On Sunday, still exhausted and incredibly disappointed, I went for a restorative bike ride along the Bridgewater canal. The bucolic Cheshire scenery was rather marred when I spotted a discarded ‘Vote Labour’ sign floating in the water. All sorts of unhelpful water-themed political analogies began to flood my mind: ‘holed below the water line’; ‘not waving but drowning’, etc. The boy scout in me wanted to jump in and remove this large piece of litter. The defeated parliamentary candidate in me just wanted to jump in and stay there.
In all seriousness though, how had it come to this? Warrington South was 22 on Labour’s list of 106 target seats. A very marginal north-west Tory seat that Labour had lost by just 1,500 votes in 2010. Back then, 15,000 people here had succumbed to Cleggmania and voted Liberal Democrat, and in 2015 we expected most of them would vote Labour. I live here, I had been the last-minute Labour candidate in 2010, and I had spent five years rebuilding the local party, matching the Conservative member of parliament for local publicity, helping to win back control of Warrington council and winning borough and parish seats in affluent parts of the seat where Labour had not won for several decades.
I was up against a Tory incumbent who is a decent person but not exactly dynamic, who had a mediocre track record as a local MP, who had no local government base and who had actually moved away to Macclesfield, breaking his public promise to live in the constituency. We only needed a two per cent swing to Labour to beat him.
Everybody in the local Labour party (except me) had been convinced for weeks that I was going to win. All the pundits, party grandees and bookies were convinced I would win. But last week I lost, by 2,750 votes. Labour’s vote had gone up by over six percentage points, but the Tory share of vote went up by nearly eight points. Equally, everybody (except me) now seems convinced that I can and should win the seat back in 2020, which is lovely. Warrington is home and my instinct is to stand again, but that decision is (a) some way off and (b) down to local party members. What is certain is that we need a lot of change at the top to make victory here possible in 2020, let alone likely.
So, deprived of the chance to serve as the MP here, at least for now, I have a burning desire to understand why we lost and how we can win this seat back next time, plus scores like it. Warrington South is a microcosm of England and I had always said publicly and privately that if we could not sell Ed Miliband, his ‘One Nation’ vision and his ‘better plan’ to a majority of voters here then we were doomed across the country. Sadly, I was right – we couldn’t.
Warrington South is a very varied seat and typifies the challenge facing Labour in 2020. Lying on the Mersey exactly halfway between Liverpool and Manchester, this swing seat crudely breaks down into three parts: old industrial parts of Warrington and council estates, with some very deprived neighbourhoods; solid suburbia and new town housing full of former Scousers; and south of the Manchester ship canal, leafy and prosperous Cheshire towns and villages.
So I want to set out some thoughts on what went right and what went wrong and, crucially, to propose some tests that I believe Labour members should apply to candidates for the Labour leadership and deputy leadership (about which I am still undecided).
What went right
Locally, everything went right. I believe we ran a brilliant ground campaign here for five years and that my team and I thoroughly deserved to win. Warrington South constituency Labour party is a strong, diverse and united campaigning force with excellent officers, and my agent, Jane Whalen, is a total star who had won two close parliamentary elections in the west Midlands. We had a dynamic Young Labour team, led by Tom Jennings; two ace full-time staff, the two Laurens; a high-profile town centre office; et cetera; et cetera. Our campaign here was people power and the Labour movement at its very best.
We made sure that conversations with the voters were at the heart of the exercise, and we made well over 30,000 contacts between 2010 and 2015, most of them face to face. Scores of volunteers helped out in the weeks and months leading up to polling day, mainly members and supporters from Warrington South, Labour councillors and some friends from Warrington North, but many others as well. Dedicated Labour MPs from our twinned seats such as Andy Burnham, Kate Green, Yvonne Fovargue and especially Stephen Twigg and his wonderful Liverpool West Derby action team, who came here regularly for over 18 months; trade union colleagues from across the north-west, especially my fellow members of GMB and Usdaw; north-west MEPs, in particular Theresa Griffin; plus loads of people from Labour affiliates as varied as Christians on the Left, the Fabians and Progress itself; and family and friends from as far afield as Washington DC. There was a real sense of the entire Labour family coming together against the shared Tory enemy and a determination to win. It was bloody hard work and a lot of fun. But it was not enough.
It is also worth noting that in the last parliament we were still playing catch-up, because during the 2005-2010 parliament the Labour MP here had done precious little campaigning and then announced her retirement with well under 12 months to go before the general election. In future, our NEC must be far tougher on Labour MPs who do not pull their weight as campaigners in marginal seats and on Labour MPs in safe seats who do not actively support Labour candidates in target seats. Basically, they should not remain Labour MPs.
That said, I am genuinely convinced that there is nothing more my team I and could have done in Warrington South to produce a different result, and I am grateful to the scores of people who have said so to me since 7am last Friday.
And what about the wider target seat strategy? I think it was a huge success, it just was not enough in itself to win. In the north-west, we have a superb regional director, Anna Hutchinson, and a superb regional team, and the ground campaign is the best I have ever seen (and I have been closely involved in five general elections, since I joined Labour when John Smith became leader in 1992).
All credit to Ed Miliband, his team, Iain McNicol, Douglas Alexander, Spencer Livermore, Lucy Powell et al at One Brewers Green: right across the country, we got candidates in place earlier than ever before; resourced them better than before; more organisers, campaign offices and mobilisation assistants than ever; more direct mail than ever; better policy briefings and media support than ever. From where I stood, the target seat strategy was well designed and well executed. It just was not enough to remedy our serious shortcomings in the air war.
We did motivate members and active supporters and the wider Labour movement. And we did convince core supporters to vote Labour in larger numbers than in 2010. There just are not enough of them in a seat like Warrington South to beat the Tories.
Here at least, there was no big problem with ‘core votes’ leaking off to the United Kingdom Independence party or ‘middle class’ votes leaking off to the Greens or staying with the Liberal Democrats. The Liberal Democrat share of the vote fell by a massive 22 points, and, between them in Warrington South, Ukip, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens won just 17 per cent of the vote.
As we constantly told the voters here, this was a straight fight between Labour and the Tories, but it is a fight we lost. And for those who still worry that Labour lost because we ‘weren’t leftwing enough’, there was a far-left alternative in the shape of a TUSC candidate for those that wanted this option (as it happened, the embittered former Labour councillor who I beat in the selection here in January 2010). He won a grand total of 238 votes.
What went wrong
There is no escaping the fact that a series of major strategic errors were made by the Labour party nationally over the last five years. Together, they fatally undermined a strong ground campaign and gifted an overall majority to a Tory party that has never deserved it less.
I do include the election of Ed Miliband as one of those strategic errors, although I do not think it was the biggest such error. If Ed had got other big decisions right I believe that he could have won and that he would have made a great Labour prime minister. But he didn’t. And I didn’t vote for Ed as leader, but I must put on record that he and his team were unfailingly generous and supportive of me and my CLP – whenever I needed practical help on the ground, I got it. I am grateful for that.
Some of my closest friends and colleagues in the Labour party supported Ed, and I do not for a moment question their sincerity or their determination to help me win here. But it was a mistake to back him in 2010, and even Ed Miliband at his best was never going to be strong enough to convince floating voters to put me in the Commons and him in No 10. The Ed issue never stopped coming up on the doorstep – too many people just did not see him as an alternative prime minister.
Another serious mistake was the lack of a clear and consistent Labour narrative to match the Tory ‘long-term economic plan’. I was thrilled when Ed embraced a One Nation approach in his 2012 party conference speech – it was spot on philosophically and in terms of electoral appeal, and a daring assault on Tory political territory. But the One Nation approach was not developed in either style or substance, and was largely abandoned for the election campaign itself.
For a couple of years we pushed hard on the ‘cost-of-living crisis’ and I was told we were betting the farm on that. But that too was sidelined as the economy began to recover. And for the final months and weeks, all our focus was on the NHS. I agree the NHS did need saving from the Tories (not least as Warrington Hospital has a £15m deficit) but a focus on the NHS alone was never going to save Labour from defeat.
In the final weeks and days, comparing the literature the Tories were putting out and the materials that Labour HQ sent to me, the choice facing English voters seemed to be two competing terrors: Do you fear for the future of the NHS with the Tories? Or do you fear a future with the SNP and Labour? For most middle-class swing voters, the latter fear was the greater.
We also lost the argument on welfare, where if anything the recent Tory toughness was not seen as tough enough (I’m not saying I agree, but that’s what lots of ‘hard-working families’ told me, and with feeling). Countless working-class and middle-class voters would contrast their own ‘hard work’ with the ‘easy life’ that some people seemed to enjoy on benefits. For families where it is a struggle to earn a modest living and who are just above the threshold for state help, this feeling of grievance is particularly acute.
I get that these arguments are both complex and compounded by prejudicial press coverage, but it is clear that the Tories won the argument. I would always reassure these voters that I understood their concerns and that ‘the Labour party is called Labour for a reason and we exist to make sure people who can work do work, that work pays, and that people can do well in life’. But again, our national policies and narrative did not match the Tory offer.
And that brings me to what I believe was the most serious national mistake that Ed Miliband, Ed Balls and their teams made: on the economy, public spending, business and tax. Despite all the Treasury experience at the top, Labour failed to convince middle-class swing voters that we could be trusted to grow the economy, to tackle the deficit and, crucially, to reduce their personal tax burden and make them better off.
Locally, I have always tried to frame what Labour offers in terms of ‘more opportunity to get on in life’. I believe that is what the Labour party exists for, but that did not come through in our national rhetoric. The phrase may mean different things to different people, and different Labour policies will help different people to get on in their lives, but that fundamental political aspiration should apply to the aspirations of all the voters. And in a seat like this where a very high proportion of voters work in the private sector or run their own businesses, aspiration is everything.
And those in Labour who may have forgotten this fact need to remember that the fulfilment of personal aspiration is the purpose of democracy. We give every adult one vote precisely to ensure that each adult can decide which party offers them the best chance in life and they can put their cross against it.
Of course, human flourishing and a harmonious society are more than the sum of individual material and social ambitions, but they really matter. Yes indeed, we must find innovative and sustainable ways to meet human needs and wants without wrecking the climate or otherwise trashing our planet, but those needs and wants will never go away. Absolutely, voters want political leaders of courage and conviction with an inspiring and principled vision of Britain’s future, but primarily they want to know that their family finances will be easier and their personal aspirations closer to fulfilment in the next five years. There is nothing wrong with that – in fact, it is a natural and noble human instinct and Labour should back it all the way.
Labour had a chance to beat the Tories on the economy, public spending, business and tax, but we blew it. Given that the Tories themselves had a pretty poor record in the last parliament, this was a massive and tragic Labour own goal. Over the last five years, we lost the argument about the economic record of the last Labour government to a series of Tory lies; we refused to acknowledge that the cost-of-living crisis began on our watch for many families, even before the financial crisis; we failed to apologise for not balancing the books after the 2005 election, after a decade of Labour government and 40 consecutive quarters of economic growth, which should have been the logical conclusion of New Labour’s restoration of our economic credibility; we had some great individual policies for investment, business and infrastructure, but they got lost in what most saw as an anti-business haze; we talked about the ‘squeezed middle’ a lot but offered them little; we left it far too late to commit to a sensible deficit reduction plan and to cement our seriousness about that in the minds of voters; and for all their talent, both Eds were badly tainted by Gordon Brown’s legacy, deliberately but effectively distorted as it was by the Tories.
Indeed, one particularly cruel irony of the last parliament was that Labour’s success in highlighting how bad the cost-of-living crisis had become made us even more vulnerable than usual to a Tory tax offer to the voters. I do not know whether the two Eds saw that coming, but if they did they did nothing about it, perhaps wrongly assuming that our strength on the NHS would dwarf the tax issue.
Labour was absolutely right to talk about: the ‘squeezed middle’; falling living standards; insecurity rising up the income scale; real-terms pay cuts for many; the soaring cost of childcare; and the risk that the next generation would do worse than the last – it is just that the Tories seemed to have better solutions than Labour, especially for aspirational middle-class voters. Tory promises of tax cuts were always going to trump a freeze on energy bills by Labour when those bills were already falling.
I will never forget asking a question about Labour’s offer on tax at a briefing for target seat candidates at party HQ in early 2014. I was nearly the last candidate to ask a question. I had been surprised that nobody else had asked about tax, and I was even more surprised that the senior campaign strategist to whom I addressed the question nervously passed it to somebody else, who just mumbled something about reintroducing the 10p tax rate – that was it.
We knew that we were going into a general election with a leader who badly trailed his Tory rival on leadership qualities and prime ministerial attributes – a major electoral weakness that the party was not willing to remedy. But to compound that weakness with a poor offer on the economy, business and tax as well was to invite defeat.
I am immensely proud that my fantastic volunteer team and I had over 30,000 conversations with local voters, as the best politics is the good old-fashioned doorstep politics. And it always will be, even if we are out canvassing on jetpacks in 100 years’ time. But the man and the message we were selling were just not strong enough to persuade most of them to vote Labour. In summary, for much of the last five years I felt like I was fighting the Tories with one arm tied behind my back.
Key tests for our next leader
I do not believe the country has warmly embraced the Tories (63 per cent of voters backed somebody else) but the election result was certainly a cool rejection of what Labour was offering this time. It was not inevitable that Labour lost this election and it did not have to be this way. We have ended up with 25 fewer seats than in 2010, and we are now 100 seats behind the Tories, because of a series of unforced errors by the former leadership of our party.
This is incredibly frustrating for defeated candidates like me, but this can and should also be a source of hope and energy. Because if we now learn the right lessons and do things differently in this parliament, I believe we can beat the Tories in 2020. The Tories will be an unpopular and disunited government that will fail to solve the big issues people care about, and if we are really unlucky David Cameron will have as his legacy the break-up of the United Kingdom and Brexit from the European Union. From all the hundreds and hundreds of conversations I have had personally here, I know that people are yearning for a Labour party that is both true to its values and trustworthy on the big issues.
I understand and respect the reasons why a decisive group of swing voters chose the Tories rather than Labour, despite the cynicism of the Tory campaign and the flakiness of the Tory manifesto. So I also believe these swing voters may come to regret their choice and will be open to choosing Labour in 2020 if we are offering a better way for them to be better off, as well as guaranteeing the future of the NHS and a proud, positive national vision.
So here are a few suggestions for how these lessons from our defeat should shape our choice of a new leader and deputy leader who can win for us and for Britain:
First, the right direction and substance are essential: we need a leader committed to a 40 per cent strategy as an absolute minimum, with a centrist, aspirational, 21st century approach. If Labour is serious about winning in 2020 then we have to go about rebuilding a broad coalition of middle-class and working-class voters across a broad swath of England, Wales and Scotland.
Second, our new leader must be willing to treat every voter as a swing voter. We had a zero-based spending review in the last parliament, and now we need a zero-based campaign review – we need to ask why anybody would want to vote Labour in 2020 and start applying our values to their wishes. Tribal loyalties and class identities no longer automatically determine how people vote and they cannot be relied on. It is always lovely to meet somebody (usually very elderly) who tells you they are a ‘lifelong Labour voter’ or ‘my dad would turn in his grave if I didn’t vote Labour’ – but it is an increasingly rare treat on the doorstep, and a large proportion of this small group will sadly not be with us in 2020.
Third, we need a leader who is unafraid to grasp the depth of the challenges facing Labour is we are to win the trust of voters; we need a leader who is bold enough to challenge the worst introspective tendencies of our great party, not indulge or ignore them. That goes for economic policy and tax; that goes for welfare reform and making work pay; that goes for being pro-business and pro-entrepreneur; that goes for public service reform and value for money for the taxpayer; that goes for cherishing the material ambitions of middle- and working-class people. I am not saying we need a leader who defines himself or herself by constantly picking fights with elements of the Labour movement, but some well-chosen conflicts will be necessary.
Fourth, we need a leader who communicates well and can naturally connect with people of all backgrounds and ages. This is not about superstar quality (although that would be smashing) but about being at ease with people and at ease with himself/herself. Authenticity is all.
Fifth, this is an internal Labour election but we must be outward-looking and open-minded. We should deliberately imagine ourselves in the shoes of those swing voters of all classes and parts of the country. Who would they want to see leading Labour? Who would they connect with and trust on the big issues in their lives? And, crucially, who would look like a credible alternative prime minister to them? Plus, it is worth keeping one eye on Tory preferences. If the Tories are secretly willing us to choose X as leader, best not to vote for X.
Sixth and finally, we need a leader who accepts that they will not be on a five-year deal, but rather a renewable 30-month contract. If our new leader is not performing well and looking like a credible alternative prime minister by halfway through this parliament, then they will need to go. Twice now in our recent history, Labour has chosen the wrong person as leader and then failed to get rid of them when they were manifestly failing us. We cannot make either mistake again.
Some in our party think that getting rid of a failing leader is a Tory thing to do, and typical of the ‘nasty party’. This sort of irrational hippy nonsense has no place in the Labour party – if we are serious about the values we represent, if we care about the people we represent and we if really think Britain is better off with a Labour government, then we have a moral duty to be a serious contender for victory at every general election. And that requires a winner as a leader.
So in future, if we strongly suspect that our leader is going to cost us a general election, we should sack them before it is too late, not wait for the voters to prove us right by putting a Tory in No 10 again. The Tories did this to Margaret Thatcher in government in 1990 and to Iain Duncan Smith in opposition in 2003. That is one lesson it is worth learning from the Tories if we do not want them to dominate the 21st century in the same way they did the 20th century.
Nick Bent lives in Great Sankey, Warrington, and is co-director of Tutor Trust, an education charity in Manchester. He has spent most of his career in business, working on environmental and energy issues. He is a former director of Policy Network and former special adviser to Tessa Jowell. He tweets @NickBent
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