Last week it was revealed (or we were reminded) that the new shadow cabinet member for agriculture and the environment, Kerry McCarthy, was a vegan who gave an interview with the vegan magazine Viva!Life, published March 2015, in which she called for meat-eating to be treated like smoking, with public campaigns to encourage people to stop eating it, because of its environmental impact. She said, “Progress on animal welfare is being made at the EU level and I feel it is best left to those campaigning groups working there but in the end it comes down to not eating meat and dairy. … The constant challenging of the environmental impact of livestock farming is making me more and more militant, not least that CAP [common agricultural policy] payments are available for grouse shooting, controlling buzzards and forestry”.
The papers, oddly, turned to the Countryside Alliance, an organisation representing the hunting lobby rather than farmers as such, for a response. They called her ideas “verging on the cranky” and would only “make it more difficult for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party to reconnect with rural Britain”. Sadly, these words are more relevant than we might think, because where Labour has rural support, it tends to be in upland areas of Wales and northern England which are best suited to livestock farming (especially sheep) on hills, rather than the intensive crop growing found in lowland regions like Lincolnshire, which are Tory heartlands which only returned Labour MPs in the early Blair years. It’s preposterous to compare meat to tobacco; tobacco is a pure waste of time and money, which is addictive without yielding a high, produces foul smells, damages the user’s health and endangers that of those around them. Meat is food; to most people it tastes pleasant; it’s been a standard part of the human diet from the beginning, it converts material inedible to humans (like grass) to something edible, and is a source of needed iron and protein, especially for children. It turns out that Corbyn did not even know about McCarthy’s views before appointing her, which if it does not reflect poor judgement, certainly shows he has limited choices.
I didn’t get a vote in the leadership election because I let my membership lapse in 1995 and never renewed it because I did not like what Blair was doing to the party (not just in terms of policy, but also things like crushing dissent in organisations like student unions, which I first became aware of when I went to university that year). I’ve lived in New Malden since 2001, an area the party has been content to leave to the Liberal Democrats to oppose the Tories, which meant there seemed little point joining a party I could not vote for in my constituency and vote for without risking letting a Tory in. I also didn’t rejoin because Labour do not tolerate public dissent; if you publicly express support for another candidate, they expel you. I still voted for Ed Davey in 2015. However, it is clear to me that Jeremy Corbyn won because the other three candidates were uninspiring and did not offer any change from the status quo, some of them parroting Tory rhetoric about aspiration and “wealth creators” while taking their core vote for granted. Corbyn won a landslide, even when the £3 supporters were taken out of the picture. A lot of people perhaps wish there was a more credible candidate than Corbyn who had the backbone to challenge the Tory political and press narrative on such things as “economic competency”, but the New Labour machine had made sure that there wasn’t.
There has been a lot of over-analysing of Labour’s defeat in 2015, particularly from New Labourites who crow that Labour lost because it diverged from their policies, and others are accusing Labour members of harbouring the “delusions of the defeated” and failing to face up to the “real reasons” Labour lost. The Liberal Democrats also do not accept that their behaviour while in coalition was a major reason why they lost, and Tim Farron last week refused to rule out another Tory coalition, claiming that there was “nothing grubby or unprincipled about wanting to win, nothing noble about defeat”. The Liberal Democrats did not ‘win’ the 2010 election; they lost seats and came third, and got into office by means of a back-room deal. The coalition was not the only reason why they lost such a huge number of seats, but it was a very important one. And they deserved to lose.
The over-analysing of Labour’s defeat is as much the product of trauma as might account for some of the rush to the Left. The scale of the defeat is being exaggerated: it wasn’t 1983 all over again and except in Scotland, it wasn’t a rout. It is a common trait of defeated people to think they were defeated because they were not, on a very deep level, more like the victors, rather than because of other factors. In the case of a military force, this can often mean superior weaponry and discipline, rather than a religious difference, but it is not unknown for the defeated nation to imagine that “their gods were conquered” or otherwise that their core beliefs are discredited. Labour’s core beliefs were not discredited by last May’s election defeat. Labour did not win because the Tories were not doing too badly, as they were in 1997. They were not mired in scandal, they were not openly divided, and there was no crisis. Those are the reasons governing parties lose elections. This is the chief reason why Labour lost in 2010: there was an economic crisis which discredited Brown’s (essentially right-wing) economic policies (such as deregulating the banks), and the man himself reeked of frustrated entitlement (something that should have disqualified him from the job on its own) and the parallels with John Major from 1992-7 were too obvious.
New Labour also fail to appreciate that their behaviour in and out of office cost them votes. Like the Lib Dems, they prefer to simply blame the voters for costing them an election. The facts are that Blair won a landslide in 1997 and a respectable victory in 2001, then won by the skin of his teeth in 2005 and the remains of his movement lost in 2010. He lost support because he dragged this country into an unwinnable war because he was unwilling to say no to a powerful, angry man, and because he upset a large body of voters who care about civil liberties and social justice with such acts as agreeing to an extradition treaty with the USA that offered UK citizens no protection, and curtailing individuals’ rights (often on spurious grounds) with control orders. They then told us that we had to agree to it or we would get a Tory government, and see how we liked that. They were like the pigs in Animal Farm: give us what we want or “Jones will come back”. They also failed to keep their working-class vote on side by, for example, re-investing in run-down areas of the north, which is why that has been threatened by UKIP. They also lost ethnic votes, especially young Muslims, and it also caused vote-rigging scandals.
New Labour seem to be clinging to their strategy of targeting the same “C2” swing voters they targeted successfully in 1997 and forgetting that they cannot take all their other voters for granted. This has been stated openly in the media on a number of occasions: that your core vote will vote for you anyway, so there’s no point pitching your campaign to them. More recent evidence is that the core vote is leaking to UKIP because of fears of immigration, especially eastern European immigration, which has been bolstered by continual suggestions in the media that British workers are lazy and stupid (these kinds of sneers are circulated on social media too; a good example being the meme “if all you’ve got is two GCSE’s and an STI, a foreign doctor doesn’t threaten your job”). Immigration could be accommodated with less impact on native people’s jobs and living standards if politicians required business to invest in native talent, but they don’t, because that would be interfering with the market. (An example that affects me personally is the requirement for two years’ entitlement before being even considered for many truck driving jobs, which gets them more favourable insurance premiums; they could not do this if they did not have a ready supply of foreign drivers who do meet that requirement.)
Another major cause of why Labour were at a disadvantage is the press. To point this out is to invite accusations of whining that the rules of the game aren’t fair, but the fact is that the press is a moneyed interest in its own right, and is biased against notions of social justice because it is owned by rich people, and because harsh, easy answers sell papers to people who do not have the time (and have not been encouraged at any time since they were at school or college, if even then) to sit down and think about things, and calmness, rationality and compassion don’t. We then find the BBC following the same agenda set by the commercial press, largely out of fear of being branded a “liberal elite” institution existing on involuntary public subscription. Labour have to stop pretending it can win clean against a Tory party that plays dirty, attacking the funding it gets from its union base. The papers are part of the Tories’ corporate base; they are a powerful tool for propaganda because they have access to newsstands and bulk distribution, and they present propaganda, prominently, as news and fact. They must be curbed. No semblance of progress is achievable when public opinion is formed by these unaccountable and amoral corporate papers and when elected governments are cowed by them.
New Labour, in any case, has not even defended its own legacy. It allows the press to portray the last Labour government as one of spendthrift socialism, which it never was. It hollowed out the party so that there was no credible successor to Tony Blair who could have won the 2010 election. This is why none of the three uninspiring functionary politicians who stood in the last leadership election came within a mile of defeating Corbyn. Like many, I’m worried that he might have too little support from his fellow Labour MPs (as shown in his choice of environment spokesperson) and that his message will be rejected by the electorate, but the party will give him a couple of years to prove himself, or choose someone else, but he will have the benefit of an energised activist base who will get out and campaign for him in a way that fewer of them would have done for Burnham or Kendall. Hopefully other Labour politicians will realise that you cannot expect people who joined the party believing in social justice to put in time and effort campaigning for someone who just wants power and offers little more than a change of colour.
Image source: Wikipedia, originally by Paul Simpson. Released under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 licence.
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