If you’d asked me five years ago who would be the most likely winner of the 2015 election, I’d have said the Conservatives. I always thought that, whatever else happened, by the time of the next election the economy would be recovering in one way or another, and so many people would be faced with a simple narrative; Labour wrecked the economy, the Tories are sorting it, don’t mess it up. And so I waited and waited over the subsequent years for the opinion polls to show the obvious, inevitable swing back to the Tories. Polling day got closer and closer, that swing was going to be late, then later, but it had to happen. And when it didn’t materialise my hopes were raised a little, then a lot. So, when the exit polls showed that I’d been right all along, thanks to my newfound false sense of security my expected result hit me with a hammer blow of shock.
Where did Labour go wrong? Far be it from me, a far from die hard, dyed-in-the-wool Labour voter to explain or understand, but I desperately wanted a Labour victory. I’d gladly have put my cross next to their candidate if they stood a chance in my constituency, and in the event my actual vote for the Liberal Democrats was mainly intended to help them by harming the Tories. I was pretty happy with most of Labour’s policies, but I did have certain misgivings over strategy. Take their response to the criticisms made by Boots boss Stefano Pessina. When he stated that a Miliband government would be a catastrophe, he didn’t actually criticise a single Labour policy; in fact the only party policy he did criticise was the Conservative pledge to hold a referendum on the EU. For me that’s your rebuttal right there, and Labour should have held out the hand of friendship and respectfully explained why they believed he was wrong. Instead it was reported that Labour strategists were delighted at Pessina’s attack, as it gave them the opportunity to show that they were on the side of the poor and squeezed middle and against the rich, tax avoiding fat cats. I find that a jaw-droppingly stupid way to respond, unless you deliberately want to alienate whole swathes of the electorate for little gain. Similarly, while I had no issue with the idea of a mansion tax, a higher top rate of income tax, and the abolition of non-dom status, either individually or collectively, I don’t think doing them all at once is a good look. I don’t think Labour and its policies were anti-business, but they didn’t make a pro-business case either, so leaving themselves wide open to inevitable attack. Much of this criticism of Labour, such as Pessina’s, were totally lacking in specifics, and reminiscent of the criticism Obama has faced in the US where business leaders substitute a wail of “we don’t feel appreciated” for any good reason. Is a fuel price freeze an attack on business? I’d say it’s a boost for every business but six, and a reasonable short term measure for dealing with an energy market everyone feels is dysfunctional and needs systemic reform; but I don’t think that case was ever effectively made.
So I can join in with the criticisms of Labour, why not, this could be just another of those articles picking over the corpse, and I guess it is. But I return to my initial point. Could a Labour party, held responsible for the recession, beat a Conservative party credited with the recovery? I have to think it vanishingly unlikely, and having read a few articles pointing out that no party has ever won an election when trailing in the polls on both leadership and economic competence, I can’t help feeling that Labour were almost certainly doomed even if they had addressed my critique above.
So, what should Labour do now? Fortunately there are many commentators out there who know the answer, and the answer is simple; move the party in the direction they believe in. For left wingers, the party must reconnect with its left wing roots, for Blairites it must occupy the centre ground, for Conservatives it must give up and deal with the fact that the Tories alone are in step with the British people (as exemplified by the massive 0.8% swing in their favour this election, reaching the heady heights of 37% of all votes cast). I doubt there is much to be gained from listening to such snap judgements; the truth, if it is out there, is more likely to come from someone who takes the election as a chance to pause and reflect, to assess and refine, to look objectively into their own soul and be ready to change their mind, rather than see it as an opportunity to justify their assumptions, score a few points, and settle the odd score.
For myself I’m beginning to wonder if this politics lark is all a bit simpler than it is proclaimed. Whatever the individual policies and priorities, perhaps for most people who bother to vote it comes down to the aforementioned simple consensus on leadership and economic confidence. In that light, let’s look again at what Blairites say we should learn; the so called “lessons of Blair” which flow from his uncanny ability to be a Labour leader who can win elections. You could therefore plausibly argue that Labour must do the following.
- Let the Conservatives reign for a further 13 years or so, going through a number of recessions as a consequence, and finally losing their record for economic competence. During that time, hope they ditch their strong leader in favour of a hapless oaf. Let the whole country be so thoroughly sick of them that even the Tory press batter them daily with spurious criticisms about sleaze. You’ll almost certainly earn your first election victory.
- Don’t mess things up in your first term, retaining your lead of economic competence. Allow the Tories to flounder around and pick another hapless no-hoper as leader just in order to prevent them from choosing a half decent one. You’ll be given another chance, and so win your second election.
- Piss yourself laughing as the Tories pick another leader so hapless they have to dust off an aging grandee to replace him just to limit the next set of election losses that even they can see is evitable. By now you can probably even do something truly stupid and massively unpopular like invade another sovereign nation for no good reason. It won’t matter; the opposition are still so useless and you still lead on what matters and the third election is in the bag.
Now, this is obviously very simplistic, and I’m not suggesting Blair shouldn’t get any credit for what he did for Labour, to some extent he made the weather; but I think these truths have to be borne in mind if we are to properly assess all the reasons for Blair’s success. At the very least it puts his victories into context and shows that simply trying to repeat the formula is tricky when some of the fundamentals were out of his hands. Certainly Ed Miliband didn’t have these advantages going into this election, whatever else he may have done wrong. Policy is of course always an issue, but perhaps not as big an issue as other basic electoral tectonics.
If Labour had had to deal with a recession earlier during its 13 years in power, if the Tories had elected a Ken Clarke or a Michael Portillo as their leader, then perhaps Blair’s talent for winning elections would have turned to dust. Similarly you may say that if Labour had turned to the other Miliband in 2010 then it may all have been so very different; but I honestly doubt it. The Conservatives would still have had all the benefits of incumbency in this election, they would still have an apparent record of economic competence to compare with the blame attached to “Labour’s crash”, and they would still have a staggeringly popular leader compared to any likely Labour alternative. For me Cameron’s slip in forgetting which football team he’s supposed to support is absolutely symptomatic of why I can’t stand him; an empty suit so empty-suity that it boggles the mind. But I must admit he does appear superficially impressive; in fact superficial is all he is, full stop. But in contrast Ed Miliband is superficially odd, and perhaps, for a general public not interested in day to day politics, superficial is all that matters. I was amazed at the number of vox-pops I saw during the election where people genuinely had no idea who David Cameron is. Is it too much of a stretch to think that, for many voters, they actually know very little more than that?
I don’t want to sound too cynical here, or be a counsellor of despair, to make it seem that nothing Labour does can make a difference. I have great respect for many people who get involved in politics, motivated by a desire to help people, to fight for their honest held beliefs, whatever they are, to make a difference and do what they feel is right. Keep on keeping on, I’m right behind you. And of course Labour can make things harder for themselves, just as the Tories did during the Blair years. The next leader must look credible, as Ed, bless him, never did. The don’t need to be all things to all people and ditch their beliefs, but they should put forward a positive series of polices in line with their long-held values while also trying to appeal to a broad coalition of views without willingly seeming opposed to any section of society. Easier said than done, I know, but most people will react to the mood music rather than the full manifesto, and any missteps have to be avoided. Beyond that, with the outlook for next five years far more uncertain than it was for the last five, there’s still all to play for and the tiniest thing could be decisive for Labour; but much will also be down to luck, how the economy holds up, and how the Conservatives respond to their own battles, and any prescription for Labour, no matter how “right”, simply may not be enough. It’s not a sophisticated view of politics, and all a bit depressing to the idealist in me who would love it if a centre-left party could stand on a progressive and inclusive platform and sweep all before it whatever; but I’m increasingly beginning to believe that when it comes to actually winning general elections, much is out of any one parties hands, and simply down to time and tide.