…it lost it a lot earlier than that. It lost it in 2010 – not by its conduct in what was always likely to be a disastrous election, but in its reaction to that election. It lost it through cowardice, through short-termism, and through what must have felt like political expediency at the time. It lost it by failing to challenge the Tory (and to an extent Lib Dem and UKIP) attempts to rewrite history, and to set a new agenda. It lost it by failing to stand up for itself, by failing to stand up for exactly those people that Labour was created to support and protect. It lost it by failing to stand up for the truth – and by failing to challenge a whole range of myths.
The first of those myths is the most obvious – the cause and nature of the economic crisis. Labour didn’t cause the crisis. Labour’s spending – whether you think it ‘overspending’ or not – was neither here nor there in the grand scheme of things – and yet almost the first we’ve heard of this from Labour has been in the 2015 campaign, and then almost apologetically. Labour should have been shouting this from the rooftops continuously from 2010, and should be shouting it still. And yet even now it’s a bit half-hearted, and every time a Labour MP says ‘no, we didn’t overspend’ it is greeted with shock! ‘Of course they overspent, everyone knows that’ seems to be the reaction – and that’s mostly because for five long years they’ve hardly dared mention it.
The next of the myths is the myth of the scrounger – fed and supported by poverty porn like Benefits Street, nurtured daily by the Daily Mail, but also seemingly accepted and agreed with by Labour spokespeople from Liam Byrne to Rachel Reeves. A myth, nonetheless – in scale, particularly. Yes, of course there are ‘scroungers’, but the numbers are relatively minuscule and the significance of benefit fraud and ‘living on benefits’ is overstated in almost every way. And yet Labour do not dare challenge it – for fear of being seen as ‘soft’. It’s not ‘soft’ to tell the truth. Indeed, it would be much braver to tell the truth. Too brave for Labour. And yet every time this fake ‘toughness’ is shown by Labour, the myth grows, and Labour’s future chances diminish. If poor people are really scroungers, then we should place our trust in those who can properly deal with them – the Tories. Each time Labour feeds this myth, it puts another nail in its own coffin. Every word of Liam Byrne, every article in the Guardian by Rachel Reeves hammers those nails in.
The third myth is about immigration – a two-fold myth, first of all that immigration is bad, and secondly that Labour got it ‘wrong’ by letting in too many people. By having an ‘open doors’ immigration policy. And yet all of these are myths. All the evidence suggests that immigration is beneficial in a wide variety of ways. It doesn’t cause unemployment or even depress wages. Benefits tourism and health tourism are particularly pernicious myths: immigrants are net contributors financially and the NHS relies on immigrant labour at every level, from surgeons to cleaners. And yet we get apologetic statements from people at the top in Labour, we get ‘Controls on Immigration’ on mugs and the Ed-Stone. And, just as for social security, every bit of ‘toughness’ is another nail in Labour’s coffin – feeding the execrable UKIP as well as the Tories. And still Labour keeps on hammering those nails home.
And the side effects of accepting these myths are hideous. The first makes austerity look ‘sensible’ and ‘necessary’ rather than ideological brutality. It means that the real causes of the problems are largely ignored – and that just makes further disasters more likely. The second creates division, ferments hatred of people on benefits and in particular of disabled people – and indeed fuels violence against them – as well as building shame in those who find themselves needing help, shame that can be deeply, deeply damaging. The third fosters racism and xenophobia – it has pumped up the rabid nastiness of UKIP and others, allowed hideous laws like the Immigration Act 2014 that entrenches racism in the law by making landlords and employers suspicious of anyone they suspect might be an immigrant: anyone who looks or sounds ‘foreign’. All this could and should have been opposed – not just because it’s based on lies and innuendo but because it is deeply and dangerously damaging. And yet, rather than opposing it, Labour has largely fed the myths themselves. Out of fear, it would seem, more than anything else.
So no, Labour didn’t lose the election in 2015. They had already lost it long before. And unless they take a genuinely difficult decision and start to tell the truth, and start to stand up for what they believe is right rather than what they think the electorate will find attractive, they’ll keep on losing. They’ll keep on doing their very best to destroy their own party – and letting down the people who their party was formed to support.
It may well be too late already. All these myths have taken hold very strongly indeed – and it would be very, very hard to fight them. I doubt very much Labour is up for that fight, even if it wants to be.