British Labour’s Australian road?

Will British Labour spend less time in opposition than Australian Labor did after its last federal defeat in 1996? The signs are not encouraging,  it may be that British Labour will follow in the footsteps of Australian Labor after 1996. Australian Labor rallied behind Kim Beazley after its 1996 defeat. Beazley was popular and unifying leader indeed it is difficult to imagine a leader with more appeal to voters. However the ALP struggled to come to terms with its legacy in government. Some such as Andrew Scott criticised the ALP ‘New Labor’ record in government and advocated a return to more traditional approach, another current argued that the 1983-96 had been too influenced by middle-class radicalism on issues such as immigration and aboriginal rights, proponents of this view such as Micheal Thompson struggled to define what policies they actually wanted Labor to pursue. Meanwhile the new conservative government of John Howard targeted labor’s budgetary legacy and argued that as Finance Minister before 1996 Beazley had left a ‘budget black hole’, a Commission of Audit was established just as the new British government has promised (although many of its recommendations were ignored). Twelve years Labor’s fiscal legacy on this was still cited by conservatives. A similar pattern is emerging with British Labour, as the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have united to criticise labor’s fiscal legacy. But many in Labour are preoccupied by immigration, according to one report:

This weekend the Fabian Society hosted a post-election conference, with one of the debates entitled ‘Why did Labour lose? Lessons from the election”. Speakers Deborah Mattinson, Sunder Katwala, Kerry McCarthy MP and Sadiq Khan MP gave a variety of reasons, from detachment from the grassroots, the over-reliance on new media for campaigning and increasingly centralised government. But interestingly, it was immigration which dominated the discussion. Mattinson said immigration was “a good example of middle class Westminster being out of touch”, and this was echoed by Khan, who said 2nd and 3rd generation immigrants complained about immigration in his Tooting constituency. Khan later defended Labour’s record by citing the points based system, closure of dodgy overseas student colleges and the backlog of asylum seekers being cleared up, but this was countered by a candid remark from McCarthy, who said the measures were “irrelevant to the impact of existing immigration.” The point that in spite of their policies, Labour were ambivalent in talking about immigration was made by Mattinson, and was greeted with nods of agreement. Ed Miliband, writing in today’s Daily Mirror says voters abandoned Labour because: “We didn’t take seriously enough the impact they felt immigration was having on their wages and livelihoods.” In the speech launching his leadership candidacy today, David Miliband said Labour were “playing catch-up on immigration”…While there are those on the left who will definitely disagree with a harder stance from Labour on immigration, if the discussion at the Fabians is anything to go by, it may be an area Labour will be forced to address.

Here we see basis for an unfortunate accommodation in British Labour. Critics of New Labour will enthuse in campaigns against Tory cuts and Liberal Democrat perfidy, Chris Bertram would be an academic example, whilst keepers of the Blair legacy of being tough about something just for the hell of it will try to compete with the government on immigration tough- mindedness or even demagogically criticise what humanitarian concessions the Liberal Democrats are able to implement.

Hopi Sen is good:

What’s that on the news? Oh yes, it’s the Chancellor of the Exchequer, talking about how the Labour government reduced the economic landscape to rubble with millions out of work and taxes too high, and how the government left every citizen saddled with debt, and that it will take huge efforts and painful cuts to get the country out of the awful mess.  He’s got a liberal deputy with him, nodding, and a respected economist on side. What’s the next item? A Labour leadership candidate talking about how we need to  reconnect with voters. I think the first item might just have an impact on the second. Every successful Labour election campaign has had an economic message at its core. In 1945 it was the importance of planning and nationalisation more fairly to distribute the fruits of the workers’ labour. In 1964 it was the hunger to use new technology and technocratic methods painlessly to modernise the economy. In 1997 we promised that we would run the market economy more fairly without hugely increasing tax. To win the next election, we will need an economic argument strong enough to withstand the onslaught from the government, one which will be reinforced by the Liberal Democrats, much of the media and large portions of the business community. What we’ve seen over the last week is just the start. So: given that the next few years will be dominated by attempts to reduce a deficit for which we will be held responsible, a hugely tight public spending review, unemployment rates that remain persistently high, and growth that will help some but not all, our leadership contenders will need to set out rather more about their economic focus.

The Czech election result suggests that Labour faces an uphill road. Here concern about debt assisted the right to an unexpected victory.

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