Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Mistakes on repeat

Labour should be learning from its mistakes, not repeating them, warns Spencer Livermore

The general election in 2015 was a winnable election for the Labour party. It was an election that we could and should have won, had different decisions been made over the course of the last parliament. That makes it all the more important that Labour understands and learns the lessons of our defeat.

Indeed, the absence of a proper reckoning after the 2010 defeat was a key reason we lost again five years later. Labour cannot afford to repeat that mistake now.

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 our defeat.

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

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 on the question of who would make the better prime minister.

In the end, however, elections are not determined by personalities but by decisions. And I believe that Miliband could have won in 2015 had he taken different decisions early on.

So why were the wrong decisions made? Why was more not done to rebuild our economic credibility, or to broaden our offer so we could appeal to centre-ground voters?

The answer is that what Labour had in 2015 was not a strategy 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 support from former 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 ruling 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.

My concern today is that, far from learning from the mistakes of the 2015 defeat, the Labour party appears to be repeating them.

If Labour is to be given the privilege of governing again we must regain the trust of the electorate, most crucially on the economy. A lack of economic credibility was one of the main reasons we lost in 2015, and we continue to trail the Conservatives on this issue by a margin of 24 per cent to 50 per cent.

Yet in recent weeks the shadow chancellor has announced he is adopting the same policy that Labour had in 2015, taking the budget responsibility lock from the last election campaign and rebranding it as the fiscal credibility rule.

That is not learning from the mistakes of 2015, it is repeating those mistakes, and is likely to lead to the same rejection that we suffered then. A policy that lacked credibility last year will not give us credibility now.

It is also Labour’s duty, as the party of working people, to be in touch with and accurately reflect their priorities and aspirations. What we offer to the electorate must be relevant to their concerns, and in 2015 we were irrelevant to far too many voters.

Yet anyone who saw our most recent party political broadcast will know that, far from moving on from the approach of the last parliament, we are instead doubling down on it. In the last campaign we belatedly tried to broaden the offer, with measures to help buy or rent a home, as well as the commitment to cut tuition fees. It was too little too late, but now even these edges have been taken off. We are left simply with an appeal to a shrinking core vote, and a reputation for focusing on divisive issues that alienate rather than engage the public.

Labour has a moral obligation to seek and win power so that we can help improve the lives of those we are in politics to serve. The result of the last election demonstrated conclusively that we cannot achieve victory via former Liberal Democrat voters. It showed that only by persuading those who previously voted Conservative to switch to voting Labour can we win.

Yet we are now asked to believe that by mobilising non-voters behind Labour we can reduce the need to attract support from those who previously voted Conservative. This is not Labour learning from its mistakes; this is Labour repeating them.

Many errors were made in the last parliament, but few ever doubted Labour’s desire and determination to win. Today, given Labour’s abject failure to learn from the mistakes of the past, I can honestly say that I do not know if electoral victory remains a priority for the current leadership of our party. If it does not, that would be the most unforgivable mistake of all.


Spencer Livermore served as an adviser to the Labour government from 1997 to 2008 and was campaign director for the general election in 2015


Photo: Sky News

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Spencer Livermore

is former Labour party general election coordinator


  • I’m a pretty well informed voter, so I know what the deficit is, why it might need tackling, how long it might take, what the OBR is, the difference between the two parties spending plans over the next parliament and all that jazz. I can’t think that many voters made their voting decision on the basis that Labour’s fiscal plans were too loose.

    Labour is instinctively anti cuts and as a result it will never win in a game where cuts are viewed as “living within our means” or “tough decisions” because in that environment even the most idiotic cuts can be made to seem sensible. If instead we’d united and campaigned around a simple anti-cuts agenda rather spending five years engaged in the kind of useless navelgazing that Spencer engages in here, we might have been able to forge an environment where cuts looked stupid instead of tough.

    And finally, because I feel it should be pointed out, the broad thrust of expert opinion on the subject is in favour of a fiscally expansionary policy. Most of what the Tories say on the economy is quite genuinely bollocks, just bollocks they’ve managed to convince people of. This article like many I read on progess serves to convince me of one thing, the majority of Labour moderates are charlatans who got what they deserved with the Corbyn surge.

  • If Labour had learned from the defeat, it would not have elected Jeremy Corbyn as leader. If Ed Milliband was unelectable, Jeremy Corby is unelectable in spades.

  • It is difficult to accept that this contributor is so naive as to believe that …”he (Shadow Chancellor) is adopting the same policy that Labour had in 2015″, So I am left to make judgments as to why that choice of distortion is introduced.
    Has the contributor not grasped that the reason that the Shadow Chancellor has adopted a rigid commitment to a balance on the current account is because he will be announcing an absolutely massive state intervention in productive and infrastructural investment, for which limits will not be constrained. This will be financed by a National Investment Bank with huge resources to act where private finance has failed to play any part for at least a decade. When inflation and interest rates are dangerously low, then the state has the option to replace what banks are currently doing, i.e. printing ‘electronic money’ to suit their own interests. Private capital has been diverted and cyclically stored in gambling on money derivatives on a stock exchange which has no contribution to the productivity challenge the UK requires.
    The author has possibly not understood because he probably subscribes to the ‘hero CEO’ outlook whereby wise decisions are only be made by international capitalist ‘talent’ , i.e. anyone but the ‘low achievers’ (and by derivation anyone claiming to act for the enterprising state rather than short term again).
    It may be asked why has this comprehensive plan not been announced so that some, such as the author, get it. Well perhaps because to do so, would hysterically set off the ‘Hostiles’ and ‘Negatives’ who will decry it before it is well formed and thought through.

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  • Perhaps the best lesson to learn from the 2015 fiasco is not to appoint the likes of Spencer Livermore to any post, let alone campaign director, in the future. And this constant misrepresentation of the 2015 result only confimrs my view. Had Labour not been wiped out in Scotland, the result would have been much closer. We need to look at data, not seats won in Parliament, given how random these can be, for any kind of valuable analysis.

  • Problem I and many others have is that we really have no interest in returning another Blairite/Progress style government, simply because we do not agree with it ideologically.

  • I know, intact, there’s a solution, when we had a Blairite government in 2095′ you just left this Democratic socialist party, and voted for someone else

    Simple,that way, your now continued interference driving is too the left,that lost us the last election, won’t happen again,

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