After #GE2015… Are Labour’s historic coalitions suffering from an ‘upgrade effect’?

So, on with the post election profiles, this time back over to Britain, er, England and Wales. So, let’s talk about Labour (of the UK variety).  The thing about the Labour party is that it is barely more than 100 years old. In most of that time it has been in opposition.

Indeed, you sometimes get the impression that some of their support quite like it that way.

The only sustained exception to that rule was in the mid-sixties to the very late seventies, and more recently under the leadership of Tony Blair when the party won three elections. In the case of the latter, he won the undying enmity of a large chunk of the wider Labour movement for his efforts.

In many respects, the Labour party has the tougher job of the UK’s two major political traditions since in reality it is made up of a number of high maintenance coalitions. Traditionally it has tried to represent the ‘collective’ interest, whereas the Tories look after the individual.

This has created a number of hardwired differences in the way both parties operate.  In the Conservative Party for instance, if a party leader is not working out with the public, s/he is often unceremoniously stripped of office and dumped for a better model.

A Labour leader, once chosen, is king until he fails or dies in harness.

I’ve lost count of the number of Labour people in the House of Commons I spoke to around the time that Ed Miliband was made leader of the party who immediately discounted winning the 2015 election. Once the party and Ed were made one, both were condemned to rush headlong to their doom.

The polls said that people wouldn’t vote for Miliband E, and many of Labour’s own didn’t.

Politics as expressed in public life is a shallow affair. Miliband’s story was full of small beer ‘tragedies’: the wrong brother; the funny face; the captured-by-the-union man; and would be collaborator with the fifth columnist SNP.

Now another beauty contest is underway to try and put some of those things right. And the outcomes will be just as binding. But there is a case for arguing that problems are much deeper, systemic and existential than that.

There’s three main areas where I see a disaggregation crises either breaking out, or already well advanced.

Most serious is Scotland, where within five years the Labour party went from losing no seats in 2010, to losing all but one in 2015. In four years, Scotland’s political nervous system has been rewired from notional social democracy to national populism.

Labour did not see such a transformation coming because at it simply could not imagine it ever happening. It’s not as though in taking Labour’s old voter base by storm that the SNP has suddenly been transformed into social democrats.

It’s more that Labour has been externally rebranded as foreign goods and chunked into the melting same pot as the Tories, the Westminster elite and England in general. Overton’s window opens a little wider.

Unfortunately the problems don’t really end there for Labour. The Unions, and particularly the large super Unions, ie the very architects of Labour’s disastrous leadership and election campaign, are also feeling the pressure in Scotland. John McDermott noted recently:

…many Scots have left Labour for the Scottish National party, challenging their unions’ leaders. Trade union support for the SNP is on the rise. Figures for how many trade union members voted for the SNP at the general election are unavailable, but the SNP now claims that its trade union group has more members than the Scottish Labour party. It is therefore equally true to say that it is Mr McCluskey who is under pressure – from his members. [emphasis added]

And that weakness goes further. Large super unions like Unite are becoming less and less member driven, and more corporate in their attitude. Enlargement tends to come through acquisitions rather than through active recruitment over the rights of workers.

Unions may pay Labour money, but less and less are they able to deliver influence or even their own members’ (from whom they grow increasingly remote) loyalties. For the most part, Labour has been content not to ask too many critical questions about the intel that not been coming down the stream for some time now.

Attacking big business is fine. But attacking the now embedded small business base of a country which has seen an enormous increase in low paid sole traders since 2009 is acting as a brake on the wider appeal of the party where it needs to win votes.

It is a similar failure-to-notice-change to those which saw Labour routed in Scotland. It’s suggestive of a party which is not paying attention (despite a claimed 5 million conversation with citizens) to the changes taking place around them.

That same warm coffee was wafting through the air in Manchester at the weekend when for the first ever all the members of the Co-operative Group Society got to vote on support for the Co-op Party which has been conjoined with the Labour party since 1927, and for the first time came very close to cutting off all support to a party it helped to found.

These are all radical changes with radical consequences. The corporatisation of Labour’s voice has always been one of it’s problems. But the most serious problem it faces today is the crumbling of the grand coalitions which brought it into being and have sustained for most of those 100 years.

At the very least it needs some critical engagement with those stakeholders, and with potentially some very tough consequences. Just pretending it isn’t happening didn’t work out so well for Scottish Labour. The rest of the party should not allow itself to be so deluded either.

In Scotland, the party is suffering from what looks suspiciously like the upgrade effect observed in consumers given an opportunity to upgrade and move on from their old product. It extends into other areas of human behaviour.

Research in the interpersonal relationships literature shows that people often denigrate their romantic partners when exposed to partner “upgrades”—attractive opposite-sex others. As we become aware of these improved options, we start being less careful and attentive toward our current partner.

Put crudely in Scotland (and it probably had some secondary effects in Labour Tory marginals, the SNP offer reads something like “Dump your old Ed, and get a new Nicola for free…” Of course we all know nothing is free in mobile phones or politics.

Labour is long overdue an upgrade of its own, and not just in the person of the leader… It may be helped by the depth of cuts in the pipeline, Cameron’s lost Liberal Democrat mudguard, and the many promises the Tory leader is unlikely to be able to keep.

That means not just to talking to five million people but the means of engaging the problems which engage them and offering them the means to tackle them. As Ben Franklin once noted…

“So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.”

Including ceasing to vote Labour…

The #SluggerReport from earlier today…

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  • aquifer

    The Conservative Party leader is chosen by MPs who want and need to be re-elected. This simple device makes the Party very responsive to the public mood, or perhaps very expert at massaging it to follow the interests of the rich. The Conservative Party also has excellent access to the best private sector marketing expertise available.

    The Unions often represent the public sector and some technical workers with a strong bargaining position, a minority of the population, and often a privileged group in terms of their job security and conditions, especially in comparison with private sector workers globally and also locally.

    Read the Guardian and Observer and their adverts to get a sense of a class of people who enjoy income, high culture, and security without expressing a great understanding of the commercial and technical underpinnings of an economy that enables a lot of people to consume.

    New Labour acknowledged that the capitalist market system could bring great benefit to working people.

    Ed tried to bring back class division, not noticing that many of the working class now live in China.

  • mickfealty

    Very good. I agree with most of that. All I would say is that the Conservatives needed this self imposed mistake to make good on the second term. There was little they actually did to make it happen other than promising the earth.

    But on Labour’s side it’s the ‘fixed bayonets’ inevitability of the defeat even as the troops were being sent to the front that’s so chilling. This piece from Iain McKenzie echoes some of my own thoughts: http://goo.gl/fOyyLF.

    I’m not saying they should abandon the Unions. But they should stop treating them as though this was just a one way street. Blair was merely tolerated by the Unions because he was successful.

    He didn’t build on those relationships. Now they are just in for the thrill. To pejoratively paraphrase McCloskey: no thrill, no money.

    China point IS an exaggeration, but it is taken.

  • chrisjones2

    “not noticing that many of the working class now live in China.”

    Excellent comment

  • T.E.Lawrence

    “The thing about the Labour Party is that it is barely more than 100 years old. In most of that time it has been in opposition” Don’t disagree with the statement but it also has to be reconised that it has been in power for a period of 37 years up to 2015. The movement has helped progress British Politics !