The Tories won on a lie

Labour avoided the hard arguments and suffered the consequences, writes Simon Hardy

The victory of the Conservative party is a tragedy rich in lessons.

After five years of a hated coalition government, most people went into the election assuming that the result would be a hung parliament. The Tories would lose seats, Labour would win some. But we knew that the Labour party hadn’t managed to capture the anti-Tory mood because it had accommodated so much to the Tory arguments around austerity.

But the reality was much worse. The Tories secured a majority in parliament. After five years of kicking the poor, the vulnerable, migrants and working people, the Tories were re-elected. Nightmare reminders of 1992 flashed before some people’s eyes.

The reasons for this are complex: the reactionary vagaries of our first-past-the-post voting system (the Labour vote went up nationally but their number of seats went down), the rise of the SNP, the semi-sabotage of the Labour right who contributed to such a lacklustre campaign.

But of all these developments the principal problem is that the Labour Party couldn’t ideologically or politically differentiate itself enough from the Conservatives on the fundamental question of the economy. The Tories were clear – they said we need brutal austerity to get the economy back on track. The Labour party offered a confused mix of arguments, and constantly gave ground on the economy. Ultimately, more people voted with their wallets than voted to save the NHS. Social democracy fell by the wayside just at the moment when it should have been triumphant.

In David Hare’s 1992 play The Absence of War, the embattled Labour leader argues about their election strategy, saying the Labour party has to stick to what it is strong on, namely the NHS. The economy they downplay – after all, everyone knows that the Tories win on the economic arguments.

So it was with this election. But the idea that the Tories are ‘good’ on the economy is only sustainable on a lie. And it is that lie that helped them deliver victory.

The Tories and their spaniels in the press repeated the lie over and over that Labour’s profligate spending caused the crisis, and the Tories came in and delivered austerity, which was painful but is now working. The economy, they say, is in recovery. They back up this with by throwing around statistics, for instance that employment is up, or that we are out of recession.

But none of these things are true. As the economist Paul Krugman argued in the New York Times before the election, “every piece of this story is demonstrably, ludicrously wrong”. The crisis was started in the financial sector, the deficit only grew massively after the £1 trillion bail out was handed over to the banks. Austerity hasn’t boosted the economy, which has flatlined. The GDP growth in January-March was only 0.3%. Employment may be up, but 600,000 of those people are self-employed, many others are on zero-hour contracts and pay hasn’t gone up for many workers.

But the Labour Party didn’t have the stomach to tackle these arguments head on. They let the Tories set the narrative, they allowed the newspapers to manufacture consent for austerity. Labour looked embarrassed and conceded arguments about public sector spending. In short they were too weak and too nervous to state the truth in the face of Conservative party spin and lies.

At one the BBC leadership debates Ed Miliband finally confronted the argument about Labour overspending and pointed out that actually the crisis was global – Obama had a massive deficit that wasn’t caused by Labour overspending in Britain – and it started in the banking sector. Some of the audience booed him. No doubt these were Tory party activists, but the fact was that it was too little, too late.

Labour dug its grave. The SNP, with a more resolutely anti-austerity message, did very well. Now the Tory victory will no doubt send Labour into long period of internal reflection which will result in a right wing shift. As a result we could be faced with another Tory government in 2020.

But the lie that the economy is doing well under the Tories will start to unravel if growth does not pick up, if sterling continues to slide or if we go into deflation. The fact is that austerity is undermining the economic base of post-war capitalism – the bosses want that to happen so that they can enjoy richer profits in a more neoliberalised future, but it is a risky gamble. It could see a lost decade of capitalism, or even a Japan scenario: a permanent recession lasting twenty years or more.

This is why a party like Left Unity, small as we are, is so important. We have to unpick the Tory lies and we have to be there to help with the fightback against the coming attacks. The lack of a socialist party worthy of the name is a huge problem for us and it is of vital importance that we get to work building one.


4 responses to “The Tories won on a lie”

  1. John Penney says:

    Good article Simon.

    There are undoubtedly dark, dark years ahead for everyone but the wealthiest .The NHS is already teetering under the burden of PFI, ever more crazy market-driven reorganisation and privatisation, and a failure to keep funding level with real inflation and growing need.

    I suspect, and actually hope, that the Labour Party leadership continues to completely misinterpret its gross failure to capitalise on the Coalition Government’s massive failures , from the incredible rise in widespread real poverty, compared to the DOUBLING of the wealth of the top superrich, the now dangerous state of the NHS and all other Welfare support systems, to its actual economic incompetence over the last five years – with productivity the lowest of any major economy, business investment practically stalled, the trade gap at record levels, and the supposed “low unemployment levels, actually masking an ever expanding mass of unskilled, precarious poverty level jobs, which do nothing to build the UK economy. And of course a complete failure to reduce the Tory/Lib Dem shibboleth national debt figure which is used to justify the Austerity con trick – which has in fact rocketed to astronomic levels . I say this because I hope Labour does lurch even further right – to become ever more just Tory Party Mark 2. Because there will be nothing more timewasting for the Left to once again listen to the Owen Jones types and put in yet more effort to “turn Labour Leftwards”. Can’t be done – that parrot is a long dead turkey.

    No the future , in what are going to be traumatically gruelling years ahead I fear – and probably in an economic context of the current UK property and personal debt bubble running out of steam or even spectacularly bursting – putting even more impetus on the Tories to turn up the pressure to destroy the Welfare State – and hence of course actually run the UK economy even further onto the rocks of recession (rather than “setting the private sector free to prosper ” as they fondly ideologically believe). However the Left Unity project to build a new radical Left party completely outside of the poisoned ground of the Labour Party remains the best hopes of building an uncompromising, broadly-based party of the Left to fight austerity.

    To do this however would suggest we still have a long way to go to reach beyond the stale “kneejerk” assumptions and prescriptions of the tiny Far Left “Bubble” most of us have spent all our political lives within – which is why for a year now Left Unity has been stuck at below 2000 members – whereas the multi-faced petty bourgeois Greens (yep, I’m not a fan) have gained thousands on a confused and totally contradictory policy bundle. As a small example of our so far failure to reach beyond our outdated, sterile, Far Left, certainties – we agreed at our founding Conference to forgo the stale Soviet Union-model demand for a 100% nationalised economy – and our party constitution clearly states that Left Unity aims to build a society in which, at least in the medium term, there is still a private sector element in the economy – though operating within the framework of a radical Left National Plan. Thus in Section 2) Aims, subsection b) the Constitution commits the party to strive for a mixed economic structure – at least in the medium term of a future Left Unity government: ie,

    “…a democratically planned economy that is environmentally sustainable, within which all enterprises, whether privately owned, co-operatives, or under public ownership, operate in ways that promote the needs of the people and wider society.”

    Then, after making this very sensible basic assumption, ie, that a mixed economy is going to be the reality for a long, long, time for a Left Unity Government, what do we do in our Election Manifesto ? We go right back to the old Stalinist Soviet Union style dogma as our General Election Left Unity Manifesto refers to the needs for an economy “run democratically, not controlled by the few in the interests of 1% of the population. This means the principle of common ownership of all natural resources and means of producing wealth” !

    No it doesn’t , for goodness sakes ! We have no need to nationalise every corner shop, or indeed every small business – as long as they operate within an integrated National Plan, with legislation to protect workers rights – and with fully re-empowered trades unions guaranteed collective bargaining rights (and board places on bigger companies). Left Unity is NOT a revolutionary Marxist party. Or have our founding principles been changed by a Conference I didn’t attend ?

    We are going to have to be a lot more realistic and politically acute than this if we are to build a broadly based radical Left Party fighting austerity. I’m afraid Left unity will soon have to make some real choices – ie, make our policies fit the likes of the tiny CPGB and Workers Power ultralefts – or adopt radical Left policies which can actually attract votes and membership from the millions of Left wing working class ex Labour voters desperately looking for a party to fight Austerity and defend the NHS/Welfare State – but not demand they build the barricades (or the workers’ militia) for the final overthrow of capitalism quite yet.

  2. Paul Crofts says:

    Good article and analysis. Think the rise of UKIP also played a part and Labour failed to challenge their narrative and instead played to their tune. This failed too, and Labour lost more votes to UKIP than the Tories.

  3. Ray G says:

    The one factor you missed, Simon (an important factor) is that Labour failed to understand why Labour voters were going to UKIP. That is where the damage was done and what led to the failure to take the marginal seats. UKIP’s vote is one of profound distrust in Labour or indeed any politicians. With every party saying that capitalism is the only answer, those working people who are not involved in the movement (and even some who are) are forced to look for other reasons for their problems, immigrants, the EU, people from London, middle-class patronising lefties who don’t really understand them, Guardian readers and Labour MP’s who think it’s OK to patronise people who support the England football team or who drive a white van to work (like most of my family do). Labour can represent public sector workers but does not engage with other groups of workers (and most trade unions have the same problem). UKIP were very clever in dressing up their programme in a list of demands on things like the bedroom-tax and support for the NHS to appeal to disillusioned Labour voters. They were not seen for what they really are ie, essentially, Tories in disguise.

    To follow UKIP round screaming accusations at them of racism and fascism is also wide of the mark (although the potential is there). A friend of mine who a bit of a wit pointed out that UKIP probably has more ethnic minority members than the entire British far left. If that is wrong, it is not that far wrong. They certainly had several ethnic minority candidates, and even a Polish candidate in Tooting (I think).

    Unless and until we can find a way to appeal directly to UKIP voters and convince them that the left is the way to justice and fairness and a future for them. the left will not break through, and just to be clear, I do NOT mean abandoning our principled.position on immigration.

  4. peterrodenby says:

    I agree .The lie of the free market.The lie of austerity is the only option.The lie that we are in this together. So it goes on
    This is the end of my believe in this Country and its people as a caring society .
    The new conservative regime will ensure that by the end of 5 years
    there will be nothing left of public services,benefits,
    or the NHS.
    That I believe is the ultimate goal
    I can not see any other result.
    Everyone will be expected to look after their own
    There will be no support
    for the weak, the ill or the disadvantaged.
    A totally uncaring, selfish, self centred society
    where money and power will have full reign.
    The privileged minority will be able to continue on their way unhindered by a concern for anyone except themselves.
    The class system that saw all the top positions in society taken by the upper class a hundred years ago is alive and well after all the upheavals of the twentieth century they have reinstated themselves.
    The Prime Minster of the country attended the same school as the Archbishop of Canterbury.
    How many of the Judges,the Captains of Industry, the Commanders of the armed forces have come from the same elite group ?
    Where are the benefactors of the poor to come from now ?
    What will happen to the sick or the disabled or the poor when the Health Service is privatised ?

    I find it hard to believe that the ordinary people of this country have turned their backs on the disadvantaged and voted for a party that has vested interests in maintaining and enhancing profit over people .
    That is why I am disillusioned at the moment.But I remain optimistic that our day will come.

    I also suspect that the Scottish result is significant.

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