Labour, have suffered their worst defeat for over twenty years. Now they seem intent on learning all the wrong lessons from it.
On the right, many believe the reason Labour’s lost is because it had an agenda that was far too left wing. This argument is summed up by Tony Blair who claimed last year that when “a traditional left-wing party competes with a traditional right-wing party, [you get] the traditional result”.
Yet to describe Ed Miliband’s Labour party as “traditionally left-wing” is a gross parody of the truth. After all, this was a party which claimed to be tougher than the Tories on welfare and which chiselled plans to restrict immigration into an eight foot obelisk. More importantly it was, as Miliband repeatedly boasted, the only Labour party to ever go into an election promising to slash spending. Unlike Blair himself, who devoted his three successful election campaigns to opposing Tory cuts, Miliband and Ed Balls largely accepted the need for cuts and only differed with the Tories on the speed and scale. In fact if anything it was the Tories who looked like the high-spending lefties during their election campaign with their unfunded commitments to increase NHS spending by £8 billion. A promise Miliband refused to match.
09/05/2015 Whitehall City Thousand Anti-Austerity protest at least 17 people arrested by the Police in London
And yet those on the left who claim that Labour were not left-wing enough have also got it wrong. On issues like tax-avoidance, privatisation of utilities and media ownership, Labour did actually offer a broadly left-wing platform. It was also a platform which was broadly in line with the British public. Like the public, Labour accepted the need for deficit reduction, but thought it should be done more fairly. Like the public, Labour opposed the super-rich who avoid tax, but also opposed those who abuse the welfare system. Like the public, Labour accepted the need for immigration, but thought it was undercutting people’s wages. Left or right-wingers may suppory this platform or not, but it is broadly where the public are.
Because the truth is that Labour did not lose the election because of their policies, but because they failed to convince the public they were the people who could be trusted to implement them
Any government which presides over a recession the size of the last one is going to suffer. However unpopular the coalition government’s individual cuts may have been, polls consistently showed that most voters continued to blame the previous Labour government for them. The argument that the Tories were “clearing up Labour’s mess” was believed because it was so believable. Whatever the international causes of the banking crash, the undeniable truth is that when Labour left office the British economy and government finances were in an almighty state. It is this basic fact, combined with a collapse in support for the Liberal Democrats which laid the ground for the narrow majority Tory government we see today.
Yet to claim that this was the only reason the Tories won is both too simplistic and too generous to Labour. Labour’s defeat may have been born in 2008, but it was raised and educated in the intervening years.
Ed Miliband’s leadership was undeniably a disaster for the party. In the hours that followed yesterday’s results, Labour people and commentators queued up to say that Miiband had “fought a good campaign” with some even suggesting that he had won it. Quite how the loss of so many English target seats and almost all of Scotland could be evidence of “a good campaign” is beyond me. However, Miliband’s real failures began long before the campaign began.
I have to admit, that I like the Labour leader. On the few occasions I’ve met him he came across as a decent and likeable man who was in politics for the right reasons. The caricatures of him as an awkward, weak, but somehow still dangerous communist radical zealot, were gross distortions of the truth. He is a decent man who did his best, but failed.
The truth is that he was never convincing as a leader of either his party or his country. Watching him at prime minister’s questions every week was always a vaguely disappointing experience. Occasionally he had a reasonable showing against David Cameron, but it was never much more than that. Even during his best moments, he appeared like an overexcited child bouncing up and down in his seat, before desperately trying to act tough in front of a mirror. He had his occasional points victories, but never once did he leave a real mark on either Cameron or the Tories.
In order to judge how a party feels about their leader, you only need to watch them closely from the gallery during PMQs. The Tories have never really been in love with their leader but they always back him loudly and enthusiastically every Wednesday. Labour by contrast, have shown all the enthusiasm for Miliband as a condemned man shows for his executioner. Their warmth towards him veered from imperceptibly tepid to downright chilly and yet never once did he face a serious challenge from his colleagues. It was almost as if in their hearts they knew the huge difficulties any Labour leader would face in this election and decided “there but for the grace of God go I”.
To simply place Labour’s defeat at Miliband’s door is far too simplistic. The root of Labour’s defeat lies in years and decades of complacency. For too long Labour treated groups of people and even entire nations as somehow owing them their vote. This can be seen most clearly in Labour’s collapse in Scotland, but it is also seen in their tribally abusive treatment of any voters who dare to desert them for other parties. The amount of Labour supporters on social media over the past day attacking the public for not voting for them suggests this isn’t an attitude that is going to go away very quickly.
In an increasingly fragmented electorate, no group of voters can ever be relied upon to back your party no matter what. In order to secure their vote you need to actually offer them something concrete which will benefit their lives. The Tories understand this which is why they targeted their campaign so relentlessly towards homeowners, young professionals and the elderly. By contrast Labour’s message was vague, unpersuasive and scattergun. When Labour promised voters that they would scrap the non-dom tax break, most people said they would support it. But saying you’re going to increase somebody else’s taxes is not a good reason in itself to win their vote. Similarly, most people may agree with the mansion tax in principle, but saying you’re going to make someone they’ve never met, pay a bit more for a house they’ve never even seen, is not really a compelling reason for them to get to the polls.
Voters in the end need something solid to get behind. For Conservative sympathisers the choice was always clear: would they back the party who promised to clear up the mess and cut their taxes, or the party who caused the mess and wanted to raise their taxes.
The choice for Labour sympathisers was never anywhere near as clear: a fact which was summed up so perfectly by Miliband’s ludicrously vague Ed-stone. Somewhere in Britain there may be a Labour voter who is enthused by the promise of “ a strong economic foundation” and “an NHS with the time to care”, but there clearly weren’t enough of them to get Miliband into Downing Street.
In order to win again, Labour must first grasp the reasons why they have lost. So far it seems they haven’t even begun to look for them