The Labour party needs to ask itself why it would be invented if it did not exist, writes Peter Kellner
Perhaps the real surprise about this year’s election is not that Labour lost, but that it retained the support of one in three voters in England and Wales
In the end, the fundamentals asserted themselves. No party for eight decades had won more votes than the government at the first election after losing power. None had won when it lagged the government on both leadership and economic competence. And no opposition had won an election without being at least 20 per cent ahead in the polls in midterm (Labour never came close to that between 2010 and 2015).
To some extent, therefore, Labour’s defeat should have come as no surprise; and perhaps it would not have done so had all 11 eve-of-election polls not pointed to a neck-and-neck outcome.
However, it is not enough to say that this year’s election simply confirmed the lessons of history. The Conservative victory was predictable, but not inevitable. Living standards for most people were no higher than in 2010. The Conservative brand remained tainted, for the party was still seen as a party of and for the rich, out of touch with ordinary voters and their lives.
That is not all. While the coalition was widely praised for reviving the economy and reducing the deficit, most voters failed it on virtually every other front: immigration, health, education, crime and housing. David Cameron now leads a Conservative-only administration not because he and his party are loved, but because, on election day, too many people feared to remove them.
Labour’s central failing was its inability to replace that fear with a credible vision of a better future. It had been defeated in 2010 having been blamed for the recession and banking crisis of 2008-9, and never exorcised its reputation for screwing up the economy. Three YouGov findings during this year’s election campaign underlined the failure. First, by two to one (58-30 per cent) voters agreed that ‘Labour still haven’t faced up to the damage they did to the British economy’. Second, more people blamed Labour (38 per cent) than the coalition (32 per cent) ‘for the current public spending cuts’ – even after five years of George Osborne’s austerity measures. (A further 16 per cent blamed both equally, meaning that a total of 54 per cent ascribed at least half the blame to Labour). And, finally, the Conservatives were seen as more likely than Labour to be ‘good for the people who work for big business’, by 56-28 per cent. When Labour is thought to be bad for both business and workers, it is in trouble.
Ed Miliband’s personal ratings plainly did not help. He lagged Cameron consistently as Britain’s preferred prime minister, and, even though his ratings rose during the election campaign, few people regarded him as strong, decisive or a natural leader. Only one in five voters thought he was ‘up to the job’ of prime minister. To the extent that a general election campaign is a semi-presidential contest, a leader’s reputation matters. Without doubt, Miliband was a drag on Labour’s support.
However, he should not shoulder all the blame. He inherited a party that had lost the public’s trust. To make things even tougher, while Labour spent four months deciding who its post-2010 leader should be the Conservatives were left unchallenged when they said, time and again, that they had inherited an economic mess. By the time Miliband was crowned leader, Labour’s responsibility for the weakness of government finances was fixed in the mind of the electorate.
In those circumstances, any leader would have struggled to lead it back to power after a single term in opposition. We can debate whether his brother, David, would have done better. Indeed, the central argument five years ago is the same as that facing the party this summer: whether it should be led from the centre or from a little further to the left. But this debate goes wider than the specific qualities of the leader. It goes to the heart of the purpose of the party in the 21st century.
Here, I believe, is where Labour’s basic problem lies. In the decades after the second world war, it rode the tide of history: strong nation-states, massive public support for collective welfare, big trade unions organising millions of manual workers in secure jobs, a clear ideological identity that much of the electorate embraced. The cost of the great social democratic causes – free healthcare, free education and universal social protection – crept up but for many years remained affordable.
None of those conditions now apply. The total cost of health, education and welfare has jumped from 11 per cent of GDP six decades ago to 28 per cent today. Nation-states are limited by global forces: not simply by the formal powers of bodies such as the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation, but by the broader impact of trade, financial flows, multinational companies and modern technology. Unless we wish to emulate North Korea, future British governments will have limited room to, for example, levy higher taxes to fund social spending.
Meanwhile, the old industrial jobs have largely gone, and our trade unions have shrunk and largely vacated the private sector. Perhaps most troubling of all for a progressive party, politics itself commands much less respect. In 1945, Clement Attlee defeated Winston Churchill because Labour represented the spirit of the war years: a nation pulling together for the good of all. Today’s world is far better suited to the Conservative impulses of lower taxes, mobile and flexible markets for capital and labour, self-reliance, atomised lives and ever-expanding consumer choice. As important, a party that professes a faith in smaller government suffers less when the public loses faith in politicians of all stripes.
Labour’s big task is to make itself relevant to that world. Tony Blair understood this and won three elections. I think Miliband also understood it but was unable to construct a compelling narrative. In the end, he came across as a man seeking to revive a failed past rather than build a credible future.
One part of Labour’s challenge, then, is to place itself on the side of history rather than turn the clock back: to show how prosperity, fairness and security can be achieved in an open, flexible, rapidly changing world without raising taxes that hurt middle-income families or drive away investors.
That is a huge undertaking; but it is not all. Paradoxically, the left should be alarmed rather than cheered by the fact that the Conservative brand remains tainted. The most devastating fact about the general election for Labour (or maybe the second most devastating fact, after its collapse in Scotland) is that the Tories achieved an overall majority despite being seen as a party for the rich with little concern for ordinary voters.
Cameron now has five years with, in all probability, a growing economy, to repair his party’s reputation. He is also likely to secure boundary changes that will favour the Conservatives. One way for Labour to challenge for power in 2020 is to ask this question: If the party did not exist, and were to be invented from scratch, what would it look like? What would be its purpose, its structure and its programme? Who would be its allies – and its enemies? How much would it look like today’s party?
If those questions do not provoke enough discomfort, here is the kicker. Why should we think that Labour has hit rock bottom? Perhaps the real surprise about this year’s election is not that Labour lost, but that it retained the support of one in three voters in England and Wales. Its vote could go lower. Indeed, without change, it probably will. Just look at what has happened in recent years to support for Labour’s sister parties in France, Germany, Greece and Spain. And look, now, at what has happened in Scotland. Labour has no automatic right to prosper, or even survive. We have been warned.
Peter Kellner is president of YouGov
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.