‘In May we lost everywhere to everybody’, remarked Jon Cruddas, member of parliament for Dagenham and Ed Miliband’s former policy chief, in a speech in September. Referring to Labour’s three worst defeats – 1931, 1983, 2010 – Cruddas said, ‘2015 was worse still’.
Yet this defeat has gone largely without mention from then leader Miliband and was not even referred to by Jeremy Corbyn’s 7,000-word long leader’s speech at Labour party conference. Jamie Reed, MP for Copeland, writing on the Progress website last month, said, ‘There has been no reckoning, no exploration or acknowledgment of the scale of Labour’s defeat.’ And therefore ‘no “closure”.’ There needs to be.
Every time Labour loses office it does worse the election after. This is not only sadly true but a tradition that Scottish Labour has developed in Holyrood too. Thinking it could not be possible having received less than nine million votes in 2010, the party set about to try and defy its only history and come back within one term.
In 2010 Miliband threw off the shackles of his predecessor but one and declared that ‘New Labour is dead’. He largely ignored his direct predecessor and mentor other than to distance himself – as he and Ed Balls had done in the 2010 leadership election – from the decision to abolish the 10p tax rate. Reluctant to embrace a parliamentary party that had not voted for him, he quickly created a bunker. The leader’s team would complain he was ‘his own outrider’ and then rebuke those who tried to engage with his ‘One Nation’ theme or individual policy ideas. The ‘35 per cent strategy’ – the idea that an elections could be won with the 2010 Labour vote and a third of the 2010 Liberal Democrat vote – was developed. Those who suggested winning votes back any votes from the 900,000 people who had supported Labour in 2005 and Tory in 2010 were denounced. Miliband flirted with the politics of anti-austerity – fought byelections on anti-cuts platforms, signalled support for the UK Uncut-inspired ‘Occupy movement’ and allowed his close allies in Unite to castigate Labour councils making the toughest of decision. In fact when Len McCluskey showed empathy with his friend who wanted to ‘spit’ on Labour councillors who make cuts at the 2013 Ralph Miliband lecture, the incident went without comment from the party’s leadership. He and Balls – not unlike the Canadian Liberal party who recently succeed in the polls – kept open the option of infrastructure spending as a marked difference from the incumbents’ plan. But the result was so different this side of the Atlantic.
It became disloyal to suggest – even in the most private of settings – that May’s result might turn out to be a disappointment for Labour; that aiming for a ceiling of 35 per cent might leave Labour short; that resourcing fewer seats than needed to win a majority might store up problems; that ruling out a coalition with the Scottish National party might be a necessary prerequisite, not a desirable addition, to the campaign. Progress’ Majority Rules polling released in May 2013 highlighted many of the same issues. But things carried on regardless. As Reed asked, ‘In resolute defiance of the facts, why was such a campaign prosecuted?’
The result was devastating and not, as Miliband is reported to have said, because the campaign was ahead of its time. Instead Cruddas found that, ‘Since 2010 Labour has marched decisively away from the views of voters on issues that are fundamental to our electoral prospects: immigration, personal financial interest, welfare, public services, and business.’
Cruddas has set up his own review of the result – that Progress, alongside the trade unions, the Co-operative party, Compass, the Fabian Society and others are supporting – to identify ‘empirical analysis’ and not be ‘compromised by being run through the party machine.’ The results are shocking – not the world as one might want it, but the one in which Labour must engage. The lessons, according to the MP for Dagenham, are: First – ‘It was pragmatic-minded voters who dealt Labour its devastating electoral defeat’; second – ‘We lost because voters believed we were anti-austerity’, not the opposite; third – ‘Labour is losing its working-class support and [it is] the United Kingdom Independence party [which] benefits’; fourth – ‘Labour is out of step with the wider electorate’; and, finally, fifth – ‘Labour is now as toxic in the south as the Tories are in the north’. Labour must confront this now.
Currently Labour party meetings across the county seem to consist of two agenda items: First, ‘Why can’t Labour be about “more than just winning”?’ Second, ‘Why are the Tories able to [do terrible thing]?’ If you do not focus on winning – and why we keep not winning – the only winner is the Tories and how they get away with such offensive policies.
Former editor of Progress magazine, Robert Philpot, wrote in May this year, ‘The delusion that [Labour] could sidestep its problems on economic competence and leadership spoke to a wider Labour problem.’ He went on, ‘Over the past five years, however, a politics of delusion has been allowed to flourish and grow. The New Labour “playbook” was joyfully ripped up and the rules which govern how parties win elections were declared obsolete. Those rules are not complicated: take the threat posed by your opponents seriously; attempt to win votes from the only other party which might realistically form a government; do not indulge in wishful thinking about where the centre-ground of British politics lies; tackle your weaknesses; and recognise that your claim to economic competence is strengthened in the mind of the voters if you can convince those running businesses both big and small to support your claim.’
Only a return to winning, with none of the shortcuts – which ultimately leave party members devastated and Labour voters destitute, again – will change Labour’s and the country’s trajectory.
Cruddas opened his lecture saying, ‘Big organisations often require cathartic moments to change and review themselves.’ If Labour does not take this one, it is destined to repeat what is fast becoming a pattern.
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