Where did it all go right?
Peter Mandelson and Spencer Livermore exchange reflections on 20 years of running Labour’s election campaigns
The Labour party still (just about) retains a lot of institutional memory about how we have fought elections since 1997. We had a good run until 2010 and it is worth recalling why this was so.
1997 was the acme election. The lessons I draw from it are that both politics and process need to be right; that elections are as much about strength and weakness as left and right; and that the leader counts for a great deal.
It was the second election in which I acted as campaign director, the first being 1987 (yes, I started young). The differences between the two offer salutary lessons. By 1987, we had survived our near-death experience at the hands of the Bennites but our condition was still acute. Neil Kinnock was our life support, making some rapid policy changes following our ‘longest suicide note in history’ manifesto in 1983 and overhauling the party machine at Walworth Road. But, as Neil said to me on the eve of the campaign’s start in 1987, we still had a lot of teeth to pull. Supported by our voluntary shadow communications agency, led by Philip Gould and Deborah Mattinson, we threw everything we had at the campaign. Glitz, razzmatazz, Neil’s oratory, Hugh Hudson’s film-making and red roses galore. But it was a spray paint job. Private Eye dubbed 1987 as ‘Labour’s brilliant election defeat’ and they were right. It taught me that good presentation is a necessary but insufficient condition for success and that unless the politics and the policies are right, no amount of ‘spin’ will work.
That was why 1997 gave us the biggest landslide win in the party’s history. Yes, we had a Rolls Royce machine at Millbank, the like of which has not been seen before or since. The personnel were very high grade. But it was, above all, the strategy from which success flowed. And strategy emanated primarily from the leader. Tony Blair had intuitive political skills that I have not seen in another politician. The strategy was researched, tested, analysed, debated continuously by the team with him and with Gordon Brown, who more than anyone restored Labour’s economic credibility. The self-criticism was constant. It was refined and turned into daily tactics. The execution was military-style. The unity total, because we were so desperate not to go down to defeat again as we had in 1992. ‘For the many not the few’, ‘leadership not drift’ and ‘the future not the past’ were the messages that ran through all our communications. The strength of Labour at this time was quite overwhelming. We bombarded the Tories with daily attacks as their morale and unity fell apart, but more important was what we said about ourselves and the future of the country. We almost gave the electorate no alternative but to vote Labour.
Looking back, would I have done anything differently? Yes, in two respects.
We probably overdosed on reassurance and in the process gave the impression to some of our party base that we were prepared to say anything to win. The myth that Labour won by good marketing alone was subsequently cultivated by political opponents inside the party. I was always acutely aware that we were talking both to the public and the party and we resolved this by delivering the same message to both. Values were the foundation of the arguments we deployed in the campaign.
This links to the other reservation I have. We were so determined to present the party as New Labour that we went too far in distancing ourselves from Labour’s past. Our origins, history and roots in previous Labour governments were more important than we realised at the time. Blair remedied this later by tracing New Labour back to that blend of Fabianism and liberalism that was the hallmark of Clement Attlee’s government. But we skipped over our achievements in between. It was understandable because Labour’s record in government in the 1970s was not as great as it was in the 1960s. But a party should always show confidence in itself which is why it was such a mistake for Ed Miliband later on to trash Labour’s record in government. But I do not want to pre-empt what you have to say.
I too started young – in 1997 I was just 21. It was an extraordinary learning experience and a huge privilege to be working in Millbank with the titanic strategic figures of New Labour – you, Philip Gould, Alastair Campbell – the people who made my generation want to work on election campaigns. So it is a particular pleasure to be discussing this with you now.
I was lucky enough to go on to work on all three of New Labour’s winning campaigns. Writing this, I realise those are the only elections the Labour party has won in my lifetime, and therefore how special and exceptional those years were.
You are rightly proud of the 1997 campaign. A question we subsequently faced was what lessons we could learn from it, first in 2001, and then again in 2005. What should endure, and what needed to change?
Two big things were the same.
First, the importance of the team. You said that in 1997 unity was total because we were so desperate to win. Perhaps one corollary of the size of that landslide was the complacency it permitted, and it would be absurd to deny the differences that developed. But one reason I loved these campaigns is that we were one team pulling in the same direction, united in our determination to defeat a common enemy. As important as the cohesion of the wider team, was the power of Tony and Gordon when they worked together. Each was better with the other – a perfect dovetailing of complementary skills and attributes that made them a literally unbeatable combination. Tony’s intuitive ability to connect and communicate with middle England, combined with Gordon’s extraordinary talent for framing a debate on terms that suit his side and wrong-foot his opponents. Both were used to great effect in the two subsequent campaigns.
The second big commonality with 1997 was that, as you put it, it was the strategy from which success flowed. The twin pillars of success are unchanged over these passing twenty years – strategy and leadership. Working with Philip Gould on the campaign warbook it was clear that, in both 2001 and 2005, strategy really was the locomotive that pulled the campaign up the hill.
But no two elections are the same, and it was in the strategic response that these subsequent campaigns differed from 1997.
In 2001, we had to make the transition from fighting a ‘change’ campaign in opposition, to fighting a ‘continuity’ campaign in government. We both know that elections are not won in the final few weeks, and one of the most significant strategic talents Gordon possessed was an ability to know the campaign he wanted to fight four years out, and use the whole parliament to work back from there. We learnt in those years the tremendous advantages of using the heavy artillery of office to define the battlefield. Consecutive budgets reassured on the economy and made public services the defining issue, so by the time of the campaign ‘more investment not less’ and ‘schools and hospitals first’ framed the election on our terms.
By 2005, we had to adapt to campaigning with a significant record to defend, as we attempted to navigate far more hostile electoral terrain post-Iraq. Gordon taught me the most enduring strategic lesson: to prevent such a campaign becoming a verdict on you, and to turn it instead into a choice between you and your opponents. ‘Forward not back’, and ‘who do you want to run the country?’ were the messages that defined the campaign.
The sadness of 2005 is it was the last time Tony and Gordon worked as a team, before the fracturing of New Labour denied us the ability to win again. It feels too simplistic to say Gordon did not succeed because he moved away from New Labour. If he had called an election in 2007 when he became prime minister, it would have been a New Labour campaign and we would have won. But clearly the world had changed by 2010. I was no longer there, so I will let you tell the story.
The world had indeed changed by 2010 – the effects of the global financial crisis were being felt across the western world – and politics were becoming more fragmented and volatile as a different sort of identity politics kicked in. With real wage growth stagnant, exacerbated by recession and the threat of austerity, Labour’s support was badly knocked.
Despite this, I believe we could have held on as the largest party if we had dealt with things differently in the run-up to the election. Gordon and Alistair Darling handled the banking crisis brilliantly in the autumn of 2008. The London G20 summit in April 2009 was widely admired. The budget at the end of that month contained the right blend of policies to aid industry and set us on the path to economic recovery. But having pulled us through the worst, the government divided over what to do next and this greatly harmed our election planning.
It would have been possible to keep camping out on the simple strategic rule ‘reassure on the economy and make public services the defining issue’ if we were prepared to recognise the public’s understandable anxiety about borrowing. Put simply, Britain was in a pit of debt and we were still digging. We could have effectively counter-attacked against the Tories and persuaded the public of the dangers of their extreme spending cuts. But to do so, we had to be serious ourselves about containing spending. Gordon maintained his insistence on going for growth not cuts while Alistair argued that, to do so, we needed a sufficient tax base to cover our expenditure. On this, they fell out over the alternatives of a rise in income tax, VAT or national insurance charges. This disagreement continued into the election campaign itself, hampering our efforts to frame the economic argument.
By then, Gordon had asked me to oversee the election strategy and planning, with Douglas Alexander in charge of the detailed operations and structures. Douglas became more and more consumed by the first ever television election debates between the leaders which Gordon feared but in fact did him good. They were worth the investment which was just as well given we had very little time or money available for much of the rest of the campaign. Once the starting pistol was fired and I moved into the campaign headquarters, I found that the levers I was used to pulling and the buttons I used to push did not seem to be working. As the flat, rather energy-less campaign proceeded, I tried in vain to reinvigorate it with the spirit of 1997.
Gordon toyed with a major initiative on constitutional and electoral reform to provide a rocket boost. This reflected his sympathy for a federal UK and might have made discussions with the Liberal Democrats after the election more fruitful. But he did not carry this forward. After his encounter with Gillian Duffy in Rochdale, fear grew as we anticipated a terrible defeat, perhaps even in third place.
Despite the campaign’s shaky foundations, and even though we bent this way and that, the campaign did not topple over. We set back the Tory advance. Yes, we had allowed the strength and appeal of New Labour to fade but equally, David Cameron’s Conservatives had not changed profoundly enough. When the exit polls finally revealed a hung parliament, it was hard to believe. Yet through our grit and battling on, we had showed ourselves still to be a fighting force, one that could hold its head high and take pride in all that we had achieved in government. Unfortunately, this sense had almost completely disappeared by the time we reached the following election five years later.
Strength, in my view, was turned into weakness.
The 2015 election demonstrated the continuing relevance of many of the lessons we have been discussing. It showed the error made by those who thought these lessons did not apply to them. And it proved decisively that elections are decided on three fundamental issues: credibility on the economy; the relevance of the story you tell about the country; and the potential of your leader to be seen as prime minister.
It is clear that on each of these Labour was in the wrong place two years ago. The tough decisions had not been taken to regain economic credibility. What Labour was offering the country was far too narrow in its appeal. And although Miliband possessed many great qualities, he consistently lagged behind Cameron on the question of who would make the best prime minister.
Why the right decisions were not taken comes down to an issue you and I have talked about a lot in these exchanges. Put bluntly, in 2015 Labour did not have a strategy to win power. Instead, it had an ideological project – a project that was built on assumptions that were clearly always flawed. First, that the global financial crisis had created a leftwards shift in public opinion. Second, that a collapse in support for the Liberal Democrats would result in their voters ‘coming home’ to Labour, reducing the need to attract former Conservative voters. And third, that because – as you put it – the strength and appeal of New Labour had been allowed to fade, it was necessary for the party to define itself as much against the last Labour government as against the ruling Tories.
I was honest with Ed that I believed these assumptions to be flawed, but he was never willing to change course. The election result in 2015 made clear that, far from shifting public opinion to the left, the financial crisis had made economic competence the central political issue. Many former Liberal Democrat voters turned out to be perfectly happy voting Conservative. And failing to defend our record cemented as concrete fact a lie that the last Labour government had created a mess and achieved little.
Many of us went into the campaign with our eyes open, knowing that no party had ever won when behind on both the economy and leadership. I am sure we got many things wrong, but we got some things right. We had a strong start to the campaign, which we maintained for the first two or three weeks, and Ed had a brilliant first debate. Indeed, he finished the campaign stronger than he had started, a big achievement given the hostility of the media environment. But ultimately a campaign cannot solve structural weaknesses, and we were overwhelmed by our opponents’ far stronger strategy.
The question now is whether Labour can learn from defeat. Have we moved forward on economic credibility? Can the voters now see our leader as a potential prime minister? Do we have an account of the future which is relevant to more of the British people? So far, unfortunately, the answers are all too clear.
But if we are ever to own the future again, we cannot simply abandon our principles on issues like Brexit and immigration, in the hope it will bring electoral success. In the extraordinary period of renewal before the 1997 election, the real achievement of New Labour was finding new ways to make our values relevant to the challenges our country faced, so we could help improve the lives of those we are in politics to serve.
I wonder now how long it will be until another generation is able to do so again, and experience the incredible adventure of working on a winning campaign. I hope it is not too long.
Peter Mandelson and Spencer Livermore are Labour peers and have both served as Labour’s general election campaign director
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20th anniversary 1997 victory, campaigning, Ed Miliband, general election 1997, general election 2001, general election 2005, general election 2015, Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson, Spencer Livermore, Tony Blair