Anybody who says they saw this coming is lying. On May 7, Britain went to the polls confidently expecting some kind of coalition government. The next morning, David Cameron stood outside 10 Downing Street basking in a Conservative majority. Though Ed Miliband actually increased Labour’s share of the vote in England from the 2010 election, it wasn’t nearly enough to make up for the devastation in Scotland, where the party lost 40 seats to the Scottish National Party (SNP), which also picked up 10 seats from the Liberal Democrats. Provided they don’t destroy themselves in the referendum—promised by 2017—on whether Britain should leave the European Union, the Tories will be in power until at least 2020. If a week is a long time in politics, five years is an eternity—easily enough time to privatize the National Health Service, withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, and cut the BBC down to size.
How did this happen? The orgy of recrimination becomes more grotesque every day, with David Miliband only the latest freshly exhumed Blairite to join the pileup. So let me begin by saying that although brother Ed was far from a natural campaigner (and the Tory press ruthlessly underlined his every awkward gesture), Labour’s defeat did not stem from any of the candidate’s personal failings. Indeed, in the past few weeks the conventional wisdom held that the Tories had fatally underestimated Miliband’s quirky charm.
There are, however, a few factors that, taken together, account for much of Labour’s difficulty, not just in this election but going forward.
§ Globalization has hollowed out the British working class. Thirty years after Margaret Thatcher broke the miners’ strike, Labour still has not come to terms with the loss of the industrial unions that founded the party and remained its base. Under Tony Blair, Labour offered a neoliberal vision of a consumer paradise built on household debt, but the global financial crisis put an end to all that, and Miliband never came up with a convincing alternative.