First published on Progressonline
When Labour loses power it does worse in the following general election. Think 1955, 1983. Even in 1974 when we returned to power after one term, we did so on a lower share of the vote than we lost with in 1970. Even when we create new political institutions, we follow suit: sadly this is a trend the Scottish Labour party repeated in 2011.
For all those of us who worked tirelessly for a Labour government in the days, weeks and months that preceded Thursday’s dire result, it is a sickening blow that we ended up with fewer members of parliament than Gordon Brown bestowed his successor in 2010. While there were some good-news stories of the night, these were dwarfed by the loss we feel for candidates who outdid themselves but fell short through no fault of their own.
The sad reality for those assessing the result lies in a simple problem in winning elections: we were not even aiming to get more votes than our opponents. Not the candidates, but the leadership. Not just Ed Miliband himself, but his team too.
The now-infamous ‘35 per cent strategy’ – which was based on the 2010 vote plus a third of the 2010 Liberal Democrat vote coming to Labour – failed those candidates. Had we even achieved it, it would have nevertheless left us far short of the 38 per cent the Tories achieved. Worse still, we did not even come close to this insufficient target and gained just 1.4 per cent nationally.
In addition – and well before the scale of defeat in Scotland looked anything near what it became – the party slashed the 106 target seat list to just 61. Labour needed 67 gains to form a majority Labour government. When the scale of problem in Scotland became apparent, target seats in England and Wales lost money, staff and resources to plug the gap.
Normally parties aim to win a third more than they need to gain victory. Simply put, you never expect to win all your targets. David Cameron needed 23 gains to govern alone; the Conservatives targeted 40 (as part of the 40/40 strategy) for gains, and they surpassed expectations. While some on the target list are only really there to keep your opponents distracted and out of the real winnables, others give you latitude and room for manoeuvre.
When the public – and their conduits in the media – catch on to the fact that you are not even aiming to win a majority it is not surprising that the campaign becomes about who you might look to share power with. The more shadow spokespeople protest that it is wrong for their interviewer to ‘jump the gun’ the more both sides know it is unlikely that you will gain the votes of those you are not even asking for support from.
Again this was not even the fault of candidates – or the party staff given this impossible task to implement – who each went above and beyond. They went door to door. They were given plenty to say if you were hard done to by the Tories – abolish the bedroom tax, increase the minimum wage, end zero-hours contracts – and plenty to say if you hate the Tories – student fees, Rupert Murdoch, party of the rich – but nothing if your family was doing well but could have been doing better. Or if you thought the Tories were bad, even wrong, but not poorly motivated. We offered reductions in heating bills, saving you hundreds of pounds, but had nothing to say if interest rates went up, costing you thousands of pounds on your mortgage.
Never again should Labour go into an election with its ambitions set so low. The defeat is real and profound for those of us who wish to see a centre-left government returned to office. We must therefore not simply rush into a fresh leadership election with a short process designed to bounce the party into choosing a frontrunner candidate. Instead we should stop and learn the lessons.
Harriet Harman has been an able deputy leader and can more than competently continue as acting leader while a debate takes place. The Tories’ first acts will be to gerrymander the system against us. Harman is more than able to knock them back and expose their motives.
In the debate that follows three things should be remembered:
One, Labour should aim for a majority and build a coalition with the voters in the country, not rely on a coalition deal with other parties in parliament. It was not just the idea of sharing power with the Scottish Nationalist party that the public feared; the fact that we left the idea of powersharing at all on the table made us look weak and incomplete.
Two, Labour as a mix of those who hate the Tories and are hard done to by the Tories is a necessary but insufficient group to win power. Labour must ask those who are not appalled by Tories but might object to Tory policies to join our cause. Equally, those who are succeeding under a Tory government can choose to vote Labour.
Finally, the last government – the Tory bit in particular – was as bad as all said it was and still we did not beat them. It was not because we were ‘not left enough’ or ‘austerity-lite’ but ultimately because we lacked ambition for ourselves, our potential voters and our country. This cannot happen again.