoing the xenophobic anti-immigration rhetoric spewed forth by the Sun and the Mail, for many it was all too easy to look at new arrivals from Eastern Europe, look at their own measly wage packets, struggles to find work and inability to get housing, put two and two together and get five. The twisted idea that immigrants, not elite-driven neoliberalism, are to blame for thirty years of stagnating or declining living standards has been fundamental to the rise of UKIP in areas that were once solidly Labour.

Many more self-consciously left-wing Labour supporters have abandoned it too – some for the Greens, Plaid Cymru in Wales and the SNP in Scotland. Wherever they’ve gone, they’re now often even more implacably anti-Labour than the Tories are.

And speaking of Scotland, Labour topped off a decade of neglecting one of its most important heartlands by committing electoral suicide, joining the bullying, scaremongering, Tory-funded Better Together campaign during last year’s Scottish Independence referendum. The anti-independence camp won by a comfortable margin, but Scottish Labour supporters defected to the Scottish Nationalists in droves. It’s difficult to see what could possibly win them back.

In its fanatical quest to win over affluent hyperindividualists in suburban swing seats, Labour has probably fatally undermined its ability to decisively win a general election.

Swing seats are unavoidably important under First Past the Post (Blair should’ve introduced Proportional Representation, too), but so is ensuring that you don’t alienate your core supporters so much that your safe seats become swing seats.

What’s more, there’s nothing that says well-heeled swing-voters have to be horribly right-wing. With sustained effort over years, Labour might’ve been able to convince them that balls-to-the-wall neoliberalism actually wasn’t very good for them, or almost anyone, contrary to the messages they’d been receiving from the Tories and the press. They could’ve used the now-readily available evidence showing that everyone, even the rich, do worse in unequal countries than in egalitarian ones. They could’ve helped make the kind of rampant self-interest that’s now Home Counties bread-and-butter socially unacceptable. Slowly, they might have been able to push society back in a more community-spirited, compassionate direction.

But they didn’t. And so Labour’s dead in the water.