Five ways Labour got it badly wrong

It's important to be brutally honest about Labour's lacklustre campaign


There’s little point in mincing words: yesterday’s result was a disaster for the Labour party. It’s more important than ever, then, to be brutally honest about Labour’s lacklustre campaign.

1) Labour still hasn’t regained public trust on the economy

This isn’t really about whether Labour actually did spend too much in government; the point is that it was perceived to have done so, and perception is largely what matters during an election campaign. Labour singularly failed to convince the country it could be trusted on the economy and in that respect it lost the election in the last six months of 2010 when it was embroiled in a leadership contest while the Conservatives were talking about spendthrift Labour.

So why, in this context, did Ed Miliband say during the leaders’ debates that he didn’t believe Labour did spend too much in government? True or not, that ship had sailed and the argument had already been lost. Public opinion on spendthrift Labour was obstinate and we ought to have moved on.

2) And yet, paradoxically, there is little evidence Labour lost as a result of a supposed shift to the left

If you spend any time listening to the echo chambers of the Daily Mail and the Sun, ‘Red Ed’ took the Labour party sharply to the left with promises of a mansion tax and an energy price freeze. In reality his manifesto was a fairly tepid brand of social democracy with a few very slight market interventions.

He certainly wasn’t advocating mass nationalisation and a supertax on the rich by any means. And let’s not forget: most of the policies damned as wildly left-wing by the tabloids were popular – remember how accusations of ‘Marxism’ over the energy price freeze backfired spectacularly for the Tories?

3) ….but Labour didn’t understand aspiration

This may seem like a contradiction after my previous point, but it shouldn’t. It should be possible on the one hand to talk to those on the periphery of society – the low paid on zero hours contracts etc – whilst simultaneously understanding that most people don’t want to be where they are now in five or 10 years’ time. They want to ‘get on’.

The writer John Steinbeck once said that socialism never took off in the United States because the poor saw themselves, not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires. One needn’t take it to that extreme to see the point: a good number of people hope that, in the future, they too will be doing well. And there’s really nothing wrong with that. The Labour party should absolutely look out for those at the bottom of society; but it must also understand that social class isn’t something most people see as fixed.

4) In Scotland Labour collapsed partly as a result of sharing platforms with the Tories

Because Labour stood on the No platform with the Conservatives during the independence referendum campaign, the toxicity attached to the Tories in Scotland transferred to Labour. The other obvious point to make is that the Yes campaign solidified almost half of the electorate (and lots of people who had never previously voted) in the SNP camp.

This ought to have been foreseeable. That isn’t to say Labour should have campaigned for a Yes vote; merely that things might have turned out a little better had they not joined a cross-party campaign with the hated Conservatives.

5) Presentationally the campaign was a mess

It’s fashionable to say that personality doesn’t matter – policy is what’s important – but it clearly does. One can of course understand the logic: you can’t help who you are, so it seems callous to dismiss someone based on a lack of charisma or, in Ed Miliband’s case, ‘weirdness’. But to deploy a cliché, no one ever said that life was fair; people aren’t emotional robots and they do vote according to which politician they best connect with. What we’re talking about here is the x-factor, and because it’s so elusive – few people have it and fewer know how to get it – we think it superfluous to have grown up political discussions about it. Play the ball not the man, as commentators like to say.

This is not to pin it all on Ed. Labour’s messaging was woeful at times. There were lots of piecemeal policy offerings but little in the way of an overall vision. Labour was against things but for very little. This relates to a much bigger question of what social democracy actually wants to be in the twenty-first century. Blairism was a response to the collapse of post-war social democracy and the fall of the Berlin Wall; but how should Labour seek to reshape society in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash?

Labour should try to reshape society; it’s no use, as the Tories are doing, ignoring the lessons of the crash and storing up problems for the future. Labour really did ought to tackle rampant inequality and entrenched privilege. But beyond the failed statist approach of the previous century, we’re a long way off working out how to do it.

James Bloodworth is the editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow him on Twitter

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167 Responses to “Five ways Labour got it badly wrong”

  1. Karl Greenall

    Yes, it was a grave error to deny a referendum on this vital subject, but….I would put money on the fact that the only division we need to observe will be within the Conservative party. In spite of their current glee over the election result, their political nemesis is now approaching. they are even talking of holding the referendum next year. The IN campaign will have to be both truthful and positive, and reflect the views of the pro-reform minded, pro-European majority.

  2. Leon Wolfeson

    No, it just needs more cash to buy media time.
    This, like other referendums, is not about the truth and won’t be so.

    Meanwhile, I’m seeing a scramble of people who have lived here for decades applying for British Citizenship, to make sure they don’t get chucked out (even though they have permanent resident status, for most of those decades)

    That, ironically, means they’ll be able to vote for Westminster next time…

  3. robertcp

    I agree with you but there will almost certainly be a referendum before 2020, which is why a referendum will not be an issue in that year’s election.

  4. Leon Wolfeson

    Well – I don’t think the damage done will heal in that time.
    And certainly if UKIP lose, they won’t accept that in any sense.

    It’s not altogether sure (although I certainly wouldn’t put cash on it ) that the Tories will hold together as a unified party thorough a campaign which will split them, for instance.

  5. CharleyFarleyFive

    Which should make you even more concerned. His ‘light’ version of lefty nonsense such as market and rent controls, higher rates of tax, anti-business policies, anti-aspiration and being in the pocket of the unions was enough to turn the electorate.

  6. Michael Worcester

    I would never vote UKIP in a general election. I welcome EU immigration. I think Poles in particular are wonderful. I also have two half Polish nieces now.

    I also agree @ 2 million Labour voters left Labour and did not joined the Tories. I also did not like Labour’s policy on this and thought defending EU migration as good in itself and a worthwhile price for access to the EU market was a missed opportunity. I still think it would be popular and the right thing to do

  7. Leon Wolfeson

    What utter rot.

    He moved hard right and offered a few sops – he was still very much in your right wing camp, as you make nonsensical claims about the Unions – workers – you hate so much..

    The reality is that left-wing policies poll well inddividually, and it was by moving right he lost the election.

    As you celebrate housing being unaffordable to the peons, tax cuts for the rich out the pockets of the poor, favouring big and foreign business over SME’s and your complete rabid hatred of anyone of the 99% getting a foothold on wealth. Not to mention, again, your fear of workers.

  8. Paul 保羅 باول Billanie

    Erm…I AM British for a start. In another comment you say “You in fact *ensure* your supported party does fine” I have not though stated my party allegiance (I prefer independents not party whips and politics btw) so please do not assume who and what I support.

  9. Paul 保羅 باول Billanie

    Again with the foreigner assumption. I AM a UK citizen and have been since
    birth. I am NOT anti-trade either just believe a referendum is needed and if offered by Labour and the LDs instead of denied (again) the result could have been very different.

  10. Russell Haggar

    I couldn’t agree with you more. There should have been an ongoing analysis from 2010 onwards of the real causes of the recession, the validity of Labour’s response to the financial crisis and the subsequent loimitations of Coalition economic policies all based around the information provided by Simon Wren-Lewis, David Blanchflower, William Keegan, Ha Joon Chang and others. Labour did not articulate this alternative and more accurate economic narrative powerfully enough.

  11. madasafish

    Labour Party votes in a Leader.
    Said Leader has zero real world eperience, looks like a geek, talks like a geek and acts like a geek.

    Labour Party wonders why it lost an election..

    Answer: it’s because it does not really want to win one. If your leader is unacceptable , your policies will be as well…

    In my adult lifetime, it has chosen: as Leaders: Michael Foot, Neli Kinnock , Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband. All obviously useless.None won a Gnerel Election.. (Kinncok lost twice)

    The Tories chose: William Hague, Michael Howard and Ian Duncan Smith.. All useless as well.

    The difference is: The Tories changed Leader when it was obvious they were losers. Labour did not.

    The sure sign of a Party not wanting enough to win.

    And when Labour have a winning Leader, who won an unprecedented three times, his name and supporters are mud.

    The faults lies with Labour and its supporters and their mindset.

  12. Helena Brown

    Emm, now that is untrue, Scottish Referendum was open to all who lived here. We now have an member in the Scottish Parliament who will not be able to vote in the EU referendum, and they called the SNP Nazi’s.

  13. Helena Brown

    That is why people in Scotland now look to the internet for facts and before making decisions, The Elderly were misled by the MSM and by Politicians who were grinding their own axes.

  14. uglyfatbloke

    Scotland…accepting the firection of a generation or two of greedy, incompetent self-serving bullies really did n’t help.

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  16. KarlGRice

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    […] right about the political importance of “aspiration”, and I am inclined to agree with one left-wing writer that “it should be possible on the one hand to talk to those on the periphery of society […]

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