Yesterday, I read Polly Toynbee’s piece in the Guardian. Although I’m a member of the Labour Party and I want it to win the next election, there was something about the exhortation to vote Labour with a clothes-peg on your nose – rather than a party to its left, like the Greens – that didn’t sit comfortably with me. Similarly, George Monbiot’s Twitter criticisms of Toynbee’s piece seemed off the mark.
I agree with Toynbee that the Labour and Conservative parties are clearly not the same. Labour is definitely the more progressive option. However, it’ll do no good to suggest (as Toynbee seems to), that this is the most ‘left wing’ Labour frontbench there’s been in years. These are extraordinary times and the economic crisis calls for extraordinary measures. As I’ve written elsewhere, the Labour leadership’s ‘big reforms, smaller spending’ line is in practice austerity lite. Even if Miliband wins the election and pursues this course, he will suffer the same fate as Hollande and the French socialists.
It all comes down to why, as Toynbee puts it, the election will be ‘too close to call’. Labour is losing traction because it’s ceding ground to the Tories on the economy and to UKIP on immigration. The problem with telling voters to swallow the politics and vote for Labour on supposedly pragmatic electoral grounds (and even the Lib Dems [!], or so Toynbee suggests) is that the politics are what’s causing Labour’s dip in the polls.
Talking “tough” on immigration (which is a frustrating phrase – there’s absolutely nothing tough about joining a howling right wing media consensus) and pledging pay freezes and cuts is turning off those who would naturally vote Labour. It’s clear that when Miliband drops the right wing posturing and gives the government a kicking over the NHS, the energy companies and the bedroom tax, he succeeds in the polls. The point is that Labour will win the election far more convincingly if it goes left, rather than trying to find votes to its already saturated right.
I do agree with Toynbee that this is a two horse race. There will either be a Labour or Conservative Prime Minister in Downing Street next May. But acknowledging this reality doesn’t mean, as Monbiot suggests it does, sitting idly by as politics is dragged to the right. If Labour is losing the election because it’s moving rightwards, then we need a way of pulling in the opposite direction.
This means building the opposition to austerity inside and outside the Labour Party. When the likes of Peter Hain argue against wholesale acceptance of the austerity narrative, when Labour MPs are willing to rebel over welfare sanctions, and when significant members of the Party are calling for a move away from more of the same in Scotland, it seems to me that there’s an opportunity to build a truly broad and strong movement stretching from the centre of Labour, through the trade unions, all the way to parties and campaign groups to the left of Labour.
Building this connected movement will strengthen isolated voices in Labour who want to stop the rightward march to cuts, low pay and racist scapegoating. As a consequence, it will make it harder for the Labour leadership to make further concessions to the Tories and UKIP which will translate into positive electoral consequences for Labour.
So forget telling voters they should head to the voting booths with pinched noses. Instead, let’s unite as Labour Party members, Green Party members, trade unionists, and campaigners against austerity and the racism that accompanies it. It’s only by connecting up the opposition to austerity inside and outside the Labour Party that we’ll deliver something better than the current government to Number 10 next year.