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Things mustn't get any worse: the new Labour dream?

“I’m Labour, or I was Labour, and I sympathise, but there’s no fairness, no fairness, it’s absolutely ridiculous. Millions of immigrants have come in and it’s making everything harder”, though there was also a firm and contradictory response: “I don’t think so, that’s all a bit of hot air. A lot of foreign workers do jobs British workers don’t want”.

These were the now immortal words uttered by Gillian Duffy in Rochdale.

2010 was indeed a far cry from this.

The 2015 election makes very grim reading for us. The Fabians’ “Southern Discomfort Again” pamphlet published today provides that,

“At the 2010 Election, there was almost a wipe-out of Labour seats in Southern England, where almost half of British constituencies are located. 13 seats were lost in the South East, 8 in the South West, 11 in the East, 14 in the West Midlands and 11 seats in the East Midlands, a total of 57 seats or nearly two thirds of Labour’s overall loss of 91 seats. Indeed, the Labour party now has no MPs whatsoever in Cornwall, Somerset, Wiltshire, Dorset, West Sussex, East Sussex, Kent, Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Northamptonshire, Rutland, Warwickshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, Gloucestershire, Worcestershire and Herefordshire.”

The Fabian Society published its long-awaited “Southern Discomfort Again” report today. The survey results and discussion are available here. Lord Giles Radice and Dr Patrick Diamond from Oxford were the co-authors. Lord Radice is pictured here in our meeting at 1 George Street, Westminster. SW1.

Our next election will be in 2015, 18 years away from Tony Blair’s dream of 1997. Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell were possibly at the right place at the right time, with a country absolutely sick to the back teeth of the Conservatives. Note that this is different to the current situation, where the Coalition, according to all the polling evidence, appears to be popular, as it has a credible policy for reducing the deficit, and, overall, the general public support the idea of people working together in the national interest, as evidenced by David Cameron’s populist speeches at Conference. Tony Blair tapped into a mood of optimism, and, more importantly, aspiration; and the county ran with it. The mood in 2011 is very different, and Labour has to recognize this. The buzzword now is ‘insecurity’, both in social and cultural terms. Gillian Duffy’s comments touch on one plank of this; immigration in itself, with its repercussions on employment. Actually, it touches on another plank, housing. Interestingly, Labour has become known as the party of the benefit scroungers, immigrants and the Unions. Clearly, Labour has failed to make the “globalism is good” argument, and the benefits of free movement of Labour was not even attempted by Phil Woolas MP in the last parliament.

Labour would therefore be advised to be sensitive to the feeling of insecurity by their voters. And who are their voters? For the first time, last Election, according to YouGov, the middle classes overtook the working classes in voting for Labour. It would be sensible to highlight the social implication of cuts, because there is the outside risk for Labour (and of enormous benefit to the country at large) that drastic benefit reduction might indeed ‘work’ without seeing adverse effects in unemployment. If the economy goes belly-up (we are assured by Cameron and Osborne, reflecting on Ireland inter alia, that it won’t), Labour will be home-and-dry. If not, it’s going to be ‘quids in’ for all involved in the Coalition; in particular, Nick Clegg MP. They will be able to play ‘well, it was unpleasant, but the country is much more better off now, and we can pay for more nurses and teachers now?’ card.

Labour should be ready for a long period of opposition, until proven otherwise. I feel that this will give Ed Miliband sufficient time to sort his team out. There are issues to be debated, such as the degree to which ‘creeping marketisation’, much despised by Ed Balls MP, will be avoided by Ed Miliband. As for the psychodrama, one can speculate ad nauseam on whether Ed Balls will support Ed Miliband, but the future direction taken by John Healey and Alan Johnson, for example in opposing NHS ‘privatisation’, will be necessary. There are some of course, perhaps Tony Blair included, who feel that some sort of corporate restructuring and business ethic in the NHS is needed. It may be there is a long haul ahead, which will give time for Ed Miliband to work Angela Eagle MP up from Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury to Shadow Chancellor, in time. As Alan Johnson MP readily admits, he is currently reading a primer on economics, but is possibly the best person to oppose the Comprehensive Spending Review as a politician at this particular moment in time.

We need to consider carefully why we lost an election. Whilst I am an ardent fan, I recognize that 13 years was quite long enough for people who felt that Labour had run out of steam following 2005-2007, and that Gordon Brown, whilst good at leading economics seminars (although he probably lost on the £6bn point, in fact) was not an inspirational leader. I feel that the lower middle classes feel disenfranchised, still have aspiration, but are faced with massive insecurities now, which the left need to address. Furthermore, Labour can’t duck away from the fact that, despite having successfully made in-roads into restoring its reputation, has become perceived as ‘economically incompetent’ again. Ironically, the report on waste in government, which Labour actually commissioned, was published today.

Liam Byrne and Ed Miliband will be trying to make sense of all of this.

Dr Shibley Rahman

Queen’s Scholar, BA (1st.), MA, MB, BChir, PhD, MRCP(UK), LLB(Hons.), FRSA
Director of Law and Medicine Limited
Member of the Fabian Society and Associate of the Institute of Directors

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