Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Smell the coffee

Labour still needs a proper post-mortem

In 1987, following an election when Labour won the campaign but lost the election, Philip Gould and his team presented an assessment of Labour’s defeat to a joint meeting of the shadow cabinet and the National Executive Committee. He recalled, ‘We were about to tell the party that 70 years of history had been wrong: Labour had to take a different course. It had to modernise or wither away.’

Michael Ashcroft performed a similar act of resuscitation with his forensic report Smell the Coffee for the Conservatives following their 2005 defeat. He concluded, ‘the Conservatives did not talk about the things that mattered to people in a way that showed that they recognised either their anxieties or their aspirations. But it would be a mistake to imagine that the issue is just one of presentation. The problem was not that millions of people in Britain thought the Conservative party wasn’t like them and didn’t understand them; the problem was that they were right.’

The only value in a postmortem is to get to the truth and learn from the mistakes. There is no point to one which comforts the losers, exonerates the protagonists, and provides few, if any, clues about how to win next time. Yet this is what Margaret Beckett served up in her report on Labour’s defeat in 2015.

It set out the scale and topography of Labour’s defeat. The Tories won because they got 11,300,000 votes and Labour got 9,347,000 votes. We piled up Labour votes in existing Labour seats in cities. We gained only 10 of the 86 Tory target constituencies on the 106 seat list. At the same time, we lost seats to the Tories. We failed in towns and suburbs. In Scotland we were obliterated. There is a myth taking hold that somehow the election result was close, and that David Cameron is in a weak position. It wasn’t. He isn’t. We were stuffed.

The report sought to come up with some answers to why Labour lost: the Tories’ dastardly success in landing the blame for the economic crash on the Labour government. The media for their meanness towards Ed Miliband. The collapse of the Liberal Democrats. The opinion polls for lulling us all into a false sense of security. A late surge built on fear of Nicola Sturgeon. None of these factors alone can be blamed, no matter how comforting.

For example, the defeated member of parliament for Derby North Chris Williamson tweeted, not in the immediacy of his defeat, but eight months later, that ‘the hopeless opinion pollsters cost me my seat and Derby North now has a Tory MP rather a Labour MP. (sic)’ That is like an ugly person blaming the mirror.

Others have taken to blaming ‘the media’ as though it was a single, unified entity capable of manipulating millions of people’s behaviour. The report states, ‘Ed Miliband faced an exceptionally vitriolic and personal attack’. Every Labour leader gets a load of grief from the Tory tabloids, but Miliband got it no worse than Harold Wilson, Neil Kinnock or Michael Foot.

What is missing is an honest assessment of the leader, the messages we were giving out, and the political assumptions which underpinned them. Miliband was an issue. The fact that he ‘knifed his brother in the back’ was an issue, which is why the Tories kept on repeating it. The fact that he narrowly won thanks to trade union members was an issue because it allowed the Tories to say he was in the ‘pocket of the unions’.

Miliband won the leadership by distancing himself from the New Labour governments. In the lead-up to the election, there were no attempts to defend the previous Labour government. That allowed the Tory attacks on the economy to stick. So we need to learn that the style, tone, appearance and credibility of the leader is a factor in winning elections.

Second, we need to assess the messages. So much of it was pure retail. A fiver here, a tenner there. It was this that drove a frustrated David Axelrod, on his way to cash our cheque, to complain that our slogan should be, ‘Vote Labour and win a microwave’.

Other messages served to repel aspirational voters, or to oppose reforms which the public liked, or to appeal to narrow strata of voters already likely to vote Labour, or be so bland as to be meaningless. The Ed Stone is rightly lampooned as several thousand pounds’ worth of tat, but a close look at its vapid abstractions (‘An NHS with time to care’) reveals a much bigger problem than presentation.

Third, the assumptions that underlay all of this: there was a belief that there was a ‘progressive majority’, comprising Labour and Liberal Democrat voters, plus a few Greens, of around 35 per cent of the electorate. This meant that no attention need be given to winning over Tory or United Kingdom Independence party voters. Even this modest aspiration was undermined when it looked like the target list of 106 seats was slashed to 61, when we needed 67 gains to form a majority.

Jon Trickett, a close adviser to Miliband, published a report for Compass in 2012 which argued that Labour no longer needed to appeal to the centre-ground because the centre had shifted to the left. It stated that, ‘The Conservative party faces a deeply problematic future in its search for a parliamentary majority’ and argued in favour of ‘asserting Labour’s identity in the confident knowledge that there is a new centre in British politics.’ Oh dear.

Labour lost because of politics, not policies. The problem was not that millions of people in Britain thought the Labour party was not like them and did not understand them; the problem was that they were right.


Paul Richards is author of Labour’s Revival: The Modernisers’ Manifesto


Photo: Dominic Campbell

Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.

It takes time, commitment and money to build a fight against the forces of conservatism. If you value the work Progress does, please support us by becoming a member, subscriber or donating.

Our work depends on you.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Paul Richards


  • The curious thing about Williamson’s comment is that it is just as offensive or ludicrous, or whatever the term may be, if reversed. He’s arguing that the polls ended up ramping the threat of a Labour-SNP government, which the Conservatives were able to leverage into a Conservative majority government.

    Yet, had the polls not shown this, and had the threat of a Labour-SNP government not been ramped at all, it would have resulted in him holding his seat and a Labour-SNP government being formed.

    Why is one so terrible and not the other?

  • Why did the Labour vote go down from 1997 – 2001 – 2005…? Did the same conclusion apply then too?

  • I agree with a lot of this. However I don’t think the failure to defend the record of the last Labour Government was part of a strategy to distance the Party from New Labour. As I understand it, Miliband’s team was concerned that if we spent too much time defending the last Labour Government we would just end up refighting the 2010 election and getting bogged down in debates we could not win about whether Labour wrecked the economy.

    I suspect it was always going to be a case of damned if you do and damned if you don’t mention the record of the last Labour Government. Which is of course why we needed a much more convincing and coherent programme to put before voters.

  • The Labour Party can’t be all things to all men, and women. It will always be the case that “…millions of people in Britain thought the Labour Party was not like them and did not understand them”. Most of these people will never, ever vote Labour and that’s the end of it. Labour can win without creating “Third Way” policies and without aping the Tories? How?

    (1) Unite the Left. The LibDems are a dead duck. Lots of anti Conservative LibDem voters are looking for a home.

    (2) Get the vote out. How many constituencies were lost because the other party got its vote out better?

    (3) Stop in-fighting. The attacks on the leadership by those who don’t like it, and the attacks on them by Corbyn loyalists are tearing the party apart.

    (4) Attack UKIP. There are 4m votes up for grabs some are the votes of bigots and we won’t get them so ignore them. But many are ex Labour voters. Appeal to their inner sense of decency.

    (5) Promote Corbyn as an asset. His brand has big potential. Don’t mock.

Sign up to our daily roundup email