Tuesday, 12 May 2015


After such a devastating election defeat, the Labour Party needs to do some serious soul-searching if it is to even think about regaining power in 2020.

At the start of the 20th century, Lenin famously asked “What is to done?” and concluded that the working class couldn’t be won to revolutionary politics by fighting economic battles alone but that a vanguardist movement needed to be built to lead the workers to victory.

Putting those notions to the test in the context of a parliamentary democracy a hundred years on, the first part of that analysis remains true – Labour’s largely progressive economic policies of the 2015 election manifesto were not, by themselves, sufficient to gain enough votes and seats to win the election. The second notion should be dismissed without a second thought. It was successful in Russia, led to a coup d’état (not a revolution), which quickly degenerated into a tyranny which lasted a lifetime.

I’m not suggesting the same thing happens here but there have been and still are those within the Labour Party who firmly uphold this tradition. Those who decry electoral defeats in simplistic terms – usually the notions that:

A) Labour wasn’t left-wing enough.
B) The people didn’t understand their own interests.
C) The power of the media is so strong that it can influence people to such an extent that they adopt the second notion.

Looking at these in turn it becomes strikingly obvious that the first and third of these are in total contradiction to each other. The more leftist the manifesto the more vicious the press attacks – as witnessed in this election, to a certain if lesser extent in 2010, and if you care to go back far enough, with devastating effect against Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock. Consider though the electoral fate of those parties placed to Labour’s left, the Trade Union & Socialist Coalition, the Socialist Labour Party, and the Socialist Party of Great Britain. Their minuscule levels of votes show quite clearly the result of political 'purity' and vanguardism. Respect are another party which was humiliated electorally though whether it is a party to the left of Labour is questionable to say the least and whether it will even continue to exist following George Galloway’s thumping defeat is another matter.

George Galloway: the Big Brother cat in the hat

As to whether the Greens – whose vote improved enormously - can be considered to be to the left of Labour, that too is debatable. In some ways they can be thought to be (though whether in a good way is also open to question) and in others less so. In any case the rise in their support seems to have come mainly at the expense of the Liberal Democrats and is not as spectacular as at first sight. They gained over a million votes but there was a huge increase in the number of Green candidates. Their average vote per constituency was just over 2,000. Their place on the political spectrum can be left for another day.

A Hostile Media? 'Twas Ever Thus

So the more left-wing the manifesto, the more vitriolic the media attacks. That much is clear but attacks such as these have ALWAYS been made on Labour (even against Tony Blair who famously won the support of the Sun in 1997 but still faced bitter opposition from the Mail, Express, Times and Telegraph). Successful Labour Prime Ministers (and as an indication of the difficulties involved in winning elections we should remind ourselves that only three Labour leaders – Attlee, Wilson & Blair – have won working majorities, only two at the first attempt (Attlee and Blair) and only Blair in peacetime) have faced vindictive attacks too. Attlee & Wilson campaigned on manifestos which would be regarded as ultra-leftist today. Churchill said Attlee, despite five years as his deputy, was intending to introduce some form of "Gestapo" in order to establish the welfare state. Wilson faced a bombardment of press attacks throughout his two periods as Premier. There’s no need to go into them here but a cursory search for “Wigan Slag Heaps + Wilson” would be instructive. Yet they won. Three entirely different men but with a collective tally of nine election victories, five of which would be described as “landslides” in modern parlance. Yet Wilson won only the ‘traditional’ backing of The Guardian, Mirror and Daily Herald/pre-Murdoch Sun between 1964-1970. In the two 1974 elections, only the Mirror backed Labour.

Clement Attlee. Accused by Churchill of wanting to introduce a British 'gestapo.'

The second argument should be dismissed out of hand. This is the modern vanguardist approach to politics. In any internal re-assessment of Labour’s failure it should be axiomatic that in a democratic election the voters are never wrong. THE PEOPLE ARE ALWAYS RIGHT must be the starting point in looking ahead to the next battle. And the terrain for that battle will be different from this one. Just like wars, elections should never be fought like the last one.

Accepting that the first and third notions are totally contradictory and the first and second are incorrect, can we accept that the third remains in place? The short answer is yes and no. But I want to go into this in depth. The power stands but its influence is questionable. 

At this election many thought that the power of media barons to influence the electorate could, if not be crushed forever, then certainly be curtailed. This was the idea that social media had diluted the power of the traditional press to the extent that its influence was waning inexorably away. Certainly a Labour victory and full implementation of the Leveson report plus an introduction of US-style media laws on ownership would have diminished press power to a great extent.

But ask yourself this: what was YOUR discourse on social media in this election? Was it pumped-up tweeting with the like-minded? Was it angry exchanges with bitter opponents? Or was it open and friendly discussion with the undecided and open to persuasion?

My answers are yes, yes, and no respectively. I would be surprised if yours (if anyone is actually reading this) weren’t the same.

Rupert Murdoch: the bête noire (and with good reason) of the Left, whose power would have been severely curtailed had Labour won. 

Preaching and re-preaching to the converted, coupled with ranting and re-ranting with the unconvertible is a waste of time and energy. Yes, it can be a great morale-booster to find that there lots of people out there who agree with you, people you will never meet in person but with whom you can have a civilised and agreeable discourse, and this should never be discouraged. But it doesn’t win a single vote. For all the talk of this being the election in which the Internet overcame the press as the most powerful influence on voting (and I’ve heard similar claims since the start of the century) it didn’t happen. I’m not saying it never will. By 2020 there will be a significant number of electors, aged up to thirty, who won’t remember a time when the Internet didn’t exist. It may make a difference then. It may not.

Blogging: Born In The USA

I want now to take a look at the differences between Internet organisation vis-à-vis the traditional press in the UK and the US, as I feel there is much we can learn from across the Atlantic. I stress from the outset that I’m not talking about election ‘gurus’ such as David Axelrod, who flew in a couple of times, pocketed rather a large wad and had sod all effect on the election outcome as far as I can see. Where I do think we can learn from the US is in political, particularly online, activism and organisation. In this country we have sites like Conservative Home and Labour List Does anyone think they reach anywhere near the same numbers of readers than the comparable Free Republic or redstate on the Right or Daily Kos (have a look and see if you can imagine anything similar existing here – even if it is currently running a advert for ‘The Sun Goals’) let alone the seven-million strong membership of the progressive Move On on the Left? Free Republic was set up as long ago as 1997. It supported moves to impeach President Clinton and progressed past Internet discussion to organising marches and protests. It remains the premier site of the American Right to this day, probably because redstate didn’t appear on the scene until 2004. Move On was set up at the time of the impeachment in 1998, advocating that Congress simply “censure President Clinton and move on.” It quickly developed to become the chief online voice of progressive Americans.

Bill Clinton. Ironically, it was the vindictive attempt to impeach him which led to the establishment of Move on, the leading progressive site in the US.

Think about it. 1998. That’s how long a progressive website with a huge and growing readership has existed in America. Kos has existed since 2002 and redstate since 2004. The latter inspired the establishment of Conservative Home a year later. Labour List wasn’t set up until 2009! That’s right. One of the main sources for the Left in British politics wasn’t established until four years after its Tory equivalent and a full eleven years after MoveOn in the States.

Another influential website in the USA, and again set up much earlier than any British equivalent, is Democratic Underground This was established on the symbolic date of George W Bush’s inauguration as President in 2001. This site is more restrictive than the others. Membership is limited to supporters of the Democratic Party and its candidates for political office. Because of this its readership is much less than Kos or MoveOn.

Even accepting that Internet usage became more widely available at an earlier date in the USA than the UK, the disparity is – or should be – difficult to fathom. The same technology existed at the same time in both countries. Yes, someone had to be first, but an eleven-year-gap between the two countries is hard to accept. The Right in America (Free Republic aside) took some time to catch up but the Right in the UK followed them almost immediately.

And American web influence overlaps with traditional media. These websites are frequently cited in the press and its organisers, editors and writers often appear on TV (the less partisan HuffPo - now in several editions, including a British one - is also influential in mainstream media). From what I can see the only equivalent here is Conservative Home’s Tim Montgomerie. This is where the true power of the Internet is shown. Ideas and influences established online filter through to a wider public. In the UK we are left largely talking to each other and in far smaller numbers (even allowing for population disparity) than across the pond.

A trick has definitely been missed. What’s done may not be undone but lessons can be learnt. Are the leading Left bloggers in the UK in contact with their American equivalents? If not, why not? If so, where are the ideas gained from these exchanges?

Markos Moulitis, founder of the Daily Kos

Under Press-ure

Now a look at conventional media. There are no comparisons possible between UK TV and radio and the US. Here, impartiality of broadcast outlets is guaranteed by law - no matter how often we complain about “bias.” Remember, everyone complains about “bias” at some time or other. In the US such strictures don’t exist. Fox is the voice not only of the Right but of the rabid variety as anyone who has watched in in the UK (it’s the only available ‘mainstream’ US news channel available here) knows. MSN is perceived as its Left equivalent though with an undoubtedly softer line on its ‘opponents’ as Fox has on its.

Newspapers are totally different. The sheer size of the USA made the concept of a national daily newspaper unthinkable (for different reasons this is also the case in much of Europe). The arrival of the Internet changed this of course and it is now possible to read the New York Times or the Washington Post on the web just as easily as any American can. In this country The Guardian has become the best ‘left’ paper at exploiting new media with UK, US and Australian versions on its website. It has become particularly popular in America, as its politics are usually to the left of leading US ‘liberal’ papers like the New York Times.

But the print media is a different matter. The USA has big conglomerates just as there are here but rules on ownership are cross-media so newspaper ownership and TV come under the same umbrella. Attempts to widen and increase competition have failed owing to mergers and takeovers. But, like the Presidency, only American citizens are allowed to own US TV stations. Rupert Murdoch was forced to become an American citizen to do so. Similar laws do not exist in Australia or the UK. Hence, Murdoch retains his ownership of much of the Australian and British press.

A key point in media hatred of Ed Miliband in the recent election was Labour’s policy of taxing “non-doms” (i.e. becoming just like every other country in the world) The concentration of media ownership amongst a few, mainly non-domiciled, owners, coupled with the existence of national newspapers which is rarely seen (especially the tabloids) elsewhere in large European countries undoubtedly gives the Right a distinct political advantage. Its effects should be debated, not simply accepted to fit into a political narrative of our choosing.

Ed Miliband: Not the first, and certainly not the last, Labour leader to be monstered by the Tory press

Let me give an example: I lived in Spain for six years, a country where TV is regulated along lines broadly similar to the UK but with a greater regional range and a quality much, much lower as any Spanish citizen will testify. National newspapers – El País, El Mundo, ABC – exist and have their own political biases. So too do regional ones like Barcelona-based La Vanguardia and El Periódico, roughly equivalent to The Scotsman or The Herald. However there are no tabloids along British lines. This is because the motors which drive tabloid readership have other outlets.

Despite its undeniable political bias, no one buys the Sun (or the Mirror for that matter) because of its political content (or, these days, actual news). These papers sell on account of their celebrity gossip, exposition of scantily-clad women and extensive sports coverage – particularly football. Obviously there is a (large) Spanish market for such too.

But these are catered for in specific publications. Celebrity-based magazines more or less originated in Spain. ‘Hola!’ is the original ‘Hello’ magazine. Quasi-porn can be seen anywhere. Football –and other sports – are covered by four national daily newspapers (two pro-Barça, two pro-Madrid) consisting of 32 pages per edition – far more than any British paper – though in honesty, content quality falls through the floor when produced on that basis.

So there are no Spanish Suns, Mails, Mirrors, Expresses etc. with their politics seeping through to their readership on a drip, drip, drip daily basis, exploding into a sudden intensity over the course of an election campaign.

Guess what? Right-wing parties still win elections.  At both national and regional level this has been the case since the death of Franco forty years ago. The electoral success of ‘insurgent’ movements like Podemos has yet to gauged but for now one thing is clear – absence of daily poisoning from the well of the press doesn’t boost the Left one whit.

Mariano Rajoy: Partido Popular (Tory) Prime Minister of Spain

Age-old Story

Another argument frequently cited in defence of the “progressive” effects of the Internet as opposed to traditional media is that the latter consists of an ageing population which doesn’t use new media and has no idea how to. Apart from being downright insulting (this is being written by a 59-year-old) it’s plainly wrong. Both the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph websites rank among the top 25 visited in the UK. Indeed, at 14th, the Mail is ranked below only the BBC (7th) in UK media and is ahead of sites many people use frequently on a daily basis such as Paypal. The Telegraph is 23rd, behind the leading ‘left’ website, The Guardian, at 17th.  The next newspaper website, The Independent, comes in as low as 55th, behind a swathe of banks, online supermarkets and porn sites. The only other newspaper website in the top 100 is The Mirror at 63rd.  Neither The Times nor The Sun appear as both are behind pay walls. Again, I doubt whether anyone is subscribing to The Sun in order to read Tom Newton-Dunn – even if they decided to put his column on page three!

So, two newspapers associated with the Right and an ageing readership are among the top 25 websites in the UK and it’s perfectly possible they are the only two in that bracket once The Guardian’s overseas readership is discounted.

In the US the top media website is CNN at 21st and CNN clearly caters for a worldwide audience. The first online only presence is the Huffington Post at 30th with the first newspaper – the NYT – one place below. Fox is as low as 46th.  Surprisingly, the Daily Mail is 81st and The Guardian is 115th.

Going back to Spain, the top online newspaper is the sports paper Marca (the quasi-official propaganda outlet of Real Madrid) at 11th. The right-wing El Mundo is 12th and the more leftish El País 14th.

Conclusions from this study of the press both in print and online in three different countries: there is no – for want of a better term – net effect on elections. Traditional newspapers have larger readerships online than net-specific ones. Declining sales in the ‘dead tree’ media hasn’t resulted in a change in political outlook simply because fewer people read them. Right-wing papers are just as adept (perhaps more so) than left-wing ones in establishing an online presence. Spain, with no tabloid presence, is just as likely to elect a government of the Right as of the Left.

Captain's Blog

The major difference (and here I must confess that whilst I can readily comprehend much in Spanish, my command of the language isn’t strong enough to look at blogs) is the healthy political blogosphere in the US compared to the UK. Not only healthier but with a larger focus on the left. Yes, I know that the Obama administration approach to capital punishment, gun control and even health would be to the right of the Tories or even UKIP here but I am talking in relative terms.

The blogosphere by itself doesn't win votes. As here, it attracts adherents who are already committed.  What it does do in the US is attract them in far greater numbers, debates issues rather than simply offer opinions (as this piece shows, I’m as guilty as anyone else but look at the comments section of most UK bloggers. Often no replies and at best a few) but most of all the US blogosphere does two vital things. Firstly, it allows theories – often heretical ones – to be discussed freely. Second and more importantly, it ORGANISES.

For an example of the former look at Kos again and its hundreds (maybe thousands) of diarists or ‘Kosacks.’ There’s a good example of an analysis on our recent general election here Ed Miliband's commitment to austerity sealed his fate

I’m not saying I agree with all of it or even much of it (the writer’s failure to mention UKIP’s rise whilst extolling the Greens seems for one thing a three wise monkeys approach) and the writer’s profile Eternal Hope clearly shows he/she is well to the left of the Labour mainstream let alone the Democrats but it is instructive as to how political debate has developed in the USA to an extent which can only be dreamt of here. THAT SINGLE ARTICLE MAY WELL BE SEEN AND READ BY MORE PEOPLE THAN ANYTHING SIMILAR IN OUR OWN COUNTRY BEYOND A CONVENTIONAL MEDIA WEBSITE.

Bill Clinton, The Role Model?

There are other aspects of American political life which should be scrutinised carefully not just for indicators of the way ahead but to be wary of potential pitfalls en route. The Labour strategist John McTernan wrote an article shortly after the US Presidential election in 1992 entitled ‘CLINTONISE OR DIE.’ It did not, needless to say, go down well at the time, but McTernan didn’t make his name by being nice to everyone. At that time John Smith was Labour leader, John Major’s Tory government was deeply unpopular, mired in sleaze and – most damaging of all for any government, but especially for a Tory one – demonstrably economically incompetent following black Wednesday when Britain crashed spectacularly out of the ERM, the preparatory framework for the introduction of the Euro. To this day the amount lost to the Treasury remains incalculable but it’s not within the remit of this article to examine it. The point is that with a Smith-led Labour preparing for “one last heave” to avoid a fifth successive election defeat, the concept of Blairism didn’t exist – except in the minds of McTernan and a few others. Within a few years it became New Labour orthodoxy, following the sudden and tragic death of John Smith in 1994.

The grave of Labour's lost leader John Smith on Iona

Tony Blair’s effortless ascension to the Labour leadership saw the introduction of ‘Clintonisation’ on a massive level with the re-branding of the party as ‘New Labour.’ Now I was never (for reasons it’s not necessary to go into here) a Blairite. I couldn’t understand his appeal, but that appeal wasn’t aimed at people like me. Like Clinton with the Democrats it was pointed firmly in the direction of those who had either not voted Labour for a long time or had never done so.

To be fair to Blair, what was on offer from him wasn’t exactly a secret. It was the left-winger Robin Cook who organised his leadership campaign and it was the entire Shadow Cabinet which endorsed with varying degrees of enthusiasm the policy changes which came thick and fast in 1994-1995.  Many didn’t like these changes but they tolerated them because they brought results. Landslide three-figure victories in 1997 and 2001. Then a 60+ majority in 2005 – the first time a Labour leader had won three successive elections. That 2005 result was even a little disappointing to some yet pre-Blair it would have been Labour’s third best victory ever.

The ‘coalition’ of interests which brought electoral success seemed confirmed even though the first rumblings of dissent were expressed at that same election as the opposition of the Liberal Democrats to the Iraq war brought them increases in votes and seats as anti-war Labour voters deserted Blair.

Yet, in the main, backing for the party seemed intact. What was left of the white working class post-de-industrialisation, black and ethnic minorities, liberal intellectuals, public sector workers, unemployed, disabled. On top of that came large chunks of the home-owning, ‘aspirational’ middle class – the mythical ‘Worcester Woman’ who guaranteed election in swing seats in marginal areas. This was Clintonisation at its peak.

It didn’t survive the 2008 crisis and Labour went down to a bad defeat in 2010, partly due to Gordon Brown, a superb Chancellor of the Exchequer and a bold and radical thinker post-PM, using his long-awaited Premiership in an uncharacteristically timid manner. But had Blair stood again all that’s likely to have changed would have been the scale of the defeat. It was coming nonetheless. ‘Worcester Woman’ deserted Labour. She hasn’t come come back and Labour is unlikely to win an election again until she does.

And this is where Clintonisation becomes relevant again. In 1992 Bill Clinton ran for a Democratic Party which had won just one of the previous six Presidential elections and that (Jimmy Carter in 1976) had ended in ignominy. Starting with Clinton, the Democrats have won four of the past six elections and in another (the disputed 2000 election) won more votes than the Republicans. That’s a higher vote share in five out of six and the sixth (2004) was in doubt till the very last minute. Yes, the four triumphs came from politicians with an outstanding knack for connecting with the people in the shape of Clinton and Obama, but they both faced immense problems in reaching and holding their positions – Clinton with scandals of both the sexual and financial variety, and Obama with the difficulty of becoming the first black President and whose legitimacy to rule (including ludicrous allegations that he was neither American nor Christian) was and is challenged by a hostile Congress. The losers possessed none of the charisma of the winners but Al Gore won more votes than George Bush (and would have won even more and the Presidency itself but for the vanity candidacy of Ralph Nader with Green backing) and John Kerry (later an outstanding Secretary of State) came close to winning in 2004.

Al Gore: More votes than George W Bush but lost the Presidency

Party Lines

So what is it that helps the comparative left in the US to success where the UK lags behind, with Blair the only successful Labour leader in over forty years, the one winner of six Labour leaders (Smith never fought an election as leader) in that time? They too need to put together a coalition of many disparate interests, just as we do here, and in many ways, it’s even harder given America’s position as a (the?) global superpower, something a Democratic President must uphold even though it’s not one many of his followers are comfortable with.

One easy answer is that multi-party politics doesn’t exist in the US. Yes, there are organisations like the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota and the North Dakota Democratic-Nonpartisan League but both of these are affiliated to the Democratic Party nationally.

Senator Bernie Sanders describes himself as a democratic socialist in the Scandinavian mould and has been an independent and a member of the leftist Liberty Union and Vermont Progressive Party in the past as well as enjoying support from the Greens. But he caucuses with the Democrats in the Senate and is included among their number for the purposes of committee allocations. He is even running for the Democratic nomination in 2016, though conventional wisdom is that this is designed to push Hillary Clinton to the left rather than a serious attempt at the Presidency by the most left-wing Senator in America, (a title, incidentally, bestowed on John Kerry in 2004) who will be 75 by the time of the election.

Bernie Sanders: Often described as the only Socialist in Congress

So, while there are some looser affiliations there is only one effective organisation on the left of US politics, manifestly different to the UK where the Greens and nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales seek to define themselves as left of Labour. The Liberal Democrats under Charles Kennedy’s leadership staked the same claim.

Obviously when there is nowhere else to go, the left in America have to stick with the Democrats or abstain (except for odd occasions like Nader). For many years the same was true of Labour in the UK. That hasn’t been the case for some years now and it’s difficult to ever see it becoming so again. The same situation now exists for the Tories with the rise of UKIP.

A good thing too, you might think. A healthy democratic choice. But in a first past the post electoral system it’s a dangerous situation to be in.

One Person, No Vote

But there is a downside to thinking that the continuing existence of the two-party system is the chief reason for American success. For they have problems with registration of voters which makes complaints about the UK system seem minuscule.

The US has a long and ignoble history of voter suppression with, unsurprisingly, African-Americans the worst affected. Even for Federal elections such as the Presidency, Senate and House of Representatives, registration falls within the remit of individual states. Imagine say, Newcastle, Glasgow, Belfast, Birmingham and London all having different methods of registering voters and you get the idea.

Various ruses such as demanding photo ID via a driving licence (which the elderly, poor and disabled are less likely to possess), permanently denying ex-prisoners the vote, providing fewer election officials in urban, chiefly African-American areas leading to long queues which some people have to leave to return to work or home before voting, a list of tricks in fact too long to go into here, effectively disenfranchises millions – over 50M according to a recent Pew Charitable Trusts study (nearly one in four).

Then there are the partisan electoral officials. In both the controversial Florida & Ohio votes in the Presidential elections of 2000 and 2004, the Secretaries of State (responsible for validation of results) were co-chairs of the Bush-Cheney campaigns for their states. It’s a bit like the returning officer in a UK constituency being the election agent or local party chair for one of the candidates.

Katherine Harris: Responsible for validating the vote in Florida 2000. Later (surprise, surprise) a Republican member of the House of Representatives

Add to that the way US campaigns are financed and there are definitely aspects of the US system we wouldn’t want to imitate here.

The Nats Done Good

But this is also where between elections activism kicks in.  The ‘Kosacks’ don’t wait till a month before an election to encourage voters to register. They do it almost perpetually. It is something which they are aware of and try to do something about all the time. It simply doesn’t happen here. We pay lip service then dash around at the last minute trying to get people to register. We should be doing it all the time. Yes, in areas with large transient populations, voter registration will always be a problem but in others less so and here the experience of the Scottish independence referendum is instructive.

You won’t find praise for the SNP forthcoming much on this blog but their achievement in registering voters for the referendum was phenomenal and they reaped the benefit at this election as a leap in turnout from 63.8% to 71.1% helped their already massive increase in votes.

Without the stimulus of a life-defining (or annual as it now appears to be) moment such as the referendum it will be more difficult to register voters but it can and must be done. The new Tory government will reduce the number of seats in the House of Commons to 600 and equalise them by the number of voters in each constituency. By and large it is inner city Labour areas and large housing estates in which voters are not registered. Without getting hundreds of thousands on the voters roll who should be there, Labour will suffer disproportionately in 2020.

This has been a long introductory blog but I think the aftermath of a shattering defeat not only deserves but needs to be carefully thought about. My apologies for it and my congratulations to anyone who has read it all the way through. I’ll turn to questions over the future of the Labour leadership, policy ideas and how to maximise electoral support in future – and hopefully much shorter – blog pieces in the coming weeks.

No comments:

Post a Comment