A Question of Votes?

Among many progressive-minded people in the United Kingdom, the seemingly perpetual and unstoppable rightward trend of the Labour Party is a constant source of frustration and anger. Many have remarked on the massive gap in general political orientation between the Parliamentary Labour Party and the party activists, and in turn between the party activists and the Labour voter population one would normally expect. Yet the Blairite stalwarts always defend the course, slowly set in under Callaghan and Kinnock and totally dominant since the election of Blair himself, as essential to electoral victory for Labour. Without the votes, the argument runs, Labour cannot win a majority in Parliament, and without a majority in Parliament it cannot make policies, and to win the votes, it needs to ‘capture the centre’. Leaving aside the questionable sense of principle and the point of political parties this particular refrain exhibits, it is important to make the argument that it is also strategically wrong.

First, because it subjects the Labour Party to a hopeless enslavement to parliamentary politics as the only avenue for political action and strategy. For the Blairite type, it seems somehow self-evident that all politics is parliamentary politics and all parliamentary politics is winning elections at any cost. Traditionally, the left – whether in Communist or social-democratic form after 1918 – has been by far the strongest when it had a substantial, principled minority representation in national parliaments, working in tandem with an extra-parliamentary organisation in the form of unions (or party groups in unions), workers’ organisations, self-defence battalions, strike coordination committees, and so forth. The drive to cede all power to the parliamentary group, and to reduce all party activity to that of the elected members at local or national level, is on the contrary almost complete for the Labour Party in the UK. Only the union bloc vote within Labour nomination elections stands in the way still, and already the Blairites and their careerist hangers-on have launched a strong campaign to rid the party of this last anchor in actual society, so that it may soar to the giddy heights of Giddensian paradise. This is not to say the union bloc vote, on its own, has been such a strong moving force; dominated as it is by cautious union bureaucracies, operating under the strictest anti-union laws of the Western world, it is generally not much good politically. But this does not diminish the significance of the move.

The second and more important counterargument however is to point out that the Blairite approach does not even achieve its intended aim, and that it should not be the strategy in the first place. In 1997, the Labour Party, riding the wave of ‘modern leftism’ and so forth with the charismatic Blair at the head, won about 13.5 million votes. This as against the 9.6 million for the Conservatives and 5.25 million for the Liberal Democrats. Until the last election inaugurating the current liberal conservative coalition, the Blairites were in full control of Parliament and the Labour Party within it for 13 years. Plenty time, one should think, to put their strategic ideas to the test. But what happened? The Labour vote declined, and declined, and declined. In 2001, the Labour Party won 10.7 million votes against almost 8.4 million for the Tories, and 4.8 million for the LibDems. In 2005, the Labour Party had only 9.5 million votes, against 8.8 million for the Tories and almost 6 million for the LibDems. In 2010, the Labour reign was finally ended: Labour achieved 8.6 million votes, the Tories 10.7 million, and the LibDems 6.8. At first sight, this seems to be an almost total reversal of the core swing vote between 2001 and 2010 in favor of the Conservatives; a standard Blairite interpretation would here be to point this out and state that this shows Labour failed to properly cultivate the swing vote.

But when we look closer, we can see a different pattern emerging. The decisive point of comparison, between 1997 and 2010, is the disappearance of the Labour vote, without these votes being swing votes in favor of the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats, on the whole. Between those elections, Labour lost a stunning five million votes. But the Tories only gained 1.1 million in return, and the LibDems 1.75 million. One can safely assume that especially not all the new LibDem votes are likely to have been Labour swing voters, but, given the rightward shift of the Liberal Democrats (attempting the same strategy), more likely a certain number of Conservative voters also. But even aside from this, this demonstrates that even if every single new vote for the major opposition parties were a Labour defector, this would still account for only just over half of the total Labour loss. The real interest is in where the other at least 2.5 million votes or so went.

Of course, Labour rightists could claim that it does not matter, since the UK has a first-past-the-post voting system, so only the swing vote (a narrow band of a few million lower middle class white people in the Home Counties and Midlands suburbs) matters. But this argument fails on two grounds. First, because the Labour Party utterly failed to introduce a new voting system to replace the current one, even when it had an overwhelming majority to do so and it had been an explicit party programme point – allowing for the Westminster system presumption of popular mandate for such a change, as in the case of Asquith’s Parliament Act. In fact, when the current Coalition finally introduced a referendum to change the system to an only very moderately better one, as a demand of the Liberal Democrats, the Labour Party leadership and MPs utterly failed to actively support it. Secondly, the United States has the most rigid and undemocratic first-past-the-post system in the world, and equally the most rigid two-party system. And yet, in America, where electioneering has been raised to the level of a science, everyone knows that the key to winning an election is not (just) capturing a small swing vote, but at least as much to increase one’s turnout, and where possible to decrease the turnout of the opponent. George W. Bush was twice elected President on his opponent’s failure to motivate the Democratic Party electorate; equally, Obama won overwhelmingly by his ability to greatly raise the favorable turnout in usually tepid states. Simple figures: Bush obtained 62 million votes in 2004 against Kerry’s 59 million, along a fairly ‘classic’ distribution of states. In 2008, the Republican candidate John McCain obtained about 60 million, again in the usual places, a slight worsening relative to Bush’s performance; but Obama clobbered him by obtaining almost 70 million votes. This also allowed him to win usually difficult states for Democratic candidates such as Virginia, North Carolina, and Colorado. And this despite the fact Obama was generally perceived as relatively more leftist than the two previous nominees.

It is inconceivable that these facts could not be known and made clear to Miliband and his advisors, or even that Blair and Brown did not know them. To understand how this happened then, it is useful to look at similar patterns in other countries, where the rightward trend of social-democracy has also had this effect. For example one could take the recent elections in Spain. The PSOE of Zapatero was first elected in 2004 on an anti-war platform and one making overtures to the left-wing parties; it obtained 11 million votes to the rightist PP’s 9.75 million. In 2008, just before the crisis hit Spain, the results were much similar in terms of the political balance. However, the actual policies of the Zapatero government quickly turned to severe austerity as the crisis hit, and the left-wing parties went in opposition. This year, the PSOE was soundly defeated by the PP. The latter’s vote went up to 10.8 million, an increase of roughly a million, but the PSOE voted slumped to less than 7 million. Here, an alternative option on the left existed; and for the anti-Blairite thesis to hold, one should expect, under Spain’s roughly proportional representation, to see a corresponding increase in the left-wing vote. And indeed, one does: Izquierda Unida went from its lowest point at less than 1 million to 1.7 million. But bigger than that 700.000 vote shift to the left, and the possible 1 million vote swing from the social-democrats to the right, is again the remainder: some 2.3 million soc-dem votes that have simply disappeared. One can give comparable examples from Sweden, Italy, and so forth.

The rightist turn of the Blairites is part of a larger trend, and does not represent a real strategic consideration; or if it is one, it is suicidal. In reality, it is much more a part of the neoliberalization of the social-democratic movement generally. Social-democracy was originally conceived to achieve socialism through peaceful means and by the processes of liberal democracy. Before achieving this, it hoped to raise the standard of living of the working class by reformist means. It has failed on both counts. The first, because all social-democratic parties quickly got caught up in purely parliamentary politics, some sooner, some later, and abandoned their extra-parliamentary apparatus and their revolutionary ambitions. The second, because the reforms of the so-called welfare state have in many countries been introduced at least as much by conservative governments attempting to forestall and impede the revolutionary impulse of the subject of the reforms. But not only this: the final blow has been the late realization that any such reform, when not seen as instrumental to a larger end but instead being seen as the end in itself, is but a reed standing in the stream of capital’s motion. It may stand for a while, if the wind is favorable and the waters calm. But when the current moves more strongly, it is quickly broken, and swept away by the waters. This is precisely what has happened with and through the advent of neoliberalism, and this has shattered the social-democratic illusions. All the hapless leaders know to do now is what they have always done – swim with the tide of capital, no matter where it will take them. It is this that really underlies the Blairite strategy, and all it achieves is to kill the social-democratic parties quickly and efficiently. That death is just a question of votes.


Will leave a more detailed reply to this later on tonight. Very good article. Echo’s much of the thinkng of Ralph Miliband and Socialist Register.

We don’t need Marxist-Leninism, which is a proven failure, or Social Democracy, which is a proven liberal sell-out, we need Democratic Socialism, that’s all there is to it. But I’ll set out why in more detail later on 🙂

The swedish text Reformismens Omöjligheter ~ The Impossibilities of Reformism speaks about the same tendencies in the swedish social democracy. The conclusion is similar to your own, but the interesting part lies in that it argues that parliamentary democracy itself shapes the politics of the parties that participate in it. The representation abstracts away classes, parties are encouraged to reach out to groups outside of their own movement such as “swing voters”, the energy of the movement is funneled into maximising election results, the MPs become paid politicians and so on. Further, should the party succeed then it is placed into a position where it has to become the caretaker of the economy and humor the interests of the bourgeoisie, which limits its possibilities to carry out reforms.

A fantastic analysis of the situation. You’d think Labour would realise this and act accordingly, but apparently not. (And of course I can see that you would be very sceptical of their achieving anything even if they did…)

Thanks for posting this.

I think your analysis misses out on a number of fundamental issues.

That firstly, the idea of a minority government being an effect promoter of policy in the UK is not viable. The experiment of the modern coalition can be seen two years on as heading into failure. The Liberal Democrats have damaged their brand severely, and received little in return save minister cars. It could easily be argued that they should have gone in with Labour if they could have received their cherished AV system outright, avoiding a referendum. After all, the most damaging and regressive part of policy they pushed through, they fixed term parliaments act, which could condemn the Commons to the same kind of political paralysis commonly seen in the US Senate, received no such referendum.

But with respect to getting Labour back in power, the reality is that you ignore the vast influence of psychology on electoral behaviour. Likeability tends to be a much more important factor in first past the post American/UK systems than proportional representation systems in Europe. In the US, personal voting is marginal and there are no party lists. Of course votes are lost as candidates become less fresh and lose their luster, and one can see that problems with Labour stewardship dragged down turnout as the years went on — but the main reason for initial large increases in turnout whether or Obama or support for Bush — was perception.

You are wrong in saying that the democratic base was the reason for Kerry’s lack of a victory in 2004. It is the independent vote that is the most important in US elections, and the fact that party registration is free and almost universal, and therefore voters are not as unduly loyal as they would be in the UK. The ‘Reagan Democrats’ or the ‘Obama Republicans’ are indeed the groups that tip elections.

So what was the key to Blair’s victory in ending two decades of Tory leadership? He was a media figure. He was likeable. The fact that the union backing in the Labour party seems completely oblivious to this threatens to plunge the party back into the irrelevance of the Foot era. Like it or not, in the X-factorised world of politics, it is appearance that often counts equally with substance. Contrast Blair with Milliband — a lisping, haggard figure who sold his own brother out. It is his own dislikeability and failure to promote new ideas that enables Cameron to appear comparatively endearing.

I hope Labour doesn’t have to lose another election realise that no one wants a Daffy Duck prime minister.

Lastly, the rightward trend of the Labour is a reflection of the new progressivism of the 21st century. An outlook that recognises the globalised world as being fundamentally more connected, but less communal than than the industrial revolution has seen. There is less and less need to live in large cities, to centralise businesses, and in some cases production. The bottom line is that the conservatives were able to tap into a sea change in sentimentality among voters that stressed individual responsibility and reward, and when Labour was able to seize that narrative it gave it a chance to reform as well as to bring about progressive social policy.

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