Let’s put Labour’s so-called crisis in some perspective.Posted: July 19, 2015
It’s rapidly becoming the received wisdom that Labour is facing something called “an existential crisis”. According to wiki this is “a moment at which an individual questions the very foundations of their life: whether their life has any meaning, purpose, or value”.
To some degree, this has to be seen as the need journalists have to sell papers by exaggerating the significance of any given moment. The Observer would have us believe that a focus group now can usefully predict how they will feel in five years time. Before succumbing to this kind of panic, it’s worth putting things in a little perspective.
First of all, it’s not long since the commentariat would have had us believe that the Tory party had no future. No Tory victory since 1992. A party irreversibly tarnished as “the nasty party” with nothing to say to 21st century Britain. Throughout the short campaign, their focus was on why the Tories were doing so badly. Now of course, all that is forgotten and they all think they knew the result was inevitable.
Second, this was actually a very close election. Ten seats less and there was no Tory majority. Twenty seats less and there was no possible Tory led coalition.
And no one should be surprised that the few polls there are now show a bigger Tory lead. In 2005, Labour won by 3% but by July was 10% ahead. People – and journalists – jump on winning band wagons and forget that in a couple of years it may all seem very different.
But that is not a reason for complacency. Labour, on its own, was a very long way behind. And boundary and registration changes may well make things harder in 2020. But it does remind us that it is important to understand what actually happened rather than developing a narrative that fits in with some people’s desire to rubbish the past five years and to get back to the golden age of Blair.
Above all, Scotland happened. It cost Labour 40 seats directly and probably cost both Labour and Liberals a number of English seats because of the panic whipped up around the SNP surge. And this was something to which no answer was found. But it will have to be found because it seems unlikely the SNP is going away. And without Scotland, it is probably true to say a Labour led government is not going to happen.
It is going to be necessary to find ways of making multi-party government workable, and in the eyes of the electorate, safe. This will not be easy, given the separatist agenda. But it is absolutely necessary. Narrow tribalism will get us nowhere. We need to challenge the SNP to really be part of a progressive alliance – at the moment they can take the high ground secure in the knowledge that they won’t be asked to deliver. This is not a job for the next short campaign. It needs to start now. And it’s not obvious that a lurch to the right answers this bit of the problem
But it was not, of course, all about Scotland. Many individual manifesto commitments made excellent sense – as can be seen from how quickly Osbourne has about pinched some of them. What was missing was:
– A broad financial strategy. Basically the question of whether we support cuts or we don’t was never answered properly. Too often in mid term, Labour interviewees found themselves saying, “we don’t know yet” because there was no proper framework. Even at the end, the IFS was saying there was the biggest gap between spending plans of the two parties for many years, but we were still talking the language of austerity. But when asked what we would cut, the answers were usually trivial and unconvincing. Nor did we ever find an answer to the household metaphor – “families have to balance the books and so does the country”. How about this? – “if a family is hard up, the best way out is to get a better job and earn more. That’s what Britain needs”.
– A unifying narrative that could join up different policy ideas and was expressed in language that worked across the whole of the country. What we had was a lot of individual ideas targeted at particular groups but they never came together. As a result it is true that too many people felt we were not talking to them.
– Disciplined and consistent campaigning. The Tories had very heavy central control of the message and everyone stuck to it, working out how it applied in their area. Labour frankly didn’t seem like a coherent team and themes were launched but not picked up in a consistent way. Where was our Crosby? It may be heresy to say so, but this is a problem with bottom up policy making. Loads of working groups and individuals beavering away with no adequate central direction or theme, is no way to build a coherent message.
– Self confidence – we always seemed to be watering down potentially strong policies for fear of what right wing journalists might say. Education was a classic example of this. There was the opportunity to bring together a broad coalition of teachers, business, universities and parents around a radical challenge to Gove’s agenda. But we ended up too hamstrung by our own past and not confident enough about any alternative. The same was true of many policy areas – railways, private renting, student finance, care of the old, devolution …. and many others.
The argument that “the people have spoken so we have to do what they said” is in the end absurd. If you lose an election, then resolve to do better next time. It’s pretty obvious that Osbourne, and indeed Thatcher before him, shrugged and decided that because the Tories had lost an election, they needed to change their beliefs. They resolved to be more effective and more coherent. They determined they would get their world view across better – something which they’ve done so well that their narrative now seems irresistible.
That is now our challenge. We were not wrong in the last five years to turn the focus back onto inequality. We should actually never have lost sight of it. We don’t have to buy into the Tory world view but we do have to be a lot more self-confident, a lot more coherent and a lot more convincing. Then people will start listening again.