Sunday, 10 May 2015

Okay so what just happened?

I tried not to make predictions on this blog, but it's quite clear that I thought a minority Labour government was on and that a Tory majority was almost impossible.  I was wrong.

The internet is now full of Blairites saying they always knew this was how things would end.  With a few dishonourable exceptions (such as Dan Hodges who has been propagandising for the Tories for four and a half years) these people, in private as well as in public, have really been saying that they were pleasantly surprised by Ed Miliband in the election campaign.  That he performed well on the television.  That the strategy might just pay off.

And let's be honest, before we consider anything else, it might have done!  The extraordinary two factors in this General Election - neither of which Ed Miliband had much control over - were the complete disintegration of the Liberal Democrats and the completely rampant success of the Scottish National Party.  The scale of the former took almost every psephologist by surprise.  The latter - though predicted in the polls - was still on a scale bigger than even Nicola Sturgeon imagined.  Let's be honest here, it wasn't just lefties like me that thought Ed Miliband might be Prime Minister now (all be it of a precarious minority government) - even David Cameron thought he might be.  These two factors were really the difference between the trailed scenario - the "mess" that might bring a minority government or a second election - and the Tory majority that prevailed.  How?  The Liberal Democrats vanished even where popular incumbents were expected to hold on, gifting several unexpected seats to the Conservative Party.  The SNP trounced the Labour Party in Scotland, for a range of reasons that everybody is still struggling to fully understand.  And the knowledge that the SNP were likely to be a powerful bloc in the new parliament and necessary to keep a minority Labour administration in power put off a whole load of English voters.  The Tories knew Miliband was not quite the electoral liability they had imagined - or indeed the Blairites had imagined - which is why they constantly spoke of the threat of a "Labour-SNP" government.  This talk, supported by swathes of mass media, was effective.

Other than that, Labour's vote share actually increased, more so than the Conservatives, despite the drubbing in Scotland.  I don't think it was necessarily essential for Miliband to immediately resign; it's become a faintly annoying convention in modern politics that leaders resign as soon as they lose (a convention that Jim Murphy is currently choosing to challenge). 

However, it would be wrong to sit back and simply conclude that an unfortunate series of events, some of them outside Labour's control, delivered a Tory majority.  Because these events are not wholly outside Labour's sphere of control and interest; and there were other factors and trends at play that, while not as dramatic as the two I've mentioned, also played their part.

If anybody tells you they have an easy solution to how Labour will win in 2020 then they are an idiot, and I include former Prime Ministers in that!  But one thing I am sure of is that the solutions getting the most traction in the mainstream media right now are learning exactly the wrong lessons from this election.

You see, they begin on a falsehood: that Labour fought a 35% strategy with a left-wing policy agenda, and this is what lost them the "aspirational" vote in middle England.  I have no inside knowledge of the central command of the ground campaign, but most agree it was professional and extensive.  In terms of the policy agenda there was absolutely no "lurch to the left" under Miliband.  The truth is that they equivocated, fudged and capitulated to almost every Blairite demand, and it did them no favours whatsoever.  The right-wing media said it was hard left; the left said they were "Red Tories".  It was neither, of course, but there was no leftward lurch.  They voted for a benefit cap - they needn't have bothered.  Rachel Reeves said she didn't want the party to represent people out of work. They spend months deciding whether to oppose the Bedroom Tax.  The manifesto was based entirely on "fiscal responsibility" and one of the key pledges was "control immigration".  All of it pointless: the media had decided that Miliband's Labour was going to spend, spend, spend, mostly represented welfare recipients and would have an open-door immigration policy.  They could have spouted the UKIP manifesto and the Mail and the Sun would have reported the identical message to the one they did.  At the same time, left-wing voters, especially those who had an alternative to vote for (like the SNP in Scotland, or a high-profile Green candidate in some English constituencies) heard it all, and hated it.

And of course it wasn't all bad.  There were some excellent policies.  What was lacking was a coherent story.  Ed had one - quite a good one - but these more right-wing policies and bits of rhetoric fudged it and made it a difficult one to tell.  As such, lots of people who should have voted for Miliband's narrative actively campaigned and voted against it.

The obvious place where this happened was Scotland.  The SNP preached anti-austerity.  It hardly matters that their manifesto and spending commitments were remarkably similar to Labour's.  Labour's story was more cuts and difficult decisions; the SNP's was anti-austerity and the SNP swept up our voters in huge numbers.

But it happened in parts of England too.  I haven't done a thorough analysis of how many seats it cost (and we can't know for certain, because we don't know how many "non-voters" were apathetic and how many were calling "a plague on all your houses").  Over 1000 people voted Green in Ed Balls' Morley constituency.  More than enough, had they been enthused by Labour's agenda, to keep him in the Commons. 

3000 voted Green in Leeds North West - more than enough to see Alex Sobel in the House of Commons and have one less Liberal Democrat there!  The same picture can be seen in Derby North.  The Greens got over 1 million votes in this General Election.  I'm not suggesting that even if Labour had fought a more positive, emphatically anti-austerity campaign that all those voters would have voted Labour, but it is unquestionably the case that many of them would have and that there are seats that Labour could have won under those circumstances in England, not just in Scotland.  And indeed in Wales.  In Gower, Labour lost by a few hundred votes.  Anti-austerity voters choosing Plaid Cymru or the Welsh Greens could have given Labour a comfortable win there.

Although lots of Labour MPs had increased majorities on Thursday, chief among them with the high-profile Labour rebels whose local constituents were fully aware of their anti-austerity, unfudged messages: the likes of Dennis Skinner, John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn racked up ever more Labour votes.  It's worth remembering that John McDonnell first started fighting Hayes and Harlington when the Tory incumbent had a reasonably comfortable lead.  It's now a Labour fortress with McDonnell having nearly 60% of the vote.

Then what of UKIP? Of course UKIP are a party of the right. Where they have performed well in the north of England tends to be in constituencies where the Conservatives used to have a strong presence and no longer do, having been replaced with a  new type of "working-class Tory" who prefers a purple rosette.  But that is far from being the whole story.  I can't be the only person who spoke to voters who were long-term Labour voters who had decided to vote UKIP.  Of course there are a range of reasons for this switch and some of them are uncomfortable for liberal lefties who hope everybody could be as chilled out about immigration as we are!  But there is more to this switch than immigration.  It is a dislike of a political class.  So even though the politics of the Labour-UKIP switcher is a polity of the right, their dislike of their former party is not that it is too far from that mythical centre ground, but that it's too close.  That the parties are too similar.  They disliked Labour's leadership team because they were "too posh" and couldn't really speak to them or for them. Many were nostalgic for an Old Labour, some of whose policies you would expect them to dislike more than Miliband's. However, it is likely that these voters have been alienated from the Labour movement over a much longer period than Green, Plaid and SNP switchers and a change in policy emphasis would have perhaps been unlikely to shift them in 2015.

I am sick of reading comments from people claiming that the election results prove what they've said all along anyway, and therefore the lesson to be learnt from the results is for everybody to realise how right they've always been.  This is not my point here.  It is undoubtedly a more complex picture than that.  There are seats in the South of England - outside London - that were winnable under Blair and seem out of reach of even a modestly more socially-democratic Labour Party.  We all encountered voters who were put off by Ed Miliband - whether we think that was fair, or media-fomented or not.  I don't claim to have the answers, but the quick way in which the Blairite/Progressite right have pulled out all their old answers and claimed that the facts on the ground prove their analysis correct simply does not stand up to a look at what happened.  If Labour moves "back to the centre" (which can only be code for "even further right") then those seats I mentioned above cannot be won back.  That is essentially accepting that the Labour Party surrenders Scotland.  How many more seats were there that we just held on to because enough potential switchers were persuaded that - imperfect though we are - a Labour government is preferable to a Tory one.  Would they still be persuaded of that next time if we've moved further right; if we give them more evidence we're the "Red Tories" they think we are, and no further evidence that we will deliver the change they want to see?


  1. Is there any result that would have convinced you we should move in a direction other than leftwards?

  2. To be fair to me, Andrew, I quite consciously don't do that (because I'm so fed up of every Blairite commenter doing the mirror image). Of course, I would always advocate a left agenda, because I think they're the right policies. I don't think they would always be the most popular policies and I've always argued that a more radical Labour agenda would have to go hand in hand with a combative campaign set to win arguments, not just reflect current opinion.

    What I am saying on this occasion is that a more "centrist" Labour campaign may or may not have won a few more seats in southern England (although I am sceptical that the media onslaught would have significantly differed; I think the public view of Labour was set in 2008-10, not in 2010-2015). My contention is that this easy 1997 solution ignores what happened elsewhere in the country where such a move would compound the difficulties we had,

    I guess, I'm saying there are no easy solutions. Obviously for me, the strategic potential of a "proper left" agenda (by which I mean a coherent, unfudged social democracy - I'm not advocating the policy agenda I actually support!!!) has the advantage of being an agenda I prefer politically too.

  3. This still amounts to little more than "let's move further in the same direction". Of course we can cherry-pick things were Ed wasn't leftwing (say, immigration) or parts of the country where the challengers claim to be more leftwing than Labour (say, Scotland). But we swerved to the left in the public perception and the Tories got a majority. While we shouldn't seek to recreate Blair, and I agree that Blairism redux won't help in a good number of traditional seats, we actually need to have sensible answers to why Blair won 3 times and Brown and Miliband both lost that don't amount to "luck on the economy" or "the Tories". I agree that there are no easy solutions, but we need to at least be asking the right questions. The problem is not Blairites but that Blair was right when he talked of what happens when a traditional left-wing party faces a traditional right-wing party. That gives us two ways out, we can be less left-wing, or be less traditional in how we are left-wing, but we now have gone 40 years without any Labour leader other than Blair winning an election. That's not down to misfortune or betrayal. That's about what the electorate will vote for.

  4. But the electorate were not offered a "traditional leftwing" programme. There were plenty of popular leftwing policies they could have gone for - taking rail franchises back into public control as they came up, for example. Instead we had a benefit cap, budget cuts, a public sector pay freeze, little more than token words on free schools, more rigorous immigration controls, no end or particular challenge to the sanctions regime of IDS, corporation tax freeze, reduction in business rates, housing policies with no specific commitments on social or council housing... It was a fudge. And the problem with a fudge is that when you try and construct a narrative (horrible Cruddas nonsense term) it falls apart. "We're against Tory austerity" (i.e. "we'll cut a bit less"). Balls was the worst offender, trying to play clever games with economic policy - he was much more convincing in 2010 with a straightforward anti-austerity message - for good or ill - but by the time he was saying he wouldn't reverse anything in an Osborne budget he was writing the SNP's lines for them.

    A handful of votes different on Thursday and we'd be saying that no Tory had managed to get a majority for quarter of a century... I wouldn't be saying it was because Tories can no longer win; we've just seen that they can. Labour won with Blair, but I don't think he performed any magic tricks. In 1997 there were a handful of important factors (many of them entirely down to the Tories) but in terms of Labour, what we had was excitement and enthusiasm and the belief that there would be real and significant change. Blair (and others before him) moved Labour to the centre, but they won in 1997 because of their differences to the Tories, not their similarities. Between 1997 and 2005, while Blair kept winning elections, he managed to lose 4 million voters along the way...

    I guess my message for this election would be that was should have "let Ed be Ed" and keep all the "in the black Labour", "Purple Book" and "Blue Labour" noise out of the message. He might still have failed, but at least we'd have a clearer idea of quite WHAT had failed....

  5. I just don't think your perception of where people stood matches the voters. Look at this Voters saw Blair as slightly right of centre, Brown way to the left, Miliband beyond that. The idea that even further out to the left there was a path to victory seems unlikely. You might see Ed as lukewarm soft-leftist offering something too weak for voters. The voters didn't.

  6. Yes, I've seen that, but I don't think the voters necessarily perceive politics in the left/right way that we do. Many "left-wing" policies are extremely popular and yet apparently anathema to the centre (e.g. nationalisation). The same is true about some very right-wing policies too, of course, and some voters hold both views without considering them to be contradictory. (For example the vast majority of UKIP voters want to renationalise the railways and the energy companies). So the media create the perception of where the politicians stand, and we've had 5 years of people banging on about Red Ed being some sort of Marxist, despite having policies mostly to the right of '97 Labour (with a few honourable exceptions). None of that would matter if the policies and message were popular and chimed with the public. People perceived the SNP to be left of Labour (not sure that perception is true either, but it's there) and yet that perception did not stop 50% of Scots voting for them.

    1. Who said anything about policies? The point is about the people not the policies. Doesn't matter if people can be persuaded to back a policy in a poll without a debate, if the only politician who would ever implement it would be considered a loon. What matters is that Ed positioned himself on the soft left to win the leadership election, and never changed that perception, whatever his policies were. Which is why more left-wing policies would have changed nothing. He was already too left-wing for the voters.

  7. The other assumption here is that people who perceive something as left or centre also approve of things they place towards the centre. I can see some logic for the assumption, based on the placement of Tony Blair and his electoral success. But the same graph places Nigel Farage as very right wing at a time when his party won the European elections. It is a very New Labour assumption that positioning in the centre denotes approval, Actually, a lot of people are very distrustful of the centre as they associate it with a concept of "the political class" and "they're all the same" and a lack of trust.

    1. In general elections being near the centre (or maybe slightly to the right of it) seems to be advantageous.