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Why is the European Left Losing Elections

March 9, 2011

The Old Theatre lecture hall is crammed. Over 400 people snapped up free tickets to see David Miliband make excuses for the poor performance of left wing parties in Europe.

There is a discernable gasp when LSE undergraduates get their first sighting of David Miliband. I think he is wearing a navy suit which is a disastrous choice. But I retract this judgement from my thoughts; it is not London Fashion Week anymore.

The introduction by Tony Wright (former MP and Chair of Political Quarterly) is suitably obsequious, daring to call him ‘the man Tony Blair thought too left wing’(?!) and the ‘most outstanding social democrat of his generation’. He appears breathlessly excited to be on a stage with him and strikes me as a mentor fawning upon his protégé (ironically, Wright himself was an understudy of Miliband’s father, Ralph).

Throughout the evening it is clear that ‘social democrat’ is now the label of choice for David Miliband – he applies it to himself and his peers with effortlessness, as if it is a term that New Labour hand been banding about for years. It’s the first time I’ve heard it applied to him.

The class of New Labour are yet to emerge from its shadow and no speech about the politics of the recent past is complete with out a regretful reflection on Labour’s legacy. Miliband negotiates the 2010 election defeat with a mild dig at Gordon Brown. “You can say […] leaders were less popular than their parties. And it is certainly true that Gordon Brown [was] much less popular than [his party] in the recent British elections”.

He follows this by mumbling, “But leaders reflect their parties”.

Indeed they do. He says across Europe, the left lost working class voters, middle income voters and middle class, young voters – who don’t know what they want, but know the want another way.

He ponders why these voters wandered further right, left, or towards apathy. Association of the left with the state, immigration, inconsistency, splintering, tax, spending – he lists more. The breadth of reasons to me imply the meaningless of such discussion; if there have been been so many reasons not to vote for the left, then surely defeats were inevitable?

May 2010, and Labour were in no fit state to win an election. No clear spending plans, a refusal to quote accurate deficit reduction figures in its manifesto, a stressed out and gaffe prone leader, plus Mandleson stoking the coals of the Brown bonfire himself. An involvement in two wars nobody wanted, civil liberties circling the drain and I haven’t even mentioned the credit crunch.

Truth be told, the left have been losing elections for two reasons.

The left haven’t actually been ‘left wing’ for over a decade. There is no reason for them to start wining elections now. Apart from Kosovo, New Labour foreign policy has been decidedly isolationist (North Korea, Burma, Iraq) and its economic policies distinctly right of centre. They courted private finance for public services (Rousseau said ‘nothing is more dangerous in public affairs than the influence of private interest) and championed the growth sector of unearned income.

New Labour measured the ‘success’ of its tenure by the value of houses and the extent of personal spending, not in well-being or wealth distribution. The recipients of these gauges, with their inflated house prices and LCD televisions, now want a party who will give them more, not less.

The right has been organised. The left are not. The right has been galvanised by issues that appeal to papers because their interpretation is so simple, papers sell.

Immigration should be kerbed! Public sector waste should be eliminated! Power to the people! The left talks too much, we can’t boil our principles into soundbites.

Until we do, we cannot compete.

David Cameron rules his roost – the Conservatives were starving for power. His pre-election shadow cabinet ministers shut their mouths and towed party lines knowing they could do whatever they liked once they were in power. When I look back on Labour, I see squabbling, resignations and snide remarks – Blair’s contribution to the 2010 election was an embarrassment, not an endorsement.

Miliband ultimately blames ‘compassionate conservatism’ for neutralising the left. If this is true, the left neutralised itself. Nobody’s government represents compassionate conservatism more than Tony Blair’s government.

Compassionate conservatism is introducing a minimum wage whilst neglecting to look after the jobs that would pay it, it is an affiliation with a Bush administration that pursued neo-conservative ambitions with aplomb (on that note, Miliband made a joke about Bush’s ‘election victory that never was’ to everyone’s amusement except those who don’t recall British politicians being critical at the time). Compassionate conservatism is the availability of tax credits that only get spent on childcare as both parents have to work to support their massive mortgages. It is credit for banks to lend and everyone to spend, with recipients left saddled with responsibility when the bubble bursts. The lenders still stand.

The working class, middle income and young middle class voters who abandoned leftist politics didn’t abandon the left at all. They were never left wing in the first place.

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