Sunday, 30 August 2015

Where Next for Labour?

Kevin Hickson from the University of Liverpool presents an insightful argument for Labour's future against the backdrop of the current leadership election.

The electoral strategy for the Labour Party over the next five years is incredibly complex irrespective of who becomes Leader of the Party in September.  The aim of the following discussion is to set out in broad terms the strategy that the successful candidate ought to follow.

One response within the Party to the electoral defeat was to argue that the only way to win is by moving to the right.  This argument was made immediately after the election result with the likes of Tony Blair, Alan Milburn, Peter Mandelson and David Miliband making the argument for a revival of New Labour.  This shouldn't come as a surprise since these people and others had been critical of Ed Miliband for allegedly moving to the left.  Blair even predicted a Labour defeat earlier in the year as the election would be framed as a traditional left versus right contest.  Ed Miliband's failure was apparently in allowing the party to be positioned on the left against a populist right-wing Conservative government.  Successive election results had proven that a party of the 'left' could not win.  Only New Labour had a successful electoral strategy and any attempt to move away from it was electoral suicide.  The 'proof' of this hypothesis was the 2015 election result, where not only had Miliband lost but had performed worse than five years previously (in seats if not in vote share).  The Progress wing of the party have continued to push this political belief in the leadership contest.
However, such a view would be mistaken since it suggests that the electoral context is essentially that which it was in 1997.  It isn't.  The economy was at that time doing relatively well.  The Conservative government was tarnished with allegations of sleaze, divided over European integration and appeared to have weak leadership.  The election was essentially a straight contest between Conservative and Labour, albeit with support divided unequally across the country and with pockets of support for the Liberal Democrats.  Labour had been out of power for 18 years and there was an overwhelming feeling that it was time for a change.
This contrasts starkly with 2015.  Labour had only been out of power for five years and the Conservatives have successfully managed to pin the blame for the financial crash and subsequent budget deficit on the previous Labour government.  The Conservative party was still seen as the party most trusted on the economy.  Compared to the mid-1990s the Conservative Party was more united.  Moreover, the electoral geography was much more complex than in 1997.  Labour faced the challenge of the nationalists in Scotland from the left, from UKIP in many of its urban heartlands and the Conservatives in the English suburbs from the right.  Although UKIP was seen as more of a challenge to the Conservatives the reality was that it took more Labour votes, while the Conservatives benefited from the demise of their former Coalition partners.  Under these very different circumstances a shift to the right, rediscovering a Blairite formula, will not secure victory at the next General Election.
One alternative has been to argue that Labour should move to the left and the Labour left have managed to find a candidate who can articulate that viewpoint persuasively in Jeremy Corbyn.  It is argued that there is considerable voter apathy that only a left-wing leader could attract.  It is also argued that there has to be a fundamental distinction between Tory and Labour and that only by moving radically to the left can this difference be demonstrated.  Others, it has to be said, argue that what needs to happen in the Labour Party is a fundamental debate over the aims and programme for the party and that the leadership debate is an inadequate period of time in which to do this.  Even among those who support Jeremy Corbyn there is doubt that he can win the next General Election, but he would at least be a useful interim leader while the party goes back to basics they argue.
These view seems unsatisfactory.  It is somewhat reminiscent of a debate following the 1959 General Election defeat where Dick Crossman, on the left of the party, argued that it was better to wait in opposition for the inevitable crisis of capitalism at which point Labour could regain power and introduce genuine socialism.  Opposing this view, Tony Crosland, argued that Labour needed to be more responsible seeking to get back into office at the earliest opportunity in order to introduce measures that the working-class voters needed and would not get under a Conservative administration.  Herein lies the tension between the ethic of ultimate ends and the ethic of responsibility.  Judging by some of the social media comment from those supporting Corbyn any attempt to compromise with the electorate would be a betrayal of socialist principles.
Having dismissed both the case for moving to the right and for moving to the left it is now necessary to set out a more viable electoral and political strategy for Labour.  It would be easy for those who want to see the party change radically from what it had become under Ed Miliband to argue that anything else would be a defence of the same failed strategy which resulted in a majority Conservative government in 2015.
It is, however, possible to argue that Labour needs to change fundamentally without going sharply leftwards or rightwards.  It is the central argument of this pamphlet that Labour needs to be more confident and more competent and this is what we seek to outline below.
Inevitably there will be much that will change between now and the next election, which will likely be in 2020.  It would be unwise, therefore, for Labour to rush into adopting certain detailed policy positions now that may well be outdated by 2020.  It does, however, need to set out a clear vision.  The party needs both a message and a programme.  The message is a broad idea of the party's ideology and the ability to communicate this articulately and in a way which is relevant to the electorate.  It needs to be able to say what difference a Labour government will make.  The key differences in outlook between the two parties.  The different way that the country would look after five years of majority Labour rule than how it would look if there was another Tory government.  This is inevitably an ideological issue and Labour should not shy away from its ideological beliefs.  Truly successful governments are ones that transform the political landscape.  Arguably the last Labour government, despite its electoral successes and lasting policy impact, failed to do this meaning that we still operate under a neo-liberal paradigm more suitable to the Conservatives than a reforming Labour government.  Blair's insistence that 'what matters is what works' failed to address the question of work in whose interests.  Labour, irrespective of who the next leader is, needs to set out more successfully than Miliband did the essential features of the party's ideology.
At this early stage in the electoral cycle it isn't necessary to make detailed policy proposals.  There is plenty of time for these to come as circumstances change as we get nearer to the next General Election.  All policy proposals need to fit into the broad ideological narrative.  It is, however, possible at this stage to set out the broad themes of Labour's programme as we see it. 
There are four broad areas:

·        Rebalancing the economy - the need to reduce the budget deficit is clear but this can be done through more progressive forms of taxation and growth and not just through cuts to frontline public services.  Moreover, there needs to be a wider focus on the rebalancing of the economy both regionally and sectorally.  It was foolish of Labour to be put in a position whereby the Conservative Chancellor could claim to be leading the way on the revival of the economy in the north of England.  Labour needs to develop modern regional and industrial policies and champion a genuine living wage.

·        Reintegrating public services - the Coalition reforms have led to the fragmentation of public services.  Labour should stand for the reintegration of public services including health and social care, and the revival of the comprehensive principle in education.  In order to do this Labour needs to empower local government and revive the idea of the mixed economy with greater public control, if not ownership of public utilities and public transport.

·        A responsible welfare state - Labour needs to restore public trust in the welfare state.  This means tackling some issues which the left have traditionally found difficult such as those who abuse the system.  This does not mean, however, demonising those who are vulnerable.  Labour has to champion a more humane welfare state than the one created by Iain Duncan Smith.  But it also means recognising work through a more contributory scheme above the national minimum.

·        Reviving a liberal national identity - again this is an issue where the right has made much of the running in recent years but the left has a story to tell.  British values can reasonably be interpreted as more liberal than the right would allow.  The positives of immigration should be spelt out - both culturally and economically - but the party also needs to recognise concern over numbers and to say so isn't bigoted.  Not only does this mean having tighter controls, but more importantly tackling those unscrupulous employers who seek to exploit immigrant labour.  There is a case here for empowering trades unions.  Labour should also have pledged a referendum on EU membership before the 2015 General Election but its failure to do so means that the Conservatives and UKIP could portray Labour as being suspicious and contemptuous of the electorate.  Now that the referendum will take place Labour has been right to say it will campaign separately from the Conservatives and to campaign for continued membership.

 So my criticism is not so much with the broad ideological position of the last Labour leader but rather his inability to articulate that position convincingly.  It is worth spending some time thinking about why he was unable to do this.  Popular perceptions of Ed Miliband, fuelled persistently by the right-wing press, tended to focus on the nature of his election and on his 'other-worldliness'.  The level of commentary often concentrated on the trivial, such as his facial expression when eating a bacon sandwich and the widely expressed opinion that somehow he had 'stabbed his brother in the back'.  More profoundly than this was the fact that he had failed to secure a majority of MP's, many of whom supported his brother believing that he would be the eventual successor.  In-depth journalism since the election defeat stressed internal divisions over message and strategy among the close-knit group of advisors and frequent discontent in the Parliamentary Labour Party among those who had not wanted Ed to be Leader in the first place.  In other words, Ed Miliband faced a number of constraints as a result of the nature of his election as leader, ones which he failed to overcome.  The message was often confused and at times, even during the election campaign, Labour appeared not to have simple answers to key questions on the economy, tax and immigration.  The party failed to rebut the Tory message that they were sorting out 'Labour's mess' on the economy unsure whether to embrace austerity or growth and settling on an uneasy compromise which the electorate could not be blamed for not understanding.
So from the earliest stage the new Labour leader, whoever he or she is, needs to begin to set out the message much more robustly, coherently and consistently.  Our electoral analysis shows that targeting certain sections of the population based on social class, gender, age or geography with certain policies, or 'retail offers', is inadequate.  Labour needs to appeal to a broad cross-section of the electorate by articulating a clear set of values from which the policies derive.
What are these values?
The likely impact of five more years of Conservative government will be a country which is more divided, unjust and unequal.  Studies have already shown that the number of people living in poverty is increasing, the use of food banks looks set to rise even further and the gap between rich and poor will grow.  Many people will see the further erosion of job security with the expansion of zero-hours contracts.  The policy of allowing social housing tenants to buy their homes will further erode the stock of social homes while others will lose their homes through the 'Bedroom Tax'.  Those on social security payments will face further tightening of what many observers feel to be an overly harsh system already.  The realisation that there is a growing social and economic divide in Britain will likely exacerbate social tensions.  The populist right will seek to exploit tensions over immigration while the right-wing press will continue to blame immigrants and welfare claimants for the country's ills.
In response Labour needs to set out its traditional values of equality and social justice.  It needs to stress the virtue of politics as an activity underpinned by ethical values and using the power of the state - nationally, regionally and locally - to achieve a more just and equal society and a more balanced and stable economy.  The party should be internationalist, making the positive case for continued membership of the European Union and international aid and development against the isolationism of UKIP and an increasing number of Conservatives.  But it should also be patriotic in stressing that these values are British values, not the fear and hate peddled by those on the right of the political spectrum.
A series of retail offers is therefore inadequate and will fail to ignite the sense of hope and optimism which is required to overcome Tory cynicism.  But that does not mean that trends in voting behaviour should be ignored.  Labour failed in 2015 in particular key demographics, particularly those over 65 and suburban voters who aren't directly affected by some of the policies Labour offered such as the Living Wage or the Bedroom Tax.  We need to tailor the presentation of our core values to the electoral realities.  There are the working poor to whom Labour values directly resonate but also those who are comfortable but face squeezed living standards and worry about losing their jobs in the current economic climate and those pensioners who fear having to face the costs of social care which in many areas is inadequate.
In other words Labour talked about the squeezed middle but formulated very few policies which directly affected their concerns.  So Labour needs to have a wider appeal without abandoning our core values.
Finally, Labour needs to appear not just confident but also competent.  Labour failed to find a clear alternative argument on the economy or to defend the economic legacy of the last Labour government.  The Conservatives ruthlessly and effectively drove home the message that it was 'Labour's mess' that they were clearing up.  This message is still being made.  There needs to be a simple and effective alternative narrative about the need to rebalance the economy and to achieve a higher rate of economic growth.  Again, the best way of doing this is through a clear and confident exposition of Labour's core values.  Inequality, on the scale that exists today, is not only socially unjust but also fosters economic instability with increased financial risk in return for ever higher bonuses, short-term gain over long-term investment and credit bubbles.  Labour needs to make the argument that greater equality leads to economic stability and refute the right-wing argument that a trade off exists between equality and wealth creation.
One temptation at this time is to argue that Labour should move to the right, seeking to recreate the winning formula of the mid-1990s or that the party cannot win without moving ever closer to the Conservatives.  The alternative temptation is to argue that we lost on a moderately social democratic platform as the differences between Labour and the Tories were not clear enough.  Therefore, the party should move to the left believing that a coalition of support exists there which is big enough to win the next General Election.  The evidential basis for both positions is weak.
The most likely electoral winning strategy is to be coherent, competent and confidentCoherence means having a clear narrative on the economy, one able to overcome the likelihood of continuing Conservative attacks on the 'failed' policy of the last Labour government.  Competence involves having a leader who is an effective communicator, who has a more popular touch and having a team who are loyal and well briefed.  Finally, and arguably most importantly, confidence means believing in the core values of the party and being able to advocate them in a way which is relevant to the electorate.  It is often assumed, and certainly those who believe that the party should go radically right or left would tend to reinforce this, that there is a trade off between power and principle.  That the party should either abandon its core principles in order to get into office, or at least remain silent about them in the hope that the electorate fails to spot them; or that there should be no compromise and that it is more noble to stay in opposition and remain true to core ideological principles.  Both views are wrong.  The best, if not the only way for Labour to win the next election is to remain true to its core values and have the confidence to articulate them effectively.  Labour can win in 2020, despite having an electoral mountain to climb, but it can only do so if it makes the right choices now.
Kevin Hickson is the leader of Crewe Town Council and stood as Labour's PPC candidate in East Yorkshire. He is also a senior lecturer at the University of Liverpool, where he researches British politics and ideologies. He tweets at @Kevin_Hickson.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Jeremy Corbyn: Labour's Saviour or Nemesis?

Bill Jones discusses the impact of Jeremy Corbyn upon the Labour's future.

Unable to command the required 35 nominations, it was only the kindness of several Labour MPs, (none of whom actually supported him), which enabled little known leftie, Jeremy Corbyn to limp over the line and post his leadership candidacy on June 15th. Since then developments have been sensational, phenomenal: Corbyn leap-frogging into the lead over the three more established candidates and addressing jubilant packed out rallies across the country.  This has delighted those of a leftish temperament but plunged centre right supporters into deepest gloom. What can we make of 'Corbynmania'?

It's not unusual for political parties when defeated  to argue that if they had been more true to their ideological roots, they would have fared better in the election and might even have won. We saw this in 1979 when Thatcher's victory led to the election, in a Bennite fever of enthusiasm, of Michael Foot as Labour leader; after 1997 we saw the Conservatives elect three rightwing leaders before finding David Cameron in 2005. In both cases the swing back to core ideology resulted in heavy defeats.

Would the election of Corbyn produce the same result? The case is strong. After 1945 Labour was riven by left-right factional disputes. Divided parties seldom prosper and the party was out of power for 13 years before Harold Wilson's cautious prospectus won a tiny majority in 1964. During the 1970s the left established the Benn - led Alternative Economic programme which triumphed internally after 1979 but was totally rejected in Thatcher's 1983 landslide win. Labour lost heavily again in 1987 and yet again in 1992.

New Labour', the creation of Blair, Brown and Mandelson marked a recognition that voters had turned away from Britain's road to socialism- nationalisation- and did not favour unlimited welfare spending. The new approach tacked strongly towards the market economy and ardently wooed business, especially the City. Public schoolboy Blair was the perfect person to reassure middle class voters that Labour was no longer beholden to its (in any case shrinking) working class, unionised core support.

The result was Labour's biggest ever landslide victory, one that seemed to vindicate the wholesale abandonment of all those 'Old Labour' shibboleths. During Labour's subsequent 13 years in power, left-right factionalism more or less ceased but defeat in 2010 initiated a rethink under Ed Miliband which eschewed the 'split the difference' approach of New Labour and shifted left on the assumption that voter opinion had done the same after the 2009 economic meltdown; 2015 revealed this assumption to be false.

Corbyn's critics argue that after rejection of a leftish (though none too clear) Miliband route in favour of a much more emphatic anti-austerity leftwing one which embraces: much more borrowing, higher taxes, an investment bank funded by 'a people's quantitative easing', the ending of university fees, a substantial extension of public ownership,  abolition of Trident and withdrawal from NATO, is tantamount in Alan Johnson's words to 'madness'. The Economist's columnist, Bagehot (8/8/2015), is not impressed by ideas 'which shore up the old status quo; of reinstatement over reinvention... he has the attention of many, otherwise disengaged from politics. These people surely deserve ideas responding to the convulsions -digitisation, automation, globalisation- through which they are living.'

Corbynites, for their part, argue that the party has never conftronted austerity policies head on and that the Blairite attempt to position Labour in the centre ground via 'austerity- lite' policies had proven fruitless: voters will always tend to prefer the 'real' i.e. Tory, thing. This attitude sweeps away New Labour  as a busted flush; a new approach is needed more in line with fundamental Labour values. Corbyn argues that UK voters, like supporters of Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, need to consider new approaches to end the unnecessary cutting of public expenditure and the consequent immiseration of millions of working people. Cutting expenditure will only shrink demand and lead to contraction and widespread hardship. They claim a focus on expanding the economy is long overdue and is supported by distinguished economists like Nobel laureates Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz.

Given the dichotomy between Corbyn's position and that of his critics what are Labour's prospects if Corbyn, as it currently seems likely(William Hill makes him 1-5), actually wins? Clearly a return to schism in the party would occur. A number of leading figures have already declared their unwillingness to serve in a Corbyn shadow cabinet and, given he could not even raise 35 supporters among his fellow MPs, he would find himself in a very small minority. It seems the (somewhat surprising) influx of new members since 2015 is mostly youthful, unable to recall either the wilderness years of the 1980s or the electorally toxic nature of leftwing ideas. They have also warmed to Corbyn's style and personality.

He is not exactly an exciting politician but his views are in marked contrast to the crowded 'austerity lite' centre ground politicians, including his rivals, Burnham, Cooper and Kendal. His demeanour too is refreshingly different: transparently modest, low key, endlessly courteous, refusing to engage in the acrimonious political culture displayed so unpleasantly in weekly PMQs. In all these qualities Corbyn has something of Tony Benn about him, a champion of the left who must be spinning in his grave with envy that his moment has arrived just a year and a bit after his death.

But could he win? It depends on the short or the long term. In the current climate everything we have learnt about UK voters tells us Corbyn could not reverse the laws of political gravity. The Tories would be over the moon with delight if he became leader; Cameron, Osborne, Gove and the like, would hold up his ideas to ridicule and certain defeat in five years time; Labour could even join the Lib Dems as an irrelevant minority. However, my guess is that Corbyn's quiet, unflappable patience, would triumph over any bullying Cameron style at PMQs- that would certainly be worth the watching.

Looking to the long term Corbyn might have a half decent chance of converting Labour to his left-wing programme and then, just maybe a majority of voters too. But that would require, as it did in Greece and Spain, an economic  crisis far more acute than anything we have so far suffered. Older Labour voters might have to accept that they will see out their years within a virtual one party Tory ruled state with just a chance that Corbyn's heartening reinvigoration of youth and grassroots party members will lead to possible victory around 2030.         
Bill Jones has published widely on the subject of British Politics, and is the co-author (with Philip Norton) of Politics UK. 

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Who represents business?

Wyn Grant asks 'who represents business' in the context of the forthcoming EU referendum.

As the referendum on exit from the EU approaches, there is increasing controversy about who can speak as the representative voice of British business.   In his first address to the CBI since taking up his post, business secretary Sajid Javid rebuked the organisation for its enthusiasm for EU membership.   Robin Oxley, the campaign director of Business for Britain, the anti-EU lobby, has argued that groups like the CBI decide what members should think rather than letting opinion filter up.  

Table 1 provides some basic data on the main cross-sectoral business organisations in the UK.

1965 (from merger of three organisations)
Several thousand companies. 103 universities, 140 associations
£24.6m (2013)
Institute of Directors
37,000 individuals
British Chambers of Commerce
52 chambers of commerce
Federation of Small Businesses

What is striking is that the Institute of Directors has a larger budget and almost as many employees as the CBI, although probably a higher proportion of the CBI’s staff are engaged on policy work.   In the late 1960s, the CBI had around four hundred staff.   Its budget in the early 1970s was £2.4m[i]According to the Bank of England inflation calculator, this would be a broadly comparable to £22.3m today.  The shrinkage in staff numbers may largely represent support staff no longer needed given information technology.

The CBI has a rather complex structure, as it represents trade associations as well as companies and public sector bodies, but it is generally considered that big business is the most powerful influence on its policies.

The Institute of Directors gained influence under the Thatcher Government when the CBI was seen as too associated with no longer fashionable corporatist policies.   However, its membership has fallen from a peak of 55,000 in 2001.

The British Chambers of Commerce is the oldest of the organisations, but has the smallest staff and budget.  It seeks to maximise its influence by focusing on particular issues such as taxation.

The Blackpool-based Federation of Small Businesses has had a static membership since 2006 and represents just 4 per cent of the UK’s 5 million small businesses.   It has a reputation for organising older businesses in established industries led by mature white men, but 18 per cent of its member companies are owned by women only.

The Europhile Sir Mike Rake, who was a member of the advisory council of the pro-business lobby Business for New Europe, is being replaced as CBI president by Paul Dreschler from a family company in Liverpool.  It is thought that he will be better able to represent medium-sized businesses than the chairman of BT.     In January, Mr Drechsler was one of 55 business leaders who signed a letter to the Times which called for a “new relationship” with the EU, completion of the single market and for the “culture of red tape” to be quashed.

New CBI director-general Carolyn Fairbairn will need all the skills she acquired working in the media during her career to help the CBI deal with the challenges it will face in the run up to the EU referendum.

Wyn Grant is a political scientist at the University of Warwick, and has published widely on the subject of political studies. He also held the Presidency of the Political Studies Association.

[i] Wyn Grant and David Marsh (1977), The CBI,  London: Hodder and Stoughton, p. 37.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

The Labour Leadership Election

Robin Pettitt discusses the Labour leadership competition.

When a party is defeated it is naturally forced to consider why it was rejected by the voters. This can lead to some serious soul searching which can send the party down new paths in search for victory.

When a party leader steps down a party will obviously have to decide who should replace them. In choosing a new leader (democratically or otherwise) the party will have to decide whether to go with someone much like the outgoing leader, or with a leader suggesting a new direction.

When a party loses both an election and a leader at the same time it faces a time where new directions may truly be taken. This is the situation that the Labour Party finds itself in after its damp squib of a result in the May General Election and Ed Miliband’s subsequent departure as party leader. The party is now in the midst of a leadership election campaign which is also doubling up as a vehicle for some serious soul searching.

The four candidates on the leadership election ballot paper show the full range of the party’s potential responses to defeat. Liz Kendall and Jeremy Corbyn represent the two extremes of the party. Liz Kendall wasted no time speaking out against what she saw as the failings of the Ed Miliband leadership. Kendall represents what one might call the Neo-New Labour wing of the party who views everything that happened after Tony Blair’s departure as a deviation from election winning common centrist sense. Corbyn on the other hand is part of the small and shrinking old style socialist left of the party. Corbyn and many of his supporters would be most comfortable with the party’s position as it was in the lead up to the 1983 election.

Whilst Kendall has significantly more support than Corbyn, neither are likely to get anywhere near the leadership. That means that the real contest is between Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper. Andy Burnham is perceived as being the centre-left candidate in opposition to Kendall’s centre-right stance. His line is based on prosperity for everybody (which all candidates speak to so some degree), but without Kendall’s heavy focus on wealth creation and supply side solutions. It is probably fair to say that Burnham is the one to beat and seems to be the candidate who is placed closest to the middle of Labour’s bell curve.

Yvette Cooper seems to be presenting herself as the experienced ‘unity candidate’ – a leader who will not move to the left or the right, but who will seek to unite the party behind a message of, well, unity (details-to-follow-but-it-will-be-great). Labour will use a preferential voting system to elect the next leader which means that MPs, party members and affiliated union members will be asked to rank-order the candidates. This means that the second preferences of Kendall and Corbyn will likely determine the contest. The key question then is which of the two candidates can attract the most second preferences. It is possible that Cooper’s unity message will work to her advantage here.

However, in choosing any candidate for leader the party is faced with some severe challenges. The first challenge is that the reasons for Labour’s defeat are extremely complex. In other words, the party has to choose one of several answers to a question that is not at all clear. The candidates are obviously trying to push their particular version of what went wrong (which leads to them being the solution). However, these candidate driven answers to Labour’s problems are based on the personal ideological (in the broadest and, some might argue, most diluted sense of that term) positions of the candidates, rather than any firm evidence.

What is clear though is that Labour’s problems are severe. They were crushed by the SNP in Scotland. SNP offered Scottish voters a product which was both more left-wing and more specifically Scottish than Labour. Labour lost in England to a Conservative Party which was both more right-wing and more specifically English than Labour. And they lost support to UKIP which seemed to speak to a large section of voters which have felt ignored by the main parties’ relentless focus on swing voters in marginal constituencies. 

In other words, Labour was too right-wing for Scotland, too left-wing in large parts of England and too focussed on marginal seats in a political system which requires such focus to win. Trying to be Scottish and left-wing enough in Scotland; English and right-wing enough in large parts of England; and offer something to voters in Labour heartlands that they could previously take for granted, whilst also reaching out to swing voters is the challenge that faces the new leader. It seems clear that neither Corbyn nor Kendal have the requisite breadth of appeal necessary, and are thus out of the running. The open question then is which of Burnham and Cooper can bring together a leadership winning coalition. Whether either of them have the skill to face Labour’s serious challenges will only be answered at the ballot box in 2020.

Robin Pettitt is Senior Lecturer in Comparative Politics at Kingston University.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Six weeks of separation: The campaign rhetoric of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats

Judi Atkins discusses the rhetoric of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in the 2015 general election, within the context of the previous Coalition government.

How do the former partners in a coalition government defend their record and, at the same time, reassert their distinctive identities? This process begins months before the general election, of course, but it intensifies during the short campaign and requires considerable rhetorical skill – especially for the smaller party, whose influence and achievements are often less visible to the public.  

David Cameron’s campaign rhetoric centred on the choice between competence and chaos. Drawing on the Conservatives’ reputation for sound economic management, he argued that his government’s policies were ‘getting the country on the right track’. Cameron marshalled factual evidence to support this, claiming they had created two million jobs and halved the deficit while maintaining investment in the NHS. He also invoked the narrative of the ‘fiscal mess’ the government had inherited and expressed his eagerness to ‘finish the job that we’ve all started’. Here Cameron recalled the ‘we’re all in this together’ mantra, with its echoes of the ‘Dunkirk spirit’, and so sought to unite the public behind his party in a shared mission. He thus projected an image of governing competence and strong leadership, while his acknowledgement that ‘it’s been a very difficult time’ implies that the sacrifices made to secure the recovery must not be allowed to go to waste.[1]   

Alongside this display of competence, Cameron fuelled fears of a minority Labour government held to ransom by the SNP. Again drawing on the deficit narrative, he warned of a ‘coalition of chaos’, with ‘the SNP acting as the chain to Labour’s wrecking ball, running right through our economic recovery’. Indeed, he continued, ‘it will be you who pays the price … with job losses, with massive tax rises, and an economy back on the brink of bankruptcy’.[2] The destruction metaphor heightened the emotional impact of Cameron’s words, and so enhanced the persuasive power of his claim that only a Conservative government would ensure the recovery continued. While the Party was criticised for a lacklustre campaign, the fusion of its economic narrative with the ‘politics of fear’ enabled it to confound expectations and win an overall majority.

The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, emphasised their centrist credentials and their achievements in government. Thus, Nick Clegg expressed concern that the economic recovery would be threatened either by the Conservatives’ ‘ideological cuts’ or by Labour’s allegedly irresponsible borrowing, and argued that ‘we need to remain anchored in the centre ground so that we can finish the job of balancing the books, but do it fairly’.[3] To demonstrate the efficacy of this approach, he reminded the electorate that the Liberal Democrats had, for instance, raised the income tax threshold and introduced the Pupil Premium, and so had helped to ‘create a stronger economy and a fairer society’. Indeed, if given the opportunity to act as kingmaker in a subsequent coalition, the Liberal Democrats would ‘add a heart to a Conservative government and a brain to a Labour one’.[4] Rather like the Wizard of Oz, Clegg’s party would give their potential partners the qualities they needed to govern well, but which they currently lacked.

Although the Liberal Democrats’ belief in fairness was at the forefront of their 2010 campaign, it was soon subordinated to the Conservatives’ deficit reduction strategy. In 2015 the Party revived this commitment in a bid to re-establish their distinctive identity, while appealing to their audience’s sense of justice. To this end, they prioritised deficit reduction on the ground that it is unfair to burden future generations with the debt, and sought to distance themselves from the Conservatives’ approach. In particular, Clegg criticised their proposed £12 billion reduction in welfare spending as ‘very unfair’, asking Cameron: ‘What are you going to do? Who are you going to hurt? Who’s going to bear the pain?’.[5] However, this attack failed to convince due to the Liberal Democrat leadership’s capitulation to the Conservatives’ austerity programme, while Clegg’s efforts to present himself as a principled politician sat uneasily with his U-turns on tuition fees and the ‘bedroom tax’. These apparent contradictions gravely undermined the Liberal Democrats’ credibility and were surely a key factor in their crushing defeat on 7 May.

Judi Atkins is Lecturer in Politics at Coventry University. She is author of Justifying New Labour Policy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) and co-editor of Rhetoric in British Politics and Society (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

This post is reproduced from UK Election Analysis 2015: Media, Voters and the Campaign, edited by Daniel Jackson and Einar Thorsen and published by the Centre for Study of Journalism, Culture and Community at Bournemouth University, in partnership with the Political Studies Association.

Featuring 71 articles from 92 leading UK academics, this special publication captures the immediate thoughts, reflections and early research insights on the 2015 UK General Election from the cutting edge of media and politics research.

Published ten days after the election, these contributions are short and accessible. Authors provide authoritative analysis of the campaign, including research findings or new theoretical insights; to bring readers original ways of understanding the election. Contributions also bring a rich range of disciplinary influences, from political science to fan studies, journalism studies to advertising. See the Election Analysis website for more details.

[1] ITV (2015) The ITV Leaders’ Debate (UK General Election 2015), 2 April.
[2] Cameron, David (2015) Speech Launching Scottish Manifesto, 16 April.
[3] BBC (2015) Question Time – Election Leaders Special, 30 April.
[4] Clegg, Nick (2015) Speech Launching the Liberal Democrat Manifesto, 15 April.
[5] BBC (2015) Question Time – Election Leaders Special, 30 April.

Monday, 25 May 2015

The Future for Labour

Kevin Hickson reflects on his experiences of contesting a safe Conservative seat as a Labour candidate.

On May 7th I contested the safe Conservative seat of East Yorkshire for the Labour Party.  This was my first entry into national politics having been a local councillor for two years previously.  Every seat is different and as such care must be taken in extrapolating wider lessons for the Labour Party as it begins the task of examining what went wrong and where it goes from here.

The result in East Yorkshire was mixed.  The main aim, in which I was successful, was in taking the Labour Party back into second place having slipped below the Liberal Democrats five years previously.  I also secured a modest increase in Labour's vote share.  As with all other candidates in the constituency and across the country I took the opinion polls as being more or less accurate.  This, of course, proved not to be the case.  I expected the Liberal Democrat vote to fall and most of that to come to me.  I suspect it did, but what was less predictable was the extent to which UKIP took votes from Labour - far more than they did from the Conservatives.  The Tory vote held firm, in fact increased slightly giving the incumbent over 50% of the vote.

Nationally, of course, Labour did badly.  Hit hard by the swing to the Scottish National Party in Scotland and to UKIP, and to a lesser extent the Greens, in England Labour's electoral strategy is now far more complicated than it was in the 1990s.

The Blairites were quick to criticise the leadership of Ed Miliband in the days immediately after the election defeat.  Never their choice for the leadership in 2010 they remained opposed to the direction in which he led the party and argued that they had been proven right after the election defeat.  Only by returning to the previously successful New Labour formula could Labour recover power.  Since then numerous leadership contenders have appeared to denounce Ed Miliband's leadership and offer to move the party back towards the 'aspirational' voters of Middle England they lost to the Conservatives. In the immediate context of the 2015 election defeat this argument appears enticing.  However, to move in that direction would be a mistake, for it assumes that the electoral context is the same or similar to what it was in the run up to 1997 and 2001.  It isn't.

The first reason for this is that there are clear left-wing alternatives to Labour across the country.  The reason why the SNP did so well is not because Labour was too left-wing, but that it was radical enough.  Equally the same argument can be made for how Labour should respond to Plaid Cymru and the Greens.  Moreover, although this may appear counterintuitive, it is also the most sensible way to respond to the challenge of UKIP.  Although a proportion of UKIP voters are undoubtedly right-wing, voting in the way they did because they switched from the BNP or the Tories, a large proportion were also from the 'left behind', those who felt that the Labour Party no longer spoke for them.

This is the dilemma that the next Labour leader faces.  I believe that Ed Miliband had the right instincts and that is why I voted for him to be Leader.  However, he struggled to present a clear alternative.  Offering the voters only slightly less austerity is not the way to enthuse them.  Refusing to offer a referendum on continued European Union membership was also a mistake for the pro-European argument must be put and allowed Labour's political opponents to say that Labour was contemptuous of the electorate.

So this isn't about moving left or right.  To the disillusioned working-class voters of towns such as Bridlington the terms left and right don't mean much anyway.  But it does mean that Labour has to offer a clear alternative perspective from the Conservatives offering a message of hope, and must do so in a style and language which resonates with the wider public that Labour now needs to appeal to.

Labour cannot win a majority next time unless it appeals to the voters who went from Labour to the SNP.  To become too English-centric at this time would be electorally disastrous.  To offer one message for Scotland and another for England (and perhaps another for Wales) would be opportunistic.  So the only viable strategy for Labour across Britain, borne out by my experiences in East Yorkshire, is to offer a bold message including endorsing an EU referendum, a clear policy on immigration, a defence of public services and an alternative approach to the economy.

Kevin Hickson is Senior Lecturer in British Politics at the University of Liverpool and was Labour's Parliamentary candidate for East Yorkshire.  His opinions expressed in this article are very much his own!