Learning from losing 

Let me begin by thanking Ben for his presentation. This research is vital to making sure we learn the right lessons from our 2015 defeat, and the Labour party should have had the courage to publish it.

Let me also thank Progress for inviting me to speak today. As someone who worked for Gordon Brown for ten years, being invited to a Progress event is always an important milestone – and more importantly I hope it shows that today both wings of New Labour have far more in common than ever divided us.

I also commend your director, Richard Angell, for persistently and articulately making the case for why Labour lost.

It is important that this case continues to be made, which is why I welcome this discussion, and why I am pleased to be able to speak at it.

I consider myself very fortunate to be part of a generation able to say they worked on four general election campaigns, three of which Labour won. What worries me is how long will it be until another generation is able to say the same.

And from the experience of those campaigns, I believe there is just as much to learn from losing as there is from winning.

What is remarkable is that we are still debating why we lost nearly a year later.

I have taken part in several panel discussions on the last election. You might expect that a Tory campaign that defied expectations would be the campaign people wanted to understand. But it is not. It is the Labour campaign that generates the interest.

I think that is partly because it was a winnable election. It was an election that we could have won had different decisions been made over the course of the last parliament. And this makes our defeat all the more frustrating.

And I think there is also a sense of bewilderment that the current leadership appears not to have learnt the lessons of 2015. This causes us to doubt our own analysis and constantly to question whether we ourselves have misunderstood why we lost.

But the truth is, we have not misunderstood.

We know why we lost.

In fact, I suspect that most people in this room knew why long before it happened: whether you were on the doorstep, frustrated that you kept hearing the same negative comments. Whether you were working on the campaign, frustrated that your view did not prevail. Or whether you were watching on television, shouting your frustration at the screen.

The Beckett report has rightly been criticised for making excuses – from unfair treatment by the media, to the polls being wrong, to the Tories outspending Labour.

The reality is that none of those things explain why we lost.

We lost because elections are determined by three fundamental issues: economic credibility; the relevance of your offer to voters’ concerns; and your leader being seen as a potential prime minister.

And in 2015 Labour was in the wrong place on each of those issues:

We had not taken the tough decisions on the deficit to regain economic credibility.

What we had to say was far too narrow in its appeal.

And Ed Miliband consistently lagged behind David Cameron in terms of who would make the best prime minister.

I do believe however that the public’s view of a leader is shaped less by their personality traits and more by the decisions they take.

Ed has many great qualities, qualities often cited as important in a leader: he is clever, honest, decent and principled. Unlike Cameron and Osborne, I think he is in politics for the right reasons. But unfortunately the public could never quite see him as prime minister.

We have to be honest about that.

But with equal honesty, I do not believe that was decisive in our defeat.

I believe that Ed could have won in 2015 if he had taken different decisions early on in the last parliament.

So why were the wrong decisions made?

Why was more not done to rebuild our economic credibility?

Why was more not done to broaden our offer so we could appeal to centre-ground voters?

The answer I believe is that what Labour had in 2015 was not a strategic attempt to win power, but an ideological project based on three mistaken assumptions:

  • That the global financial crisis had created a leftwards shift in public opinion, reducing the need to tackle the deficit.
  • That the collapse in support for the Liberal Democrats would result in their voters ‘coming home’ to Labour, reducing the need to attract Conservative voters.
  • And that the tarnishing of the New Labour brand made it necessary for Labour to define itself as much against the last Labour government as against the current Tory one.

 
These mistaken assumptions convinced some that it was therefore not just ideologically desirable to take Labour to the left, but electorally justifiable too.

The reality of course was very different.

The central lesson of 2015 is one we first learnt in the 1980s and 1990s, only for it to again be forgotten. There is no shortcut to victory that runs via former Liberal Democrat voters or non-voters. Only by persuading those who voted Conservative to switch to voting Labour can we win.

And the only way to do that is to respond to what we got wrong in 2015: we must be credible on the economy; we must have a leader the public can see as prime minister; and we must have a vision that appeals not just to Labour voters but to the centre-ground too.

So has Labour learnt the lessons from 2015?

My concern is that we have not, and that we have made no progress on the great enduring weaknesses that hurt us last year.

Nine months after 2010 Labour was on 42 per cent in the polls, yet went on to a crushing defeat. Now, nine months after 2015 we are on just 31 per cent – eleven per cent behind where Ed Miliband was at the same point in the parliament.

I am sorry to say that we now appear to be further away from power than we were even on May the 8th 2015.

Because elections are not won or lost in the six weeks of a campaign. They are won or lost in the first months and years of a parliament.

And it is that fact that should worry us most as we look ahead to 2020.

On economic credibility, Labour currently trails the Conservatives by 50 per cent to 24 per cent. But announcing this week the same policy that Labour had in 2015 is not learning the lessons of 2015; rather it is likely to lead to the same rejection that we saw in 2015. Announcing a policy that lacked credibility then is not going to give us credibility now.

On widening the appeal of the Labour project, anyone who saw our recent party political broadcast will know that far from moving on from the approach of the last parliament, we are actually doubling down on it.

Trust me, as a member of the team tasked with constructing an election campaign based on that approach, I know more than most that this will not work.

In the last campaign, we belatedly tried to broaden the offer: measures to help buy or rent a home, and the commitment to cut tuition fees. Too little too late, but now even these edges have been taken off, and we have simply a core-vote diet of zero-hours contracts and the minimum wage, combined with a focus on divisive issues that alienate the public, such as unilateral nuclear disarmament or even the Falkland Islands.

Finally then, can the British people now see our leader as a potential prime minister?

It seems not, as Mr Corbyn currently has the lowest ratings of any new leader in history.

He clearly has a strong internal mandate.

He has the right to try and translate that into external support.

But as leader he also has a responsibility to do so.

And I genuinely believe that it would be impossible to reflect on the 2015 election, to understand properly why we lost, in terms of the economy, leadership, and the breadth of our appeal, and then conclude that we can win from the position we are in today.

If we continue on the present course, we will lose in 2020.

That is why it is vital for the mainstream in today’s Labour party – the real progressives – to keep making the case for why we lost.

We must learn the lessons of our defeat.

But until our leaders learn those lessons – and act on them – we will not win again.

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Spencer Livermore 2015 Labour party general election campaign director

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Comments: 4...

  1. On March 14, 2016 at 5:20 pm Verity responded with... #

    You forgot Scotland didn’t you. Surely you forgot the loss of a huge number of Scottish seats – don’t they have some contribution? If your analysis misses something as obvious as this why should we trust you on your explanation for the rest?

    • On March 15, 2016 at 8:53 am Richard MacKinnon responded with... #

      You make a good point.
      Labour had 41 Scottish MPs before the GE and now have 1. If the author does not recognise this as significant in his analysis of “Learning from losing” then how can he be taken seriously.
      I note Spencer Livermore was Labour’s 2015 GE campaign director

      • On March 15, 2016 at 10:57 am Krystal Robbins responded with... #

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    • On March 15, 2016 at 3:06 pm Pelton Level responded with... #

      And if we had kept them all, the Tories would still have a majority.

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