In June last year, soon after the general election, acting leader of the Labour party, Harriet Harman, got in touch. She wanted to commission voter research to help to understand why Labour lost. I, along with colleagues, Ben Shimshon and Cordelia Hay, undertook that work and conducted focus groups in places with particularly disappointing results (Croydon, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Nuneaton, Watford). Our report was intended to sit alongside Margaret Beckett’s review, finally released this week. However, it remains unpublished.
Reading Beckett’s report, I do not see much that brings to mind the stark findings from those swing voters (shared with her and co-author Alan Buckle, soon after completion). The document devotes considerably more space to defending Labour’s performance than it does to understanding why Labour lost. The opening ‘context’ section explains how tricky it was for Labour’s counternarrative to be heard above the noise of a coalition government with its built-in opposition; how much less cash Labour had; how uninterested the media was in Labour’s activities (apparently why its ‘well constructed’ policy agenda went unnoticed); and how ‘vitriolic’ the media’s attack on Ed Miliband had been.
The crucial ‘learning lessons’ section advises the new leader to ‘approach with caution’ theories for defeat that ‘sound plausible … but need to be nuanced and substantiated’. The charge that Labour is ‘too anti-business’ is rebutted with an assertion that ‘we are, of course, wholehearted supporters of a strong and responsible private sector’ and the response to the charge of being ‘too leftwing’ is that this is ‘not a simple discussion’ – although Beckett concedes the party’s failure to convert voters in demographic groups traditionally seen as ‘in the centre’. Meanwhile, the acknowledged reasons for defeat: economy, immigration, benefits, leadership and fear of the Scottish National party each warrant just one short bullet point.
Of course, the swing voters who took part in those focus groups last summer will not have noticed the report’s sotto voce publication, but, if they had, my guess is that they would see it as further evidence of the decline of a once great political force that had so effectively captured the public mood – our swing voters turned misty-eyed as they recalled the days of Oasis, Blur and a Labour that was ‘for the middle’ – but that they now readily designated as ‘uninspiring, unimaginative and in denial about its past’.
Voters’ analysis focused on broadly the same specifics as Beckett’s report, although their assessment of Labour’s performance was very different and certainly less forgiving. The negatives were vivid and powerfully felt. Management of the economy was top of mind, with Labour’s record, once election-winning, now described as ‘dismal’ at a time when most voters were feeling concerned about their own financial fortunes. Labour wasting money has become an incontrovertible truth, as had misplaced spending priorities, specifically, undeserving benefit ‘scroungers’. Voters have fully conflated the banking crisis – the personal impacts of which are clearly remembered – as if the crisis itself had had the effect of pulling back a curtain to reveal the ‘terrible truth’.
‘I think the banking crisis bought it all home, didn’t it? I don’t think in 2005 people knew how much we were borrowing. The numbers were so big that they just sort of wash over your head, but when the banking crisis happened started to hurt everybody it started to come out how we had no money and we were just borrowing and borrowing and borrowing …’ said one Nuneaton voter.
Almost more damaging, however, was the strong rejection of Labour as a political party that these voters could identify with, or that would be ‘on their side’. While Labour’s values were seen as ‘nice’ rather than ‘nasty’, voters struggled to see what those values meant in practice. There was a sense of policy proliferation, but few initiatives were recalled in detail, few met with enthusiasm and there was little conviction that Labour could actually deliver on its promises. Some interpreted this as Labour trying hard to please, effectively buying votes with little real conviction and no coherent vision.
‘Labour talk with more empathy but it’s hard to tell if that is what they really think. They aim to do good but I’m not sure if their policies will work out in the long run’, remarked one Croydon voter.
The Beckett review does not mention Scotland in the ‘lessons learned’ section (except as a turn-off to English voters), although the role of the referendum was stressed. Our post-election work clearly suggests that the disillusionment with Labour was reinforced but not caused by its stance in the referendum campaign. Instead we learned that Scottish voters had been feeling neglected by Labour for many years as swaths of talented Scots headed south to make their political careers, losing touch with Scottish issues and values. Labour, once an automatic choice, was now an irrelevance, set firmly in the past.
‘You didn’t think about voting Labour, you just did it. Your ma and da did it and their parents before them – it wasn’t a thinking choice. But voting SNP this time I had my eyes open and my brain in gear’, recalled one Glasgow voter
We chose not to dwell much on Miliband’s leadership, preferring to focus on issues that the future leader could address, but there is no doubt that his leadership was a major problem. To some, he was the personification of Labour’s well-meaning but ineffectual brand, and keeping him out of No 10 was a strong motivator for those voters. Analysis shows that the party with the more favourable leader ratings always win, and 2015 was no exception.
So does it matter that the Beckett report dodges the question it set itself? I think it does. As Beckett herself points out, Labour’s challenge will be even greater in 2020, after boundary changes and as the population grows older. Without fully understanding why voters have abandoned the party, it cannot hope to address their concerns and win them back. No political party has the divine right to exist and this missed opportunity places Labour’s future in profound jeopardy.
Deborah Mattinson is a founding director of BritainThinks
Beckett report, Ed Miliband, general election 2015, Harriet Harman, Labour, Margaret Beckett, SNP