If we don’t ask the right questions, how will we get the right answers?
First published on the Staggers
2015 was painful for Labour. A winnable election in which we failed through decisions, not destiny, to win. Like 2010, had Labour made the right choices, both of those elections could have been very different. Every year of the 21st century so far could have been under a Labour government. Now the pattern of the 20th century looks to be taking hold: Tory rule punctuated by short spurts of Labour.
It does not have to be this way, which is why the unasked – let alone unanswered – questions of the Beckett report must be confronted. I have 10 such questions – one for every seat we won from the Conservatives in May – that need to be addressed, quickly.
What were we asking people to vote for?
Our £300,000 consultant guru dubbed Labour’s campaign, “Vote Labour get a microwave”. Not only should we ask David Axelrod for our money back we should be asking how this happened. At Progress annual conference in 2014, Owen Jones attacked the leadership for having a ‘see your GP in 48-hours’ pledge, but not even managing to talk about it for 48 hours, so keen were they for a new headline that they achieved no market penetration. By polling day we had lots of policy, but no coherence.
This forms part of the voters’ perceptions of our party. If you did not think tacking zero hour contracts or non-doms were the most important issues in 2015 all you had to go on was your views on the party’s leadership and its potential handling of the economy. This is not news to anyone fighting elections. In the polls which said Labour was ahead, the party trailed on both of these fronts throughout the parliament. Yet nothing was done.
Why did we have nothing to say to middle England?
Price freezes and mansion taxes are retail policies for some but hardly an ‘on your side message’ for middle Britain or non-tribal floating voters. On one doorstep in the East Midlands, a guy said to me: “you have a plan to save me £300 on my energy bills, yet nothing to say about the fact that if interest rates go up it would cost me £3,000!”He had a fair point. If you hated the Tories, we had something to say. If you were hard done by the Tories, we had loads to reel off. It was like we wanted middle England to apologise to us for voting the Tory in the first place, rather than offering a listening ear and a sense we had accepted wrongdoing, listened and changed. We paid a hard price but it is unclear if this message is currently understood by the NEC and wider leadership.
How could a national party expect to win with a 35 per cent strategy?
There are few that still protest that Labour was not aiming for a pitiful 35 per cent of the vote. Granted there was no document bearing that name, but our 2010 vote plus a third of 2010 Liberal Democrats was our aim. There was no attempt to win the former Labour voters who could not bring themselves to vote for us in 2010, or in some cases their expenses tarnished local candidates. Even in the heady days of the 2012 omnishambles budget we were not ever aiming to win back all the seats we lost to David Cameron. We didn’t even fight the Rochester by-election to win, believing instead that a United Kingdom Independence party win was bad for the prime minister and therefore good for us. How wrong we were. Beckett makes much of the fact the leader’s office resolved to ‘make it a one term government’, but, without willing the means to achieve it, this was futile.
Where was the voter registration and non-voter drive we were promised?
When critiquing the low ambition of the party’s leadership the regular riposte was that previous non-voters would be registered and mobilised in their droves. This promise has a tendency of repeating itself under leaders unable to win. Even if it were to work, it normally only helps stack up bigger majorities in already Labour-held safe seats. I know of no examples of increased turnout helping in marginal seats in 2015. In Ilford North – the biggest swing against the Tories in the country – turnout remained stubborn at 65 per cent. Miliband gave over the whole of his 2012 Progress annual conference speech to the subject. Literally nothing followed. Beckett and her colleagues had a duty to put this argument to bed. They did not.
Why was Labour fighting fewer seats than we needed to win a general election?
Labour needed 67 seats to win a majority. By the start of 2015, it was actively resourcing just 61, potentially fewer. Normally in campaigns you fight a third more seats than you hope to win, otherwise you concede vital ground to your opponents and focus all their resources in your, not their, battleground. When it became apparent – made worse by polls indicating a hung parliament – Labour was not resourcing a campaign for a majority, voters understandably asked who Miliband was planning to share power with. The most likely partner seemed to be the SNP; Caroline Flint in the Guardian confirmed that those suspecting Miliband wanted his options with the SNP kept open, were not wrong.
Why wasn’t the rise of the SNP dealt with earlier?
The SNP insurgency was not a new phenomenon. It cannot be forgotten that four years out from May’s poll the SNP won a majority in a parliament designed to not have majorities. The New Statesman’s own endorsement of Labour lays the blame directly at Miliband’s door, “even after the SNP’s victory in the 2011 Scottish parliament election, which we predicted, he remained complacent over Labour’s decline in Scotland, where he is even less popular than David Cameron.” This gets no mention in the Beckett report, nor does the level of warning provided to the party by candidates and campaigners.
After the Miliband and Alex Salmond in Downing Street poster and before the ‘in the SNP’s pocket’ billboard, I raised with the party how often the SNP issues came up on our 24 seats doorstep campaigning tour. I was told, “activists just aren’t used to hearing back Tory messages. The issue will subside.” They were wrong and Labour – more importantly the people in our communities we sought to represent – paid a heavy price. I reckon we had as many as five responses to the SNP during the short campaign, none of them believable. There has been little thinking about what this means going forward; no thinking has been displayed in Beckett’s report.
Why did Labour have no discernible business support?
Social democratic parties must be willing and able to reform the market practices in front of them, especially when they are throwing out such unfair outcomes. But the idea that there are no allies for this in business or civil society is just bizarre; as Liam Byrne argues, business leaders and associated organisations share many of Labour’s aims of a reformed economy. Miliband, and his team, in contrast seemed to enjoy an anti-establishment status of winding up big business and endorsing the ‘Occupy movement’. ‘Big business’ may be unpopular in theory, but rarely in practice. The sad truth for Labour is that workers would rather hear from their employer than their trade union about who might be best to vote for to guarantee their employment prospects. Work in this area cannot start soon enough.
In addition, it is high time the party realise that we cannot award economic credibility to ourselves. Just because we think we have run the numbers through a calculator, does not mean voters have to believe us or agree with the course of action. Credibility is awarded by others. Academics are useful but limited in their broader reach, and lots of economic institutions can hint but not endorse. That leaves only business leaders and normally takes the form of old-fashioned letters in national newspapers with business names as signatories in column after column.
Why has the national party got nothing to learn from the 10 seats we took from the Tories?
There are no examples from those who won against the odds in Beckett’s 36-page report. Wes Streeting fought target seat 83 and won. Peter Kyle beat both his Tory opponent and helped his local council candidates replace a Green council. Why are none of these campaigns represented or cited in this report. Is there nothing to learn from either of them, or the other eight seats we won from our oldest enemy, the Tories? Having campaigned in all bar one of these seats I know that is not the case.
Where was the money?
Fundraising is a key component of any campaign. Since 2005 Labour has become used to having less resources than the Tories – but this is not a given. Beckett does not seem to agree and casually talks about us being outspent ‘threefold’. She talks about how this affects our campaign, but not why we were in this position in the first place. The responsibility for fundraising, right or wrong, falls to the leader. It seems apparent that not enough was done. What we have no idea of is: why? Was it that there simply is not a big enough available pool of donors or were our actions and words putting off would-be supporters?
The mishandled Collins review and resulting show of strength soured relations with key affiliated trade unions and the block affiliations were reduced, compounding the problems. Long term, the Trade Union bill and cuts to Short money will exacerbate this.
Party staff – both in fundraising and regional offices – went above and beyond to get resources in, but the leadership did not meet them halfway. Never again should this be allowed to happen. We are never going to be able to help Britain with a cost of living crisis, if we have our own.
If the media are hostile, can we look to get better stories, not sob stories, about our mistreatment?
When I was president of my students union I was called a ‘militant student leader’ by the Daily Mail. I pinned it to my notice board and quoted it heavily when standing for the National Union of Students executive. It worked for me then. Labour’s strategy seems to have many of the same elements but with a vastly different audience. We made a virtue of the fact we would get bad coverage. As early as 2012 Miliband wore it as a badge of honour saying, “There are no hard feelings between me and News International. They want me to lose, I want them in jail.”
In 2013 Kevin Rudd tried the same strategy and it fell flat on its face. Labour did not learn those lessons and just chose to repeat them, with the same disastrous outcomes. Just to be clear, this was not a fault with the press team at Labour HQ or in the leader’s office. It was a lack of a different narrative and leadership. If you do not like what the press are writing, do not reach for Leveson, make better stories. It is sad that Beckett has come to the exact opposite conclusions.
To conclude …
This election was winnable. Our candidates on the front line did us proud and became our best spokespeople, hardest workers and biggest donors. The danger, and my fear, of not learning the hard lessons is that we not only let down our 2015 candidates, but successive generations of aspiring Labour MPs. They provided the ground campaign but were failed on the air war. Beckett barely recognises their effort and recommends no ways the party can show gratitude to those gave everything for a Labour victory, but were failed by lack of leadership and narrative.
Fundamentally, the Labour party exists to stand up for and improve the communities which we seek to represent. It was founded to politically represent working people and the trade union movement, to organise and, as it says in clause one, ‘maintain in parliament, and in the country, a political Labour party’. We cannot hope to do this, or come close, without learning the hard lessons from our 2015 general election failure.
Richard Angell is director of Progress