Sleepwalking to irrelevance, pt II

by Lisa Ansell

There can be no doubt that New Labour is over. As had repeatedly been warned, attempts to maintain the status quo, in the hope that people would be cross enough to return to the Labour party, without it addressing the reasons people are angry in the first place, did not succeed. In the purest economic sense, Labour is currently a right-wing party, with the confidence of the market at its heart. Like many of Europe’s “left wing” political parties, with right wing economic strategies, they have found themselves in crisis. The financial crisis revealed that neo-liberalism can no longer even appear to be tallied with values of equality and redistribution. It is toxic to the majority now, not just the marginalised few.

Since the disastrous election result, there have been bitter recriminations within the Labour party about the failed gamble on the “progressive majority”. Ed Miliband had declared himself the “progressive champion” three days after last years netroots conference. The conference had been the cherry on the cake of an attempt to co-ordinate the Labour-supporting blogosphere. Ed tried simultaneously to frame Labour as the party of opposition to the cuts, while distancing himself from opposing the cuts that hurt the most vulnerable. Promising market confidence, and attaching himself to aspects of the perceived “left” which did not require a change in economic policy. The “progressives”.

The “left”, as Labour views it – a spectrum with itself at the moderate heart – is dead. It has had no relevance for a long time outside the imaginations of those at Labour’s Islington epicentre. It is certainly does not found on the political map that is unfolding. The “liberal left progressives” whom Ed Miliband wanted to champion, are among the more toxic aspects of the Labour brand. An arrogant “liberalism” which assumes the ignorance of those it dictates to, and assumes all faults lie with those who do not agree.

The “Yes to AV” campaign’s approach of telling people they were stupid if they didn’t want AV, and then not only blaming them for the failure of an insulting and patronising campaign, but for apparently condemning Britain to an eternity of Conservative hell fire, was a clear demonstration of the problem.

The liberalism at the heart of Labour’s progressive “majority” is a tedious distraction to those whose belief in market forces attracted them to Labour. “Progressives” willing to sacrifice the most vulnerable in our society for their own political survival (while crying socialism and fairness) demonstrate a hypocrisy which alienates people across the political spectrum. The factionalism of an “old left” who want to resurrect battles long lost, remains as toxic as it has ever been.

The research done by Searchlight had already sunk Miliband’s view of the progressive majority. This research into identity politics has been pored over at length, and undoubtedly contains warnings for Labour – but the inequality exposed by the cuts is likely to expose more problems. The realisation that all three parties are willing to have mothers forced into dependence on relationships, or be pushed into poverty whether they are working or not, has raised slightly bigger questions than the deficit. The war on disabled people, and those too sick to work led by Labour, and continued with relish by this government, means that disability groups are now fighting for political representation rather than against welfare cuts.

No party attempting to create a coalition of progressives could hope to be successful while so many are fighting it as the cause of their disenfranchisement. And it certainly cannot do so while pandering to racism, and agreeing that demonisation of the poorest should continue with blue Labour.

But does this mean that the “progressive majority” does not exist?

The demand for a re-examination of our economy in the context of the global financial meltdown is being ignored by Labour, but outside this echo chamber British businesses are looking for answers. Business link services have been scrapped; regional development agencies, who could offer grants to small business have been replaced by a regional growth fund with a minimum investment of £1million. Cuts to tax allowances which allowed firms to invest in themselves were sacrificed to pay for a corporation tax cut which only benefits companies with the ability to choose between nations. The fixed and low income spending which sustains small businesses is being deliberately sucked out of the economy. It may seem an obvious point, but the expected jobless recovery is one that doesn’t benefit businesses outside the already bloated financial sector. And they know it.

Professional bodies across the board are speaking out against the policies being implemented by the Tory-Lib Dem government. The combination of low wages, inflated house prices, and a personal debt bubble several times our GDP is ringing alarm bells far outside the traditional vanguards of the left. The “squeezed middle” that Ed Miliband was concerned with is crying out for a political party to discuss the vice like grip that housing costs, debt, and welfare cuts have on their lives. Concern that an approach which transfers public debt originating from the banking crisis to individuals and businesses who have no capacity to accommodate it is not exactly the domain of student radicals.

It is easy to dismiss the SNP victory in Scotland as an indicator that Scotland wants independence immediately, or as a protest vote against Labour; a sign that Labour needs to “focus”. To do so would be simplistic at best. Like the True Finn party, the SNP have redefined themselves in the context of the current situation and in the context of their national needs. Abandoned traditional ideas of left and right, and asserted the right to represent voters, and respond to the current economic challenges. At the first sign of any alternative, as we saw with Cleggmania, people grabbed it.

At a time when a political party would have to do very little to recapture the kind of cross party support Tony Blair enjoyed, it is only the arrogance of Labour leadership and its core supporters that is preventing Labour from becoming a political vehicle which could do the same.

Britain’s personal debt bubble, inflated house prices, and stagnated wages are at the heart of discussions about everything from the financial crisis, welfare spending, the decline in living standards that most of us are experiencing, and the major risks our economy is exposed to. Yet they are completely absent from Labour’s rhetoric.

While Labour agonises over how to unite working and middle class voters, it maintains an economic strategy which casts adrift the poorest, punishes the hundreds and thousands of working people who are welfare dependent, and not only attacks the squeezed middle’s incomes and services, but asks them to pay proportionally more than the people who caused the crisis. While their children face bleak futures, and while those fulfilling roles outside breadwinner have their services stripped and privatised, and are left with nothing.

The “radical” left has redefined in the context of global economic shifts. With roots in decades-old anti-capitalist and environmental movements, the financial crisis and the response of western governments to it, has politicised a generation after decades of perceived political apathy. This is a “left” not defined by an obsolete left/right axis, but by a changing economic and political landscape. Identity politics, economic inequality, generational shifts. Equality for women, and rights for those with disabilities surfacing as important facets, after their marginalisation ensured that they would make easy targets for the fiscal responses to the banking crisis. The desire to move away from the neo-liberalism which is at the heart of Labour’s economic policy is the cause at the heart of new “left”, and it is this shared aim which unites so many disparate groups.

This has happened after decades of politicians declaring the British public apathetic, even when inquiries like the Power report showed clearly that disengagement from political process was a failure of our democratic system, rather than due to the indifference and comfort of voters. This is not confined to the UK, and has been seen in Wisconsin, and across Europe. Most importantly for Ed Miliband, it comes after 13 years after the only political vehicle for the left embraced the economics of the right, and a foreign policy which ensured that many turned their backs on Labour.

Arrogance and fear of short term political consequences is leading Labour to ignore a rapidly changing political and economic map. And, in doing so, it is losing the opportunity to become the political force that takes the country through the current crisis. The “left” continues to redefine in a political vacuum, and in the long term it is inevitable that this will give birth to new political forces. In the shorter term, Labour could remove the necessity for such a force, but it has to be bold enough to shake off conventional wisdom. Analyse the long term risks to our economy, and assess the situation voters are actually in. Bold enough to present a new economic vision.

The progressive majority exists. But they are progressive in that they want to see a credible alternative to what is happening. A government which has the ability to unite people through this crisis, and assert its duty to represent voters over markets. Labour is so busy trying to squash criticism, and manufacture a “progressive” majority which will unquestioningly go where Labour leadership wants, that they can’t see, hear, or represent them. And in doing so, Labour risks sleepwalking into irrelevance. After all, there are other parties with Labour’s economic policy, who are willing to do it quicker, and with conviction.

The first part of Lisa Ansell‘s critique appeared here last week.

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17 Responses to “Sleepwalking to irrelevance, pt II”

  1. Graham Day says:

    How marvelous that someone as far above the rest of us, would come all the way down here to put us, the masses right.

    You are part of the problem. Not the answer.

  2. iain ker says:

    There were a lot of words there.

    In the particular order in which you placed them they did not seem to make a lot of sense to me.

    You work in the public sector – right?

  3. william says:

    Every member of the Shadow Cabinet should buy and read whatever is the current economics textbook for Part 1 of the economics tripos at Cambridge University.

  4. David Harney says:

    The Party who appear to you to be `sleepwalking into oblivion` currently hold a 6 point lead over the Tories (YouGov 19/05/11). Have recently acquired just short of 1000 council seats. That same Party have seen its membership sore in just 12 months. That very same party have seen their national popularity improve by 14 points since May `10.
    Please compare these impressive statistics with how the Tories fared just 12 months after their collapse in 1997.
    Rome wasn`t built in a day. But genuine progress has commenced & we must all resist the temptation to constantly look inward & over criticize ourselves. The future is bright!

  5. paul barker says:

    Not sure I understood most of that. I think you are saying Labour should lead The Anti-cuts movement, is that right ? Have you read Peter Watts article ?

    On the AV campaign, most of “The Labour Party” backed The No side.

  6. gwenhwyfaer says:

    David, your “genuine progress” doesn’t look like it to me. Of course, I’m just one of those annoying welfare dependents that you’ve been so quick to jettison, so I should obviously shut up and be grateful that you cry as you kick me in the teeth while the other lot would laugh – but Labour is not a vehicle by which my fortunes are improved. In fact, Labour are just as much my oppressors as the Tories.

    But back to reality – if a lead that doesn’t even make it out of the margin of error is the best you can muster just as the cuts are about to really strike, you have utterly failed to make any headway whatsoever. And taking refuge in piddling little victories, rather than facing up to the void in your support where your social conscience used to live, is what will consign you to your next three general election defeats. Enjoy them; you’ve earned them.

  7. Real Chris says:


    So should you.

  8. iain ker says:

    The Party who appear to you to be `sleepwalking into oblivion` currently hold a 6 point lead over the Tories (YouGov 19/05/11)


    Polls are irrelevant

  9. AnneJGP says:

    I’d really like to engage with your ideas, Lisa, but I find it impossible to work out what you’re trying to say.

    There are ~1600 words here. It would be a lot easier to read if you could cut it down to ~800 and use a more direct style.

  10. william says:

    @ Real Chris.I also suggest the Shadow Cabinet take note of the comments of Anders Borg, the Swedish Finance minister, on the suitability of Gordon Brown running the IMF (Open Europe,’Ouch”).Will you ever learn, or will it be 20 years in opposition,waiting for an English respecting Labour leader?

  11. Real Chris says:


    Please try and get passed the fixation with Brown, it is unhealthy.

    @paul barker

    Are you the same Paul Barker who showed a Dan Hodges-esque gift for clairvoyance in predicting the libdems would lose less than 200 councillors a couple of weeks ago?

  12. Douglas says:

    I would like to hear from those who think we should be supporting Tory cuts. Explain to me what is just about cutting services to the most vulnerable such as the sick and disabled. Explain how removing their benefits and essential lifelines will make society better or even help the economy in the long run?

    The way the government and media have been talking about the sick and disabled who are in receipt of state benefit, you’d think we had caused the financial crisis. We are all ‘workshy’ ‘feckless’ ‘scroungers’. And we’re often ‘scum’ as well. I get made fun of for having a headache condition, even though my condition is so severe and painful that I require morphine, an O2 tank, injections, and hospitalisation at least once a month. I am now public enemy number one. And Labour “broadly” supports the “thrust” of the reforms which are seeing cancer patients, the severely mentally ill, and other vulnerable people moved from ESA to JSA not to get them into work, as they know most companies don’t even consider disabled people, but rather to save money.

    And some people are telling me that opposing cuts to the most vulnerable is not a vote winner. If we are to become so cold-hearted that we will support cuts to the weakest people in society in exchange for a few votes from other cold-hearted people then we might as well bloody merge with the Tories now.

    It was ever thus, though, that when things got tight, the ‘squeezed middle’ stomped on the already-crushed bottom instead of going after those at the top.

    How very New Labour.

  13. Reuben says:

    This article occasionally stumbles into some good ideas, but seriously Lisa, were you stoned when you wrote this? The basic theses – that labour should move away from relying on markets, and that it needs a credible alternative to the current recession/austerity regime (who’d have thunk it?) – are fairly unoriginal. This piece might be useful if it expounded on what such an alternative might look like, rather than just surrounding these points with lots of jumbled up thoughts on whats wrong with labour.

  14. Chris says:

    @David Harney

    If you seriously believe this poll lead is anything more than a soft protest vote you are going to end up sorely disappointed.

    Labour’s performance at the locals was a complete disaster. Anyone with any political sense knows this. The Tories under William Hague after ’97 did better in these elections than Labour just performed.

  15. Merseymike says:

    No, the performance cannot be viewed as a disaster. 800 + gains is no disaster. But of course, there is s till room for improvement. One year after a heavy defeat, though, the results were not bad at all

  16. Lisa Ansell says:

    Have read piece back. No, I wasn’t stoned- but I think what I might have been doing is writing reactively to an idea that was forming, while stuff was happening. In time since it was written, idea has developed. And reading it back, think is fair criticism. So what am going to do is redo it, and repost it in a couple of weeks if you don’t mind. I don;t have time to do it for a couple of weeks, though. Sorry it took so long to catch up with comments.

  17. Lisa Ansell says:

    It would appear this was very prescient. That this and other work trying to be constructive to Labour caused so much shit that my daughter was put at risk says a great deal about why what I said four years ago was demonstrated so clearly in the 2015 election result. At the time these were thoughts that were forming, watching the Labour culture operate. I’d add to this and say Labour politics is over. FOr good.

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