The scariest thing about Labour’s failure to win or at least force a hung parliament in this election is that it seems almost inevitable in hindsight and that they seem set on learning the wrong lesson.
I was one of the many who believed the polling – that despite losses in Scotland Labour would push the Tories close, to the point where a Labour-led alliance would have more seats that any arrangement that the Conservatives could conceive of.
As it is, the extent of the Liberal collapse and that it disproportionately benefited the Conservatives) made any but the most extensive Labour surge meaningless and that surge failed to materialise. Instead the party has stood still in England and lost Scotland in epic fashion to make the result in terms of seats look punitive, when in fact Labour increased their vote share nationwide.
So why did they lose?
Labour had a lot of ground to make up since 2010. Rightly implicated in the wrongful decision to go to war in Iraq and wrongfully blamed for the financial crash, they have been losing ground since 2003. In 2010, they lost a significant chunk of Blair’s middle England gains to the Tories, mostly due to the (slightly unfair) perception of economic incompetence.
In England, they failed to win that ground back and while they may have gained voters abandoning the Liberals, they lost far more than expected to UKIP and probably some to the Greens.
In Scotland, the SNP took up Labour’s centre-left mantle, spun an expressly anti-austerity message (although looking at the policies it’s more super-slow austerity), opposed nuclear weapons and then Labour acted as Tory front men in the referendum campaign which had an immediate effect in the polls*.
* Pre September 2014, Labour were within 5% of the SNP, both in the mid 30s, but after the referendum the gap widened with most polls underestimating the 15% lead the SNP won at the election.
Labour lost because they let their opponents frame the debate – the Conservatives on the economy, UKIP on immigration and the SNP on all things Scottish. They needed to present an alternative to austerity – which would have been backed by considerable theoretical evidence and not exactly ‘radical’ – but failed to do so, offering a watered down version of Tory policy which was never going to convince floating voters.
The talk of Labour grandees like Tony Blair & Peter Mandelson is that the party went too far to the left and they need to step back into the ‘centre’ (meaning the neoliberal edge of the centre-right, given their distorted view of the political compass) and many of the contenders to the throne such as Chuka Umunna would clearly adopt such a
I can’t help but feel this is madness.
For one thing, Labour cannot beat a cohesive, well-led Tory party on their own ground.
Blair’s victories were founded initially on a divided and weak Conservative effort and latterly on low electoral turnout – not an implicit centre-right majority in the UK population. Their majority from 1997-2010 was built on a core Labour vote with no alternatives and a significant amount of floating, ‘centrist’ voters. The core Labour vote now DOES have alternatives and as we’ve been told so often, the centre (or middle) has been squeezed.
Secondly, a move to the right would kill Labour in Scotland entirely, compound their stagnation in Wales and probably lead to further bleed to the Greens, Plaid Cymru and UKIP.
For all that UKIP are pegged by most politically-informed folks as a right wing party – effectively the Tea Party to the Conservative’s Republicans – their rhetoric appeals to working class people who have never been educated in the finer points of economic or social theory but can well believe that immigrants and Europe are to blame for Britain’s woes and that doing away with them would eliminate the supposed NEED for austerity.
With a disengaged and ill-informed electorate, providing a Great Other to hate is a compelling electoral tactic.
Labour need to reassess who they are as a party – what do they stand for, over and above electoral success and personal ambition? I believe that a neo-Blairite Labour would be a disaster for British politics, leading to an easy Conservative win in 2020 and increasing disparity between the constituent parts of the UK.
Sure, a centre-left Labour might not win in 2020, but at least they would make it a fight and would challenge the Conservatives rather than quibbling over minutiae.