New Labour: the new Lib Dems?

Confusion over the meaning of Labour’s victory in Oldham confirms the need for some new signposts to the muddled UK political map.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
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Topics Politics UK

New Labour leader Ed Miliband declared that his party’s victory in the Oldham East and Saddleworth parliamentary by-election had sent the Liberal-Conservative coalition government a ‘clear message’. Er, what was that then, Ed?

In the confused post-election debate, nobody seems clear exactly what that ‘clear message’ is. This results from trying to view the latest developments in British political life through the prism provided by the politics of the past. With the benefit of about four days’ hindsight, let’s look again at events in that bleak corner of Lancashire and try to provide a few pointers to the new (anti-) politics of 2011.

To recap how this came about: in the May 2010 General Election, outgoing New Labour cabinet minister Phil Woolas held the Oldham seat by only 103 votes. The defeated Liberal Democrat candidate, Elwyn Watkins, launched an official protest, claiming that Woolas had told lies about him during the campaign. Watkins’ objection was upheld by an obscure electoral court, and Woolas became the first MP in a century to be kicked out of parliament by judges rather than voters.

As argued on spiked at the time, this was a disgrace to democracy (see Why I’d vote for a dodgy MP over an honest judge, by Mick Hume). Other commentators, however, immediately got excited about how the forced by-election would be the ‘first real test’ of Britain’s Lib-Con coalition government. Now that the Oldham election has been held again, they are unable to agree on whether the David Cameron-Nick Clegg regime flunked that test or passed it with flying (if mixed) colours.

The Labour candidate Debbie Abrahams won last week’s by-election with 14,718 votes, an increased majority of 3,558 over the Lib Dem Watkins (11,160) with the Tory candidate Kashif Ali a distant third on 4,481 votes. Some reports claimed Labour had ‘romped’ to victory in adversity, proving that the party was back; others drew the opposite conclusion that Miliband’s party had ‘scraped’ home against unpopular governing parties, proving that Labour was still nowhere. Some declared the result a ‘disaster’ for Clegg’s Lib Dems who had hoped to take the seat; others announced that finishing 10 per cent behind Labour was a good result, given that the Lib Dems had trailed by almost 20 points in Oldham campaign opinion polls and slumped to single figures in national polls. Some observers focused on the depths to which Cameron’s Tories have sunk, winning just 13 per cent of the votes cast, while others concluded that the overall result could even lift Cameron, since the Tory voters had apparently switched to the Lib Dems in an anti-Labour pact, thus showing solid support for the coalition etc etc.

And so it goes on. There is an evident lack of a clear language for interpreting the new political developments of the age. So amid all the confusion and delusion as pundits pore over the entrails of Oldham East and Saddleworth, here are a few quick points to bear in mind as alternative signposts to the muddled political map of 2011.

New Labour is becoming the new Lib Dems

Perhaps the biggest delusion is the prominent claim that Labour’s clear win over their Lib Dem challengers marks a return to the ‘proper’ politics of left v right, and the end of the moment when the Lib Dems could claim to be breaking the mould through ‘Cleggmania’ and all that around the May General Election. It would be more accurate to say that the two parties have pretty much swapped places, with New Labour now in danger of becoming little more than the new Lib Dems.

In truth, Cleggmania always existed on Planet Media more than in the real world, as evidenced by the Lib Dems’ unspectacular showing last May, when they ended up with fewer seats in parliament yet got several seats in a coalition government thanks to the Tories’ failure to win an overall majority. The Lib Dems had risen in elections and polls of recent years only as a result of the decline of the established parties and the old politics, not thanks to any dynamic of their own.

In the New Labour era, the Lib Dems became an all-purpose protest vote party, an empty electoral receptacle for all manner of bad feelings from disaffected white working class or Muslim voters in cities to disgruntled students in university towns.

Now New Labour is in opposition and Clegg’s outfit is the deeply unpopular governing party, the roles have been reversed. Who outside of the self-deluded wing of the left could seriously suggest that Miliband’s rise in the polls and win in Oldham has had anything to do with the policy-free Labour Party or its faceless new leader? They have done nothing to deserve a single vote, have developed no alternative to the narrow-minded politics of austerity apart from quibbling about the exact timing of the government’s spending cuts. Instead, Labour has become the passive receptacle for another ABC – ‘Anybody But Clegg, Cameron and Coalition’ – backlash. The ease with which the two have effectively switched roles suggests that, far from a return to the entrenched left-right struggles of the past, Oldham marks the further advance of the shallow none-of-the-above attitudes of today.

No more core votes

When the Oldham East and Saddleworth constituency was first formed at the 1997 General Election, Phil Woolas won it for Tony Blair’s New Labour with a majority of 3,389 votes over the Lib Dems. At last week’s by-election, Debbie Abrahams held it for Miliband’s new New Labour with a very similar majority of 3,558. Yet that apparent stability masks a big change – the continuing decline of political loyalties and hardcore votes for any political party, in an age of parties-without-politics.

The Oldham result shows the shift even in relatively quiet political backwaters. Many of those seen as traditional Labour voters apparently stayed at home – the last thing one might expect if an opposition party had any real dynamic behind it. Meanwhile, a good number of those who almost won the seat for the Lib Dems at the General Election reportedly switched to Labour this time, despite the Woolas affair, as a protest against the performance of ‘their’ party in the coalition government. And it is widely agreed that a fair few Tory voters switched to the Lib Dems to give their newfound great mates a chance of keeping Labour out. This game of political musical chairs confirms that there are no more reliable core votes or safe seats in British parliamentary politics. Instead, most voters feel only the loosest and most shallow attachment to parties that stand for little more than their own re-election.

The Arbitrary Party wins elections

The absence of solid political principles and loyalties, or coherent parties and constituencies, makes the swings and roundabouts of election results far less predictable. Voting means less to many people, and who they vote for becomes more arbitrary. A week is a long time in politics? Nowadays it sometimes seems as if the outcome of a specific election might be different if it was held a day later.

The arbitrary element in British politics explains some of the strange patterns of results last May, where all the parties gained and lost seats and nobody won the General Election. It also helps to explain why many of the polls and predictions varied so wildly through the Oldham by-election campaign, from a neck-and-neck contest to a landslide. Even on the night of the election, when the ballot boxes had closed, none of the pundits at the count seemed clear what had happened and some were still claiming the result was ‘too close to call’, which it wasn’t.

If any party is ‘breaking the mould’ of British electoral politics today, it is not the Lib Dems but the Arbitrary Party. The Oldham election also exposed the delusion of those who claimed ‘tactical voting’ to form an anti-Tory coalition was the future of the liberal left. In circumstances where voting counts for so little, such loose and arbitrary voting blocs can just as readily turn against Labour or the Liberal Democrats.

The Lib-Cons are neither ‘revolutionaries’ nor ‘Thatcherites’, but the Continuity Coalition

Behind the shallow differences between the parties and the inter-changeability of their leaders displayed around the Oldham by-election, there lies a bigger truth: the fact that they are all now part of a single new political elite, separated from both the leaders and parties of the past and the electorate of the present.

There has been much talk since last May of how the cobbling together of the first coalition government since the Second World War marks a ‘revolution’ that has changed British politics forever. Or alternatively, of how it marks a reversion to 1980s-style Thatcherism in disguise, with the Tories using the Lib Dems as human shields.

Wrong on both counts. Everything has indeed changed from the Seventies and Eighties eras of left v right conflicts, but not in the way that they imagine. In fact, the striking thing about the coalition is not its radicalism or its Thatcherism, but its continuity from the New Labour governments that preceded it. Hence for example, New Labour’s ‘politics of behaviour’ has evolved into Cameron’s ‘nudge’ politics of the brain (see A message to the illiberal Nudge Industry: push off, by Brendan O’Neill).

When New Labour were first elected, many critics banged on about ‘Tory Blair’ (geddit?) copying the Conservatives. Now those same critics claim that the Lib-Cons are Thatcherites in drag. But it would be more accurate to see them as the Continuity Coalition following the Blair-Brown decade. The allegation that the party leaders are ‘all the same’ means something more today than the cynicism of old. They are all members of the same new non-political managerial elite, who have never stood for anything in political struggle or led a movement in society. They are as interchangeable and as indistinct as any corporate suits. That is why from Oldham to Westminster we are now witnessing a pale imitation of real political life.

Democracy is the loser

The most important thing about the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election remains that it should never have happened. It is an indelible insult to the democratic process that the verdict of the electorate, however narrowly it was expressed last May, should have been overturned by unelected and unaccountable judges because the winning candidate failed to comply with their notions of fair play. Thus the calling of an election on this occasion became a sign of our autocratic anti-democratic times.

When the by-election took place, it was no bad thing to see the squealers of the Lib Dems lose again, as the Oldham electorate confirmed to the judges that they can think and decide for themselves and had not been duped the first time around. But the election campaign itself marked a further degradation of democracy. A key element of any democratic system is not just the right to vote, but the existence of genuine alternatives and choice. No such choice was on offer in Oldham, for the reasons examined here, and British democracy withered a little more on the vine.

Only 48 per cent of Oldham voters felt moved to vote last week. Against this background, however, it might be thought a wonder that so many bothered to turn out, showing that many people do want a voice and a choice. The sad truth is that in such a parody of a political contest, casting a vote means little more than staying at home.

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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