The lessons of the general election

The recently published Beckett Report on the reasons for Labour’s defeat in the 2015 general election is both useful and persuasively argued.

It debunks some of the folkloric explanations:

As the new leadership plan for 2020, they should approach with caution a number of theories for our defeat that sound plausible but need to be nuanced and substantiated:

• “We had the wrong policies.” In fact our individual polices polled well, the issue was the difficulty in creating a cohesive, consistent narrative and communicating this clearly and simply

•“We were out of tune with the public on deficit reduction.” While trust on the economy and blame for the deficit were major factors, (British Electoral Survey (BES) analysis suggests that the majority of people thought that the cuts were going too far and preferred higher taxes to further cuts as the route to deficit reduction

• “We were too left wing.” This is not a simple discussion. Many of our most “left wing” polices were the most popular. These were the kind of policies the public expected from Labour. An analysis by BES suggests that some of those who supported us would have been less likely to had they seen us as less left wing. Both the SNP and Greens gained votes in this election and arguably they were seen as to the left of Labour. However, we did fail to convert voters in demographic groups who are traditionally seen as in the centre, we lost voters to UKIP, failed to win back Liberal Democrat voters in sufficient numbers in the right places, and lost a small number of voters to the Tories.

• “We were too anti-business.” We are, of course, wholehearted supporters of a strong and responsible private sector. As in previous elections, the Tories worked hard to mobilise their big business supporters to attack us. And when people are insecure about jobs and wages, such propaganda fosters uncertainty. However, polls showed a wish, from voters, for us to be tougher on big business, and policies that were unpopular with many senior business people, such as the energy price freeze and the Mansion Tax, were popular with voters. Moreover, we had a strong and positive agenda for small and medium-sized businesses.

• “We were seen as anti–aspiration.” Few thought this was the case specifically. However we need to be clearer that we are concerned for the prosperity of all and have a clearly articulated strategy for growth.

In general, we believe that these commonly held reasons for defeat should be treated with caution and require deeper analysis.

I was a parliamentary candidate in a non-target seat (the Conservative / Lib Dem marginal of Chippenham) who was also actively campaigning in target seats, and I see nothing in the Beckett report which doesn’t match my own experience. The demands on a PPC in a non target seat are not so onerous, but I certainly observed the candidate and campaign fatigue that affected the key seats:

While the early investment in organisation was a great success, the ambition of the list, and, in some cases, the very early selection of candidates, created inflexibility, fatigue, and considerable strain on resources, especially for many individual candidates. We have been much impressed, not only by the commitment and talent of our unsuccessful candidates, but by their personal sacrifice – many effectively put their lives on hold for several years

Labour did in fact have a wide range of detailed policy positions, that when presented to the voters were broadly popular. Labour was also effective in a number of areas, such as press regulation, energy prices, executive pay and over Syria in the difficult task of setting the political agenda from the opposition benches. However as the report says:

It is felt that, as the course of events changed during the parliament, a succession of different themes emerged [from Labour]. In contrast the Tories stuck to the “crash myth” and welded this into their mantra of the ‘long-term economic plan.’
In addition, while our policy agenda was well constructed, it was not always easy to communicate. We adopted a highly principled and strict rule that all policy announcements must be “fully costed,” in part to counter any concerns about our handling of the economy. We were highly responsible, taking care only to promise what we knew we could deliver. This may have made us too cautious.

At the point of the election the economy was seeming to recover allowing the Conservatives to harvest the benefits of incumbency, and because Labour had failed to defend our own record in government, both of the coalition parties were able to win the narrative that the recession was Labour’s fault, and it was simply too risky to have a new, untested government.

The 2015 general election result was the first since 1997 where Labour’s vote increased compared to the previous election, we performed well among amongst the BAME communities, amongst liberal professionals, among younger people – especially younger women – and amongst the most disadvantaged.

We, however, did relatively poorly among older voters, and failed to grow support among social demographics known to favour the politics of the centre.

Tim Bale’s excellent work “The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron” discusses the phenomenon in political parties of privileging anecdotal based explanations over evidence in sustaining a group think, particularly in allowing a broader commentariat outside of party structures but overrepresented in the mainstream media, in blogs and the twittering classes, to reinforce a tendency for political activists drawn from a particular social demographic to assume that their own experience is normative for the whole electorate. I think there is an argument that the 4.5%er tendency in the Labour Party are overly attuned to those parts of the electorate where Labour’s offer in 2015 was not considered persuasive, without considering that it did resonate with other voters, partly because the 4.5%ers are more socially in tune with those skeptical centrist voters.

Of course the task is to develop an election winning coalition which enjoys a sufficiently broad appeal to win over voters across the left, centre-left and centre, in order to win a parliamentary majority. However, the argument that Labour failed in 2015 because it was “too left wing” or not attuned to “aspiration”, fails to acknowledge that every political pitch involves both a benefit and an opportunity cost. The electorate is not linearly arranged along a simple left/right axis, which is the implication of the simplistic idea that Labour can win “from the centre” and then shift the political centre of gravity once in government. To take an obvious example, many older voters are in favour of an economically more interventionist state, but are socially conservative; the proposition from Liz Kendal in the leadership election would have been both economically too right wing for them, and socially too liberal.

To win in 2015 we had to do better in seats in the South of England, we did have to win Hastings and South Swindon, and all the seats like that; but we also had to win in the north and the midlands, and in Wales and in London and Scotland. Centre left parties can gain a one-off tactical advance by shifting to the centre, but if that shift is sustained then it is at the expense of weakening their own core support and the ideological and institutional underpinnings as a party. This is evidenced by not only the secular decline in Labour’s vote through 2001, 2005 and 2010, but also the decreasing involvement and enthusiasm of trade union involvement in the party, and that the Blair years saw Labour’s support actually weaken in rural, non-target seats in the South West and South East.

It is also unhelpful to adopt the opposite view that the electorate is a collection of interest groups, in the belief that you can pick a set of sectionally tailored policies which give you a majority in each target group, and you can then carry the whole disparate bundle over the winning line. This smacks too much of Tammany Hall and feeds into the cynical, transactional approach which underpins the professionalization of politics, a phenomenon that is particularly dangerous for the Labour Party. Indeed one of the difficulties of the 2015 offer was that a manifesto of individually good policies seemed to lack a convincing overarching proposition.

A key argument in the Beckett report is the context that after the formation of the coalition government in 2010, the Lib Dems, who had previously presented themselves as critics of the Conservative’s economic policies, now became their defenders.

With the advent of the coalition, the Liberal Democrats adopted not just Tory policies – voting, among much else, for the VAT increase they had condemned – but also the Tory narrative of unwarranted Labour spending when in government. It was too easily forgotten that the Labour Government in 1997 inherited a country that needed to be repaired after the damage to our industrial base, healthcare, housing and education inflicted by the Thatcher and Major governments.

There was a near universal demand for public investment in infrastructure, in research and development, and in training, as well as for socio-economic policies such as childcare, so that we could compete internationally.

Suddenly, with the creation of the coalition, every Labour spokesperson on any current affairs programme faced, not just disagreement and opposition from two other major parties – par for the course – but disagreement which was tightly co-ordinated, and began in, and stressed, the same story – that somehow this was all Labour’s fault.So from the outset, it was hard for Labour’s counter- narrative to be heard.

Labour was also squeezed out by the media who focused on the melodramatic dymanics of the coalition itself.

Nor indeed was there much media interest in anything we had to say. For political commentators, there was a much more fascinating soap opera in continual transmission. A steady stream of differences and disputes were available within each governing party – the Liberal Democrats and the Tories – and to that was added differences and disputes between them as coalition partners, and all of it the more important for being directly relevant to government decisions. So, to the annoyance and disappointment of Labour supporters, Shadow Ministers found it even harder than is usual as the main party of opposition to make a public impact. Even where Labour was highly effective in opposition, say on energy prices, or on health, this rarely attracted the sustained coverage it merited.

This needs to be understood by those voices in the Labour Party who are overly critical of Jeremy Corbyn. The press and mainstream media not only have an inbuilt bias which has led them towards character assassination of every Labour leader in opposition (including Wilson and Blair), but the malcontents will always receive disproportionate attention because of the dramatic narrative that it allows them to paint about Corbyn. It is also worth considering that some of the bitterness against Corbyn is from people who considered that they had a legitimate expectation of a career in Labour politics, which they now feel has been thwarted.

In fact, Corbyn is doing well by many indicators. Party membership is up, the party is in good financial health, relationships with the trade unions are broadly good, his standing in the PLP is improving steadily with time, the much heralded rebellion in the PLP over Syria was contained to the “usual suspects”, the Oldham by-election was convincingly won, he has maintained a shadow cabinet reflecting talents across the party; and Corbyn himself has become better and better at handling the media and PMQs.

Significantly, John McDonnell’s appointment as shadow chancellor has been a success, and there is broad acceptance in the party of the need to oppose austerity. This is a major advance from the equivocation of the general election; and is a sound foundation for all wings and social constituencies of the party to unite around, including making a defence of the record of the 1997 to 2010 government.

It was always going to be a harder proposition to unite the party around Jeremy’s views on foreign policy and defence. But some sense of perspective is necessary here. Whatever the views prevailing in Portcullis House and the excitable babble of political commentators, for a number of years opinion polls have consistently shown that the public is skeptical about British military involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria. And particularly among young people, there is a considerable constituency who are actively opposed.

The vote that Jeremy received in the leadership contest is a substantial mandate and has enthused thousands of people to join the party. Of course that mandate does not immediately translate into policy, and for example, Tom Watson and Sadiq Khan also received mandates of their own on rather different platforms. How those differences are resolved is the realm of politics and compromise, but the days are over where all the concessions will come from the left.

The Beckett report highlighted a number of areas where the party did well. We conducted a great ground campaign, and learned a lot about digital campaigning, and we can profit from studying the techniques employed by the Conservatives. But is also shows that the party has a mountain to climb to win in 2020. That would be the case whoever we have as party leader.

5 comments on “The lessons of the general election

  1. Good stuff. The point about and over-arching narrative is well made. (How about, its THEIR crisis, make the bankers and bosses pay! People before profit, Tax the rich etc.etc.)
    The rejection of ‘transactional’ politics and the notion of linearity is critical. Labour needs to frame its appeal in terms of our (the majority) collective interests with collectivist ideas (The NHS, public investment, the value of a contributory and progressive tax system, the contributory nature of the benefits and pensions system, collective security and disarmament, the social benefits of investment in education, the environment, investment in skills and industry.)
    In demographic terms Labour needs both to win back and solidify its working class base as well as appeal to key sections of the middle strata.
    Labour candidates in my area (Coastal Kent) dramatically underestimated the appeal of UKIP on class issues (on which UKIP campaigned mendaciously but effectively) to working class voters.
    Differential turnout is critical here, as the Tories have realised with their Jeb Bush style electoral rejigging. But this threat is also an opportunity for Labour to directly connect with, and mobilise, its base by active electoral registration.

  2. Andy New on said:

    Nick Wright,

    I believe Wilson used the slogan in 1964, “The conservatives look after the rich, Labour looks after the rest”

    Could be snappier, but a good pitch.

    The key differentiator is that the labour movement believes in social solidarity and collectivity. Both can be explained in easily understood terms of community.

  3. Andy H on said:

    Was disappointed that the report didn’t mention what the impact of Miliband’s poor personal rating. It just mentioned the poor rating and the press attacks without any analysis of what effect ( large or small or irrelevant) that had. Indeed page 26 has a list of theories for the defeat with some counter or supporting arguments – the poor perception of Ed milliband is left off the list for some reason.

    I don’t know what impact the poor perception of Ed milliband had on the result – I would hope it had none but it seems no work has been undertaken to prove either way.

    Or worse, the work was undertaken but the result of that was not included for some reason, probably in a misguided attempt to save Miliband’s reputation.

  4. john Grimshaw on said:

    Andy H,

    There could be a number of reasons for this. Maybe the report didn’t want to savage further the LPs reputation. You know have a go at Miliband have a go at the party? Maybe the report was just being none personal? Also rumours abound about whether Corbyn will invite Miliband to join him at some stage. You don’t attack someone who might be in your shadow cabinet at some stage? For what it’s worth I think there was a perception that Miliband was out of touch with the LPs base support. Some of this was probably manufactured and I’ll deserved but some was not. In my view the main reason for labour losing was the wide spread perception that they were responsible for the economic crisis which they weren’t really. Apart from their stupid light touch banking regulation policies,but then the Tories would have been as bad. Given that the world economy is teetering on the brink yet again it will be interesting to see what the current government does and how they will be seen.