Written by Theodore Knott
It is common in the wake of a crushing defeat to try and find an excuse, however implausible, to justify what has just happened. From being dumped in a relationship, to losing to a rival in football, all the way to being defeated in politics. The initial wave of indignation from losing seems always to be loudest when the cold hearted truth is that you have done badly and that you have got it wrong.
The Labour response to the growing realisation that they had lost, and lost big, in the 2015 General Election was a fascinating microcosm of this relationship between denial and acceptance. For every Ed Miliband- calm and honest in defeat, there was a Margaret Beckett- blaming media coverage of the campaign and the Conservatives being nasty as the reason why Labour had their worst election result since the wilderness years under Michael Foot. This was further illustrated on the post-election Question Time, as a young Labour supporter shouted loudly about how ‘it was the biased Murdoch press that decided the election. Others have blamed the Conservatives for tapping into English nationalist sentiment for political gain; true to an extent, but missing the point that exploiting this feeling required grievances to have to be there in the first place. Meanwhile the Guardian, at its pompous best, felt fit to post an article by Giles Fraser essentially blaming the electorate for being wrong.
The truth is that Britain resoundingly rejected Labour in 2015 because they were unrepentant over the past, unclear over their vision for Britain, and chose a leader who was unsuitable to be Prime Minister. Labour were ultimately unelectable because of these three facts and they have no one to blame but themselves.
Most with a modicum of economic sense realise that it was not Labour who were the root cause of the 2008 financial collapse. However, denying that there was profligate spending as Miliband, Balls et al have done over the past 5 years was a pathetic display of buck passing. It was also seen through by a general public that is unlikely to regain trust with politicians when politicians think that the public are unable to remember 5 years in the past. It is not easy to say sorry, but the fact that Labour attempted to absolve themselves of all responsibility for their actions made them appear to be either deluded, or liars. I will be paying for New Labour’s financial decisions, however well intentioned, for most of my adult life. You will be too. Many would be more willing to forget the past if, at any point over the years since the crisis, Labour had said ‘we know we got it wrong and we are sorry’. Until such a point is reached, Labour is liable to retain the economic albatross around its neck that it did between 1979-1997, the last time the nation’s finances imploded under their watch.
Team Miliband also failed to have an appealing vision to anyone in the middle, to the ‘Mondeo Man’ and ‘Worcester Woman’ of New Labour lore. The problem was not just in Scotland; if Labour had won every Scottish seat we would still have a Conservative majority in Westminster. As a student from a lower middle income family who is about to finish his undergraduate degree, at no point did I feel that Labour were even attempting to offer an opportunity to me, to reward my aspiration and hard work. While the Conservatives announced a tax-free ISA for first time buyers and changes to postgraduate funding that will directly help people in my position; Labour were having an internal debate about whether or not they were ‘the party of benefits’.
This uncertainty about what Labour actually is must also be resolved before electoral success is likely. A party of the working class with almost no working class MPs. A party that is more left wing than the Scottish National Party in one country, while being ‘tougher than the Tories’ on benefits 10 miles south of the border. A party that rewards success as long as you are not too successful. A party so full of contradiction was never going to form a majority. This is not to say that the Conservatives don’t have contradictions within them, they clearly do, but you know where you stand with the Tories; economic competence and a broadly middle class party that represents (broadly) the middle class. After 5 years of opposition, I still didn’t have a bloody clue what this brand of Labour was really about and I don’t think the majority of the electorate did either.
Then there was the ‘Miliband factor’. A rod for Labour’s back made entirely by the antiquated voting system the party has in leadership contests, where the union vote managed to trump the opinion of party members and MPs. Much will be written in years to come about Ed Miliband and it is unlikely to be kind, mostly due to Mr. Miliband’s remarkable propensity to produce chaos from the least likely sources (bacon sandwiches, for example). However, there was clearly a palpable feeling that they had elected the ‘wrong Miliband’ and that he just was not quite up to the job of being Prime Minister. The number of times a member of the public thought ‘I would have voted for his brother’, or some variation thereof before putting an ‘X’ next to the name of another candidate, I would imagine is quite substantial. Politics shouldn’t be based on personality, but it is, and many people never managed to shake the feeling that with Mr. Miliband as PM, we would have gone to bed as we were and woken up having accidentally sold East Anglia to Vladimir Putin. Have the press been merciless in their hounding of Mr. Miliband? Yes. But it is the fault of Labour for picking the candidate who, in the eyes of most, was clearly not a credible choice to lead the country.
Moving forward, it is absolutely essential that Labour elect a leader untainted by the stench of Tony Blair, while assiduously working to regain the aspirational middle that Blair so successfully courted. Electing Yvette Cooper or Andy Burnham as Labour leader may well appeal to the party faithful (especially in the case of Burnham), but to paraphrase Lord Ashdown, If that approach wins them the next election, I will eat my hat. In the same manner that David Cameron managed to shed the ideological baggage of Margaret Thatcher for the Conservatives in the mid 2000’s, Labour must shed Blair and Brown by electing a leader from a new generation. Dan Jarvis would be the best choice in my view, though he is untested and inexperienced. Chuka Umunna would be far more palatable than Ed Miliband was to middle England, although a London-based former lawyer is unlikely to claw back the working class vote in droves.
There are no easy choices for Labour at the moment and the party seems primed to do what it has done historically following major losses, namely punch itself for an extended period of time. What is clear is that it was not Rupert Murdoch, English nationalism or the electorate being wrong that lost this election for Labour. The ultimate problem was Labour itself.