Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Campaign for a Labour majority

When Labour loses power it does worse in the following general election. Think 1955, 1983. Even in 1974 when we returned to power after one term, we did so on a lower share of the vote than we lost with in 1970. Even when we create new political institutions, we follow suit: sadly this is a trend the Scottish Labour party repeated in 2011.

For all those of us who worked tirelessly for a Labour government in the days, weeks and months that preceded Thursday’s dire result, it is a sickening blow that we ended up with fewer members of parliament than Gordon Brown bestowed his successor in 2010. While there were some good-news stories of the night, these were dwarfed by the loss we feel for candidates who outdid themselves but fell short through no fault of their own.

The sad reality for those assessing the result lies in a simple problem in winning elections: we were not even aiming to get more votes than our opponents. Not the candidates, but the leadership. Not just Ed Miliband himself, but his team too.

The now-infamous ‘35 per cent strategy’ – which was based on the 2010 vote plus a third of the 2010 Liberal Democrat vote coming to Labour – failed those candidates. Had we even achieved it, it would have nevertheless left us far short of the 38 per cent the Tories achieved. Worse still, we did not even come close to this insufficient target and gained just 1.4 per cent nationally.

In addition – and well before the scale of defeat in Scotland looked anything near what it became – the party slashed the 106 target seat list to just 61. Labour needed 67 gains to form a majority Labour government. When the scale of problem in Scotland became apparent, target seats in England and Wales lost money, staff and resources to plug the gap.

Normally parties aim to win a third more than they need to gain victory. Simply put, you never expect to win all your targets. David Cameron needed 23 gains to govern alone; the Conservatives targeted 40 (as part of the 40/40 strategy) for gains, and they surpassed expectations. While some on the target list are only really there to keep your opponents distracted and out of the real winnables, others give you latitude and room for manoeuvre.

When the public – and their conduits in the media – catch on to the fact that you are not even aiming to win a majority it is not surprising that the campaign becomes about who you might look to share power with. The more shadow spokespeople protest that it is wrong for their interviewer to ‘jump the gun’ the more both sides know it is unlikely that you will gain the votes of those you are not even asking for support from.

Again this was not even the fault of candidates – or the party staff given this impossible task to implement – who each went above and beyond. They went door to door. They were given plenty to say if you were hard done to by the Tories – abolish the bedroom tax, increase the minimum wage, end zero-hours contracts – and plenty to say if you hate the Tories – student fees, Rupert Murdoch, party of the rich – but nothing if your family was doing well but could have been doing better. Or if you thought the Tories were bad, even wrong, but not poorly motivated. We offered reductions in heating bills, saving you hundreds of pounds, but had nothing to say if interest rates went up, costing you thousands of pounds on your mortgage.

Never again should Labour go into an election with its ambitions set so low. The defeat is real and profound for those of us who wish to see a centre-left government returned to office. We must therefore not simply rush into a fresh leadership election with a short process designed to bounce the party into choosing a frontrunner candidate. Instead we should stop and learn the lessons.

Harriet Harman has been an able deputy leader and can more than competently continue as acting leader while a debate takes place. The Tories’ first acts will be to gerrymander the system against us. Harman is more than able to knock them back and expose their motives.

In the debate that follows three things should be remembered:

One, Labour should aim for a majority and build a coalition with the voters in the country, not rely on a coalition deal with other parties in parliament. It was not just the idea of sharing power with the Scottish Nationalist party that the public feared; the fact that we left the idea of powersharing at all on the table made us look weak and incomplete.

Two, Labour as a mix of those who hate the Tories and are hard done to by the Tories is a necessary but insufficient group to win power. Labour must ask those who are not appalled by Tories but might object to Tory policies to join our cause. Equally, those who are succeeding under a Tory government can choose to vote Labour.

Finally, the last government – the Tory bit in particular – was as bad as all said it was and still we did not beat them. It was not because we were ‘not left enough’ or ‘austerity-lite’ but ultimately because we lacked ambition for ourselves, our potential voters and our country. This cannot happen again.


Richard Angell is director of Progress

Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.

It takes time, commitment and money to build a fight against the forces of conservatism. If you value the work Progress does, please support us by becoming a member, subscriber or donating.

Our work depends on you.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Richard Angell

is director of Progress


  • “Equally, those who are succeeding under a Tory government can choose to vote Labour.”

    Of course!

    Ukip’s Douglas Carswell said today that the Tories are too corporatist for him and that our system was too much in cahoots with corporate capitalism and that supporting radical popular capitalism was what Ukip ought to do. He sad that corporatist system we have in this country has given capitalism a bad name.

    That is also where we need to be: with David vs Goliath, supporting smaller companies to compete with the big guys: Cadbury Schweppes vs “predator” Kraft. We should support the idea of a nation of small shop-keepers and find more and more entrepreneurial roles we can champion.


  • A large proportion of politics is managerial. Most of the great ideological battles have been won or lost. The electorate didn’t seem to trust Labour’s managerial skills, so whatever they thought of its compassion and sincerity, they voted a safe pair of hands. And they always will..

  • It simply isn’t true that we lacked policies for the middle classes and aspirational. We were done in by a Lynton Crosby strategy aimed at our weaknesses. These were our inability or unwillingness to defend the good things we did in government and Gordon Brown’s refusal defend his record.. We allowed the tories to establish a myth about our economic incompetence which no one challenged until it was too late
    We also suffered because of a Scottish and English nationalist pincer movement that scared voters and the tories shot our fox on the nhs by promising £8 bn which we were too timid to match. So it was not our policies that were wrong. They were a classic social democratic agenda. It was that we failed to anticipate the tory attack and we failed to articulate a robust rebuttal and alternative vision.
    Mike Jackson, Watford

  • I think we will find that most of Ukip’s votes were taken from us, and few from the Tories. Without Ukip, it would have been quite a different outcome in England. In Scotland, the independence voters would have gone to the SNP, and the SNP would also get a share of the remaining votes which would then be split amongst all the parties.

    However, some of our supporters are stuck in the past and we need to have the relevant conversations to enlighten them: a fellow canvasser, a union man, was convinced that the state could do most things better than private companies. Where is that going to leave the aspirational?

    What we need to do is to find Labour ways to release the creativity of ordinary British people and support them in their work. After all, we are their natural allies when they are up against corporate capitalism. Creativity is one of our strong points, and one which we need to use to provide good reasons for voters to prefer us.

  • Look at events through a different lens, there was no magical Blairite formula. All this talk about re-occupying the centre is metro-centric twaddle. Blair won his first two elections comfortably because the Tories had become toxic by 1997. Tory in-fighting contributed largely to wins number 2 and 3.
    The seeds of the 2015 defeat were sown as early as 2002 with the Iraq war hangover and the Brown/Blair dispute that the Party was no longer able to conceal. Labour was losing Scotland long before the sesimic shift to SNP in the Holyrood elections of 2007, 2011 and last year’s referendum campaign.

    The Blair years merely delayed recognition that there is no room for two centre left parties in the UK and plenty of room for a mainstream socialist party; a party that would take 20% of the vote and would be able to win incremental and irreversible progress for working people under a PR system.

    What started as a great movement, turned into a business and has finally degenerated into a racket, to quote Hoffer. The Labour Party in its current form is finished, no longer fit for the purpose it was designed to do. To Progress I would say take your entryist faction and join with your natural allies, the LibDems, pass the Labour Party baton to those who remember why we were formed and what we are supposed to be doing.

  • I agree with much of what Richard says. We were very reactionary, but not visionary. For instance we opposed zero hours contracts, rightly so, but didn’t articulate a vision for the self employed and how we would help them. We said we’d build 200,000 homes a year and the need for affordable housing, but we didn’t wrap that up in a progressive vision of garden cities and land value capture or similar. Same on health, abolish Tory reforms what was our new vision? May be there was stuff here, but I didn’t pick it up, but if I didn’t understand it and I was interested, what chance did the rest of the British public have?

    The shame is that we did start with a framework – the one nation stuff – and it was just starting to get some traction and then it seemed to be dropped. Instead it seemed we would be doing the same stuff as the coalition but in a fairer and better way. That wasn’t that an exciting sell.

    To win over that third constituency of voters, those who neither hate or aren’t doing that badly under the Tories, then we need some vision of a better Britain and that does mean appealing to aspiration. When we fail to do that, as someone suggested, we end up with the traditional result.

  • Dave

    It’s true the Tories were toxic, but I think Blair won because he had a realistic vision, was persuasive and offered hope to the majority – who are in the centre.

    Like you, as you stated in an earlier post, we are all hoping to find some answers here. I think some answers are in market mechanisms that work for ordinary people. Some of them will be unacceptable to the Tories and that will give us an edge.

    One thing we are stuck with is people’s instinct to keep their wealth to themselves, but they do have noble instincts too. Maybe, as Chuka Umunna said in yesterday’s Observer, we should be using co-operative and mutual principals: shared work, shared risk and shared benefit. As engineers, we need to imagine how it could work better. We need to be creative and discover those wealth distributing market mechanisms.

    If successful, through equality of opportunity, our party can help the disadvantaged do well for themselves. Their subsequent success and the money they make from it is not the issue. The issue is, how do we take the minimum from them and use that to enable others to do the same?

    Does a ‘mainstream socialist party’ only fight for the disadvantaged, or do we also work to keep those aspirational people on-side and prepared to share their success? Besides, those aspirational people also need our support in their dealings with unfair capitalist practices.

  • I love your response, it is optimism personified, it certainly doesn’t read as if it is four days since the biggest defeat since 1979 !

    To answer your question. then yes, a mainstream socialist party – let’s call it Labour – should only fight for the disadvantaged and as such, it will never be in power alone, only as part of a coalition with a “Social Democratic party”; and only having fought elections under a PR system.

    And PR is coming, we will have it in ten years, when 1.5 million votes produces 56 SNP MPs you can expect a backlash.

    Labour has garnered a portion of the “aspirational class” vote since 1997 but the people it was set up to represent 100 years ago need better representation now as much as any time in the last 50 years. They don’t vote, they have given up on Labour. If just one million of the missing 13 million could be persuaded to vote Labour, the effect would be the same as trying to keep wealthy people onside.

    The band of potential leaders under consideration are tainted. A return to “New Labour” guarantees another ten years of oppression of those least able to fight back. Progress should be honest with itself, your people share more of your values with the LibDems than with most of the people who deliver your leaflets and display your posters. Let’s formalise the split that the Party has covered up for the last fifty years, people’ s lives are being wasted while we dance around our respective handbags. I am repeating myself, but that was my main point.

  • When Labour came to power in 97, as a governor I saw massive improvements in our school, which serves mainly working-class kids – some now have apprenticeships. There was also a noticeable increase in car ownership and, knocking on doors years later you can see improvements in people’s property. So Labour has worked for them.

    Of the dozen or so canvassers on one particular night there were at five ex-teachers, one businessman, and about five others from union backgrounds: i.e. working people of median incomes striving for the benefit of others.

    The disadvantaged can only get a fair break if they get the help of those mentioned above – and all those other middle income people we need to keep onside, so that they are prepared to give a bit more.

    I have been a member for 40 years, so I remember 50 years ago. As a lad, until 12, we lived in a slum with gas lights and I went to a secondary modern dump school. Because we were re-housed to a council house and into a comprehensive school I was able to advance through the streams, get a grant to study physics and later taught electronics, maths and wrote and sold software – a story not unlike my wife’s. Our three lads, starting from a higher base than us, are all into engineering. That’s an example of the state giving opportunity and reaping the reward in a progressive cycle.

    Can you not see that this is the natural party for me and that I want more people like me to join? If not, what party should I join?

    I’m sorry, but I just don’t see how the party you envisage can do anything more than protest. Besides which, a lot of those 13 million could do a great job for themselves and for the state by taking an active part in it – and in so doing become the wealth creators we then tax.

  • Research on Radio 4 this afternoon (sorry I have no other source, I was listening passively) has suggested that UKIP benefitted from former Labour voters significantly more than ex-Tories.

  • Some newspapers have deliberately misled people with handy scapegoats. Vile!

    I had exchanges with both ordinary people and racists about this. It’s hard to persuade angry misinformed people of the truth.

    One can only hope that as time goes on, social media will counter their influence.

  • The reasons for our loss is all around us. People had no great love for the Tories, but felt that Ed did not give them the comfort they were seeking, frightened to rock the boat. For many the austerity message had little impact, NHS was functioning for them, private providers are giving them quick service. They have not had any issues with the bedroom tax or food banks so literally did not care.
    I thought our campaign lacked vision, we succeed when working people succeed meant nothing to a lot of people. 5 million conversations did not work clearly, especially as I was one of the 5 million conversations, a former labour councillor and local activist. My passionate Labour door knocker clearly was following a script and did not hear me say more than once we have already postal voted for Labour.

  • “The Tories’ first acts will be to gerrymander the system against us.”

    Simply not true. The current constituency boundaries are unfair.

    In addition, the review is being performed by the Boundary Commission for England. According to their website, ‘The Boundary Commission for England is an independent and impartial
    public body, which reviews all UK Parliament constituency boundaries in
    England according to rules established by an Act of Parliament’. This precludes ‘gerrymandering’.

    At present it takes more votes to elect a Tory MP than a Labour one. This is all about making it equal.

    Surely Labour believes in equality?

Sign up to our daily roundup email