Sharply contrasted against the unedifying and introspective nature of certain elements of the current Labour party, the great strength of the Beckett report is that it is firmly focused on the public and on the future. Specifically, it is a useful blueprint to the massive challenge of how Labour wins the 2020 general election.
So I’m glad the National Executive Committee commissioned it and glad they published it. And for the record, the hour I spent on the phone last summer giving my feedback as a target seat candidate for the 2015 election was both good fun and good therapy.
Overall, it is useful stuff and worth a careful, considered read, alongside other analysis such as that from Deborah Mattinson. I do think the Beckett report could have been blunter about the key reasons we lost the air war, and what should have been done about it well before the general election. Beckett concedes that, by the middle of the last parliament, we knew that Ed Miliband was consistently and significantly trailing Cameron on leadership qualities, and Beckett further admits that we knew our strategy to rebuild public trust in Labour’s economic competence was failing.
Given that we all know that economic competence and strong leadership are the two crucial tests the voters apply to competing political parties, and given we therefore knew that a Labour party led by Ed Miliband would be defying political gravity to beat the Tories come 2015, why was nothing drastic done to avoid defeat? The report makes much of the defeat being a shock and a surprise. Well, it was not to me and I am not alone.
It is shameful but not surprising that before the election not a single Labour member of parliament went on the record to say, ‘Ed must go to give Labour a decent chance of victory’. Maybe in the last parliament they all concluded their own jobs as MPs, at least, were safe. But it is very strange that this post-election and post-Miliband report is silent on what should and could have been done, namely remove a failing leader and get a new one who connects with the public, who looks like a potential prime minister and who can convince people they will boost the economy and balance the books. As I wrote last summer, all four candidates for the Labour leadership should have publicly accepted this condition on their tenure of the office. The Labour party is just too important to be led by a loser.
On the plus side, the report is as much about how we win in the future as why we lost an election that was ours for the taking in 2015. So here are the three key things I liked about the Beckett report and the three I did not.
What I liked
First, it is good that the report acknowledges the huge effort put in on the ground by candidates and other volunteers, and that the ground campaign is absolved of responsibility for a disastrous result. That official ‘thank you’ means a lot and I remain immensely proud of my campaign team here and of the Labour north west office. The report hammers home the message that the Labour party exists to win elections and use power to transform the country. It has no truck with the tendency of some to be ambivalent about victory and comfortable in opposition. When we lose an election, we lose a chance to serve and let the Tories wreak havoc.
Second, the four main reasons stated for why we lost are broadly correct, in my view. I spoke to thousands of Warrington South voters in the last parliament and all these points were raised regularly, including the ‘risk’ of a coalition with the Scottish National party in the final weeks that fuelled the sense of unease people already had about Labour.
What all this amounted to in the minds of many English swing voters was a vague but persistent sense that Labour was not yet a serious proposition for running the country. We were not sufficiently in touch; we did not look willing to make hard decisions; our leader and shadow chancellor were not a safe bet for running the country and the economy; and because we were too weak to win outright, we would be beholden to another party they liked even less, the SNP.
In the end, many people who yearned to vote Labour could not bring themselves to do it because it felt too risky. So, very reluctantly, they voted Tory because they believed the Tories offered them more security and opportunity for the next five years. I do not blame them, but what a tragedy.
I absolutely believe that there is a winning majority in Warrington South and across Britain for a Labour party that offers competence as well as compassion in government – the voters have never doubted our compassion but they frequently doubt our competence and reassuring them about that must be the focus of our campaigning. In May 2015, the millions of floating voters of this supremely pragmatic country were effectively faced with a choice between what they regarded as Tory competence or Labour compassion and they chose Tory competence. And they always will. But if Labour manages to offer people both competence and compassion, we will beat the Tories hands down.
Third, the recommended plan for 2020 is crystal clear about the scale of the challenge and the intellectual and political toughness that Labour will require to become a credible contender for power at the next General Election. The strong emphasis on building a better partnership with business and winning over the great majority of people who work in the private sector is particularly welcome. This is vital in a seat like Warrington South, a microcosm of England and full of people who work in business, own and run businesses or who are self-employed traders. There will be many, many more of them in 2020.
What I didn’t like
First and foremost, while the Beckett report dwells at length on economic policy and rightly so, it pulls its punches on why we failed to restore public trust in Labour’s economic competence. That failure was against a Tory chancellor who missed most of his own targets.
The question of whether the two Eds would acknowledge, or apologise for, what many voters saw as ‘Labour over-spending’ before the financial crisis was the litmus test of whether we had listened and learned and therefore deserved another chance to run the country. In the minds of most voters, we failed that test.
The two Eds were clear and consistent in their position on this throughout the last parliament, but it was the wrong position and a fatal error. It is all very well to make dealing with the deficit ‘line one of chapter one’ of your manifesto, but few people will believe you if you have not atoned for what the voters see as your previous fiscal sins. Remember that horrible moment in the final television debate of the election, when Ed Miliband was asked by a voter if he thought Labour had overspent in office before the crash? Ed said ‘no’, and most of the audience gasped audibly in disbelief. I poured myself another glass of wine.
Never forget, the voters do not do nuance. If, after the 2005 election, we had run a surplus for a few years, then New Labour’s reputation for prudent economic management would have been cemented with the public. But we did not and were left vulnerable. Of course, the fiscal costs of bailing out the banks and dealing with the other consequences of the crash would have dwarfed any prior surplus, I get that. But the political credit we would have had in the bank with the electorate would have thwarted the Tory strategy to blame Labour for the crash and its consequences. That single strategic mistake in office has now cost us two general elections.
Second, in the Beckett report there is quite a lot of moaning about the media and the rough treatment that Labour got because journalists were obsessed by the drama of the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition. Boo hoo. The point is, surely, that we need a Labour leader who can withstand these inevitable attacks and still get their message across and pass the No 10 test in the minds of voters.
Third, the report is strong on anti-complacency but still underestimates the Ukip threat in the north of England, especially if – as I fervently hope – Britain dodges the referendum bullet that David Cameron has fired at the country and votes to stay in the European Union.
Just as happened after the independence referendum in Scotland, if Britain votes to stay in Europe there will be a significant minority of voters who wanted to leave who feel thwarted, who feel the ‘reforms’ offered by Westminster and Brussels are paltry and who are mightily fed up with the establishment parties (which includes Labour) that backed the status quo. And a large proportion of these anti-EU voters are Labour supporters or Labour-leaning swing voters. Ukip could capitalise on these circumstances to great effect in Labour’s northern heartlands and parts of Wales. This is the political risk for Labour. Are we ready for this backlash?
The logic of the Beckett report is that we unite as a party to take on our principal enemy, the Tories. This is a rotten government and we should relish tearing it to pieces in parliament and the press, as in parallel we put together an attractive and credible alternative plan for government. But this does require the party leadership to focus relentlessly on what is best for Britain, not what is worst for Labour, such as a divisive attempt to reverse a three decade-long Labour movement consensus on multilateral disarmament.
I feel this particularly strongly, not least as a GMB member for over 20 years and somebody who genuinely believes that multilateral disarmament is the safest and surest path to a world free of nuclear weapons. In addition, Warrington boasts the largest cluster of nuclear related businesses in Britain and hundreds of good jobs here depend on the long, lucrative Trident supply chain. Those workers value their jobs and want to know that Labour does as well.
So let’s take this lesson from the Beckett report: Focus on what unites Labour, what connects with the public and what puts pressure on the Tories.
Nick Bent is the former parliamentary candidate in Warrington South and is now the elected constituency spokesperson. He writes here in a personal capacity. He tweets @NickBent
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