From the Observer 9 May 2015
Contrary to what the traffic police tell you, careful driving does not always save lives. Until the moment he careered into the electorate, Ed Miliband was a safe pair of hands. He kept Labour quiet, and hid its divisions. The splits between left and right, which came close to destroying the party when it went into opposition in the 1930s, 1950s and 1980s, did not happen under his leadership. Everything seemed calm. But as his career ends – and what, he may think as he looks back, was the point of all that? – the quiet that Miliband brought looks like the quiet of the grave.
His rule – if that is not too grand a term for so small a thing – was marked by dishonesty in the Labour party and the wider left. The unwillingness to accept uncomfortable truths, and confront comfortable prejudices has done for the British left, or at least that part of it that organises around the Labour movement.
The biggest failure of understanding is the most paradoxical. Labour and the left do not take the right seriously. They dismiss its leaders as greedy fat cats and public school toffs, and do not grasp how formidable they have become. A friend made the point when he told me that at 8.30am on Friday, when Ed Balls lost his seat, the trading floor at Credit Suisse at Canary Wharf erupted with cheers. I don’t doubt there were similar yelps of delight on every other trading floor in the City.
In other words, the power of one of the world’s great trading centres is behind the Tory party. The power is manifest not just in campaign donations, but in the arrogance of financial capitalists, who never allow any number of market failures to dent their self-confidence or the self-confidence of their political allies. If you are going to take them on, you need to be good. In fact, you need to be brilliant.
Yet for the past two elections Labour has stuck with leaders it knew the public thought were useless. It allowed itself to be led by men who were acceptable to Unite and what’s left of the rest of the trade union movement, rather than the public, and did not even try to throw them out when they could see the voters weren’t listening to them.
If this sounds like an appeal for a return to Blairism, it is worth remembering that, since 10 October 1974, no Labour leader apart from Tony Blair has won a general election. And Blair didn’t win by sticking to familiar promises to protect the NHS and welfare state – voters know Labour wants to do both – or by appealing only to public-sector workers and favoured minorities, but by convincing the broad mass of voters he could also protect what limited wealth they enjoyed.
But to say bring back Blairism, as doubtless many on the Labour right will be demanding, is as foolish as saying Labour lost because it wasn’t left-wing enough, as many on the incurably optimistic left are already saying.
Labour did not lose just because it could not appeal to the centre, or picked the wrong Miliband. The problems that threaten to leave it as one party among many don’t fit into conventional notions of left and right. Like so many of its sister parties in Europe, Labour is being swamped by the politics of national identity. The SNP has driven Labour out of virtually every seat in Scotland. The nationalists were mendacious but astonishingly successful in turning Labour into “red Tories” – quislings who had forfeited the right to be true Scots. Labour had no convincing answer to them. South of the Tweed, real Tories could frighten English voters by turning Labour into “red nats”, the accomplices and playthings of their Scottish masters. Labour had no convincing answer to them either. Only in London did the English left triumph. My comrades at the Observer say that, as an educated, multi-cultural and dynamic city, London represents a possible future. Success in the capital speaks well for Labour’s long-term prospects, they say.
The trouble is that the long-term can take a long time coming, and many people will suffer needlessly under Conservative governments before it arrives. In the England that does not look like London, the white, poor, uneducated constituencies that run up the east coast from Kent to Sunderland, Ukip came second in 100 seats. It may fall apart without its charismatic leader. It may one day be seen as a freak movement that dominated debate for a few years, then vanished. But Scots once thought the same about SNP, and the dismal fact remains that Labour could not answer Ukip’s xenophobia any more than it could answer the crude appeals to nationalist loyalty of the SNP and Tories.
It could not because Labour’s leadership of former special advisers does not look like the people it wants to represent and does not look as if it likes the look of them either. In this, it is typical of the wider educated left in England, which almost alone in the world, makes a virtue of denigrating its own people.
The universities, left press, and the arts characterise the English middle-class as Mail-reading misers, who are sexist, racist and homophobic to boot. Meanwhile, they characterise the white working class as lardy Sun-reading slobs, who are, since you asked, also sexist, racist and homophobic. The national history is reduced to one long imperial crime, and the notion that the English are not such a bad bunch with many strong radical traditions worth preserving is rejected as risibly complacent. So tainted and untrustworthy are they that they must be told what they can say and how they should behave.
What truth there is in the caricature is lost amid the accompanying hypocrisy. The intellectual left deplores racism but uses “white” as an insult. It lambasts the sexism of the right, but stays silent as Labour candidates run meetings where Muslim women’s inferiority is confirmed by stewards who usher them into segregated seating .
Lost, too, is any notion of how to change a society. Countries are like individuals. They will take criticism from friends and family who have their best interests at heart. If opponents make the same criticisms for the same good reasons, however, they dismiss them as insults from people who only mean them harm.
If the left is going to come back, its first task is to show that, deplorable and stupid though we undoubtedly are, in so many different and disgraceful ways, it doesn’t actually think the English are its enemies.