Sunday, 7 June 2015

Too soon to write off Labour. If we learn our lessons

There seem to be frequent reports at the moment of the death of the British Labour Party. I’m inclined to consider them greatly exaggerated.

Listening to a recent programme on the BBC – What’s Left, chaired by the Observer’s Andrew Rawnsley – I was amused to hear speakers declaring the 2015 results the worst for Labour since 1918. Two of the panel were Labour MPs, the rest journalists or academics. Even the MPs shared the doom-laden view.

It just feels way over the top to me. Certainly, it was a lamentable result. We were beaten, and still worse, we weren’t even able to prevent David Cameron and his Tories winning an overall majority – right up to polling day, the opinion polls were suggesting he would at most emerge as leader of the biggest single party in parliament, only able to cobble together a minority administration. Instead, he took a small but working majority.

So it was lousy. But the detail suggests things were less dire than the prophets of doom claim. Perhaps I should say, like to claim.

Labour’s share of the vote was actually up on 2010. By only 1.4%, it’s true, which is anaemic, but that was marginally more than the Tories managed – they only increased their share by 0.8%. That still left them 6.5% ahead of Labour, which is certainly a sound defeat, but hardly catastrophic.

The biggest failure of Labour was to protect its Scottish heartland. From 40 seats in Scotland, it feel to just 1. Hugely damaging. On the other hand, overall it lost only 24 seats – in other words, outside Scotland it added 15 seats to its tally. With Scotland still heading inexorably for independence, Labour was going to have to wean itself from its reliance on Scotland in any case. The fact that it has been able to increase its number of seats in England and Wales is a necessary step towards guaranteeing its long-term success.

And let’s not forget that Labour hadn’t put itself in the best possible position to win. Ed Miliband is principled, insightful and probably great company. But he’s virtually unelectable: he’s accident-prone, constantly making disastrous gaffes, and with his lieutenant Ed Balls, apparently unable ever to get off any fence. They would repeatedly dodge the hard questions, preferring to appear a little Tory to Tories, a little socialist to lefties, and convincing nobody.

Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt, Liz Kendall
Will one of them turn Labour's fortunes round as the next leader?
Peter Mandelson rightly points out in today’s Observer that, under their leadership, they failed to answer such opportunistic policies as Chancellor George Osborne’s proposal to devolve more authority to local government in the North of England. That was a policy Labour should have adopted before the Tories, but it failed either to adopt it or to respond to it. The result? Losses to the Tories in the North, another heartland area, including Ed Balls’s own seat, and deep inroads by another adversary, the far-right UKIP.

If despite these self-inflicted handicaps, Labour could still improve its standing outside Scotland by fifteen seats, and marginally improve its popular vote, what could it do with a more effective, more dynamic and, above all, more assertive leadership?

It strikes me that this is no time to throw one’s arms up in despair and talk about defeat on a historically unprecedented scale. Instead it’s time to take stock sensibly of where we stand, without understating the scale of the debacle but also without ignoring the more reasons for encouragement. And make sure we never again saddle ourselves with leaders so hopelessly out of touch with the needs of the day.

Because if we shoot ourselves in the foot like that again, then we would indeed be in serious trouble.

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