Two headline stories emerge from the General Election of 2015. The Conservatives won a majority, and the Labour Party lost and lost badly. It was one of the most exciting election nights of my lifetime, opening with a dramatic exit poll not even predicted by most psephologists, forecasting that the Conservatives would emerge as the largest party and probable victors. The Scottish National Party was on course to win almost every seat in Scotland.
For the Liberal Democrats though the news was bleak. In the same exit poll they were forecast to win just nine seats. The morning after resulted in the resignations of Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg, former leaders of the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats respectively.
Somewhat inevitably, the psychodrama, backstabbing and soul-searching has begun in the Labour Party. It is painful to watch, as I was a child of Thatcher, but a teen and young adult of Blair. Things Can Only Get Better by D:Ream was more than just a catchy pop song to me, it was a sincerely held truth and Tony Blair, together with John Prescott and his pledge card represented that truth. They had a vision for Britain, and demonstrated to the people of Britain how that vision would improve their lives. Crucially though they gained the trust of the British people, resulting in three election victories under Blair.
But oh, how the worm turns in British politics! Labour are now in that torturous position the Conservatives found themselves in in 1997. A toxic elixir of irrelevance hinterland and wilderness. When you have powerful contributions to make, but the electorate has all but tuned out of your message.
In the ensuing paragraphs, I will set out why I think Labour was so severely punished north of the border, what was wrong with the campaign and, and how I think such mistakes could be avoided in the future.
THE SNP AND SCOTLAND
Another aspect of the election campaign the psephologists failed to anticipate was the extent of the rise of an ebullient SNP. They have claimed the majority of the seats in Scotland (an exact total of 57) with only the remaining two seats being held by Labour and the Conservatives. Historically Scotland has always been a Labour heartland, with the Conservatives in particular making very little electoral impact there.
However a resurgent SNP led by Nicola Sturgeon who fought an excellent election campaign has cut into Labour’s dominance like a knife through butter
Many commentators have opined fulsomely on why Ed Miliband’s refusal to do a deal with the SNP was absolutely the right decision to make. Strategically, I think it almost sealed his electoral fate.
Nicola Sturgeon often spoke during the TV debates of an anti-Tory majority. Amongst the voting public of Scotland this already exists. Knowing what we know now about the Labour Party’s precarious position in the polls from the beginning of the election campaign onwards, it would have been almost impossible for Ed Miliband to form a government without the SNP’s assistance. Note here that I make no judgement about the desirability of this as an outcome. What I am saying is based on the electoral arithmetic.
Now you would have thought that the goal of any Opposition leader would be to kick the incumbent Prime Minister out of Downing Street and get back into government. Yet Ed Miliband’s refusal was based on an anachronistic point about something the SNP had failed to do in the 70s, as Nicola Sturgeon laughingly pointed out when Ed Miliband himself was 7.
He intimated he would rather lose the election then do a deal with the SNP. I believe it is this callous stubbornness, and noncommittal attitude which lost him the election. As I said earlier there is an anti-Tory majority in Scotland. Therefore I believe he was punished severely by the Scots for refusing to do this deal.
Other factors come into play too. Jim Murphy feels like an elephant in the room. I do not want to cast aspersions on his ability. He is a solid guy and was always a good performer at the Despatch Box in the House of Commons.
I have always felt though, that he is hamstrung by his invisibility in the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood.
Like Jim, Kezia Dugdale is an able performer. However you don’t go to the theatre to see the understudy, you go to see the leading woman or man. Imagine if David Cameron never turned up to Prime Minister’s Questions! I just feel he is unable to be a truly effective leader when he is unable to take the fight to the SNP and be present in the Scottish Parliament. At the moment he does a star turn as the Invisible Man rather than at First Minister’s Questions and I think that needs to change quickly
I believe also Labour ceded much ground to the SNP because they occupy the political ground that the Labour Party have long since vacated. It was their vocal and continuous opposition to austerity which won them a smorgasbord of seats in Scotland but as a socialist party Labour ought to have been leading the charge on this, but they were nowhere to be seen. The SNP give the Scottish people something to believe in, an ideology translating into real social change.
Labour in Scotland seems to be a black hole of nothing.
Therefore Nicola Sturgeon deserves huge praise for the dignified and purposeful campaign she and her party fought. Across the five-year term of this Parliament I believe they will be a force to be reckoned with and I look forward to following their progress.
A CAMPAIGN OF MISTEPS AND MISINFORMATION
Since their bruising election defeat the Labour Party has gone into full on hydra mode, with former titans from Labour’s winning years savaging their current approach. If David Cameron was pumped up, Ed Miliband was depressed and melancholy. Given that people sometimes connect with politics on an emotional level, the vision offered by Miliband’s Labour was far too pessimistic and lacklustre, describing many problems but offering few solutions. Returning to my opening paragraphs, I voted Labour in 1997 because I believed Tony Blair offered a cohesive well thought out vision of how he would make Britain better. The job of any Opposition is to look like a Government in waiting. I thought that Ed Miliband’s Labour Party went a little way to achieving this, promising to scrap the divisive and much maligned Bedroom Tax for example. Plus I thought the idea of cutting tuition fees, in a way remedying Nick Clegg’s broken promise was a noble one. These two policies were good ones in isolation. However although they would have worked on a micro level, the campaign was sorely lacking in big macro messages and a cohesive narrative.
The Labour Party was complacent and coasting; they relied too much on predicted dissatisfaction with the Conservatives to bring out their core vote – part of the roundly unsuccessful 35% strategy which was the dominant force behind their campaign.
As to other key messages, there was something of a vacuum. Guided masterfully by Lynton Crosby the Conservatives employed the K. I. S. S strategy (keep it simple stupid.) Their campaign revolved around the endless repetition of two key messages, the first being “a long-term economic plan which is working” and the second warning people not to trust Ed Miliband with the economy, and stoking English anxiety over a possible Coalition made up of labour and the SNP.
Given that any strategy from Labour seemed to be missing in action, this gave the Conservatives even more space in the air war to relentlessly and mercilessly push their strategy, etching it forever into the consciousness of the voting public. The message was uncomplicated and one which the electorate as a whole bought into.
The absence of any strategy instead gave us a campaign of guff. Guff comprised of pointless slogans and dubious souvenir tat from the gift shop, hell yes even T-shirts.
I also thought there was failures in Labour’s ground war operation. This seemed to privilege quantity over quality. That is to say the idea of having lots of activists in constituencies would automatically translate into votes. It is not sheer numbers that matter. It is more a question of whether the activists understand the key messages they have to put out to voters if there are any. What ensures votes is not endless emails asking for donations. If voters do not believe or trust you then no amount of money will solve that problem.
There was a lot of negativity around the Tories during this election campaign generated by Labour. But there was no counterbalance around why I should vote for Labour as a credible, positive and visionary alternative. They just sounded bitter the whole way through, not like a government in waiting, and not like a fresh smelling new car when you get into it for the first time. I suspect the party as it stands is riven with public division, having been riven with division in private for a long time, not only stabbing brothers in the back now, but stabbing each other from the front. Looking at them now they are little better than a sixth form debating society.
Unfortunately the Labour Party has not learnt anything. As people like David Miliband and Alan Milburn come forward to offer the honest truth about why Labour lost it is not being constructive. It is sticking its fingers in its ears refusing to listen. I would say I would rather listen to winners than losers and if Labour wants to win again it ought to follow my example.
For these are not just observations offered by John and Jim at the Dog and Duck, these observations are offered by the architects of Labour’s victories. Please listen or stay consigned to the wilderness.
Another problem for Labour and perhaps the most crucial one is that it got excited and euphoric over the wrong things, the Russell Brand debacle being a prime example.
“He’s telling everyone to vote Labour” cried a buoyant social media. I just thought so what? Such naive bonhomie muddies the boundary between perception and reality. I can tell you that red is a better colour than blue, but my telling you this offers no certainty that you will agree with me. And so it is with Russell Brand. Labour supporters confused the possibility that people might vote Labour with the actuality that Brand’s exhortation would translate into votes at the ballot box. Russell Brand telling people to vote Labour is a political stunt and should not be elevated to anything more.
The conclusion is similar with social media hashtags like #CameronMustGo. Will the keyboard warriors ALL go to the polls and vote? Not likely.
In addition, Russell Brand is a Marmite figure, either you love him or you hate him.
It incensed me personally that Labour would seek the services of a man with a dubious record on violence against women for the sake of a few votes. It showed me in glorious technicolour how desperate and kaleidoscopically monochrome Ed Miliband’s Labour had become. It seemed so moribund.
Lastly I must address the “Ed Stone.” I have never seen a more pompous and supercilious stunt in my life. It was dreamt up according to Andrew Pierce in the Mail on Sunday by Torsten Henricsen-Bell, an aide who liked the idea of the pledge card I mentioned at the outset of this piece, and David Axelrod. Why not just have another pledge card?
A pledge card would be far less costly and would stop the Labour Party looking out of touch in a time of austerity surely? As Iain Dale noted dryly on LBC, “this is the equivalent of measuring the curtains.”
I guess the curtains have gone back now?
It is not lofty philosophical grandiosity that wins elections. Elections are won and lost on policy and trust from the electorate. Labour should stop taking chunks out of each other, squabbling over who won elections and who knows more and who should be listened to. As a lifetime Labour voter I say this. It looks cheap and unedifying and does nothing for the public you are elected to represent.
As I told somebody the other day the real question is not when Ken Livingstone won an election but why Labour lost. Labour has become too obsessed with talking to itself and creating its own virtual self-congratulatory echo chamber, the cognitive dissonance around the headstone being a prime example. I know the loss feels raw and painful but turning on each other is not the answer. As Speaker Bercow would say the public doesn’t like it.
There is much thought to be had and much soul-searching to be done. My advice is to stop the squabbling now and to let the civilised talking and listening process which has to take place begin in earnest.