Too many hills to climb: some reasons why Labour lost

Predictably, there is a lot of talk in Labour circles about where the party should move next, with a side order of “I Told you so”. Blairites want a New New Labour. The left-wing base wants a more left-wing party. Of course they do. That’s a debate that needs to happen but it’s far too early for certainty. I was impressed by Harriet Harman’s refusal to cave in to James Naughtie’s demand on the Today Programme for a snap explanation. There isn’t one, unless you thought you were right along. The Labour leadership, meanwhile, has to address the various mistakes and delusions that led them to be wrong. As a Labour member and an optimist I’ll hold up my hand and say I shared many of those delusions, fostered by the publications I read and kept afloat by the opinion polls, but I don’t feel like deluding myself further. In an effort to race through the Kubler-Ross stages of grief (denial on Thursday, anger on Friday, depression over the weekend) I’m trying to skip bargaining and go straight to acceptance. These factors strike me, with 20/20 hindsight, as almost insurmountable for Labour, and none of them are solely a question of left and right. So when someone says Ed would be in Number 10 now if only Labour had done this or that, I’m sceptical. (This blogpost started as a Facebook post.)

1. The economic crisis, however unfairly, shattered Labour’s hard-won reputation for economic competence and allowed all the old post-70s prejudices to come out of hibernation.
2. The economic recovery, however delayed, however imperfect, however fragile, is real and appreciated by people who don’t care what Paul Krugman thinks. Labour could have pushed the anti-austerity line harder early on but once the recovery happened it became almost irrelevant. Barring another crisis, it will be even less relevant in 2020. Unfortunately, many people feel that austerity basically worked.
3. The coalition exceeded expectations by staying together and appearing generally competent and durable.
4. The Tories didn’t overreach to the right because they needed to keep the Lib Dems onside more than their loopy backbenchers. Cameron & Osborne are pragmatists more than ideologues and sensibly slowed down austerity (as Krugman says) at the right time, not that they admitted it.
5. The post-referendum SNP surge could have been slowed but not by much.
6. English fears of a Labour/SNP deal. Not just a tabloid confection.
7. Tory message discipline was strong to the point of tedium, hammering home a dishonest but persuasive narrative…
8. …helped by the majority of the press that loathed Miliband. The papers, it seems, still have more power than social media to sway voters’ minds.
9. Much though I liked and respected him, Miliband as a leader never connected with the electorate or came close to Cameron in approval ratings.
10. The people who suffered most under the coalition were only a small percentage of the population: less than a million use food banks, less than a million are on zero-hours contracts. And many of them don’t vote. They loom large in the minds of the left, as they should, but are out of sight, out of mind for most voters.
11. The Lib Dem collapse was bigger than expected in many constituencies where Labour was a distant third last time.
12. Disillusioned Lib Dems aren’t as left-wing as we thought.
13. UKIP took more working-class Labour support than expected because some old Labour voters are more anti-immigration than we’d like to think. (Not that UKIP’s appeal on the left is purely down to immigration. It’s complicated.)
14. The coalition didn’t fuck up enough. Most of the time No 10 changes hands when there’s a pervasive feeling that the govt is knackered, too extreme and/or incompetent.
15. It’s very hard to turn defeat into victory in one five-year term. The last person to do it was Thatcher in 1979, and only under exceptional circumstances.

If you say you know how all of these problems could have been overcome I won’t believe you.

(I recommend interesting (and divergent) analysis from James Bloodworth at Left Foot Forward and K-Punk (aka Mark Fisher).)

1 Comment

  1. I couldn’t agree more, Dorian. Labour needs to find a new way and stop looking back at how things were in the past. The past is gone. It isn’t coming back. Britain has changed. If Labour cannot change to, we will have Tory governments for the next decade, if not longer.

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