This post is a response to Eoin Clarke's article: The most damning evidence I have seen yet regarding the damage caused by Blairism. In it, Eoin argues that evidence of increasing voter apathy at the polls, and that voters can see less difference between the parties, is damning evidence that 'the neo-liberal consensus alienated millions of Labour voters'.
This is an incredibly interesting and important article; thank you Eoin.
Not Proven, But Still Correct
Of course – as I think Eoin would be first to agree – the facts don’t necessarily prove the conclusion.
The fact that Blair’s period in office correlated with a rise in electoral apathy doesn’t mean that he was the cause of that apathy.
Equally, the fact that Blair's time in office saw a decreasing perception of difference between the two parties doesn’t prove a causal link either – arguably, Blair had occupied the middle ground and it was the Tories who moved into the centre to join him. (Only when they got into power did people realise they were lying.)
Nevertheless, the figures reflect two underlying truths:
Firstly that since 1997 Labour has been losing it core, working class voters to apathy,
And secondly that – whilst Blair might have been correct in thinking that Labour would never win an election without the centre, middle-class vote – it has also proved true that, without its core, working-class support, Labour cannot win an election.
Where Blair Went Wrong
Unlike many on the left of the Labour Party, I do not hate Blair or his legacy. He was my constituency MP, and I found him a nice chap, who genuinely did want to accomplish social good.
Where Blair went wrong, I think, is that he thought that the best way to go about government was to do things which (he believed) would benefit the poorer members of society, whilst pitching to the middle and upper classes.
I would suggest that this was based on a misunderstanding whence his support from the middle classes came.
I did not become a Labour activist in 1994 because Blair abandoned Clause 4! I started to support Labour (along with millions of other middle-class people) because I was horrified at the effect of more than a decade of Thatcherism -
i.e. it was an ethical decision.
Mistakenly, Blair believed that he had gained that support by moving Labour’s policies away from socialism towards a neo-liberal ‘Third Way’.
Losing ‘The Working Man’
Eoin has well-documented how this misconception went wrong in the 2010 election.
Labour did NOT ‘lose’ the centre middle-classes in 2010 – in fact its vote there seems to have held up quite well. Middle-class people like me, once they have made their ethical decision, are often quite tenacious in maintaining their beliefs.
No, the problem in 2010 was that, after 13 years of pandering to the right/centre – as Eoin has shown us in his article – Labour had utterly lost the support of the working class who, genuinely, no longer believed that Labour as a party represented them. Millions of people could not see any difference between the parties, and could therefore see no point in voting.
The story I usually recount is that of one elector, leaning on his green wheelie-bin, in front of his council house, with its new double-glazing, new kitchen and new doors, looking out over the impeccable flower-bed onto the recently-refurbished play area, who aggressively asserted that he did not intend to vote. ‘What,’ he asked, ‘has the [Labour] Council ever done for me?’
Blairism had looked after him quite well, but it had failed to convince him that it was the Labour government which was responsible.
And what is true on the micro-level is, of course, true on the macro. We are just beginning to hear people saying that, maybe, Brown did a brilliant job in 2008. But how many people went into the election fully believing that Labour was responsible for the recession?
Where New Labour failed – and it indisputably did, or we would still be in power – is that it lost the confidence of ‘the working man’.
So Where Now?
The pertinent question now, of course, is, what do we do to get that working-class support back?
There are those in the party who argue that we need to consolidate our appeal to the middle class by, if necessary, moving further to the right. That, imho, would be a disaster, though a fascist line on, say, immigration and benefits, would no doubt win the hearts of certain working people.
And there is always the argument that – as they find the switch from Labour to Tories hitting their prosperity and their families – Labour’s core ‘working class voters’ will come back automatically. Again, imho, I would not want to rely on this as an ultimate election strategy.
No. Is it not the case that Labour needs to seek a way to appeal once again to its core support-base?
Tony Blair realised (correctly, I would aver) that Labour needs to appeal to the ethical middle class; the problem was that he took his working class core for granted.
By contrast, Labour’s leaders today need to realise that Labour must again reach out to win the core working class; only this time it must not in doing so lose the middle class support it possesses.
Labour, currently, is in a ferment of debate about where it should go, and how it should do this. Within that debate, Eoin’s Labour Left and the assertion in its Red Book that ‘the only way is ethics’ must be allowed to play a significant part.