The left should pursue former Tories – but on our terms.

by Tom Miller

I was reading a well penned blog post by Aiyan Maharasingam on the Next Generation Labour website about our attitude to ex-Tories, swing voters, and the like.

Thought it worth recording a few thoughts there.

My view for a long time has been that Labour has been losing two groups of voters, both of whom I identify with, so perhaps a personal bias. But those two broad groups are the less well-off and the more left-wing, including many Guardian type liberals. It has also lost some chunks of voters to its right – but a word of caution – centrist swing voters in swing constituencies still make up a minority of the Labour vote there, and need a motivated core themselves.

In terms of how this is addressed, I think it is crucial that Labour is a party which is much more clearly identifiable with the left as a whole, firstly, but also that those who constitute the organised parts of the left have a long think about their strategic aims and how it they are met, especially given the continual slow weathering of traditional class organisations like unions.

For those of us acting within the party itself, there also needs to be a hell of a lot more thought on what defeat and victory means to the left, and whether the left of Labour in particular wants to put the larger part of its focus focus on what I shall call ‘specific demand politics’ or ‘directional/orientation politics’. Cards on the table, I’m for the latter.

There also needs to be thought about how we engage with plurality. The ‘pluralism disputes’ within Compass and its subsequent fall from relevance to the debates within the Labour Party answered some of these questions. But they are not yet resolved organisationally. Compass was an organisation with strove for breadth, particularly as the moderate Labour left (and its more liberal wing, at that), a party faction capable of and committed to fostering plurality, tolerance and breadth, took a leadership position within the organisation.

But there is no clear articulation of this kind of left politics within the party, simply organs of the moderate left which are defunct or irrelevant, and hard left dominated factions which are more active but similarly (if not more) irrelevant to the actual structure of political power within party or country.

How do we engage with liberals or greens who share some key aims, without putting them in a leadership position which encourages open hostility to Labour, the largest left-of-centre party, or the unions, the bulk of our movement?

How does the moderate left itself regain political expression within Labour?

Outside the left, should we really be writing off those who currently back the right, who might be moved to backing social democratic policies on social democratic terms?

At a more fundamental level, how do we halt the decay of movements and the subsequent trend towards reliance, even by parts of the Labour leadership, on dehumanised money of the right?

These are all questions that are lying there without answer.

In my view, from a ‘big public politics’ point of view, Ed Miliband is partly pursuing the correct strategy – float ideas which are left of the established consensus (i.e. the hegemonic ideology), but will still appeal to swing voters. Try to encourage an open approach to those who are leftish minded, even when they are spineless (like Vince Cable), or unhinged (like the Green Party).

But from the point of view of being a paid party organiser covering at least one swing seat, what I would like to see a bit more of would be angry working class left-populism.

A good start would be an all-fronts attack on workfare, but specifically from a class standpoint rather than simply that of individual rights, which are very well, but have more narrow political appeal.

Why is it that the Government, in the middle of a huge recession, is replacing paid vacancies for working people with compulsory free labour, undercutting the job opportunities and wages of those who work hardest but rightly expect something back? All very well to target benefit fraud, but what about tax evaders? What about the fact that people who pay into the benefits system their whole life are receiving so little back if they find themselves short of work?

if we were to ask that, why would it mean losing the prospect of votes from the middle? Most people have to work for a living. But everyone’s living standards are declining unless they have ‘independent means’, or in other words directly constitute part of the bourgeoisie. Mums and Dads can’t afford Waitrose anymore, at one end. At the other, people are being expected to choose between work and pay, except without the choice of pay.

Quality of life should be something that we are hammering day in, day out. A perfect cross-class, left consensus type issue. It should be the title of our conference, really.

We have a lot of room to expand our left flank, but still hold our right one, as long as we avoid latter-phase Blairite policies which are deliberately offensive to our own base. The idea that those are the only policies that will appeal to the centre are a mutual fallacy of both the hard left and hard right within the party.

But the background remains. The continued failure of pretty much all of our internal factions to respect internal plurality or to seriously lead with new ideas themselves undermines our ability to get on with any strategy properly, right or wrong. It’s a great thing that we have avoided an internal war. But we can’t be content to resort to stagnation, in its place. So let’s challenge all the orthodoxies, and see what remains?