Thursday, 14 May 2015

The Uses and Abuses of History

History is written by the winners. This is a truism - there aren't many Nazi histories of World War Two - but it is also often bunk. History is written by those who wish to advance a particular interpretation, and they are often the losers, or at least those who think that the victory has been misunderstood. Unless they feel obliged to buttress their claims to legitimacy, most winners prefer to concentrate on the exercise of power rather than worry about justifying how they achieved it. A case in point is the absence of any (public) Tory analysis of the general election results, beyond simple triumphalism, and the surfeit of analysis produced on the left in respect of a "historic defeat". This flips the situation we saw in the run-up to the election, when the Tories busily rewrote history at every opportunity (high public debt was the result of Gordon Brown's profligacy etc) while Labour seemed singularly uninterested in putting the historical record straight.

Some attribute this failure to the lovable tendency of progressives to focus on the future (Paul Krugman getting all nostalgic about JFK's New Frontier schtick and Asimovian SF), while others see it arising from Ed Miliband's naive refusal to indulge the dark arts of spin (Simon Wren-Lewis calling forth Alistair Campbell). Both of these are actually neoliberal failings: the annihilation of the past that Tony Blair made the centrepiece of his strategy in the 1990s (Clause IV etc); and the managerialist belief that the electorate is a ball of putty in the right hands. Unsurprisingly, the Blairites have been quickest out of the traps in rewriting recent history, pointing eagerly at the sunny uplands of aspiration while deprecating the extreme anti-business policies of the Brown/Miliband years (yeah, right). Meanwhile, the return of spin is evident in the revival of tired old tropes, such as Labour's "loss of Middle England". Underlying this is a presumption that Labour suffered a decisive defeat, which the Tories aren't about to dispute.

Some Tory sympathisers have marvelled that this is the first government to increase its share of the vote since 1974, indeed the first to do so after serving a full term for over a century, however this ignores the fact that the last government was a coalition and that most of the Tory gains in seats came at the expense of their coalition partner. In fact, the Tories' relative performance, measured in terms of an increase in vote share and the quantum of votes, was weaker than Labour's. Their better performance in seats was down to preserving their 2010 position coupled with the peculiarities of first-past-the-post, which can be seen in the changing average of votes per seat - i.e. how many votes does it take to win a seat (this is not about "fairness", which is meaningless in an FPTP system, but distributive efficiency). Since 2005, Labour's average steadily worsened: 26,908 - 33,359 - 40,277. In contrast, the Tory average improved, but has now plateaued: 44,368 - 34,979 - 34,244.

This trend suggests that the growth of support beyond the two main parties (which now accounts for 1 in 3 votes cast) is currently hurting Labour more than the Tories. The erosion of support in the Tory vote has been cushioned in seats where they have a large majority and aided by LibDem defectors in LibDem/Tory marginals. In contrast, the erosion of Labour's support is occurring in Tory/Labour marginals in England, which prevented them from picking up enough seats last week to offset both losses in Scotland and Tory gains from the LibDems in the South and South-West. As this erosion is heading in apparently opposed directions on the political spectrum, i.e. to the Greens and UKIP, it presents Labour with a dilemma: do they try and pitch a UK-wide position, which means signalling either left or right, or do they localise their "offer", as is being urged in Scotland? I think this is a false choice that springs from the classic ideological critique by the right of the left, namely that it is an unstable coalition (misled by "outside agitators") and thus prone to fragmentation. In reality, the ex-Labour voters who have opted for the Greens or UKIP this time round are probably not so very different to each other in the bulk of their views.

The Blue Labour case - to focus on winning back Kippers in the North by "understanding concerns over immigration" - is weak. If Labour's biggest problem was the erosion of votes in its safe seats, this would push the votes-to-seats ratio down - i.e. the party would be winning seats with fewer votes. The fact that the ratio is going up confirms that Labour's bigger problem is that it isn't getting over the line in marginals, coupled with the impact of seats lost to the SNP in Scotland. Some of this will be down to the erosion of support by UKIP and the Greens, but this appears to have been more than offset by replenishment in the form of ex-LibDem voters, hence Labour's vote share in England went up 3.6%. The post-election poll commissioned by Michael Ashcroft shows that Labour lost almost as many voters to the Tories as to UKIP, while the Tories bigger loss to UKIP was masked by LibDem refugees. There is also evidence that the Labour party has continued to struggle in mobilising voter registration and turnout, specifically among the young and the poor (charmingly reframed by the Telegraph as "Lazy Labour"). Ed Miliband's indulgence of Russell Brand, who proceeded to back Labour after the deadline for voter registration had passed, was emblematic of this ineptitude.

The argument that Labour needs to win back Green and SNP supporters by being more "radical" is also dubious. Both parties have masqueraded as left-wing in order to attract disillusioned Labour supporters, which means that any sincere policy adoptions by Labour are likely to be outflanked by more rhetoric. Until the SNP start pissing-off Scottish voters, Labour will lack any leverage in Scotland. This means they need to focus on Holyrood, where the SNP are enacting policies that can be critiqued. Douglas Alexander might do better service for Labour if he now stood as an MSP in May 2016, particularly as the Scottish electorate is likely to be sympathetic to the idea that it needs an effective opposition in Edinburgh (consider the long-standing criticism of the poor quality of Labour's MSPs). The tactical oscillation of Scottish voters between Holyrood and Westminster elections came to an end in 2015 (and I admit I didn't expect it to be quite so jarring), but it's possible we'll see its inverse going forward - i.e. strong support for the SNP as the "national" party in Westminster elections, and more balanced support in Holyrood elections.

The Greens look like they may have inherited the LibDems' mantle as the default home of the middle class and youth protest vote. Rather than trying to compete for votes that are broadly spread across the country (and predominantly in safe Tory seats), Labour's best strategy would be a combination of respect - treating the Greens as an independent ginger-group to help move the Overton Window (e.g. recommending an open-minded commission on the basic income) - and hard-targeting of young voters in marginal seats where drift to the Greens might be decisive. Green support is far softer than that of the SNP, simply because many of its voters are as much (if not more) energised by issues of social justice as environmentalism. Without being too cynical or complacent about it, Labour doesn't need to do too much to attract these voters back. In comparison, Labour will only attract back voters from the SNP by gradually advancing bread-and-butter issues at Holyrood.

The silver-lining for Labour is that this means it isn't miles short of the winning line, despite the apocalyptic tone of much of the analysis, which perhaps explains why some Blairites always thought this was "a good election to lose". That said, there is no guarantee that the party can make up this lost ground quickly. The question is: how does Labour boost its popular vote by 2020? Given that voters do not move en bloc, strategies that talk of targeting particular demographic segments are usually just ideological fluff, appealing to mythical constructs like Mondeo Man and Worcester Woman. Similarly, trying to isolate particular policies in focus groups is unlikely to produce a coherent whole. The "battle for the soul of the party" won't be won by trying to turn inchoate fears and sympathies into marketing data "on a scale of 1 to 5", but by actively listening to people and getting them to develop their own ideas.

Labour's problem is that the Blair years have weakened the institutional capability of the party to do this, having replaced an active (and therefore troublesome) organisation with a passive one, and having made autonomy suspect (thus handing the SNP a gift in Scotland). As a post-democratic party, Labour finds itself lacking a democratic culture at precisely the point when it needs one most. The decision this week to have a four-month leadership election process is an obvious compromise between the Blairite desire for an early coronation by media acclamation and the non-Blairite desire for the party conference to act as a hustings. This will be spun by the Tory media, with soft support by the TV channels, as a union conspiracy to exert illegitimate influence. The interim Labour leadership might want to think about countering this, perhaps by reconnecting with the party's history of participatory democracy. Maybe Tristram Hunt could make himself useful on that score.


  1. Interestingly some of your themes are echoed in this article about the problems of Podemos in Spain.

  2. One tactic might be to stop seeing politics as a series of World Cups every five years, with the interim period as one of tepid, uninteresting 'friendly' confrontations, and broadening the political process a bit more. The depoliticisation of the UK is amazing. I went on holiday to Northern Spain after the election over here to find that they were in a campaign themselves. Despite the fact that it is only the Spanish regional and local elections, the amount of propaganda in the form of posters, banners and flags for at least 10 different parties swamped that for our General Election, we heard numerous loudspeaker cars touring cities, towns and villages, and the media coverage was practically wall-to-wall. I doubt the Spanish public is quite as motivated as this, but over in the UK I got the impression among many people that the election was something of an inconvenience to be got over with, whatever the result.

    1. I think there are three aspects to this.

      The greater prominence of democratic political theatre in Spain probably owes something to its relative novelty. While the transition from dictatorship in the late 70s is now ancient history for many youngers electors, the memory is institutionally encoded.

      In the UK, the ideology of democracy has long emphasised the dangers of populism, hence the suspicion of strong emotion (Cameron's "pumped up" and Miliband's "hell yes" were both strikingly weird), the belief that politics is a private matter (the "shy Tory" trope), and the insistence on the mechanics of democracy being quaintly ramshackle.

      There is also an increasing sense of voters as consumers (with the media obviously influenced by public choice theory), weighing up the parties' "retail offers" like good little ultility-maximisers, and the election count as an X-Factor-style personal drama (Portillo, Balls et al). Scotland appeared to be the only part of the country where collective values - what is best for us rather than me - were to the fore.

    2. I agree, and I think politicians haven't helped themselves by reinforcing the idea of politics as consumer choice. Spain seems interesting to me in that, despite forty years of dictatorship, the political map of the country is strikingly similar to 1936, minus the influence of anarchism of course. The similarity of Spain and the UK seems to be in the resilience of the political representation of their middle-classes, outside of the nationalist areas. The PP is more thoroughly corrupt than the Tories, but both appeal well to the narrow-minded and snobbish aspects of their constituencies, while manipulating the varying fortunes of their economies to their advantage.