Labour's somewhat hollow triumph

Successes built on low turnout are castles made of sand.

Thursday was a great day for Labour activists across the country, bringing about results which meant one of the most enjoyable election nights in years. Within moments of the polls closing, the Tories very own in-house omnishambles, Sayeeda Warsi, was dispatched to TV studios to tell the nation that Labour needed 700 council gains to be able to call the night a success. Later she tried to increase the number to 1000 - a figure that was nigh on impossible to achieve. 

That early attempt to move the goalposts was telling. Few Labour people seriously thought that 700 gains was achievable, but the Tories evidently did once they saw their vote collapsing on election day. In areas where Labour needs to win in 2015 (Thurrock, Norwich, Harlow, Basildon, Reading, Southampton, Plymouth) the results were overwhelmingly positive. But the gains weren't just confined to the south - in the north west, Labour took Wirral, and wrestled Sefton from No Overall Control for the first time since 1986. In Sheffield, Leeds and Wakefield (to name just a few) huge chunks of the available seats fell to Labour.

And then Glasgow. We were never meant to win. Privately some senior Labour people had begun to concede it more than a week before election day, with the SNP tidal wave engulfing another Labour stronghold. But this time it was the final one. If Glasgow went SNP, the independence drumbeat would have intensified. As it is, Labour has shown that it can beat the SNP, with organisation, fresh candidates and an acknowledgement that the party has changed. Their result was remarkable - to paraphrase a much mocked Ed Miliband speech - the fightback in Scotland starts here.

And I still haven't even mentioned Labour's fantastic results in Wales, picking up Cardiff to strengthen the party's Cymru hegemony.

So Labour retained Scotland's biggest city and won the Welsh capital, but the same can't be said in England, where of course Labour lost the London Mayoral election. I've discussed why I think Ken lost already, but even here a certain defeat that the polls thought would be huge turned into a late night semi-squeaker for the Tories - with some on team Boris seemingly thinking that Boris had lost. That was a testament to the campaign's focus on the ground game, and the determination of Labour activists - both repaid by the election of 12 London Assembly members, and the ousting of Tories like the odious Brian Coleman.

But what cost Livingstone the election - at least numerically, rather than politically - was turnout, and the positive election results throughout the country don't mask the sapping effect that low turnout has on our democracy. Politically, neither party has yet been able to sufficiently enthuse the electorate enough to get past the "you're all the same" factor. Yet Ed Miliband appeared to realise the potency of this existential threat to party politics, when even after such strong results he talked of those who didn't vote at all.

The other side of the low turnout coin is cultural and organisational. As Karin Christiansen rightly pointed out on Friday, "Low turn-out is a problem in general. Both we and the Tories are stuck in low turn-out election strategies, with a race to the bottom: whose vote gets suppressed least wins." Does that sound like the kind of politics you want to be involved with? I know I certainly don't. But that kind of culture pervades all parties now - and is the context in which backlashes like Bradford West should be viewed. 

Recently a party member in a traditionally safe Labour area told me their local organiser "loved low turnout elections" and that the same organiser had told them Labour's aim in elections was "to discourage and demoralise our opponents' supporters from turning out while reminding enough of our voters to do so." It's a style of politics that seeks to drive up apathy. 

Is it any wonder that one of the most commonly heard replies on the doorstep is "you're all the same"?

Getting past that apathy is the real challenge for Labour and Miliband - putting down roots in areas that make Labour support more secure and long term, precisely because the party is in touch with the electorate, campaigning with them rather than just at them, and speaking to them on their terms. Only by making such a shift in the way the party campaigns can Labour stop the race to the bottom and help restore the nations's faith in politics and the ability of the left to change the country.

The alternative is more potentially hollow victories like this week. They may augur well for the future - but just as plausibly the success may be fleeting. Successes built on low turnout are castles made of sand - and unless we act soon, the rising tide of public discontent will wash us all away.

Mark Ferguson is the editor of Labour List.

Glasgow, the fightback in Scotland starts here. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad