Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

We need to listen to both winning and losing candidates

I joined the Labour party in late 1979 and had to wait another 18 years until we were in government. And I lost my seat in 2010 so I know what it is like to be on the rough end of our democratic system. I frankly have not got time now to wait another 13 years for a Labour government and, while my heart goes out to good friends who lost their seats, the party as a whole cannot afford to mope around mourning what could have been!

First, a ‘silver lining’ – we are pretty good at opposition now, so let’s not fall into the 2010 trap when we failed to nail a Tory narrative about our record which went on to form the soundtrack to this election. We must be challenging any lies about us and holding the Tory government to account for the lies they told in the election campaign – for example, let’s see the colour of your NHS money; keep an eye on crime figures which began to tick up in the most recent stats; watch taxes on middle-income families going up. Any future leader should promote the shadow ministers who hit the ground running and do not let the new Tory ministers settle in comfortably.

Second, how should we go about the necessary period of reflection about how we win next time? There is no shortage of comment around this weekend – if it comes from commentators who got this election wrong, I am giving it a cursory read. If it is from Tony Blair who knows a thing or two about winning elections, I am poring over it. If it is from potential future leaders I am pleased that they are setting out a stall.

However, the people I am really keen to hear from are those who are probably spending the weekend thanking their teams, sleeping and meeting their families again – the candidates, successful and unsuccessful.

I am Middle England, middle class and, as one of my special advisers once rather cruelly put it, middle brow to the core. Rather more unusually, I have been Labour all my life. The problem is that, unless people with my background and experience vote Labour, no one gets a Labour government. So let’s hear from Gisela Stuart and the posh bits of Birmingham and from Ben Bradshaw who increased his majority in Exeter about what they did right and where they need the party to focus. Let’s hear from Wes Streeting about how he appealed to aspiration in the London suburbs.

‘I told you so’ alert! I have consistently said that the United Kingdom Independence party was as big a threat to Labour as to the Tories. I was right. If you cannot engage with people who fear being left behind in a rapidly changing and uncertain world and offer them hope for the future, Ukip and others like them will capture and exploit their fears. I would like to hear from Ian Austin how he saw off the Ukip challenge in Dudley.

Peter Kyle won a great victory in Hove – I hope he is writing the manual on campaigning the life out of the Greens. And Caroline Flint should be listened to on what happens when you treat a core seat like a marginal – you increase vote share and majority.

But even more important are those who should be members of parliament, but are not. Our top 100 target seat candidates will understand well from what they were hearing on the doorstep what worked and what did not. There is a bit of a tendency in our party to say a brief thank you and then goodbye to losing candidates. This is wrong on two fronts. First, these people have often put their lives, their families and their jobs on hold to fight for Labour. With lost earnings and promotions, and family and personal sacrifices, they are among the largest donors to the party – they should be treated with the same respect we rightly give to those who write out large cheques.

And they are closest to the people who voted Tory or Ukip when we needed them to vote Labour. The design of our leadership contests means that contenders will be currently sounding out Labour MPs for support to get nominated – however, the real test is not whether they can persuade a sitting MP or a Labour activist, but whether they can persuade a Tory voter in Redditch. That is what I will be looking for in the person I support as our next leader.


Jacqui Smith is a former home secretary, writes the Monday Politics column for Progress, and tweets @Jacqui_Smith1


Photo: Epping Forest District Council

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

Jacqui Smith

is a former home secretary and writes the Monday Politics column for Progress


  • Absolutely brilliant – now is not the time for self indulgent wingeing, now is a time for working out how we let the public down. Most importantly how we win back UKIP voters in 2020 after they have lost a referendum.

  • Five years ago we let the Tories set the agenda and failed to effectively challenge their lies.
    We allowed the Tories to campaign on a macro level whilst countering in the micro.
    The Tories were consistent and simple in their message which was easily reported in the press
    We too often got drawn into hypothetical arguments not factual
    We conspired to turn off our core supporters by trading lies and statistics rather than exposing flaws.
    I was amazed at the level of preparation the Tories put in especially in preparing and strategising their supporters in public events.
    Clearly the negative and character assassination techniques were not pretty but we need to prepare and pre-empt these.
    Finally, ordinary members, like me, don’t have a voice. We need to be able to open up old established local groups to the broad church of opinion that new blood brings.

  • Jacqui on the ball as always, I was part of the campaign in Broxbourne and Harlow and we absolutely need people like Suzy Stride and other PPCs to feed into the process, candidates can give the vital feedback that will help the party move forward and win back voters in Redditch and the other 100 seats which will help us win back power and build a better fairer country

  • The Labour Party needs to embrace electoral reform otherwise it will be another 18 years if that before it sees Government again. I don’t think the scale of the defeat has sunk in. It is back to 1983 but worse ! The Tories will push through boundary changes, they could very well drive Scotland to independence. They will probably strike at Trade Union Funding and Labour party funding. As always with politics events move on. Parties refighting the last election will always do badly. Electoral reform would be a game changer for Labour. It would mean that Labour/Lib Dems/Greens/UKIP/SNP would all be in favour of voting reform. It would leave the Tories as the odd man out. Instead of mocking PR as some have done, they would be better if they understood how to make it work for Labour. Single Transferable vote in 3 member wards (i.e. made up of the seats of 3 existing MPs would be great. In areas where Labour is strong it would win 2 out of three seats. In areas where Labour is weak it would win 1 in 3. The SNP would be hit hard without a single vote changing. Labour would have MPs in the South and South West. What’s not to like ?
    Oh, is it that Labour can’t bear sharing power with anyone. Labour hates the Lib Dems/Greens/SNP and would rather see a Tory Government than have to co-operate with like minded people. In which case Jacqui another 18 years is a very very long time and the problems will be worse and the time needed to try and undo the damage will be much longer. Many people will have suffered needlessly. Is that what Labour really wants?

  • I disagree with some of what you write. Wes Streeting won in Ilford North because the Muslims wouldn’t vote for a Jew (Lee Scott), especially one who came from a Jewish charity background. Gisela Stuart won because she is very popular in her constituency. On the other hand, the two “Jewish” marginals, Finchley with Golders Green and Hendon were lost because Jews did not want or trust a Jewish prime minister, especially one whose record on Israel was shaky to say the least. And how about saying something nice about Keir Starmer who increased the Labour majority in Holborn & St. Pancras?

  • I agree, we could copy the Irish system which combines some sort of proportional representation with constituency MPs, a vital component which many PR systems leave out to their discredit.

  • The Party is disrespectful and unhelpful in the extreme to those candidates they don’t consider a key seat. If candidates don’t feel valued by the Party then why would any voter?

    The party is seen by UKIP voters as light weight Tories and not connected to life in the real world. We need to listen instead of patronise. We need a clear realistic vision based on what we find, a vision that sets us apart from the Tories and stop trying to please everyone. Some key issues were missing from the last set of policies, renationalisation of the Railways and similar was a lost opportunity to attract voters.
    We failed also to remind voters of the very positive achievements of the last Labour Government as well as setting out much more clearly that Labour didn’t cause the financial crash. The T oriels peddled lies and division mix with huge dollops of fear, the media colluded to ensure our defeat.

  • Never Again

    Three huge failures – over the course of the whole of the last five years – lie behind the result last week. The test now is to address those failings from the start of this latest, unwelcome period in opposition.

    1. The leadership of the party failed to come up with a credible, compelling agenda for government. A few decent initiatives – cost of living, energy bills, zero-hours contracts – do not add up to a programme for government, or a platform to set the political agenda. Not that any of these stances deserve to be jettisoned, but they amount to a paltry return from 4½ years as Opposition leader.

    I don’t go along with the idea that Ed Miliband was left-wing; he just did very little. His agenda stayed within the Labour Party’s comfort zone. No ruffled feathers or rocked boats, no leadership. No attempt to address the politics of aspiration, of the middle-class, of globalisation and competitiveness, of nurturing enterprise and establishing an environment in which businesses can be successful, the health of the UK polity, the EU’s disconnect from the public, or Britain’s place in the world. No attempt to construct a majoritarian agenda, or to reach for even a 40% vote.

    2. There was an equal failure to construct a credible economic narrative that would connect the Labour government’s record – good and bad – with the historical and global context and free us to win the argument. I would not wish defeat on any Labour MP, but at least we can now rethink our economic stance without the considerable obstruction presented by Ed Balls.

    3. Five years ago we managed, with the help of a cabal of union leaders who don’t necessarily have the best interests of the Labour Party at the top of their priorities, to elect an individual as leader who was plainly unsuitable to be the party’s standard-bearer and conduit for public engagement. Quite part from the political failings above, we should never allow ourselves to be led by an individual who is less popular than the party. Political parties are unpopular enough, the least we can do is identify an individual who has the capacity to poll consistently ahead of the party – as Blair and Cameron, however much some of us may dislike to be reminded, both managed to do.

    So in the coming contest, we should judge the candidates according to whether they have the capacity – and determination – to seize the political agenda and connect with the public in a way in which Ed Miliband simply did not do.

    The candidates should focus on the issues that matter to the public and not waste the next few months on introspection or on issues that matter more to the party. They include at minimum:
    * the economic argument, five years late;
    * the shape and polity of the UK, in which Cameron and Sturgeon have a shared interest in continuing to squeeze us out of the argument;
    * a prospectus to seize the agenda on Europe, which will dominate the months ahead while Cameron postures, negotiates and frames his referendum.

    It is a brave strategy to conduct a selection or primary campaign with an appeal to the public rather than to the party. But isn’t that exactly what we should be looking for in the months ahead, and exactly what will signify whether candidates are qualified to lead?

  • Much as I agree with you I have just watched Panorama: a Tory said, rightly, PR is not on the agenda for the next five years, it wasn’t in their manifesto (they won, remember?) and the UK rejected AV in the last parliament. That said, it has to be a 2020 manifesto commitment not a referendum item. Who dares wins?

  • What lost the English Labour Party the election is simply answered : English Labour failed to ride the tide of nationalism.

    We gave semi-autonomy to Scotland, Wales and Ulster and promised more but completely ignored the resurgence of English national identity.

    We treated nationalists as far-righters rather than embrace the reality that the Left also has a proud nationalist and patriotic pedigree.

    We signed up lock stock and barrel to the European project completely ignoring the reality that this means : Transatlantic Trade Partnership and all

    We went overboard on multi-culturalism and ignored the wish of most of England to remain ‘England’ (whatever that means)

    If Labour is to win again it must embrace its members and supporters who defected to UKIP. Labour must become PINK-UKIP.

  • I agree with one qualification: if the economy tanks at some point in the next five years, and we can pin it on the Tories, then we can win without saying anything about electoral reform.

    However, if the economy is doing well, then our only serious chance of success is to embrace PR and present ourselves as the party that will reform politics fundamentally if elected.

    Fortune favours the brave in these things. If Labour were to introduce PR, the electorate would reward it. We would quickly get used to coalition politics and Labour would always be the dominant partner in any left-wing coalition. We would have more chance of maintaining a stable, long-term and genuinely left-wing Labour government than we have under FPTP.

  • Agree wholeheartedly. I fought Hazel Grove, a LibDem seat that the Tories won for the first time since 1997. While we gained at the expense of the LibDems, increasingly our overall vote by 50% we definitely shipped half as many again to UKIP. It gives us a base to rebuild as the alternative to the Tories, but we have to be far more embedded, far more active in organising around seemingly apolitical campaigns and initiatives, going beyond pumping out leaflets and thinking of ourselves as more than just an electoral machine.
    Longer reflections: BLOG Lessons from our local campaign for Labour in Hazel Grove

  • I can’t help noticing that the people you mention are all from a certain faction of the Labour party. Why no mention for Catherine West, getting over 50% of the vote in the Labour seat with the highest turnout in the country (and a very aspirational middle class seat at that)? John Cryer, adding 15% to the Labour vote in Leyton and Wanstead? Clive Lewis not only held off the Greens in one of their top targets in Norwich South, but actually squeezed their vote *down*. And while Dudley was never a major UKIP target seat, Great Grimsby was, and Melanie Onn held them off comfortably.

    I agree we absolutely need to listen to our candidates, successful and unsuccessful, who ran in this election, to learn their lessons as a party. But that means listening to all of them – not just the ones you already know are going to tell you what you want to hear.

Sign up to our daily roundup email