Vision fused with relevance

With the publication of Jon Cruddas’ latest report into why Labour lost the 2015 general election and the new analysis edited by Tristram Hunt, it is important that we learn the lessons contained within them. Without properly understanding the reasons for our defeat last year, we cannot hope to proactively change to win.

Let’s limit ourselves to starting at the 2010 defeat.

First, we conducted a completely miscalculated, near six-month naval-gazing leadership election, which was supposed to be cathartic. In reality, we took our eyes completely off the ball and allowed the Tories and Liberal Democrats nearly half a year to define the crash as Labour’s fault and austerity as the answer. They were wrong, but we were fools to permit that. Like an aircraft without a tail fin, we were probably doomed from this point.

Second, there has been much written about leadership. As a party, we have to look at how the public reacts to our choices. Rarely are leaders considered to be the full package on their accession. There is little time to positively impact and demonstrate conclusively that the potential is there. I am not sure that we got this right in order to appeal to enough people across the country to get us over the line.

Third, early in the parliament we seemed to adopt a calamitous refusal to defend our economic record from 1997-2010. This compounded and cemented in the minds of swing voters the view that we were responsible. We lost traction on the accuracy and legacy of our of economic record’s presentation to the public.

Next, it has to be said that the focus on benefits and austerity, largely in a language that was incomprehensible to most people, damaged us badly. Predistribution. Really? The subject matter mostly appealed to the converted. Many of the undecideds, less impacted by the extremities of what was happening, reached other conclusions. Addressing this issue, without making it a centrepiece was part of the genius of the Blair-Brown government.

Finally, we had a lack of a positive vision for people to step towards. As a parliamentary candidate, I was lucky enough to meet some pretty successful people at the top of the Labour party, including Tony Blair. If I learned one thing from him, it is that oppositions will not win unless they offer a positive and engaging vision for a better future for us all. Criticising the government alone simply will not do.

We had overly complicated policies. Once explained, people liked them. But it took 10 minutes on the doorstep to explain them. I recently met an entrepreneur, sympathetic to Labour. His view was that we had nothing to offer small business. It is blatantly untrue, from the energy price cap to a tax cut for SMEs. But it had not filtered through.

We seemed to trap ourselves with a ‘year zero’ mentality. The last Labour government improved the quality of life for most people across many sectors, not just the economy but health, education, rights, Europe, the environment (not least by Ed Miliband’s monumental work). However, our approach enabled people to forget why they loved Labour in power and framed the debate in terms of reaction to the coalition.

Much has been referenced about metropolitan elites. It is easy for us to fall prey. But outside of cities, the issues we debated held less resonance than, ‘Don’t give the keys back to the people who crashed the car.’ Outside of our core vote, who knew the truth?

We have an overreliance on the NHS as a political tool. It is true the coalition caused havoc but it is also true that it took till 1997 for many people to see what Tory control of the NHS means in the long term, when people were dying on trolleys in corridors.

So what? Does the pontification make a difference, beyond making the people involved feel a little better? Hell, yes. Without learning the lessons of the past, we are destined to fail to focus on winning again.

I believe that the 2020 general election is wide open. Why? Because neither Labour nor the Tories have grasped what it is that delivers landslides – nobody has a unified understanding of what Britain wants. Our defeat was bad but the Tory majority is only 12 seats. David Cameron has failed to understand what makes Britain tick, as have we.

If we look at the Tory wins of the 1980s or the massive electoral domination of the New Labour years, it is clear that, in recent history, vision fused with relevance in the eyes of the voters makes politicians unstoppable – like it or not. Currently, nobody is offering that. Whoever successfully grasps it over the next year or two will triumph. It is insufficient to say that we operate in a new world, get used to it.

If we cannot do so, we are destined to wobble along the rope bridge of indecision and all of the disastrous consequences that means for our country’s prospects. That will cost you your future and me mine. We have to do better.

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Matthew Turmaine is former parliamentary candidate for Watford. He tweets @turmaine

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Credit: Louisa Thomson

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