Be wary of those who say they already know why Labour lost

Those who have been quickest into print or on to the airwaves after the awful defeat on 7 May are not to be trusted. For them there is no period of reflection, no attempt to consider their own fixed views in the new context. Their ready solutions could have been written at any time in the last few years; they have said what they always say and have nothing new to offer. Their purpose is either personal advantage, because they are likely to be candidates, or to rubbish Ed Miliband and in particular his decision to move on from New Labour.

I defy anyone at this stage to have a genuinely rounded analysis, especially those who have already boiled it all down to simple solutions. Stella Creasy’s Guardian piece on Saturday argued that we have to deal with the grief first and go through the grieving stages, and I’m probably somewhere between denial and anger, moving into depression. Half of me wants to sound battle cries and the other half wants to give up and quietly slip away. Half of me sees the mayoral contest in London as the next great challenge, half of me thinks it’s not worth the candle because a Tory Government will be ruthless in controlling a Labour mayor.

Some people who were obviously not tired enough after Thursday have had a lot to say about reaching out to middle England, being ‘business-friendly’ and speaking to ‘aspirational’ people. But, when pressed, where are their policies different from what Ed Miliband has been saying these past few years? Labour was spun as anti-business because it wanted to tax the rich a bit more and because it attacked the big corporates, not because it had weak pro-business policies. Should we have dropped the tax proposals or the energy price freeze to reduce the damage? Of course not. Nor did Labour focus on the poorest 10% as is alleged, for example by Alan Milburn today, and it did not ignore middle England. In housing, the emphasis was entirely on first-time buyers and people who have good incomes but are still forced to rent. Apart from Bedroom Tax, hardly a word was said about social housing in the whole campaign.

Quite a few mistakes were made after 2010. We did not defend the record of Gordon Brown in saving the global financial system, which he did, because we were embarrassed by him. We didn’t build on public anger about bankers by setting in concrete the link between the global banking crisis and the recession. We allowed the Tories to blame Labour’s spending for the crisis despite the fact that the Tories supported Labour’s spending plans up to the banking collapse. We were never comfortable with austerity nor brave enough to oppose it, and it showed.

So of course there are lessons to learn but I do not accept the view that our policy offer and post-New Labour positioning was all wrong. We were blamed for the recession and could not restore our reputation for economic competence, but we still made net gains in England. The result in London was patchy but it became even more of a Labour city. We were punished in Scotland and the Tories fed and exploited unpleasant anti-Scotland feeling in England which helped them win but could break up the Union. Labour was squeezed between two nasty nationalisms.

But it is vital to remember that 2015 was nothing like 1997. Then the big crisis, falling out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism, happened on the Tories’ watch. This time it happened on Labour’s. Then Scotland remained safely Labour, this time the referendum and rampant nationalism happened.

More than anything I feel that the defeat was the revenge of Murdoch and the other newspaper-owning billionaires. Can Labour ever win in the face of their dominance and hostility? Perhaps Ed Miliband’s greatest mistake was to take on Murdoch and to show integrity over phone-hacking and Leveson. He did not play the game according to their rules and he did not travel around the world to dance to Murdoch’s tune as Blair once did. Should Miliband have been more accommodating on policy to keep them onside? Was that possible? Could we have won the Election that way?

I do not accept that the papers have diminished influence these days: they set the tone, and the lazy broadcast media simply follow their lead. Their front pages are blazoned across every TV public affairs programme and their journalists populate programmes like Question Time. Miliband eating a bacon sandwich was repeated thousands of times – on the BBC as much as in the Sun – and was one small part of a deliberate strategy to undermine and ridicule him. The fact that he nearly rose above it is a remarkable tribute to him and I resent the fact that some people have now turned against him. Cameron’s gaffes were mentioned but washed over. Miliband would not have survived leaving his child behind in the pub or being a Bullingdon boy or forgetting which football team he supported. Will any new Labour leader suffer in the same way?

It will be the same again next time, newspapers will still be owned by the same people and have the same bias, and the broadcast media will be no better – indeed the BBC will be much worse. One other lesson this time is that, in politics rather than celebrity, social media is not yet as powerful as everyone involved with it pretends it to be.

The depressing reality is that negative campaigning and propagandising worked. No amount of navel-gazing and blame-gaming will change that. The Tories are much better at it than us. Without hiring a Lynton Crosby, can Labour retain its integrity whilst being stronger in attack and much better at rebuttal? Are there ways of working round media bias without giving in to it?

So was Miliband ‘too left wing’? It is the media message and some people’s mantra. I can’t see it myself. He wanted to regulate markets a bit more, spend a bit more public money, and tax the rich a bit more, but it was all incremental and at the margins. The Tories managed to align in the public mind the interests of the rich with the interests of business. In fact they are very different, and the behaviour of the rich over the past 20 years is the antithesis of a successful long term economic plan. They also managed to make welfare cuts popular – Labour must remember that you cannot overcome huge prejudice and the stigmatization of ‘scroungers’, built up over many years and fanned even by some in the Labour party, in a single Election campaign.

So, like everyone else, I have some views on why Labour lost but they are not necessarily well-formed. We need to debate the pros and cons so we can be better next time. But a false analysis based on pre-determined views that Labour was ‘too left wing’ or ‘not left wing enough’ will get us nowhere.

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4 Responses to Be wary of those who say they already know why Labour lost

  1. runner500 says:

    You are right – the Party and the wider Labour movement need to spend some time reflecting on what went wrong and how to re-win two very different constituencies, Scotland and middle England. You are also right, I think, to highlight the failure to defend the economic record of Labour post 2008. That goes back 5 years though, and allowed to Tories to set the economic competence agenda unchallenged – while I have little time for him politically, I doubt that Alastair Campbell would have allowed this to happen.

    A really good post.

  2. John Gray says:

    Fantastic post Steve. its a historical fact that only once in 100 years has there been a one term government (Feb 1974). Ed did a marvellous job and nearly did it – but “the economy stupid” was against us. Low interest rates, rising house prices, coming out of recession (late and patchy) and crash in petrol and fuel costs. With hindsight we would never have won.

  3. andrew wood says:

    I’m glad that there is at least one other Labour supporter who can read between the lines. The old adage of telling a lie often enough made me really think hard ,long and frequently during 5 years every time the Labour ‘economic mess’ mantra surfaced (some times from within the shadow cabinet itself). At times I nearly came to believe it! The same is true now. The pundits would have you believe that Labour was slaughtered in Enland . An overall gain of 13 seats doesn’t appear so. In many seats there were tremendous results that had they been averaged across England and Wales would have resulted in Labour being the largest party. In my constituency Labour increased its majority from 1,700 to over 6000. The cities (all the big ones at least) have near or complete Labour hedgemony.
    I do fear however that Labour lacks a charismatic, strong and visionary potential leader. It really should be about policy but like most things in life, it’s the singer not the song that prevails.

  4. monimbo99 says:

    As the lesser partner on the Red Brick editorial desk, I both agree with Steve and am relieved that he’s got the stamina to comment after last week’s trauma. Labour’s failure to defend its economic record is astonishing. The front bench allowed the impression to be given that the last Labour government was profligate, whereas the opposite was true. If Ed Balls didn’t have the figures to hand, he only needed to refer to Red Brick: as we said back in January 2013, ‘if we compare public spending (as a percentage of GDP) across recent governments, the last Labour government turns out to be the least profligate, even compared with the Thatcher-Major governments’. There is a useful chart in the article (https://redbrickblog.wordpress.com/2013/01/22/how-far-will-public-expenditure-levels-constrain-the-next-government/) which could perhaps be left on the desk of the Shadow Chancellor.

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