The publication of Margaret Beckett’s report into Labour’s most recent general election failure presents a useful lacuna in the party’s struggle to understand the latest rejection by the British people at the ballot box.
Useful, but by no means exhaustive, the ‘Learning the Lessons from Defeat Taskforce Report’ confirms what those of us on the ground knew to be the state of public opinion, long before the election was held.
The truth is that we saw this defeat coming.
Caroline Flint – one of the party’s best and most capable campaigners – succinctly captures the catastrophic position that the party contrived to place itself in. Writing in the Guardian, Flint described the fabulism afflicting the party during the election campaign: ‘I campaigned in many seats and the feedback we were getting on doorsteps did not match the optimism of the polls. Sadly, Miliband was unpopular as a potential prime minister – and voters were not shy to tell us. Our policies on immigration, welfare and the economy unsettled voters in both our heartlands and marginal seats.’
True; but nobody in Labour should begin to believe that Labour’s failure to form a government can or should be blamed on the failures of pollsters. In the words of Jon Cruddas, in May 2015 we ‘lost everywhere to everyone.’ Certain political microclimates such as Merseyside bucked this trend, but, like in many metropolitan areas, many of these isolated examples of success can be placed down to local factors and the growing strength of Labour among ‘wealthy city-dwellers’ according to a leaked internal Labour party document.
Outside of the bubble of the short campaign, Labour members of parliament knew as early as 2014 that the kind of defeat that has now transpired was heading our way. Long before this date, those of us on the ground and in the trenches knew that our detached, London-centric leadership was repelling a lot of traditionally core Labour support. All of this was fed back to the leadership, yet never accepted and never acted upon. In campaigning terms, the 2015 election delivered to Labour a deserved defeat. In social, national and purely human terms, the people who voted Labour and the people whose improved life chances depended upon the election of a Labour government did not deserve to bear the consequences of the party’s self-inflicted collapse.
There was always a need for a public postmortem into the scale and manner of Labour’s election defeat, but the Beckett report does not provide the closure that the party seeks.
It is both good and useful that the report illustrates support for ‘traditional’ or ‘left’ Labour policies. Democratic socialists and social democrats alike should welcome this validation, but at the same time we should accept the principal lesson of this conclusion.
That there is an electoral appetite for leftwing populism with regard to certain policy areas is undoubted. The lesson of the Beckett report is that the popularity of the messenger carrying these messages is critical to their successful implementation. Notions of ‘political professionalism’ can no longer be dismissed as unworthy; they must now be seen and valued as mission-critical for the British left.
The years leading up to the general election did not showcase Labour’s political professionalism in a flattering light. Poor positioning, slow decision-making, and a failure to understand emerging popular sentiment: these weaknesses dogged Ed Miliband’s leadership and were brutally exposed in the short campaign. That the party had the right professional political talent to win is not in doubt, yet the fundamentals were never in place and Ed’s failure to reconcile himself with the anti-intellectualism of modern political discourse proved to be ultimately fatal.
Equipped with such an approach, approaching an election we should have won, there was a tragic inevitability to our defeat.
In Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, Joe Keller condemns fighter pilots to death by knowingly providing substandard parts for planes from his aeronautics factory. The knowledge of this treachery causes his son to commit suicide, sends his business partner to jail and destroys both of their families.
Labour MPs saw this defeat coming, we told the leadership, but it chose not to listen. In refusing to acknowledge the concerns of the electorate, we chose to abandon the necessary positions that could have helped us win.
This refusal to listen to Labour voters, former Labour voters and the public at large cost the party dearly in May 2015. More importantly, it cost those people who for whom we exist to serve.
The principal lesson of the Beckett report is that this must never happen again. Any Labour leader who refuses to listen to the country and who prizes the views of Labour members above Labour voters and former Labour voters will likely find that although they may secure the Labour crown, they will lose the Labour kingdom.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.