A week on from what can only be described as electoral Armageddon, I still struggle with the scope of Labour’s defeat and with the conflicting emotions it carried with it.
I understand the raw mathematics of it – Labour’s worst performance since 1983. I understand the reasons behind it and, at the back of my mind, I knew that a shellacking of this order was possible, but this hardly makes the realisation of these fears easier.
I can’t honestly claim that Ed Miliband would have made the best Prime Minister, though I believe he is an aggressively decent man – a rare enough commodity in British politics. I can’t claim that many Labour policies were sensible or even coherent and that is before we even get to our somewhat deficient means of promoting them. Having to say, in effect, “we have the wrong leader, the wrong policies and the wrong campaign but could you please vote for us anyway?” is a particularly galling experience. Having to not only defend but promote policies you disagree with is, if anything, even worse. I never in 5 years believed that Labour could win a majority. I was pessimistic that we would even constitute the largest party in a hung parliament. I can claim that a Labour government in some permutation would have been better for the people across the U.K. who are in need of help and better for Wales (parochialism FTW).
As a wimpy centrist in both temperament and policy preferences, I can not take an Owen Jones line on the Tories, but there can be no denying that the next five years will be anything other than very difficult for a significant number of people. You do not have to be (I hope) a left-winger to recognise that the current benefit sanctions regime creates serious gaps in the social safety net or that disability tests have led to very severe hardship for a group of people who have life hard enough as it is. The problem with the Conservatives is not that they are a “party of the rich” – it’s that they are a party of Southern, English, upper middle-class victimhood. They have resolutely protected the 70% of the welfare budget which goes to pensioners – a group which, presumably coincidentally, leans Tory, while hammering the minuscule percentage which goes on means-tested and more targeted support. They have also concentrated local government cuts in the areas least likely to vote for them. From the expansion of new and unaffordable middle-class entitlements to the illogical infatuation with “English Votes for English Laws” – an obsession which demonstrates either a stunning ignorance of how block grants operate or an astounding mendacity – the party is beholden to a virulent and deeply mean-spirited strain of English nationalism. As a resident and national of one of the remaining and much poorer quarters of the country, there is less optimism here than there is toilet paper in Venezuelan supermarkets.
So, as millennial bloggers so often put it, “WTF happened” on Thursday?
I do not accept the “shy Tory” explanation: that respondents to polls systematically lied about their preferences out of shame. For this level of response bias, we would have expected to see commanding Labour leads across both phone and online polls but we didn’t. The polls, including an unpublished outlier conducted the day before the election are consistent with a massive last-minute swing towards the Conservatives. Ultimately, people could not see Ed Miliband as Prime Minister and Labour’s ground-game in key seats was either inadequate for or incapable of contending with this residual unease within the electorate.
Four problems in particular stand out
1. Left, Left, Left, Left, Left: The factory preset Tory attack is to paint every Labour leader as an aspiration-loathing, high tax-loving modern incarnation of Lenin. This was the thinking behind the disastrous “New Labour, New Danger” campaign against Tony Blair. Rightly or wrongly and often the latter, this label stuck to Ed more so than any leader in a generation and unquestionably hit us in English marginals, both North and South.
2. The image thing: Strongly correlated with the first issue, Ed’s PR difficulties made the soft-left platform – some of which was popular – an even tougher sell and introduced a further layer of scepticism.
3. ID Left: Voter identification was seriously flawed. Too many undecided or even opposite votes were coded as potential or likely Labour ones earlier in the campaign. In the last few weeks, particularly from my own experience campaigning in Cardiff, votes which previous teams had categorised as “definite Labour” were clearly nothing of the sort. 12 hours before the polls opened, I was knocking on doors of UKIP, Plaid, Lib Dem and the Christian Party voters, along with some likely Tories.
4. “Too late”: Apparently the two most tragic words in the English language, nowhere was this more evident than in Labour’s campaigns for Welsh seats. Labour allegedly pulled activists and campaign staff from the key marginal of Cardiff North to campaign in an arguably unwinnable seat in the Vale of Glamorgan. The situation in the Gower – a Labour seat for the previous century – was even starker and can be summarised with one Tweet.
Ultimately, what happened last Thursday was a painful reminder that policies regarded with suspicion by voters combined with even worse messaging as well as organisational complacency when it matters most is simply not a winning combination. We have a long, hard 5 years to come up with one and win again.