Last week’s election result was a disaster for the British Left, and the utter devastation that could be inflicted upon our public services, institutions and the British working class can now most likely only be held back by the benevolence of a few Tory backbenchers combined with the militancy of an anti-austerity movement that has been at best waning and at worst dead since 2012.
Labour supporters have come up with their competing theories as to what went wrong, all of which have some validity and clearly played a part in a defeat of unexpectedly crushing proportions. It has become clear that problems with Ashcroft’s polling, which over-estimated the Labour lead, the ‘shy Tory’ factor, and finally the scare tactics of Tories in England evoking the spectre of the SNP all combined to squeeze Labour’s vote.
In addition to this, in a dozen or so constituencies a break off to the Green Party and smaller left parties handed Cameron his majority by electing Tories at Labour’s cost.
But why did it go so badly for Labour? It’s true that ‘economic competence’, a battle Ed Miliband could never have won as soon as Labour lost that bankrupt argument in 2010, ate away in those crucial English marginals. Yet Labour’s problem was not just that we lost a few Tory votes off the edge, it was that our core voters didn’t turn out at all. Given a lacklustre manifesto where the genuine radicalism of Ed Miliband was held back by the influence of the ‘zombie Blairites’, who had come back to life after the death of New Labour to haunt the current party, Labour just didn’t inspire enough.
The way back for the Left in England is to look to Scotland, where a huge upsurge in working-class political participation has taken place. It’s true the SNP are not a left-wing party, and it’s also true that they have the backing of Rupert Murdoch (quite possibly because he knew they would all but destroy Labour north of the border), and that they are very soft on austerity. Yet by putting out a radical message, they tapped into years and years’ worth of popular discontent and feelings of disillusionment towards ‘the establishment’, which, unfortunately for Scottish Labour, meant them.
Labour’s problem is the Left’s problem. The party’s failure over not just the last five years but the last few decades to match the industrial decline of its heartlands with a newer and more innovative organising strategy has brought it to its knees. For all the New Labour talk of “we’re all middle class now”, there are many more people who feel the sting of Thatcherism through low wages, high rents, a repressive and uncaring welfare system, long queues at the foodbank or waiting times in the local hospital.
It’s Labour’s and the Left’s job now to tap into people’s anger, to organise them locally in campaigns against the social injustice they face, and translate that anger into a politics of the Left.