By the time the 2015 general election comes around, Labour will have been stranded in opposition for a full 5 years. That’s a full 5 years since that fateful week in May, since the resignation of Gordon Brown, since the Lib/Lab coalition failed to materialise and the Con/Lib coalition came into governance. Any party in opposition knows that they should use their time wisely, regrouping, rebranding if necessary, and most of all, reconnecting with the voters. I’ve said this before – about the Australian Labor Party – time in opposition should be seen as an opportunity, a 5 year opportunity to reflect, to learn some important lessons, to discover why the electorate lost faith in you, and use this information to not make the same mistakes twice. The trend in the UK over the past 20 years has been; the party that modernises the most wins the most seats. This was evidenced by the landslide electoral success Labour experienced when they renewed their policies and stances, which gave them their longest stint of power to date. It was also evidenced by the Conservatives winning the most votes in 2010 after the rebranding Cameron introduced after years of static policies and views, which granted them a shot at governance after 13 years in opposition (albeit with the anchor of the Liberal Democrats weighing down their true ambitions). The way Labour will win the 2015 election is if they continue to modernise, however, not in the contemporary political sense of the word.
Tony Blair stated in 2011 that Ed Miliband must continue to modernise the Labour Party if they were to regain the power of government. I happen to agree with Blair’s statement, but only because he and I have rather different political definitions of the word ‘modernise’. In Tony Blair’s lexicon, along with many other progressive political figures, ‘modernising’ refers to reconnecting a party with the modern age, with an array of neo-liberal economic policies and an intense focus on media presentational skills, to keep the party up to date with the forces of globalisation and 24 hour communication technology. This was what was required to win centrist voters in 1997, 2001 and 2005 and certainly succeeded. However, we are talking about 2015. The needs of the people are different. The views of the electorate have changed. The same tactic of Blair’s modernisation won’t work this time around. Labour must still modernise, but in an alternate sense of the word. For me, modernisation is retuning your party’s political policies and voice to reconnect with the needs and concerns of the electorate of the day. On this rationale, Blair’s modernisation was successful, as it met the needs and wishes of the population at that time.
We however, live in different times. We, as an electorate, have been through the worst financial crisis since The Depression of the 1930s. We have been through a slow and arduous recovery and a cost of living crisis where wages are still lagging behind inflation. We have been through more expenses scandals than we can cope with and even rape allegations made against some of our leading representatives within Parliament. We have been through toxic press media disgrace, from phone hacking to character assassinations. We have been through spying accusations and privacy infringements. We have been through revelations of cash-for-questions and lobbying scandals. We have been through a paradoxical scenario where while ordinary people suffer the brutal austerity policies of welfare cuts, benefit slashes, bedroom taxes, and hikes in energy bills, our government is taking the EU to court to defend the bonuses of British bankers. Blair’s dated brand of modernisation just won’t cut it anymore, not for Labour, not for Britain.
In Ed Miliband’s latest Party Conference speech, he highlighted some key issues in Britain today, and outlined a potential future under the banner ‘Britain can do better than this’. He was charismatic, oratorically impressive, appeared comfortable, and was endearingly passionate. His speech was patriotic, uplifting, insightful, and realistic. More to the point, he struck two key areas; he struck a nerve in the Tory Party, and he struck a chord with the public. He offered up policies such as lowering the voting age to 16, reversing the highly controversial and electorally toxic ‘bedroom tax’, he promised to protect workers’ rights, protect the environment and create a million new jobs in green energy. He said he’d produce legislation to ensure more apprenticeships were on offer to tackle youth unemployment, to renationalise unused land for house-building, to cut tax for small businesses while taxing large businesses higher, to strengthen the minimum wage, and most poignantly, to freeze energy prices for 20 months to tackle the cost of living crisis. This was an array of thought-out policies, which all had a common theme: they are all unashamedly left of centre. More significant than that even, is that they are all popular. The approval ratings of Labour, and even more so Miliband, have risen significantly since this speech, because Miliband established that he will fight for the proverbial David in the face of the proverbial Goliath. He claimed he will fight for the little man, and won’t be afraid to stand up to big businesses and to vested interest groups. It could even be viewed as simply as he’s committed to protecting workers from exploitation, a resurrection of the principles of his late Marxist father.
These latest Labour policies are unashamedly left, and while the Tories may have been delighted while watching the speech that Ed the Red had ‘lurched left’ again, a direction on the political spectrum that they deem to lead to political oblivion, they failed to anticipate what was to come next, which was arguably even more significant than the speech itself; the reaction of the general public. To the dismay of the Conservatives, this catalogue of left-of-centre policies has proven to be highly in tune with the needs and wishes of the electorate. The right-wing press have been confounded. First they and the Tories said that Miliband wanted to return Britain to the socialism of the 1970s. The right believe that ‘socialism’ is a dirty word to centrist voters, and so pressed on this sensitive button in an attempt to turn back the wave of backing Labour were receiving, but instead the wave gained more momentum. In the face of growing favour of Labour’s new left-wing policies, the right-wing press was forced to revert to calling Miliband’s policies a shameful list of opportunistic populist proposals. Now it’s shameful to propose policies that are populist, policies that the people are in favour of, policies that the people want and need? Has the right forgotten that we live in a democracy, ‘Demos’ meaning people and ‘cracy’ meaning for and of? Governments exist to serve the needs of the people, they exist for the people, and so criticising Miliband’s policies on the grounds that they are too popular naturally didn’t fly with the public, and did nothing to reverse the appraisal of Labour’s promises.
The fact that Labour’s proposals are so favourable among the population is significant in two major respects. For one, it shows that Miliband’s strategy, criticised in the past, is paying off. He’s made no secrets about his aim to acquire the vote of 40% of the population. He wants to secure the vote of the Labour core, thought to be roughly 28% of the population, as well as those who swing between voting Labour and Liberal Democrat, judged to be around 6-7%, then claim a young, new and non-voter endorsement of about 6%. This would give him about 40% of the national vote. Blair won the lowest majority in history in 2005 with a 35.2% popular vote. Considering this, Miliband’s game-plan had initially appeared border-line and risky, but what was perhaps unexpected by all concerned, was that these latest policies have reached beyond that 40% target. There are Conservative voters who are feeling the sting of living costs rising, as they have for 38 out of 39 months of Cameron’s premiership – a cutting statistic deployed by Miliband – who see Labour as the only party really committed to helping ordinary people. There was a line in Miliband’s speech that hit the nail on the head, ‘many of you voted for change in 2010, and haven’t got the change you voted for’. Many centrist voters voted Tory for the progressive slogans like; ‘Vote Blue, Go Green’, ‘Caring Conservatism’ and the ‘Big Society’. These same voters feel betrayed that the Conservatives have reneged on these policy areas and lurched right in an effort to dispel the rise of UKIP and extinguish the fires being set off by disgruntled back-benchers. In 2015, they will either abstain from voting out of protest, or some may join Miliband’s Merry Men as he is the only leader committed to bringing down living costs, and standing for One Nation ideologies, actually first developed by Conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. Either of these outcomes will result in a fall in the Tory share of the vote, which will play into the hands of Labour.
The other significance of these left-leaning policies being endorsed by the public is that this tells us something about the British electorate. We have changed. Peter Mandelson recently criticised Miliband for neglecting the centre-ground of British politics, the battlefield that the Prince of Darkness valiantly fought on for a decade. What Mandelson has failed to notice, what Blair has failed to notice, and what the Conservative Party have failed to notice, is that as a result of recent economic events, media disgraces and parliamentary scandals, the centre-ground has actually shifted left. The centrist, progressive, neo-liberal economic policies of free trade, low corporation-tax, privatisation and deregulation are no longer trusted by the people. It is these very policies that plunged our country into recession, so why should the people continue to trust in them? Miliband offers left-of-centre Keynesian state intervention to correct the market where it fails; the social cost of low wages in comparison to inflation, and abnormal profits made by monopolies at the expense of consumers, which, in today’s political climate, seem a safer bet to the population. Traditionally left-of-centre policies are becoming the policies embraced by traditional centrists. The centre ground has moved to the left, which means in defiance of Mandelson’s comments, Miliband hasn’t neglected the centre, but in fact embraced the centre; the new centre. He has reconnected with the electorate with policies that ordinary people can relate to, and so in this sense, he has modernised the party. He has modernised the party in line with the needs of the electorate of the day, and it is this modernisation that, if it continues up to Election Day in May 2015, will see Labour earn the lion share of the votes, and will see Mr Miliband be appointed as the next Prime Minister of Great Britain.