Trade unionists in the UK are horrified at the prospect of five more years of Tory vandalism. What went wrong?

Labour, and the Left in the UK, had a bad night. While the polls were always close, it seemed that Ed Miliband had a better than even chance of becoming Prime Minister, and beginning the slow and difficult task of putting the country back together after five years of Tory vandalism.

Instead, the Conservatives won a decisive victory. What on Earth just happened? Are people really just a lot more right wing and selfish than we realised?

I don’t think so. But the Right lead on ideas, while the Left floundered. As TS Elliot put it,

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity”.

Already there is blame and recrimination coming from the Labour Right. Undead Blairite forces, reanimated by the defeat, have lurched back to a semblance of life, claiming that Labour lost because it moved to the Left.

Moved to the Left? I hardly noticed.

In the Blairite analysis, England is a right wing country, and if Labour wants to be electable, it needs to accept that.

There are others who claim, accurately I think, that Labour failed to offer an anti-austerity alternative, and so voters weren’t motivated to support them. Labour’s pledges were an uninspiring and unmeasurable mishmash, an attempt to be everything to everyone.

In the end, this is how too many people saw the Labour campaign. Cartoon by Peter Brookes.

However, the problem is deeper than that: even if Labour had come up with some clear left wing positions, they had a credibility problem: people wouldn’t believe they really meant it. It would seem like calculation based on polling.

Labour failed to establish a narrative. Instead, it fought the entire campaign on terrain mapped out by the Tories. Labour accepted Tory arguments about the need for austerity, and only promised to make it less painful.

Why vote for the lesser evil?

The Tories developed a grand narrative and stuck to it: the financial crisis was the result of Labour overspending. The unemployed are workshy shirkers who are bleeding us dry. Enterprise needs to be liberated from the dead hand of the state by privatisation. It’s nonsense, but it’s a simple story with internal cohesion.

Labour accepted the broad outlines of the narrative, and quibbled over detail. Instead of developing a campaign based on principles, Labour triangulated: they’d announce a policy, see if it resulted in a poll bounce, fine tune, and try again. The obsession with polls meant the party was only ever reacting, rather than setting the agenda.

People are not politically static entities who give their support to the party that best reflects their views. Despite the election result, England is not naturally a right wing country.

But the Right provided a clear leadership of ideas, and so right wing attitudes hardened. The whole country moved right as a result of a concerted campaign, and we forgot our radical heritage. As examples like Podemos, Syriza and Scotland show, when the Left shows leadership, it can carry people with it.

Letting your enemies choose the battleground is poor strategy, and it becomes almost impossible to win in those circumstances. Labour had five years to tell a different story. It would have been painful at first, and the media would have slaughtered them. But if they’d stuck to their guns, more and more people would have been convinced.

The Scottish experience is instructive here: the SNP’s performance last night has been quite unbelievable. Huge Labour majorities were overturned. Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy lost his seat, and campaign director Douglas Alexander lost to a 20-year old politics student elected on an anti-austerity and anti-Trident platform.

This success is based on the perception that the SNP are to the Left of Labour. Based on an explicit rejection of austerity and Trident renewal, this is probably true, but in terms of overall policy, the SNP are not significantly different to Labour. What has made all the difference, though, is rhetoric: while Labour released a Controls on Immigration mug, Nicola Sturgeon spoke about the positive benefits. The SNP ran an upbeat, positive campaign.

When the Right uses fear, the Left needs to respond with hope and inspiration.

It took time for the SNP to learn this. At the start of the independence campaign, barely 20% of the population supported independence. On the day of the referendum, 45% voted in favour. Last night, 50% voted SNP, with a further 3% for the pro-independence Greens.

How did that happen?

The official Yes campaign, lead by the SNP, was initially uninspiring. What is the point of independence in an interconnected world? The campaign didn’t make a convincing enough case for change.

What changed is that the Left got on board and answered the question: we can use independence to build a fairer society. Independent campaigns sprung up: Commonweal, Radical Independence, Women for Independence, Green Yes. The campaign stopped being about nationalism, and became a conversation about the sort of country Scotland wanted to be. Independence became a means to an end, a way to escape austerity, nuclear weapons and imperialist posturing.

After the election defeat, 80,000 people — predominantly Leftists — joined the SNP, determined to put their politics into action.

The lesson? Involve people in building a convincing alternative, and they will vote for it.

And while it’s true Labour were savaged by the right wing press, so was the Yes campaign. Eventually, if your message is consistent enough, people become immune to it.

Richard Seymour sums up the problem with Labour’s response well:

Labour attacked independence from the Right, from a position of loyalty to the state, to the war machine, and to the neoliberal doctrines of the civil service. Miliband, during the election campaign, tried to reassure middle class voters that Labour utterly ruled out any SNP influence on policies like austerity or Trident. And while the Labour Party tailed the Tories on austerity, while they imitated Tory language on welfare, while they copied UKIP on immigration, the SNP defended a simple, civilised position: no austerity, stop demonising people on welfare, and welcome immigrants.

Unite’s General Secretary Len McCluskey warned during the leadership contest last year that if Jim Murphy — a Blairite on the right wing of the party — were elected Scottish leader, it would be a “death sentence” for the party. It seems he was right.

So what is to be done?

We need to ask ourselves where power really lies. It’s very easy to get sucked into the vortex of electoral politics, and then become thoroughly disillusioned when our candidates lose. But there are different ways of understanding power in society, and this dramatically affects the way we campaign and organise.

Parliament is a battleground, a terrain where power is contested. The media is a battleground of ideas. But they aren’t the ones: workplaces are battlegrounds too. The public relations war can be won on social media. Communities are sites of struggle.

In the elite power model, power lies with politicians, corporations and the mainstream media. In order to change society, we need to influence people at the top: elect friendly politicians, get favourable coverage in the press.

But there is also counter-power, a people power model. This recognises that we are ultimately ruled by consent, and that this can be withdrawn. Power lies with the people: in unions, social movements, faith groups, local party structures and campaigns, using social media to tell a story instead of relying on the press. Wealth is created by the productivity of workers, not by the genius of bankers.

There is no doubt that a Labour government would be better for workers. But we don’t have one, so we need to fight now, not wait for another chance in five years.

It doesn’t matter so much who the government is if we have a powerful, engaged population. While we face a nightmare at the top, we need to focus on building a movement from below. This means we need a narrative: we need to tell our story about how ordinary people standing together is the only thing that ever made the world a better place.

We need a positive vision. Instead of electoral defeatism, we need to remind people that when we fight back, we start to win. Unions are a lot weaker now than they were a generation ago, but we’re still hugely powerful. Unions in the US have done a fantastic job of raising the minimum wage to a living wage in the Fight for 15 campaign.

The US federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, but several cities have already raised it to $15 because of union campaigning. The Democrats are proposing a new federal minimum of $12, which shows that politicians respond to powerful unions.

And over in New Zealand, the union Unite has defeated zero hour contracts in McDonalds, Pizza Hut and much of the fast food industry through collective bargaining.

Let us not forget the source of our power. Go out and organise the fight back. Build power on the ground and give politicians from all parties something to think about.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.
Author avatar

Walton Pantland

South African trade unionist living in Glasgow. Loves whisky, wine, running and the great outdoors. Walton did an MA in Industrial Relations at Ruskin, Oxford, and is interested in how trade unions use new technology to organise.

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