Belfast Telegraph

Labour bombed due to offering no viable alternative

By Eamonn McCann

The Labour Party's national executive meets today to set a timetable for the election of a new leader. A preliminary list of runners and riders has already emerged. They have one thing in common: none of them had ever believed in the strategy or leadership qualities of Ed Miliband. Or so they say now.

You knew that Miliband was in for a savaging when Lord Mandelson began a Sunday morning interview by proclaiming that: "I would like to start by paying tribute to Ed Miliband...". It is a mark of Mandelson's steely self-control that he managed to keep a snigger off his face - particularly when, as I am told, he had earlier been seen rolling around on the floor of the green room chortling like a mad thing and gnawing the leg of a chair.

Tristram Hunt reckoned that Labour should appeal to voters who aspire to shop at Waitrose, one of those stores which charges extra for ambience. Not to appeal to Waitrose shoppers, that is, but to those who aspire to shop at Waitrose.

Chuka Umunna confessed that the Tories had been right to hammer Labour for having left the economy in a mess back in 2010 by not cutting back on spending prior to the banks' implosion and the consequent crash. Over the next five years the party would have to target the "aspirational middle classes".

Liz Kendall opined that the party didn't just need a new leader but "a fundamentally different approach" to win the support of "people with aspirations".

It's understandable that the likes of Hunt, Umunna and Kendall - and Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper - should see the aspirational middle classes as key to Labour recovering. A more aspirational bunch than themselves would be hard to imagine.

There is nothing wrong with aspiration. But there was a clear assumption in the pronouncements of every aspirant leader that Labour must move away from those who are trapped at the bottom and move closer to those moving up. But why is it assumed that those on zero hours, or disability benefit, or earning lower wages for longer hours, lack aspiration? Maybe they don't aspire to shop at Waitrose, but only to shop - as opposed to taking another trip to the food bank.

Maybe they aspire to a better life for themselves and their children more deeply and urgently than Labour's "squeezed middle".

With due deference to the leadership hopefuls, Labour's real problem was not that it failed to take its stance for the upwardly mobile, but that it was hard to tell where it stood at all. The embarrassing banalities carved in stone summed the party's election performance up ('An NHS with the time to care'. Dear God).

Labour's most telling pledge was initially to maintain the Tories' spending plans and then to eliminate the Budget deficit by 2020 through further annual spending cuts.

In spite of all the evidence that majorities of Labour, Lib Dem and Ukip supporters wanted the railways renationalised, with the Tories split down the middle, Labour leaders fled in panic from the proposition.

The free market in the finance industry had brought the world economy to the brink of oblivion. But Miliband never challenged the mantra that "private sector good, public sector bad".

Bring the minimum wage up to the level of the living wage, launch a crash programme of social housing, get rid of Trident, stop selling off chunks of the health service to private interests - measures which would have been regarded as mild in Labour circles just a few years ago were now seen as dangerous radicalism.

This isn't hindsight. Labour's most eager supporter in the British Press, Polly Toynbee of The Guardian, wrote just after the party's spring conference in March: "'A Better Plan, a Better Future' was not exactly a pulse-racer... Only indignation and downright outrage at Cameron's and Osborne's plans can cut through. Miliband doesn't burn with fury."

But how can you burn with fury at something of which you are yourself a pale imitation?

Even the progressive measures which Labour did propose - a freeze on energy prices sat alongside their negation - a freeze on public-sector pay. Labour's counter to the anti-immigrant policy of Ukip was to promise to reduce immigration. And so on.

Scuttling to find space in the soggy centre, Labour could find no firm ground to build a platform from which its message might be heard above the hubbub.

Deprived of real choice except in Scotland, millions who might have gone for change opted to stay with the devil they knew. Or decided that the walk to the polling station wasn't worth it.

Thatcher's old slogan rang out again - there is no alternative. Mainly because Labour had none to offer.

Belfast Telegraph

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