John Harris

Journalist & Author

Election results puncture the ‘progressive majority’ myth | John Harris

Easy victories over the Lib Dems have distracted Labour from disaster in Scotland and its failure to challenge Tory dominance

I have never really liked the liberal-left trope of Britain’s “progressive majority”, lately talked up by people campaigning for AV. It’s always given off the whiff of complacency and wishful thinking, and sat very awkwardly with the uncertain mess of grievance, prejudice, optimism and pessimism that actually decides the outcome of elections. Moreover, it rather denies the political and economic geography of the UK, and a model which, give or take the aberrant miracles of 1997, remains immovably in place: a post-industrial, public sector-heavy, essentially social-democratic “north” (Scotland, Wales, the north of England and parts of the Midlands), and a very different “south”, still buoyed by its largely positive experience of the 1980s.

Last night proves that underlying model is as relevant as ever, but what’s fascinating is how much its political expression has changed. Time was, Labour completely dominated that first part of the UK’s electoral map, but its grim fate in Scotland shows what happens when it loses any real sense of purpose, and thinks the key to success is a miserable, fear-driven, hopelessly pessimistic kind of politics. Labour’s more complacent elements will doubtless frame the lessons from the SNP’s victory in purely Scottish terms, but they run much wider than that.

Until recently, the Lib Dems were a party who could hover over both parts of Britain’s electoral map, vaguely styling themselves as a party of the centre-left, but keeping things fuzzy enough to pick up votes from the centre-right. No more: the days when they controlled such cities as Liverpool, Newcastle, Sheffield and Hull will increasingly seem like a distant memory, and the resulting existential blow is absolutely huge.

But fair play to David Cameron: that the Tories’ share of the vote has held up in the face of the cuts and serial government wobbles – not least on the NHS – is some achievement. What so riles the Lib Dems – and, just to make this clear, it’s their own fault – is that the plot of the coalition’s story may well turn out to be something like this: Cameron in Flashman mode, craftily convincing his new friends to journey into the unknown, leaving them mortally wounded, and walking away, cackling, with barely a scratch.

Back to Labour. Seeing off the Lib Dems all over the north will enthuse its activists. It will be thrilled to get a majority in the Welsh assembly (though there, as in Scotland, Labour politics is depressingly workmanlike). If the result from good old Gravesham is anything to go by, there will be just about enough flashes of promise in parts of the south to suggest that the rout that happened there last year may be at least partly reversible.

But in the face of a government programme that is drastic and primary-coloured, these results look equivocal and uncertain, only underlining how far Labour has to go. It is in the nature of our presidential understanding of modern politics to pin everything on leaders – and though Ed Miliband has a lot of thinking to do, Labour’s problems run wide and deep. Among shadow ministers, there is far too little imagination or audacity at work, and an apparent belief that the cuts will do the party’s work for it – as a very good piece about Miliband in this week’s New Statesman puts it, an approach that is “too deliberative, slow to strike out in bold and unorthodox new directions”.

At the grassroots, the apparent ease with which Lib Dems can be dispatched is blinding Labour to the most important challenge: somehow posing any serious threat to the Tories. Hearing the parade of happy Labour high-ups on the news this morning, one thought sprang to mind: I heard similar voices after local elections throughout the 1980s, and look what happened there.

And so to what really bothers me about these elections, and may make life for people on my side of politics very problematic indeed. Just as the fate of the public services has echoes of the 1980s, so too do these results. Now, as then, one pictures the UK’s two tribes, bumping heads for years and years while one lords it over the other. Worse still, Labour now faces a profound problem – if it could always count on Scotland to make up the numbers, that assumption looks to be over. A progressive majority? Really: please stop it.

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