Friday, 8 May 2015

Why we lost

The Labour Party's gone down to a brutal defeat. Many of us expected that we wouldn't be the largest party; I don't think anyone really believed it could be as bad as this. Lots of people will come up with lots of reasons why it happened: I just needed to vent.

It's way too simplistic to say we were too left wing or too right wing. People just don't think in those terms. We had lots of good policies on lots of subjects. Polls repeatedly showed that the ideas we put in our manifesto had popular backing: freezing energy prices and controlling rent, reversing the millionaire's tax cut, stopping the spread of unpaid internships, getting rid of the bedroom tax.

I will get one "right wing" snark out of the way: the bedroom tax and zero hours contracts affect a tiny number of people compared to the total number of voters. I met a lady, an owner occupier, who said that as someone who wasn't poor and wasn't rich, Labour had nothing to offer her. We never really worked on our offer for people who don't really need government help, and that cost us in the face of Conservative smears.

That doesn't mean that we lost the election because we were too left wing. There's nothing wrong with left wing policies (there's no way we lost Gower because of the mansion tax) as long as you have a proper offer for the middle class as well. 

I think the main reason we lost was because of a failure of communication, a failure to have a coherent narrative and a failure to inspire the right people.

Towards the close of poll last night, a woman asked me why she should vote Labour. I eventually reeled off a list of our policies and I think (I hope) I convinced her to vote Labour. But it took me a while to think of what to say. There was no 'retail offer' that could just trip off the tongue.

I don't think people vote for policies. I think they vote based on their gut feelings and values. Clearly, the driving emotion behind the Conservative vote was fear. We never got that the fear that drove people to vote Tory was perfectly rational. The last time Labour was in office, we did have an economic crash. We did have a massively increased deficit. Can you blame the British people for being afraid that we'd do it again?

The Tories had one message, the economic recovery. The numbers were on their side. I've lost count of the amount of times I had to tell people that an economic recovery that arrives three years too late and still leaves working people with lower wages isn't something that should be rewarded. I've lost count of the amount of times I tried to ask people what the long term economic plan actually comprised.

We failed to come up with a countervailing message of fear, and we failed to have a strong enough message of hope for the majority of people. Of course, if you were disabled or on low pay or benefits, you had and have so much to fear from a Tory victory. But the majority?

We tried to scare people on the NHS. But I think this failed for a number of reasons: many problems in the NHS go back to the Labour government, we failed to explain the damage the Health and Social Care Act had done, and how it related to ordinary patients, while the NHS affects lots of people, many people won't experience it in the same all-encompassing way as they do "the economy", and I think the Tory message that you can't have a good NHS without a good economy got through. It's fine for Labour to say we'll protect the NHS, but we had no way to counter people's scepticism.

If ever in doubt or challenged, Labour politicians reached for the comfort blanket of the NHS. This distracted from the consistent narrative that we needed.

Our narrative was, I think, that Britain doesn't work for working people. That could have worked: after all, many working people are struggling, even though it would have to come up against people's natural cynicism about what government can actually do to raise their wages (past the minimum wage) and improve their working lives. But it wasn't consistently stated, and our policies didn't tie into the narrative. The 'better plan' stuff also failed to tie into the narrative: what opposition party doesn't claim to have a better plan?

An opposition party needs momentum and excitement to overcome the natural instinct to stick to the status quo. Quite frankly, we didn't have it. Every political party needs to answer the question: if you didn't exist, would we need you? We'll always need the Tories, a party which, in the mind of the ordinary voter, exists to keep things ticking along nicely. But the question of why we need Labour needs to be answered again and again. Otherwise you might as well vote Tory - at least they won't mess it up. We didn't give a compelling reason why Britain desperately needed Labour.

Lots of Labour campaigners will disagree that there was no momentum: but the poster campaigns and the huge numbers of volunteers in London especially and probably in other places tricked us into thinking we had it. 

This election is probably going to make us realise that the 'ground game' is a bit of a paper tiger. In the last election, we saved a fair number of seats we thought we were going to lose, but I think Labour people confused the community activism of long standing incumbent MPs like Andrew Smith and Gisela Stuart with an impressive GOTV operation that could work in target seats. 

We didn't win Bermondsey and lose Finchley because one had more volunteers - they both had a formidable number. It was just that one opponent was a Lib Dem and the other was a Tory, and nationally the Tories had a good night and the Lib Dems didn't.

The biggest reason there was little excitement behind a Labour government was that it would be led by Ed Miliband. People like me who supported Ed in the leadership election have to realise that we contributed to a Conservative victory. It hurts worse than anything, but it's true. If our message was that working people are getting a rough deal, the worst possible messenger was someone who sounded like he'd never done a day's work in his life. I have serious doubts about whether David Miliband could have won, but certainly we must have lost some of the tightest seats because people voted on who looked more like a Prime Minister.

I'm sorry to all the people who are going to lead worse lives, maybe even die, over the next five years, as a result of Ed Miliband's inferiority complex and people who wanted to settle scores from the New Labour era.

I'm proud of all the people who contributed to what I felt was a wonderful policy prospectus. It was the work of so many people over the years, and not just Ed. Now we're going to have a leadership election. No leader can undermine the grassroots efforts of Labour Party members to put issues like affordable housing and low pay on the agenda. But we need to choose a leader who looks like a Prime Minister, who is a good communicator, who inspires confidence in people, and has a story which fits the narrative we want to present in five years time. Because not electing that person as leader really will take the issues we care about off the agenda for longer than the next five years, and prolong the suffering of the people our party represents.

No comments:

Post a Comment