"You need to ally yourself with the future": What Hillary Clinton can learn from Labour's British defeat

Journalist and political analyst Richard Seymour tells Salon what Democrats can learn from Labour's 2015 disaster

Published May 13, 2015 12:00PM (EDT)

  (AP/Susan Walsh)
(AP/Susan Walsh)

The United Kingdom’s 2015 general election is now over, which means the American media can go back to not paying attention to the country that relatively recently claimed dominion over a quarter of the world. But just because we now know that Nick Clegg was a disaster for the Liberal Democrats, that Ed Miliband is cursed with anti-charisma, and that Scotland is still furious over austerity, that doesn’t mean there isn’t much about the results left to parse and interpret. Despite what the pundits may lead you to believe, no election can ever be so easily understood — especially not one that upended expectations to such a degree.

Recently, with hopes to get a more nuanced and in-depth analysis than John Oliver or a quick skim of the BBC can provide, Salon spoke via Skype with Richard Seymour, the leftist journalist and author of “Against Austerity: How We Can Fix the Crisis They Made.” Our conversation, which touched on why the election was such a boon to the right-wing United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and an ill omen for the center-left Labour Party, is below and has been edited for clarity and length.

Was there anything in your Jacobin piece on the election that you didn’t have the room or the time to get into further that you'd like to talk about?

One thing that I would stress and underline in that piece, which I think needs to be developed and hasn’t really come out very strongly in the media’s response is the strong support for UKIP. Now, UKIP only got one seat. If there was a proportional representative system, it would get something like 81 seats. So we have to be realistic about what’s just happened here. The rights, meaning the Conservative Party and UKIP, got a majority of the vote. That doesn’t mean that the Conservatives alone should be allowed to govern in the way that they are, with 36 per cent of the vote. But the right has won this election.

Why did it win the election? Partly because traditional Labour voters stayed at home. But to a large extent, because the Labour party conceded their agenda. Whether it was on cuts or more distinctly on immigration, they conceded all the thematics while contesting the detail. This is classic triangulation. The triangulation strategy with regard to spending, and austerity, we’ll try to match them on spending totals and then challenge them on their priorities. With regard to immigration, it’s yes we’ll admit there’s a problem, we’ll admit that there’s too many immigrants coming in here, but we won’t go along with some of their more unrealistic goals. This just makes them seem like a poor, wishy-washy version of UKIP. Why would you vote for somebody who’s going to be a little bit tough on immigration? If it’s desirable to be tough on immigration, go and vote for the ones who are going to do it properly. I’m afraid that’s what happened in a lot of cases.

Why wasn't Farage's stepping down as UKIP leader accepted?

I think he knew very well that without him at the top, UKIP would start to fall apart very quickly. He’s an extremely effective and talented leader, by far the best leader they’ve ever had, an extremely good advocate. Someone who can go into the media and play this pseudo-adversarial game. What happens is that the media generally prepared the themes. They make people scared of immigration. But then when Farage comes on they play this game of being very adversarial with him, and he maneuvers that very well. He plays the insider-outsider; somebody who can talk the language of the media, but who uses that to communicate the concerns of ordinary, decent, hard-working people and so on. Nobody else in UKIP can do that. The vast majority of senior UKIP members sound crazy because they are.

So let’s go to Labour. What about the idea, which we've heard from Tony Blair and others, that Labour lost because it was too left-wing?

Two major policy plaques of the Labour opposition were austerity, just not as much austerity as the Conservatives, but definitely deep cuts, and secondly, controls on immigration. They even sold a mug with the slogan “Controls on Immigration.” They made controls on immigration one of their top six pledges that they put on the infamous "Ed stone." So this was not a left-wing campaign by any stretch of the imagination. Yes, a number of the policy proposals that Ed Miliband endorsed did strike a populist note ... [and] were to the left of what Blairites would endorse. To that extent, they would consider him as having gone too far to the left ... If your goal is to win over the affluent swing-voter, then you take the Blairite position.

The problem with the Blairite position is, as Ed Miliband himself knew very well, it cost Labour 5 million votes between 1997 and 2010. Actually, most of those votes were lost between 1997 and 2001 in the first term of new Labour being in power. Now, because these votes were concentrated in Labour heartlands where they had mountainous majorities, it was easy not to notice at first. But soon those heartlands were being turned into areas where the Liberal Democrats could take seats from them and now they’re being turned into areas where UKIP might actually mobilize majorities. So this strategy isn’t going to work for them. They cannot become the Tories, they can’t out-Tory the Tories, because they’re not Tories.

What about the idea that Miliband — and Brown before him — are suffering for decisions that were ultimately Blair's?

But Blair is the figurehead of a deeper transformation of the British Labour Party and the British State. The post-Thatcherite consensus, which all the parties gradually gravitated around, first of all the Labour Party totally embraced the basic fundamentalism of Thatcherite so-called free market economy, deregulation, strongest anti-union laws in Europe, all the rest of it. The stuff that Blair actually boasted about, pro-privatization, the Liberal Democrats gradually began to embrace that as well, particularly after they had their so-called Orange Book, which they got rid of their center-left leader, Charles Kennedy and replaced him with Nick Clegg. So we’ve got this profound restructuring of the British political system taking place, and it’s been happening for three, maybe four decades now.

Yes, you can say that Blair radicalized that and was responsible for the most profound changes that took place in setting up this situation. I certainly think we should keep our eyes on that when he offers himself as a solution, but the truth of the matter is that Miliband accepted that post-Thatcherite consensus and so will any future Labour leader. This is the problem that we face. Any likely leader of the Labour Party will accept that consensus and with that they will accept the loss of their core vote. I think that short of some sort of challenge on the left, you’re going to see that drip away to the populist right.

I’m going to play devil’s advocate for a second and ask if those traditional, unengaged Labour voters would even be enough to win an election, in a hypothetical situation in which Labour finds a way to reconnect with them again. Blairites would probably say no; would there be any truth to their position?

That could be very true. It’s impossible to say because you can only test that through practice, you can’t test it in the context of a political strategy. If you think through the strategic situations in which such a goal could be materialized, British society would have to undergo some profound social struggles in order that Labour could adapt and move to the left. To be frank with you, I’m not convinced that Labour Party as presently constituted has the means to attract to it the people who would push it in a new direction. I’m not even suggesting that Labour should embrace some sort of left-wing strategy, because I don’t think that it can. But let’s say in some abstract scenario that somehow it did get a left-wing leadership, that membership moved to the left. Are there things that they could do to assemble a parliamentary majority? Well in this system, yes there are. First of all, part of the problem for Labour has been that their core vote hasn’t been turning out. So to get those people turning out again, and I’m pretty sure that there’s also another layer of people who will vote Labour under any circumstances anyway, whether they agreed with the generally leftist line or not.

On top of that, you’d have to have a leadership that was prepared to get absolutely pilloried in the national press and not bat an eyelid. They’d have to be quite tough about that and they’d have to be quite tough about the fact that they’re representing a working class interest and trying to assemble a majoritarian block, or at least let’s say for electoral purposes, about 40 per cent of the electorate. I don’t think that would be absolutely impossible. It depends on the type of articulation, what kind of policies you were offering. But as the SNP have shown us, there’s a huge ground between what you might call a traditional Benite socialism and the kind of austerian, neoliberal capitalism that Miliband and to a greater extent, the Blairites, are cleaving to. It is possible to articulate a fairly moderate, social-reformist agenda which defends things like free higher education, which defends publicly owned NHS, which is in favor of taxing the rich a little bit more, and so on, and assemble the majority on that basis. The SNP has shown this.

The coverage since the election in the American media has been very focused on questions of whether the UK is going to fall apart and whether it is going to leave the EU. Do you think both of those are in play? And which is more pressing?

The national question is going to be a central concern in the coming years. It’s unavoidable and it’s been building up for some time. Labour’s obsession with Britishness was symptomatic of this. I think the more likely change that will happen is that Scotland will secede, it will become an independent state. I cannot for the life of me imagine that the majority of Scottish people, having backed the SNP, will put up with being ruled by the Conservatives in perpetuity because of what English voters do. So there is that, and I think that polls have tended to show that if there was another referendum, that a slight majority would favor independence now. I think, to be honest, it would be even bigger than a slight majority if that referendum were to happen now. Particularly when we see what’s going to happen in the coming years with the conservatives cutting the welfare state and with the Labour Party moving to the right on all these issues to catch up with them. So I think that’s going to polarize the situation even more on a national basis.

The thing about the European Union is that of course UKIP is at the forefront of campaigning for an exit, but the social forces favoring an exit are principally the middle class, especially lower middle class, small businesses, petty traders, and so on, who want to be able to pay workers a pittance, who don’t like having European oversight, and so on. Big business wants to stay in the European Union and ideally would like to be in the Eurozone. The Labour movement is lead by a bureaucracy that is overwhelmingly pro-European and has been since the end of the Miners’ Strike, that was their big strategic turn. They would rely upon integration with the European Union and support for European Union laws and regulation as a means to protect British workers against the worst of Atlanticist so-called free market capitalism.

So you take those two social forces and the kinds of resources that they can together muster, the campaigning resources, the money, and the techniques that they can bring to bear, the connections that they would have to the state apparatuses and so on. They, I think, would win hands down any referendum on an exit. I don’t think the middle class-led opposition, which is predicated on typical civic activism--leaders to the editor, public meetings, voting, all this sort of stuff--I don’t think that they have enough social clout to win a referendum on exit from the European Union. It will be an issue, as we’re already seeing with things like the Tories trying to repeal the Human Rights Act, but we’re not going to see an exit.

Should UK leftists focus more energy on grass roots and social movements and less on electoral issues, like some in the U.S. are doing by looking to #BlackLivesMatter and the Fight for $15 rather than Hillary Clinton? Or is the situation in the UK totally different?

It’s not totally different, but there are differences. The big difference is that it’s not as crushingly impossible to launch a third party challenge here. The Greens did get over 1 million votes, and if we had a proportional system they would have gotten 25 seats. The SNP is a very well-oiled, alternative party machine. I think we could see a pattern similar to what we’ve seen in the European Union and other European states where a section of social democracy, its left-wing essentially, has broken away and launched a new kind of radical left type of party. We’ve see that in France with the Front de Gauche, we’ve seen it in Germany with Berlinker. In different ways we’ve seen it in the southern European states with the left bloc and so on, even though they come from their own sort of Marxist, Euro-communist, Trotskyist and so on traditions. They drew in a lot of layers from the traditional social democratic parties.

There is that opening. I don’t think we have to exclude an electoral challenge entirely, I think we should think very strongly about that because actually the collapse of social democracy will leave a vacuum, and the vacuum doesn’t have to be filled by the left. It can be filled by the populist right. Or it can be filled by abstention, by people just staying home and not bothering to vote, which means that the poor and the working classes just aren’t represented anymore. In which case, we would become much more like the American system. But that form of activism has to be predicated on and linked to social struggles in exactly the same way that it has been in Greece and Spain. We cannot build anything unless it’s rooted in the kinds of activities that are going on on a day-to-day basis. Britain is not a great place to be if you’re an activist at the moment, because there isn’t usually a huge amount going on. But there are certain areas where you can see opportunities opening up. The more that housing becomes a crisis in the U.K., the more that’s going to become an issue. Finding new ways to organize, which aren’t based on traditional workplace representation, trade unions and so on, will be very important in the years to come. I think finding forms of social activist organization, like social unions, whatever, and articulating them with a national party political structure would be a sensible way forward.

Is there any part of Labour’s experience in this election that you would recommend Hillary Clinton, and Democrats in general, pay attention to for 2016?

Hillary Clinton and the Democrats of course are not my allies, and I don’t want to help them. But I think that just from a purely cynical and pragmatic point of view, I think that Hillary Clinton is a very sharp operator, she knows what she’s doing, she’s done the right thing in trying to capitalize on #BlackLivesMatter and on the changes in culture with regard to abortion, gay rights, and so on. Because we are seeing a social demographic shift that’s taking place in America, it’s taking place in Europe, it’s taking place in Latin America, with its different temporalities and different momentums. But wherever you look at new leftist movements coming to power, you see that it’s linked to a younger generation that is more socially liberal. It’s not always leftist in economic terms, but it can be won to leftist economic positions.

I think one of the things that neoliberal capitalism has done has been not by design but by the dint of its processes has been to, one, homogenize societies in a way that makes traditional forms of hierarchy less impressive and less easy to sustain, and two, to politicize aspects of day-to-day life which have to do with the social reproduction, women’s rights, maternity pay, and sexuality even. That has happened gradually but it’s reached a point where there’s a generation of people who won’t have things the way they used to be. So if you’re an opportunistic, Democratic Party politician, it doesn’t do anymore to take an equivocating position on abortion, leave it to states, or to take a conservative position on gays and hope that you don’t get punished by conservative Southerners and so on. You need to ally yourself with the future. This is the problem that we’ve faced in Britain. The Labour party under Miliband wanted to pin its hopes to a backward-looking concern with a very conservative, white working class, which is almost a fiction, which believes in faith, flag, and the family. That’s not the future.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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