Knocking on doors only gets us so far without something to offer people when the doors open

11th October, 2014 8:00 am


According to the liveblog on this site, yesterday’s by-election in Heywood & Middleton featured not only a second-place scare from UKIP, but a turnout of 36.02%. We’re used to by-election apathy – just 18% of the electorate voted in Manchester Central in 2012 – but now our Northern Labour safe seats are apathetic and voting UKIP. To paraphrase Chandler Bing, God we miss when they were just apathetic.

Disengagement is a problem that comes up approximately every day – and I do count the rise of UKIP as a form of disengagement; Suzanne Moore recently characterised UKIP as ‘the “I don’t know anything about politics but I know what I don’t like” party’, of which I suspect at least the second half is true – but for me it’s been thrown into particularly sharp relief by the fact that I’ve seen two films about the miners’ strike this week. I have to admit this is two more than usual.

I finally got around to watching Pride (I know, I know, it’s a mystery to me as well how I managed to put it off for so long, but rest assured I shall have ‘Every woman is a lesbian at heart’ to the tune of ‘Solidarity Forever’ stuck in my head for weeks to come), and was also lucky enough to catch Still The Enemy Within, a moving and insightful documentary on the strike told by the strikers and their supporters themselves.

Early on in the doc, I was struck by something one of the former miners said: that politics, back then, wasn’t an abstract concept but a part of people’s lives. The example he gave was that if a miner was mistreated at work, everybody walked out. Politics was about solidarity.

It made me think about how far we can trace the current trends of apathy back to the widespread Thatcherite destructiveness of the 1980s. Without going too far into the implications for society of the decline in trade union membership and influence – that’s a much longer article, and Owen Jones has already written it enough times – it’s a sad sign of the times that Cameron feels able to state, as he recently did, the jaw-dropping absurdity that ‘We in this party are a trade union too’, without being deafened by the sound of 64 million people laughing until they cry.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that for people who are struggling the most in this country right now, the battles are the same as they were in the 80s. Just as they did then, the Tories use an economic smokescreen to attack those who don’t fit in with their worldview. Thatcher used the welfare system to starve the striking miners back to work – this lot think they can do the same to lone parents and sick and disabled people. They accuse us of class war while they do it. If it wasn’t all retro enough, they’re even trying to bring back fox hunting, for Christ’s sake.

The battles might be familiar, but the fight is a thousand times harder when those fighting to survive despite this government’s best attempts feel like no-one is on their side. Labour’s narrow victory in Heywood & Middleton yesterday is a credit to Liz McInnes, Jim Dobbin’s legacy and the hard work of our activists. But knocking on doors only gets us so far without something to offer people when the doors open.

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  • robertcp

    I accept many of the criticisms of the Labour leadership but it is difficult to put forward left-wing policies when there is an annual deficit of £100 billion. The last five years would have been very difficult even if Labour had been in power, although the Tories do seem to be enjoying the cuts too much.

    • Tom Sanders

      Alright until the enjoyment bit. Borrowing targets missed, deficit barely dented. On the macro scale, what cuts? Of course there are individual stories but surely there must be worse coming. None of the parties care to say, naturally.

      • robertcp

        It is worrying that the deficit is still more than £1 billion. Osborne thinking that austerity would boost the economy did not help in the early years of this government. Lib Dems like Clegg and Laws might also have believed that rubbish.

        • Leon Wolfeson

          “It is worrying that the deficit is still more than £1 billion.”

          Why? What are the macroeconomic effects? The paper showing 1% long-term growth loss has been thoroughly debunked.

          • robertcp

            Of course, that should be £100 billion. A personal view is that we should try to reduce the deficit to about £20-30 billion. A lot of clever people think that it does not matter but a lot of clever people worked for the banks….

          • Leon Wolfeson

            The only actual considerations which is really relevant is the inflation rate, when it comes to financing debt (Even the cost of finance can be subsumed into that, although I note Ireland’s borrowing rates are now lower than ours).

            So why is the particular figure a concern at this point in time? We have a fiat currency, under the UK’s control, we’re not in the position the Euro members are.

          • robertcp

            The USA has just got its deficit back to 2.8% of GDP, which is the usual percentage. Getting the UK’s deficit back to a similar level should also be an aim for the UK. This should, however, be done gradually without damaging the economy.

          • Leon Wolfeson

            Well, you did switch from debt to deficit there.

            I agree on that point, though

    • Daniel Speight

      And yet Robert just over a year ago Labour shadow cabinet members were able to talk about borrowing to invest in infrastructure. In fact there was a welcome slightly Keynesian tint to much of what was being said which did differentiate Labour from the two coalition parties. For whatever reason, and I suspect it was fear of the Tory press, that went out the window. Alexander was given the job of election strategy and it looks like a very Progress influenced ‘limited offer’ will be laid in front of the electorate.

      Of course the reasons for the recession can be placed, at least partly, at the door of the Blair/Brown governments, but it wasn’t the deficit that caused it, it was the light touch regulation of the City which had been part of the Westminster consensus as Blair and Brown accepted the Thatcher/Friedman doctrine.

      So Robert, if we replace your derogative term ‘left-wing’ with ‘social democrat’, it wouldn’t be difficult at all to offer these policies to the electorate. All it needs is for the Labour leadership to fall out of love with the economic theories that caused the problem to begin with. Have they the courage to do that? It looks unlikely.

      Still panic seems to have set in. I had emails over the last two days, first from Harman and then from Miliband. Having never had one from either before, maybe there is a bit of soul-searching going on.

      • seeker

        Absolutely! But the trouble is to believe that “social-democratic” or to use laymen’s terms, policies aimed more at society’s less well off driven by a sense of justice and fairness can and will sell and economically in no worse position. By way of example, Tory proposed tax cuts including increasing personal allowance will benefit some working poor, but the super rich will get triple whammy – benefit from increased personal allowance, increasing 40% rate threshold and and of course the lowering of highest band rate and it will costs tax payers about 7.5bn. Therefore, even on Tory’s terms, 7.5bn could have been spent on well fare, education and health instead of the tax cut.

        but the problem is for Labour front benchers to get these points, they need to have convictions which should also be built on some experience of ordinary people’s struggles. Claiming to know the suffering of low earners when your only experience may be seeing your parents 3 or 4 decades ago struggle, or some distanced relatives to experience whilst you have enjoyed sleek and fast tracked career not good enough to assist in building strong enough convictions.

        • Leon Wolfeson

          Indeed, I’ve seen far too much little mention of the fact that the tax threshold rates benefit mostly the middle class, and are increasingly doing nothing for the poorest.

          (Moreover, given the proposals to merge income tax and NI, millions could be left without pensions and JSA eligability)

      • reformist lickspittle

        Balls junking our “borrow to invest” line – which gave genuine hope a Labour government elected next year would be palpably different from this coalition, despite the inevitable short-term compromises that will have to be made – together with his truly wretched speech at conference (what kind of “too clever by half” idiot makes the CENTREPIECE of a Labour set piece cutting back on child benefit FFS?) did Labour geniune harm at H&M, I have not the slightest doubt.

        Without being able to offer genuine hope Labour would make a difference, we had too fall back on generic Tory-bashing plus a recourse to our NHS comfort blanket (which had limited resonance locally, unfortunately) This left us all the more vulnerable to UKIP raids on our “vote banks” – not just the predictable dodgy stuff on race and immigration (and much of the media has omitted to report the highly salient fact that the institution where much of the child abuse occurred was actually in Heywood) but shamelessly opportunistic – but highly effective – attempts to outflank Labour from the left. And the joyful Balls embrace of crushing, eternal austerity meant that we were unable to effectively combat them.

        Like you, I hope that this may yet prove an effective wake-up call. Good may yet come from it, fingers crossed…..

        • Leon Wolfeson

          Raids? Where’s the evidence. Again, the polling tabs do not show anything of the sort.

          Given the low turnouts in the byelections, there in fact did not need to to be a single person moving to a further-right party. All that needed to happen was the right turning out in reasonable numbers, while the left sat at home.

        • robertcp

          I agree that Balls is becoming a liability.

      • robertcp

        I share your preference for social democratic Keynesianism and agree about the cause of the deficit.

    • That £100 billion goes into the economy. So why doesn’t it come back in the form of taxation like most of the money which is issued into the economy by government?

      The answer is because it is saved. Either by companies and individuals domestically, or by the central banks of the big exporting countries. If it wasn’t being saved, it would, by definition, be spent and would rapidly dwindle as taxes were imposed at every stage. Income tax, VAT, National Insurance, Capital gains tax etc etc.

      So, to a large extent, the size of the deficit is outside of a government’s control. Cutting spending and raising taxes only reduces it, insofar as it makes people poorer. If the economy is sufficiently depressed, people lose their jobs, those with jobs have lower wages, and they simply become too poor to either save or afford to buy imported goods.

      Just like we see happen in the EZ.

      • Leon Wolfeson

        Indeed, and there are automatic stabilisers in economies to deal with that…a social security net which pays out more in bad times, to cushion things and turn it around.

        What’s this, limiting them below inflation (RPI, too, not CPI), and now a hard 3-year cap which will be used to reduce them considerably?

        …Labour’s signed onto the limits, the spending plans and the caps. They’re signed onto not allowing automatic stabilisers to work, but rather to let things spiral out of control.

        A not considerably number of *right* wing economists in Europe are aghast.

      • robertcp

        I tend to agree but some of the electorate will be less easy to persuade.

    • Dan

      That gets to the heart of the matter. What does Labour think is more important, cutting the deficit or tackling the inequality that’s devastating the lives of so many? If the answer is the former, then you wonder why they’re bothering to fight the election at all.

      • Leon Wolfeson

        They’re linked. If poverty is reduced, and people can spend, then the deficit is going to be tackled far more quickly.

      • robertcp

        The difficulty will be cutting the deficit and tackling inequality, although this should not be impossible for the reasons given by Leon below.

    • Leon Wolfeson

      Complete and utter nonsense.

      There was a massive deficit in 1945.

      • robertcp

        I agree that there is a lot of hysteria about the deficit but it does need to be reduced. I also agree that policies to help people on low incomes should not contradict that aim.

      • robertcp

        You might be confusing the deficit with the National Debt, which was a massive percentage of the economy until the mid 1970s. Small deficits, growth and inflation meant that the National Debt steadily fell as a proportion of the economy during the post-war era. The only time that National Debt has risen significantly as a percentage of the economy since 1900 has been the two world wars and since the financial crisis.

        • Leon Wolfeson

          I specified 1945 – the end of WW2. Churchhill’s message was basically that it’d have to keep running to pay down the debt, that the sacrifices were not yet over.

  • seeker

    Not sure what this piece actually seeks to achieve other than stating the obvious – disengagement and voter apathy. And the comment above also shows the trouble with those unable or willing or both to engage with the question of disengagement.

    The issue of voter apathy is more than just “left wing” fiscal policy whether its higher tax or generous welfare state. Disengagement is about us allowing a generation of people who feel disempowered and disregarded by the “more articulate” “more well connected” public school educated elites. And this should be understood not in literal terms but in broader socio-economic context – our politics is dominated by people who can afford to make politics and lifestyle choice without having to worry about where their next meal will come from. They are thus busy appeasing media and vested interest groups, desperate to look “sleek” and “professional” and this is true of all main parties.

    What is the answer? Well I am no one to offer one nor is a comment on a blog is appropriate place to seek to find some answers. But here are the drivers that should lead us to a solution:-
    1. We need to demonstrate, Labour movement more than anyone else, that everyone matters, their voice matters and that their socio-economic standing is no barrier to them being valued. This means the movement must commit energy and resource to building a programme that active reaches out to under-represented communities and brings the best to be visible;
    2. Redefine our vision of politics – to assume power of course, but not by appeasing people’s fears but instead instilling a sense of values of fairness, justice and equality and winning people on their fears if those values prevail their fears will be addressed;
    3. Soulsearching on our political activism – door to door, leaflet distribution etc has its place, but its a boring and uninspiring way of doing politics. If door knocking is the beginning of process of relation building for a longer term, then lets be it, but if door knocking is a ritual which it has become for too many, that we need to rethink. We also need to find a way of people who do not have time to door knock and no enthusiastic to also feel empowered to contribute to shaping our policies and that will mean creating more open forums that are not controlled and manipulated by wanna be career politicians carving out their future in politics.

  • David Lewis

    Blair has gone and now look at the response from the electorate.

    Just like old times.

    • Doug Smith

      Not quite.

      The electorate is abandoning the Tories even quicker than it’s abandoning the Labour Party.

      • reformist lickspittle

        The “best” thing about the H&M result is that is has given Tories an excuse to remain in total denial about their OWN prospects.

        They genuinely seem to believe that incanting “Ed Miliband” every 30 seconds will be enough to secure them victory next year.

        They are wrong.

        • David Lewis

          Cameron for all his sins, will win the forthcoming general election with a small but clear majority.

          • reformist lickspittle

            The fact that so many like you are convinced this will happen regardless, by some process of alchemy, is one of the biggest single reasons why it won’t.

            The lack of genuine Tory self-examination on their wretched results this week has been truly astonishing – and is one way where they compare very poorly with Labour.

          • David Lewis

            Have you lost the ability to count?

          • Leon Wolfeson

            I’m pretty convinced he’s talking vote rigging, myself.

            (Of course, he’s a blowhard, but…)

      • David Lewis

        No according to the polls.

        • Doug Smith

          According the poll at Heywood and Middleton the Tories were 14.9% down, Labour + .8%. And at Clacton: Tories 28.4% down, Labour 13.8% down.

          • David Lewis

            No. The story is in what Labour expected and what they got.

      • Leon Wolfeson

        We’ll see.

    • Leon Wolfeson

      Labour, 1997 – 13,518,167 votes, 43.2%
      Labour, 2010 – 8,601,441 votes, 29.1%

      That’s your success right there. No, Labour’s problem is and always has been it is bleeding voters moving right.

  • Northerner

    Obsessions with that futile strike and Thatcherism do Labour no good at all.

  • The Wiganer

    I’m young. This Thatcher woman was obviously beastly. I assume she was resoundingly voted out of power after the miner’s strike. Or could it be that most of the country were sick of being held to ransom by the brothers?

    Oddly, all the pits where I live (and there were lots of them) were shut down before Thatcher was elected, many of them by Labour. How did she manage that trick?

    • Dave Postles

      You have to understand your past before you can approach the future.

    • Leon Wolfeson


      Hmm. So you think all miners are one family?

      • The Wiganer

        Er, Trade Unionists used to refer to themselves as ‘brothers and sisters’. During the miner’s strike they held collections around my way ‘for the brothers’.

        • Leon Wolfeson

          Oh look, I appear to be rolling my eyes.

          • treborc1

            In laughter.

    • treborc1

      God a Tory from the north how rare.

  • Tokyo Nambu

    The miner’s strike was more than thirty years ago.

    I don’t think people realise how long thirty years is. Thirty years gets you from Sergeant Pepper to Blair in Number 10. Thirty years gets you from the Somme to the foundation of the NHS by the 1945 Labour government. Thirty years gets you from the moon landings to 9/11. These are multi-generational periods.

    That the Labour Party can’t talk about anything without drawing parallels, analogies or instructive little homilies from the past — a past which, to guess from her biography, pre-dates the writer even being born, is pathetic. It makes it into a re-enactment society, constantly trying to re-fight the battles of the past with a different outcome.

    Political parties do not get elected by constantly harping on about the past. They need to present a future.

    • jaime taurosangastre candelas

      Your second paragraph is quite brilliant.

      Your subsequent paragraphs are good as well.

    • Leon Wolfeson

      It’s a discussion blog article.

    • Mandy Hall

      “You inherit the past and build a future”

  • jaime taurosangastre candelas

    While I am now 49, I did not come to the UK until I was 31. I missed out on the Thatcher years, so your references leave me unmoved. Was she a witch? It is too long ago for me to care: she is dead now and I only think of the future.

    For the future, I believe that there will be a succession of both Labour and Tory governments, but neither flavour will actually govern in the people’s best interests. Both have their narrow sectarian view.

    • Guest

      There’s also the slight issue of how much you disagree with her.

  • DRbilderburg

    People voted for the Libdems in 2010 in great numbers for numerous reasons, among them, they were not Labour or the Tories. ATBF they were a credible threat to Labour at that time, but they turned out to be little more than political prostitutes the same as the other 2
    The way New Labour the Tories and Libdeads went after the SNP spoke volumes about New Labour. Happy as Larry to be pimped out by the Tories, didn’t New Labour enjoy it,bouyed up by favourable coverage in the right wing press. Why you could have mistaken the great establishment victory, for a New Labour party winning an Election. Celebrating long into the night ,for what..New Labour’s share of the vote plummeted. You will get destroyed in Scotland come 2015, but hey you can boast how you kept the union together
    UKIP scare the life out of the presstitute 3 Notice when push comes to shove the so called big 3 act as one Trying to out Tory the Tories seems to be New Labour’s mantra
    However don’t despair. UKIP will hand New Labour the General Election in 2015, but it will be a phony victory, and a Tory manifesto New Labour haven’t the nads to do anything else

  • Leon Wolfeson

    “but now our Northern Labour safe seats are apathetic and voting UKIP.”

    Much of the right in those areas is coming out to vote, yes, while the left are staying at home. You’re right you need to offer people things, but so far there’s been so little.


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