First published on the Fabian Review blog
‘In May we lost everywhere to everybody‘ was the verdict of former policy chief Jon Cruddas after Labour’s second avoidable but disastrous defeat. Labour lost Scotland, eight seats to the Tories – including one never held by anyone but Labour, Gower – and saw the Tory majority increase in 68 of the 88 target seats where we faced David Cameron’s party. We won just 10 seats from the Conservatives, and reduced their majority in a further 10.
The 10.01pm exit poll put large swaths of the party into shock. Still wrapped in the post-trauma tin foil blanket, the result is still seeping in, as are the consequences. Labour still has not issued an apology to the 9.3 million who voted Labour and wanted an end to the bedroom tax, the zero-hour contracts, the selling-off of the NHS to the lowest bidder. Those who relied on a Labour government to change, not just their immediate lives, but their whole trajectory, are left in pain on the sidelines. Some at least have Labour members of parliament, councils or councillors who can be on hand to help; too many have no one on their side.
Eight months on and the tens of thousands of party volunteers who donated sweat and shoe leather for Ed Miliband to become prime minister have barely been acknowledged, let alone thanked for their hard work. Worse still, the party sought to ask more of our war-wounded party members and make submissions to the Beckett review, an inquiry into the result headed by the former foreign secretary. The work has been done but only a handful have seen the result. None of the target seat candidates who gave up so much to give voters a choice last May. This is an appalling way to treat people.
Those who did the work to help Labour win are entitled to know if the party – in which they put so much trust and from which we all take so much advice – has learned why we lost. No more hiding – total transparency is now required, no edits, no redactions. This must be the whole report and nothing short.
But it is not just for personal reasons that this report must be made public. It is for simple electoral reason. Not only should Labour apologise to those who did put their faith in us (and, therefore, who we let down), it must show those who did not choose us that we heard their message. These people are not Tories. Many of them have – reluctantly – voted Tory once or twice in recent years, but they are neither ideologues nor fellow travellers for David Cameron’s project. They just think he was the better choice. Ouch. Instead we must view them as potential Labour voters. The most saddening thing is many of these electors were looking for an excuse to vote Labour but could not find it and therefore could not vote for us.
This weekend I will be speaking at the Fabian New Year conference. Yet again the successors to Sydney and Beatrice Webb have pulled together an impressive debate among the Labour broad church. They have asked me, alongside others, to answer the question: ‘The mountain to climb: how does Labour win in the 2020s?’ The simple truth is this – we will not be winning in 2020 until we have been honest with ourselves about why we lost in 2015. Margaret Beckett’s analysis is critical to this.
Everyone expects the report – as Iain Watson reported on the World at One – to conclude that we lost because of five issues: leadership; economic credibility (being anti-austerity-lite not austerity-lite); immigration, welfare and the fear of a partnership with the Scottish National party. These will come as no surprise to anyone who ventured near a doorstep in any of Labour’s target seats.
More devastating than the loss is the reality that we were never even genuinely aiming to win. Yes we wanted to end up in No 10; but only if Cameron and George Osborne dropped the keys, not because we were willing to fight the keys out of their cold, dead hands. Miliband’s ’35 per cent strategy’, had it even come off, was dwarfed by the Tories’ 37 per cent of the vote. “The party slashed its target list of 106 seats to just 61 – but Labour needed 67 gains to win a majority of one, and so we were always destined to fall short” I wrote, days after the defeat. You will not read this in the Beckett report, but true it remains. If you are not fighting enough seats to get a majority, do not be surprised if voters, your opponents and the media ask, ‘Who do you intend to share power with?’ This is a disaster for any party – suddenly another party’s brand, policies and spokespeople are all over your election grid and there is little to nothing you can do about it. The Scottish National party played a blinder, Labour floundered and it is the voters who are left suffering.
The start of my speech on Saturday will be this: to resolve to never again go into a general election with a sights set so low and fingers so firmly in our ears. Publishing the Beckett report is a simple but necessary first step.
Richard Angell is director of Progress. He will be speaking at the Fabian New Year Conference this weekend. For more information and tickets, click here.