Labour HQ is the place where political narratives go to die

by Alexander Shea

Last month’s Conference represented a nadir for Ed Miliband’s Labour party. It was a graveyard of narrative, an abandonment of the political.

Labour relapsed into ‘itemised politics’, presenting a praiseworthy plan for the protection of the NHS yet failing to encompass it within a wider coherent and compelling narrative of what is fundamentally wrong with this country and how Labour proposes to put it right.

As the shock of the Heywood and Middleton by-election has shown, an electoral strategy comprised of a single-issue focus on the NHS is not going to cut the mustard. Narrow, itemised politics is not the way forward. To win in 2015, Labour needs to think big.

Establishing a clear and firm policy line on the NHS was necessary. As polls have shown it is the most important issue in the upcoming election to 34% of voters, making it the leading issue for 2015.

But it is precisely in these polling figures that the sheer lack of ambition or political message that Labour conveyed by making the NHS its marquee policy, is able to be sensed. It smacked of a 35 percent strategy: a timid desire to play it safe politically- to score on ‘open goal’ policy issues such as the NHS- in the knowledge that due to an electoral quirk, Labour will win a majority in the next Parliament if it breaks the 35 percent threshold. What better way to implement such a 35 percent strategy than by banking on an issue that 35 percent of the electorate prioritise.

Pursuing such a timid approach, however, is the height of folly. John Prescott is right. Rather than scoring an ‘open goal’ on the NHS, by pursuing itemized politics Labour has sacrificed the potential for a broader political message, and consequently scored a massive own goal.

They presented David Cameron with a gilt-edged opportunity at his party conference in Birmingham. At a time when Cameron should have been on the back foot over Brooks Newmark’s sexting and Mark Reckless’ defection to UKIP, Labour effectively presented Cameron with the opportunity to use his party conference speech as a platform from which to project a narrative of British politics, that of ‘economism’ in which the twin gods of economic growth and welfare cuts are reified at the expense of humanistic politics, the latter focusing not on objective economic data but the subjective experience of living in austerity Britain: the cost of living crisis, the bedroom tax, childcare allowance and so on.

Like it or not, Cameron’s narrative defined the political past, present and future. It began with the foundational myth of the 2008 recession being the result of reckless Labour spending, then claimed that the recent economic upturn was the result of Conservative fiscal policy (though the IMF and leading economists, including Paul Krugman, suggest otherwise) before projecting a ‘fair’ political future in which 30 million Britons receive tax cuts.

It was, in all truth, an incredibly Spartan message. It reified economic growth, was as socially reactionary as you can get through its capping of benefits and welfare, and flew in the face of civil liberties and progressive thought in attacking the Human Rights Act.

All in all, this was a Conservative narrative that any competent Labour Party should have found very easy to beat. After all, the Conservative narrative smacked of desperation and nervosity- why else offer a pre-election bribe so early on in the race- in its attempts to deny reality. Take George Osborne’s disavowal of the existence of a ‘disconnect’ between national economic growth and the increasing cost of living at a societal level- a disconnect attested to by Paul Krugman, the IMF, the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the renowned economist Thomas Piketty.

It was a preposterous claim to make. But Labour’s itemised conference agenda meant they had no response to it- nor has there been any political riposte in the days after Osborne’s claim. It is as though Labour does not realize it has all the intellectual authority behind it- the IMF and Krugman have both shown that economic growth results from redistributing wealth from rich to poor, not from exacerbating current divides through a tax cut that benefits the top 15% of earners five times more than their less wealthy counterparts. How on earth in light of all economic theory’s momentum behind Labour that the Conservatives have been able to present themselves as the party to trust on fiscal issues, is a question that only Ed Miliband knows the answer to.

It is astonishing is that Labour have failed to take on the political mantle offered by Thomas Piketty. Piketty’s name might already be cliché given its overuse in intellectual discussion, but the central message of his work strikes at the heart of what Britain is facing at the moment.

Namely, an economic reality in which growth of capital is outstripping growth in wages (see Mark Carney’s August 2014 Bank of England declaration regarding economic indicators for evidence of this) with the inevitable result that capitalism exacerbates wealth inequalities rather than regulating them as economic liberals have so often claimed.

It is here that Labour’s tentative discourse on the ‘cost of living crisis’ becomes relevant. This ‘cost of living crisis’ is not some economic outlier, but is inherent in the free-market itself, particularly during recessionary times. Labour’s narrative was there for the taking: Ed Miliband needed to promote a ‘humanist capitalism’ in which the poor would see their personal tax thresholds rise, their welfare maintained (and private companies such as Atos removed from means testing processes) as well as tax on capital, dividends and financial transactions in which the proceeds would have been reinvested in the interests of the less wealthy.

This narrative would have been able to draw on a large supply of emotional energy: people are angry and disillusioned at how hard their lives are proving to be at the moment. A Labour narrative that recognized this would have touched an emotional raw point. The results could have been very exciting for Labour’s election fortunes.

What is particularly unfortunate about this missed opportunity, this road not taken, is that Labour had the chance to politicize a whole swathe of the electorate. As many psychological studies have shown over the years, system justification is a powerful process in political considerations.

Namely, these studies show that in economically unequal countries, the poor, rather than viewing their poverty as a result of systemic features such as lack of economic opportunity, poor education or the inherent inegalitarian nature of capitalism, blame their poverty on themselves. They believe that they are poor for a reason: either because they have not worked hard enough, or have not taken their opportunities.

These studies also show that the poor believe the wealthy, on the whole, deserve to be wealthy, with the poor valuing what they stereotype as rich people’s ingenuity and hard work. These studies also show that the psychological self-enforcing division between rich and poor is reproduced from the opposite angle.

The wealthy believe they deserve to be wealthy, and attribute the lack of wealth of the poor to character defaults such as laziness, stupidity or lack of ingenuity (hello Conservative party!).

By pointing to the structural inequality of capitalism, Labour could have sparked a political awakening in a large section of the electorate whose only option to rebel against the current neo-liberal status quo is to relapse into a form of anti-politics, either by voting for UKIP of another fringe party.

I have no confidence that Labour will embrace this message in the upcoming months. This is because their past attempts to form political narratives have been disastrous. The prime offender here is the ‘One Nation’ slogan that, thank the heavens, has been dropped from Labour Party jargon in recent months. Whereas Ed Miliband mentioned the term ‘One Nation’ forty six times in his 2012 Manchester Conference speech, it appeared only once at the 2014 edition when it was published in a conference pamphlet. One Nation was the most vacuous, superficial of ideas.

For starters, the term was never actually used as a substantive concept by Disraeli himself: rather Disraeli bemoaned the fact that there was no ‘one nation’, not a singular British people united in patriotism and economic equality, but rather ‘two nations’, the division between the rich and the poor which he viewed as unbridgeable. Indeed, it was only when Stanley Baldwin associated the term retrospectively with Disraeli in the early 1930’s that the association between idea and man stuck- and in any case, no one was quite sure what it meant.

The attempt by Miliband to latch on to this slogan was misguided- the idea of creating a unified, patriotic British people seemed nothing more than a vague, wishy washy idea that any voter could sign up for. It said nothing about the economic status quo in Britain either on a national level, with regard to the deficit, or on a societal level with regard to economic inequality.

Worse, by failing to address these and positing a utopian One Nation mirage instead, Miliband could even be accused of denying the very existence of these economic problems in the first place.

Labour’s use of the term was confirmation that Miliband did not understand the nature of the economic problem in the first place: as Piketty has shown, the very nature of capitalism is that it creates ‘two nations’, two classes. One without capital, and one with capital. To expect to create a patriotic singularity out of a postmodern British society was political mumbo jumbo.

Which leads me to this conclusion: Labour under Ed Miliband is the graveyard of political narratives. Can you remember one project or vision that you would immediately associate with his time as leader? All that exists are half-baked references to a ‘predatory capitalism’, a ‘one nation’ Britain, a ‘responsible capitalism’ and the need for a mansion tax. The recent Scottish referendum demonstrated the force of the political imagination in winning votes. But, at Labour HQ, it seems, is the place where the political imagination goes to die.

Alexander Shea is a graduate student in international relations

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10 Responses to “Labour HQ is the place where political narratives go to die”

  1. swatantra says:

    Talk about 6 charcters in search of an author, well this Labour Party is in search of a Leader with vision and purpose.
    As I’ve said on anther post, ‘Class’ is dead. We now are dealing with Haves and Have Nots, and the Have Nots cover a pretty wide spectrum of the deserving poor.

  2. Frederick James says:

    This article is far too scholarly for me but I think the author is saying that the answer to Ed Miliband’s problems is to come out and admit that he is going to copy Hollande…

  3. Delta says:

    “The wealthy believe they deserve to be wealthy, and attribute the lack of wealth of the poor to character defaults such as laziness, stupidity or lack of ingenuity (hello Conservative party!)”

    ironically this is about more than just Milliband as the statement above applies more than equally to the Labour leadership….you have not found away around Orwell. Good observations.

  4. Madasafish says:

    Can you remember one project or vision that you would immediately associate with his time as leader?

    Of course: freezing energy prices.

    Maybe dumb economically but it caught the imagination..

  5. Ex Labour says:

    Is it me or do the articles on here get ever more desperate ?

    About the only thing to be said about this PPE thesis is that its conclusion Miliband is not an inspirational leader or even a leader of any sort and that he consistently fails to grasp the political opportunities is correct. But you need only watch / listen to the man for a few minutes to figure that out, as joe public have already done.

    As for the other locquacious periphrastic verbiage, as my old tutor would call it, its full of trite nonesense. Which party has given “the poor” a tax cut ? Yes the government has been doing that and proposes to continue with the 12.5K announcement.

    The rest of it is the usual typical labour drivel about tax, tax and tax…blah blah tax.


  6. John Reid says:

    The 1987 Election saw labour gain votes up north,but lose them Down south,the reason for the drop down wn South was so called Loony left council,s by 1992 ,labour had a 2% swing to us down south on the more middle class areas, as ex SDP voters came back, ,it wasnt enough of course, but in the more working class,areas, still weren’t getting the Tory vote that had left us in 1979′

    Giles Radice produced a paper Southern discomfort, and we baca,e obsessed with organisation and throwing money at parts of london that we needed to win, not the inner or outer parts the middle, that we couldn’t budge,

    The thing that shocked me at the time, was it was those very people,who had been obsessed with inner london, didn’t accept that we needed ,the lower middle class vote.

    I think this obsession explains why art from outer london Labour did so well in the City at this years elections, and Even with the failure in outer london, the rest meant we still won,

    1987 saw such a big increase in labours vote up north that where as labour did worse doen douth than 1983′ the two out balanced each other,

    Next year I feel labour will do as well as 2010 in London, maybe the tories will do worse in the GLA area than they did in 2010′
    Abour will do a lot worse up north next year than 2010 not due to the Tories but due to abstaining or Ukip, due to immigration driving down wages for manual work, but also due to Rotherham
    Labour with the fact that Ukip will take votes. down south maybe able to convince ourselves next years election defeat isn’t that bad as the Tories won’t do so well down south, but it’ll be the denial, that labour losing so many votes up north due to Rotherham,not ecenomic migration, keeping wages down.

    The comparison will be labour using the swing up north to us in 1987′ while ignoring we did worse in London in 1987 than 1983( Bernie Grant having a 10% swing against him for One) will show that when labour ignored Trotskyite london councils we couldn’t convince the public we’d changed in 1987 and ignored the amount of votes they lost, will be the same as labour ignoring the White wash over Rotherham, and when those who critised the loony left in London in the 80’s were called racist, by people who new the critics werent racist, but had genuine concerns about livingstone and Co inviting the IRA woth open arms or support from diane Abbott for calimg White people like Finnish nurses racist, it’s the same as labour calling those who criticised Rotherham ,calling them racist knowing they weren’t as away of trying to hide this scandal,
    To the point,where labour colluded with the police to smear people the same way the CRE did to critics of positive desry inaction, when labour members were being backed by the nation of Islam

    Ignoring this put us out of power for a further 10 years, will we learn the lesson.

  7. Landless Peasant says:

    @ swatantra

    “the Have Nots cover a pretty wide spectrum of the deserving poor.”

    What other type of poor people are there? Are you suggesting that some people deserve to be poor, or are poor by choice? If so you’re on the wrong forum, this is a Socialist website not a fascistic Tory scum one.

  8. John Reid says:

    Grow up landless peasant ,calling people fascist, you’ve insulted Taifa,and Swatantra,both of whom were at least in the Labour Party for several years before you were,

  9. Tafia says:

    Is OK John, I cut my teeth being petrol-bombed for hours on end in the Bogside in the 1970’s. He doesn’t possess the ability to insult me (apart from which I am the biggest arrogant son of a botch you will ever meet and couldn’t care less what anyone thinks of me). You always get the impression that Landless Peasant is actually Rick from the Young Ones.

    Incidentally Landless – some people are poor by choice. If they would rather spend what little money they have on booze, fags and scratchcards as opposed to doing something about the position they are in then yes, they are poor by choice.

    Some people are poor by chance, some by circumstance and some because they are dickheads.

  10. swatantra says:

    Thanks John.
    @landless … ‘deserving’ …. because of their particular circumstances, and situation being squeezed from both sides; these are the very people the State should be helping out, iving a helping handup, not a handout. And NOT the ‘underserving’ because as you say ‘they deserve to be’, and they do little to improve their lifestyles.

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