On a sunny Saturday evening, one day after David Cameron was returned to Downing Street, hundreds of people crammed into a room in East London with the blinds down, listening to inspirational speakers talking about freedom, liberty and progressive, compassionate politics. Reports of the death of the Left have been greatly exaggerated.
With great success again, and a combination of music, comedy, poetry, debate and effective visuals, Philosophy Football mixed popular culture and politics with Days of Hope, an event energizing those of us who believe in the autonomy of the individual coupled with a solidarity to build a fair and just society. As part of a captivating panel, telling of the struggles he has seen around the world, Paul Mason explained it is more than an oppressive economic system we are now united against, but one that imposes personal repression; a system he argued will never defeat us, as individuals break out with acts of personal defiance.
When this event was mooted in 2014, a celebration of VE Day two days after the 2015 General Election, it always looked like it would be a post-mortem; a wake after the election of a Conservative majority while the Left would have to avoid navel gazing and instead pick the relevant bones apart to go forward. But a seemingly inept Tory election campaign combined with a decent Labour one gave a few weeks of hope that a minority Labour government, supported by the SNP, may yet set a new positive agenda. It wasn’t to be. Our initial judgement was right, the damage had already been done and the pre-election polls, where some feel too embarrassed to justify an unfounded fear, were wrong.
It was too late in the day when the Labour Party stopped apologizing for the things they hadn’t done. It didn’t challenge the Tory-Lib Dem lie on the economy and their narrative was accepted as a truth for the people that don’t go into the detail when voting in an election: the people the Left need to communicate to. As Owen Jones, one of the excellent speakers on the panel noted, the Tory line about Government spending being like a household budget is an acute economic illiterate lie, but the Labour Party failed to challenge it, much less mock the stupidity of it.
Jones also noted the Conservatives backed Labour’s spending plans in Government pound-for-pound. Yet the myth Labour spending created a crash was still accepted by many, despite senior independent figures, including the former Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, and the permanent Secretary to the Treasury, Nicolas McPhearson, respectively, agreeing with economists who many an ordinary voter will never hear of.
A week before the election Labour’s campaign strategist Douglas Alexander pointed out on the Today Programme that the collapse of the Leman Brothers wasn’t caused by Gordon Brown building too many schools and hospitals; this, if not shouted from the rooftops, should have been mentioned in broadcast interviews by the Labour Leadership for the past five years, rather than repetitive soundbites about “hard working families” which gave little detail on substance. Labour’s strategy appeared to be influenced by too many pollsters who like the warm words given a green light from focus groups, rather than articulating an argument.
The Labour Party should have fought the election on the economy and its plans for growth and productivity, but it didn’t do enough to defend its record to give it that foothold to do so. While the leadership may not have wanted to refresh the image of people queuing down a High Street on a Saturday morning to see if their Co-op savings were still safe, they needed to say there was a debt because it bailed out the banks, and it was the right thing to do. They also needed to point out the Tories, and their backers, wanted greater de-regulation of the banks.
Labour’s biggest failure was communication. The first mistake was not picking the most talented leader in the leadership contest. While Ed Miliband had a good final six weeks after being given a leg up by Cameron, an incumbent Prime Minister scared of his own shadow and reluctant to debate or defend his record, Miliband’s failure to previously communicate a positive message, let alone emit the confidence he could be PM, cost Labour in England.
The economy is stagnant, there is a housing crisis, record food banks and we have turned into a nation where people fight over discounted items and the reduced to clear, yet of people who voted more trusted the man who got us to this state, appointed Andy Coulson to the heart of government, broke promises over VAT, debt and hospital closures, and even feels the need to lie about being a football fan, more than they trusted Miliband.
Miliband was so keen to keep repeating Labour got it wrong with a light-touch approach to bank deregulation, he forgot to mention all the good things Labour did in office, including having a strong economy for the best part of 13 years, leaving it in a state of growth in 2010, before Tory austerity predictably broke it’s back, leaving it flatlining now.
Failure to defend those years in Government, and not talking about achievements from the introduction of the minimum wage to Sure Start, via the massive improvements in the NHS, can’t happen again. And the constant sniping at Tony Blair does the Labour Party no good at all either. Labour should point to all its successes from past terms in office, while still talking about the future, or the lies about the past become accepted as gospel.
But that wasn’t Labour’s only problem, as Cat Boyd, the co-founder of the Radical Independence Campaign, passionately articulated while constantly hitting nails on the head. For many of us, it was clear to see how the campaign for independence in Scotland was an attractive, positive campaign, against three bland main party leaders, closing ranks to deliver a message of fear. Labour’s negative arguments cost it in Scotland and it was very apparent even during the campaign, it may never fully recover.
Cat pointed out the ‘No’ campaign was Project Fear, and even those that voted to stay in the union will never forgive the arrogance and negative campaigning by the Labour Party, that was distasteful for all to see, even in England. Cat noted bosses telling their staff to vote ‘No’ to keep their jobs and save the economy, yet now there are still redundancy notices being handed out in Scotland while oil prices are falling. And now they will still be governed by an out of touch Tory party they didn’t vote for. (The independent republic of London can relate to it.)
It is easy to see how the SNP, who did articulate an anti-austerity narrative, are an attractive option for the many alienated from the political elite. And for the Left to govern in the England and Wales, it needs to speak to the disenfranchised, with positive, progressive politics.
Conversely, the Tories used the SNP’s support to spread more fear in its General Election campaign. A few months ago they were desperate for Scotland to stay in the union, now it didn’t want them meddling in the UK politics. As Jonathan Freedland wrote in yesterday’s Guardian, this fear worked in middle England only because the Labour Party were not already strong enough due the communication failures already highlighted.
It is not always easy to get the message across with the vested interests of the popular press and seemingly Tory leaning political editors across broadcast shows, but with Social Media there now more of an opportunity. And the rise of the anti-austerity movements across Europe are showing this.
Paul Mason noted how Turkish men define their identity by their football club with an intense rivalry, bordering on hatred. Yet he reported of seeing these men put their football allegiances to one side, to stand together against an oppressive government. And things can change quickly, as Owen Jones noted, with the SNP surge as a perfect example.
It was an inspirational night at Rich Mix, with Michael Rosen proving laughter is an effective medicine after the bitter pill of the election, Josie Long talking about the collectivism that created Arts Emergency and live music from Maddy Carty and Captain SKA respectively. Rich Mix is a charity and social enterprise that is a valuable cultural centre in Shoreditch, yet it itself is now under threat of closure.
Of course the election wasn’t all bad. The Lib Dems were deservedly annihilated, Farage couldn’t even win a seat despite years of publicity no other candidate could ever have, and best of all George Galloway got hammered in Bradford.
The panel also gave lots of reasons of more days of hope to come. It was kicked off by Harry Leslie Smith, 92 years young, a veteran of World War II, a Labour Party and NHS campaigner, who told tales of the biggest hangover of his life on VE Day, while noting the young blood and optimism of Owen Jones gives the Labour Party a glimpse of a better tomorrow.
Not that war itself was brushed over. Paul Mason spoke of seeing the bodies of dead children carried out in curtains in an otherwise vibrant, secular Gaza; a Gaza that is not always reported. Mason also noted how his Tory father-in-law voted Labour for the only time in his life after the VE Day, as many wanted the country to rebuild, which Labour did, from delivering a Welfare State to building the Royal Festival Hall.
To govern and build again, The Labour Party can’t leave it four years and ten and a half months into the coming parliament to articulate and communicate a credible alternative to an oppressive failing monetarist ideology. It needs to win the argument on the economy and reach out to the disaffected one-third of the electorate who didn’t vote and whom the Right always rely on staying away by creating a mix of cynicism and apathy. As Owen Jones said, this must start after this weekend.
Photograph by Jess Casseettari
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