Written by Alex Mulchrone
Thursday’s election made the headlines for many reasons. Labour’s abject failure dominated; after a promising campaign, they returned just 232 MPs. This was their lowest total since 1987, a time when Ed Miliband was too young to vote. They bled votes to all parties and now face nothing short of an existential crisis.
The West-Lothian question has become the West-Lothian crisis. For decades, Scotland reliably returned 50+ Labour MPs. Yet in the early hours of Friday the long knives were drawn, and the SNP effectively transformed Scotland into a one party state.
Policy-wise, the SNP campaigned to the left of Labour and clearly captured Scotland’s Social Democratic imagination. Free of obligation to any conservative English base, the SNP spewed vitriol over austerity, and its tacit endorsement found in the pages of the Labour manifesto. Don’t be fooled into thinking this backlash occurred over night- or even since the #Indyref or Sturgeon surge. For 16 years, the neoliberal New Labour governed from the breast of the City of London, and seemed more concerned with creating prosperity in Baghdad than Glasgow.
In the end, Labour couldn’t match the message of hope and positivity that the SNP put forward, rather positioning themselves as a dour alternative to SNP separatism or Tory austerity.
South of the border, the Conservatives gained 15 seats, an impressive feat for an incumbent party, let alone a Conservative one. Labour’s key target seats- North Warwickshire and Nuneaton to name but two, overwhelmingly backed the Conservatives’ message of continuity and stability.
Casting a sceptical eye over Hadrian’s wall, the Tories coaxed out a reluctant English nationalism that was, quite frankly, fed up of those bloody Scots. They backed English votes for English laws, and tentatively suggested fiscal autonomy, leaving the Scots to cope with a budget deficit of 8.1% on their own.
The Tories’ ruthlessly effective PR offensive married Labour votes to SNP laws, and framed their campaign around the economy; competency vs chaos, entrepreneurship vs statism, Osbourne vs Balls. With US Presidential nomination season upon us, Conservative campaign chief Lynton Crosby is currently hot property. Crosby’s Labour counterpart lost his seat to a 20 year old student who is still busy writing her dissertation.
Liberal Democrat seats- our beloved Bath included- had always appeared uncomfortable in government. An anti-establishment party that had for 16 years campaigned to the left of Labour was thrust uneasily into government by the zealous Clegg, and their voters deserted them in droves. To the Conservative party.
Not only were Labour unable to woo disenchanted liberals, but they also failed to inspire progressive young voters who sided with the Greens. UKIP, who in many ways defy the traditional left-right nexus, also pinched traditional Labour votes from blue-collar workers who identified with Farage, and faced pressure from wage depression and societal unease.
These failures propelled a Clegg-less David Cameron back into No. 10. Labour did, however, win 232 seats. Their strongholds in large cities and former mining communities stayed red. However, Labour support in these areas is (still) defined by the Thatcher years. The Tories’ monopoly over trust on the economy has already started to infiltrate these areas; they won a bumper 11 seats in Wales. Labour also cultivated strong support from ethnic minorities, however these groups too are steadily turning to the Tories as their relative affluence grows with the years.
Labour faced an identity crisis and lost. Instead of presenting a clear and positive vision, they defined themselves against the other parties. They would pay down the deficit, but with more compassion than Tories. They would protect the poorest from austerity, but without the separatism of SNP or Plaid Cymru. They would reduce immigration, but not as aggressively as UKIP. Labour’s identity crisis begs the question: what did they actually stand for?