Complacent, patronising and stuck in the past: Labour’s 2015 campaign was doomed from the start

John Thaw playing Labour Leader George Jones in the original production of the Absence of War at the National Theatre in 1993. More than 20 years later, Labour seems to have learnt few lessons from its 1992 defeat

A few days before the election I committed what some may consider to be an act of treachery. Without telling anyone I logged on to a gambling website and put £5 on the Tories winning an outright majority.

I did so not to make a lot of money (the odds were 7-1 so I’ve only made £30), nor because I looked forward to a Tory victory (which I regard as a disaster for Britain). Nor did I do it so I could brag about how good I am at predicting election results (I also put £5 on Charles Kennedy keeping his seat in Scotland). The reason was simple: several weeks earlier I had concluded that Labour was doomed to lose and wagering money on it was a way of softening the blow.

Firstly, let’s not underestimate the scale of Labour’s defeat – electorally much worse than 1992, and psychologically almost as bad as the 1983 catastrophe. Labour’s collapse in Scotland and the near-annihilation of the Lib Dems have dominated the headlines this weekend, but Labour’s woes in England and Wales are almost as serious.

The most shocking news of all is that in the south of England (apart from London), Labour made a net gain of just two seats above the pathetic ten that Gordon Brown won in 2010. Everywhere you look there were just as many Labour losses as successes. In the south, gains in Cambridge, Norwich, Hove and Bristol were offset by losses in Plymouth and Southampton. In the Midlands the story is even worse: Labour lost Derby North, Corby and Telford and only picked up one of its targets (Wolverhampton Southwest). While there were a few gains from the Tories in the North (Chester, Dewsbury, Lancaster and Wirral West, though not Carlisle) these were offset by Ed Ball’s defeat in Morley, and the loss of Bolton West and Welsh seats such as Vale of Clwyd and Gower.

English counties that between them elected several dozen Labour MPs in 1997 – Hertfordshire, Suffolk, Kent, Essex, Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire, Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Warwickshire, Worcestershire, Shropshire, Cornwall and Dorset – now have no Labour MPs at all. Across middle England, target seats swung even further away from Labour and returned Conservative MPs with majorities of 5,000 (Stevenage, for example), or in some cases more than 10,000 (Chatham and Aylesford).

There are tiny crumbs of comfort – Labour won many of its target seats in London, though not those in more prosperous parts such as Hendon, Finchley and Battersea. Labour did well in more racially diverse outer suburbs such as Enfield North and Ilford North (though not Croydon Central). But in whiter, estuarine suburbs which had Labour MPs as recently as 2001 or even 2005, Labour’s decline continued – in Bexleyheath and Romford Labour got a paltry 26% and 20% respectively.  Silver linings were mostly gains from the Lib Dems – Brent Central, Bermondsey and Hornsey & Wood Green – which did nothing to harm the Tories.

Overall the election showed that many divisions – between rural England and  the big cities; between north and south; between Scotland and England; between multi-racial inner London and the whiter suburbs – have widened further. Labour did well in cities and towns where there is a high ethnic minority bloc of voters, or lots of students, but everywhere else its vote was even lower than 2010.

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What went so badly wrong? I was less active in 2015 than last time (the 2010 general election coincided with council elections in London, at which I was running for re-election in an ultra-marginal ward in Greenwich). But I did a fair bit of doorknocking and delivering in my home constituency of Corby and East Northamptonshire, and helped two good friends who were standing elsewhere.

Several moments will stick in the memory. The first is a Labour fundraiser, a stand-up routine by veteran Bolsover MP Dennis Skinner, at the Grampian Club in Corby one evening in February.  For a man in his eighties Skinner is still a master of timing, stage presence, and projection. He knows exactly how to find the mood of an audience, how to change pace, tone and volume, how to build the audience into a round of applause and then ride these waves so they keep on coming.

There was the usual red meat to throw into the audience (“Today’s Tories are more right-wing than the Thatcherites!”) as Skinner took us on a trip down a 1980s memory lane. Thatcher, Skinner explained, had invited Ian McGregor to smash the steel industry in Corby (applause) and then in enticed him back from a job at Lazards bank to smash coal (more applause). Some of Skinner’s views were quaintly old fashioned – regional government was a crazy idea, he argued, as was Europe –  but others are brutally frank. He turns down foreign junkets as “I don’t want to go on a holiday with a bleeding Tory!”.Bob Mellish (the right-wing Labour MP for Bermondsey, whose resignation prompted the famous 1982 by-election there) had been wrong to endorse the victorious Liberal candidate Simon Hughes, who Skinner said has “kind of face I want to keep punching”).

Sometimes he lost his way (there  was a convoluted, and unfunny, story about a Parliamentary question he never got around to asking about White van man in Strood): when Skinner said that the hapless former speaker Michael Martin was “not the sharpest tool in the box” he might have been talking about himself. Although he was re-elected last week, he’s entering the twilight of his political career and is more of a showbiz personality than a statesman (his delivery, especially when he began to sing Getting to Know You from the King and I, was strangely camp, not the gruff miners’ growl I expected).

But there was also a big, unmistakable streak of vanity. The universal belief that old Labour is amateurish, unspun and garbled, and that New Labour is brash polished and stage-managed, was challenged the moment Dennis walked on stage. Dennis Skinner could be lampooned as Dennis Spinner – a national treasure who doesn’t need to make costed spending promises, or watch for any of his words bring quoted out of context.

Skinner talked up his own role in  filibustering Enoch Powell’s attempt to stop stem cell research via a Private members bill in 1985: Skinner discovered that by moving the writ for a by-election in Brecon and Radnor he could hold the floor so that Powell had no time to introduce his bill. “When I hear about kids with spina bifida getting the treatment they need, I think it’s’ all down to Skinner” (more applause).  And some of the old rifts within the left were very clear: Skinner said that Michael Foot was one of the best speakers the Labour party ever had, but made no mention of Tony Benn (who represented Chesterfield, a constituency next door to Bolsover, for 17 years).

All in all it was an old man’s event: though there were a fair few young people there, many of Skinner’s anecdotes occurred years before their birth. Like all reminiscence about the good old days, a reality check was needed (Skinner’s injunction “Don’t have a coalition” is all well and good, but if the only alternative is a confidence and supply deal with the SNP, or five more years of Tory-led government, I’m not so sure we had the luxury of ruling it out). Not for the first time, Skinner seemed stuck in the past. The number of steelworkers in Corby has gone down from 20,000 in the 1980s to just a few hundred today, but Skinner had nothing to say about the warehouse workers, self-employed builders and call centre operatives that have replaced them.

Corby and East Northants, won by the well-respected Andy Sawford in a by-election in 2012 after Louise Mensch moved to the US, is a marginal bellwether (Tory from its creation in 1983 to 1997, Labour from 1997 to 2010, then Tory again till the by-election). Alongside Corby itself, which leans to Labour, the rural east of the constituency (Oundle, Thrapston, Raunds and their surrounding villages) is much more Conservative.

When I delivered leaflets in Corby in the weeks that followed Skinner’s routine, the softness of the Labour vote soon became apparent. “I wouldn’t vote Labour to save my life,” one man told me. Delivering eve of poll leaflets to Labour voters a few days before polling day, I found that many were still wavering. If Labour’s support was so flaky in such a supposed heartland it was clear that Andy Sawford did not stand much of a chance. Our front door, in the more Tory rural part of the constituency, was visited twice by the Tories – including a call from Peter Bone (Tory MP for the neighbouring seat of Wellingborough)  – but not once by Labour. Andy lost by 2,400 votes to Tom Pursglove, a 25-year-old Tory who works for an anti-windfarm pressure group.

With hindsight, Dennis Skinner’s enjoyable stand-up routine was an intriguing metaphor for Labour’s campaign in 2015: if we just applaud stories about the good old days, and mouth platitudes about the NHS and the evils of Thatcher, we’ll draw level with the Tories, everything will be all right and people will vote the right way. How wrong we all were.

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My second big memory is of a very different kind of night out. On Friday May 1st my partner Liz and I were at the Cambridge Arts Theatre to see a revival of the Absence of war, David Hare’s 1993 play based on Kinnock’s painful defeat the previous year, on tour after a run at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield (the city that had hosted that infamous rally).

More than twenty years after it was written Hare’s play still seems bang up to date. One of the key characters is a young party apparatchik from Paisley (almost certainly based on Douglas Alexander, Gordon Brown’s speechwriter in the early 1990s, a Paisley native and the town’s MP until last Thursday). The quaint period details aren’t really that different from their modern equivalents (Twitter is the new Ceefax; iPhones are the new bleepers; selfies are the new polaroids). The rhetoric of the play’s Tory prime minister, Charles Kendrick, is eerily similar to Cameron; the doomed Labour leader George Jones has echoes of Kinnock but also John Smith, Blair, Brown and Miliband. The tensions between Jones and shadow chancellor Malcolm Pryce are uncannily prescient of the real-life Blair/Brown and Miliband/Balls ones. My mood darkened as the parallels between 1992 and 2015 kept on coming.

My third set of memories are of Dartford, which my good friend Simon Thomson – a modest anti-politician who’s one of the nicest people I know – was fighting to snatch from the Tory Gareth Johnson. For me, the campaign had an anticlimactic end. I was stuck indoors running a campaign centre in Dartford on May 7th (my last encounter with a voter was at 9.30pm, when a neighbour knocked on the door not to discuss politics, but to ask if we knew anything about the stray pug dog roaming the street). But I met many Dartford voters earlier in the campaign and they’re an unexpectedly diverse bunch: more and more African, Nepalese and eastern European voters, and even metropolitan Guardian readers who waver between Labour and the Greens, may make this more fertile territory for Labour in the long term.

But at this election Labour high command abandoned Dartford: Simon helped to re-energise the local party and fought a brilliant campaign, but tragically he couldn’t win without more help from outside. That Labour high command  put no resources into a seat it held throughout the 50s and 60s (Thatcher stood here unsuccessfully in 1950 and 1951), and again from 1997 until 2010, says much about its pitifully low expectations in 2015. Dartford’s been a bellwether seat ever since 1964, but now swings heavily with the ruling party: sadly Johnson’s majority increased from 10,000 in 2010 to 12,000 last week.

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My fourth memory is a genuinely feel-good moment: the day before polling day I spent a few hours door-knocking with Helen Hayes, Labour’s candidate in Dulwich & West Norwood (DAWN for short). Helen and I met at Oxford University twenty years ago and while she was a much more serious student than I was, we became friends and have stayed in touch ever since. I’ve watched her serendipitous career with interest: Helen was elected a councillor (in a previously Tory ward) unexpectedly in 2010, and was unexpectedly selected as a parliamentary candidate for DAWN (to succeed Tessa Jowell) four years later.

As well as Dulwich and West Norwood themselves the constituency also covers a large chunk of Brixton and there was genuine warmth from the voters on Railton Road we spoke to. This is the frontline of south London gentrification (Helen has, ludicrously, been criticised for having worked as a planning consultant, which the Greens argue disqualifies her from expressing an opinion on developments in the constituency). Yet the hipster cafes with Green posters in the windows were the most visible symbols of the gentrification the Greens claim to despise (what’s more, the lady behind the counter in the cafe we sheltered in during a rainstorm said she was voting Labour).

In the end Helen Hayes won by a whopping 16,000 votes and will be a fantastic MP. That DAWN, whose predecessor constituency (Dulwich) was staunchly Tory until 1992, is now a safe Labour seat shows how much south London has changed in the last 20 years: most of the incomers, both rich and poor, are even more likely to vote Labour than the older communities they displaced.

*****

But Labour won’t get into government by piling up more and more votes in places like Dulwich & West Norwood, but by scrappy, marginal victories in seats like Corby and Dartford.  Labour’s very good at winning in diverse, inner-City seats where there are lots of students and Hipsters, but hopeless at winning in the towns where no-one worries about gentrification.

How can Labour recover? Firstly, the relationship between the party, its members and supporters has to be transformed. Labour is even more strange and introspective than any other party, a private club with rules and pointless meetings which make little sense to new members. The primary role of party members – apart from choosing Ed Miliband’s successor – is to act as cash dispensers, bombarded daily with emails demanding money. The party needs to learn that communication with party members is a two-way street (my daily fundraising emails from Labour’s general secretary Iain McNicol suddenly ceased when I gently reminded him that he had ignored my concerns about bullying problems in Greenwich a few years back).

If Labour members are expected to donate more and more money, recruit other members, pound the pavements and deliver leaflets, the party must start listening to them. Instead, as the Indiependent blog has pointed out, party members were alternately patronised and bullied by increasingly aggressive demands for more and more money. Is it any wonder that party membership is falling?

Although Ed Miliband made one good change to the party’s procedures – one member one vote for leadership elections – we’ll only enjoy this now that he has stood down. Miliband got cold feet about making any other changes to Labour’s relations with its members, and the unions, following the abandoned police investigation into Labour’s Falkirk selection. Now more than ever, those with union backing get selected as Labour candidates and those without do not. For a party that is supposedly meritocratic and inclusive Labour can be even more elitist and dynastic than the Tories – witness Tamsin Dunwoody’s failed candidacy at the Crewe and Nantwich by-election brought about by her mother Gwyneth Dunwoody’s death. Labour can also be inexplicably indulgent of untouchables such as Ken Livingstone, who was allowed to stand for London mayor well beyond his sell-by-date – in 2008 and 2012 – only to be humiliated by Boris Johnson both times. Livingstone’s serial disloyalty (he’s even supported other parties’ candidates – such as the odious Lutfur Rahman in Tower Hamlets) has been tolerated for too long. But at the same time, whistleblowing by ordinary Labour members and councillors is often greeted by bullying – at its worst in Rotherham but also common elsewhere – to which the party leadership has turned a blind eye.

As the results trickled in during the early hours of Friday morning, Yvette Cooper told the BBC that they did not chime with what candidates had told her: she was clearly either too grand or too busy to talk to ordinary voters herself. If Labour seems like a magic circle of privilege and cronyism to its own activists, its easy to imagine how out-of-touch it seems to floating voters.

The unions clinched Ed Miliband’s selection in 2010 (party members and MPs both preferred his brother David), so it is difficult to argue that they should be given an even bigger role in choosing his successor. A US-style primary, open to anyone willing to pay a modest fee to register as a Labour supporter, is the only way to ensure that Labour selects an election winner whose legitimacy cannot be doubted.

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The support that Labour gives to frontline candidates is too often like an air force dropping supplies of sun-tan lotion onto a besieged army in midwinter. Vital materials and personnel arrive too late, or not at all. In many cases, candidates in marginal seats received nothing, apart from constant demands to go and help in less marginal seats ten miles away. As it became clear that more and more Scottish seats were in jeopardy, Labour withdrew from many of its English target seats just as winning them became more imperative than ever. Instead of focussing on the vital Labour-Conservative marginals where the election would be won or lost, the party became fixated on decapitating prominent Lib Dems (activists from across south London were told to go to Bermondsey to defeat Simon Hughes, not to Labour-Tory marginals in Kent like Dartford). For all its talk of localism, the Labour campaign was too centralised: Labour’s leaflets in Dartford featured vox pops from people from Bedworth and North Warwickshire, Midland places 100 miles away.

When – if – Labour wins a first-past the post election again the party needs to immediately introduce electoral reform. Now that Proportional Representation has the backing of UKIP as well as the Lib Dems and the Greens it could be passed easily. Labour needs to remember that PR is the best way to win back seats in England, Wales and above all Scotland, where the tables have been turned (Labour won just one of Scotland’s 59 constituencies with 24% of the vote). With hindsight, the opposition of many Labour bigwigs to the  Alternative Vote at the 2011 referendum seems inexcusably stupid. Electoral reform could lock the Tories out of power for a generation and would be a good way of serving up revenge, cold.

*****

But in the meantime Labour has to win an election under first-past-the-post, with the added handicap of boundary changes that could put Labour another 20 seats behind. To do so it has to look and sound more credible, go way beyond the 35 % of voters it targeted in 2015, and not just rely on patronising gimmicks. Miliband’s inexperienced frontbench avoided gaffes in the run-up to the election, but also avoided saying anything to inspire, excite or enthuse voters.

There were many absurdities about the campaign. The absurdity of Labour’s campaign co-ordinator Douglas Alexander, who ended up unable to co-ordinate his own re-election in a previously safe seat. The absurdity of any post-election coalition deals being settled by a Cabinet Office “Manual”, not the written constitution that Britain so desperately needs. Perhaps the biggest absurdity of all was the spectacle of a Labour leader jostling with the Greens to genuflect at the court of Russell Brand, an intellectual featherweight who had bragged about his refusal to vote. For once, it was difficult to disagree with Boris Johnson, who said devastatingly that “Not since the Tsar of Russia asked for economic guidance from Rasputin has there been a political pilgrimage so absurd”. Miliband had committed an unforgiveable sin: he had patronised younger voters by implying that they would only vote Labour if instructed to do so by Brand.

The obsessive focus on the NHS was a key error: “24 hours to save the NHS” and its variants have been Labour battlecries at every general election since 1983 and can too easily be mocked for crying wolf. Banging on and on about the NHS – in Jo Brand’s cringeworthy party election broadcast, for example – amounts at best to preaching to the converted: those who respond to such bromides are the most likely to vote Labour anyway.

As usual, the likes of Ken Livingstone will say that Labour was too right-wing and Alan Milburn will say it was too left-wing. Both are wrong. This is not just a matter of left and right. As I argued in a blog post just before polling day, Labour’s safety-first approach meant that too many original and bold policies – the mansion tax, reforms to private renting, extending the vote to 16 and 17-year-olds, a fully-elected House of Lords and quirkier innovations like opening up Premier Football clubs to their fans – weren’t given the limelight they deserved. Indeed, huge chunks of policy – schools, foreign affairs, infrastructure projects like HS2 and Heathrow expansion, climate change – were barely mentioned at all. And many other policy commitments – allowing state sector bids for rail franchises, but not making them the norm – fell well short of the bold change that was needed.

Too often, Labour’s campaign regarded the electorate as passive recipients of public services, or pitiful victims of slum landlords, benefit cuts and zero-hours contracts. All important issues of course, but Labour had little or nothing to say to a wider constituency: the self-employed, middle managers, empty nesters and anyone getting by and wanting to get on.  Labour’s “35%” strategy was criminally stupid: with the Lib Dem vote in collapse and UKIP stalling, many Tory-Labour marginals were much more of a two-horse race than they had been in 2010 and 35% simply wasn’t enough for Labour to win (in Corby, Andy Sawford got 38.5% of the vote but still lost).

It’s not good enough to just blame the right-wing media – or even anti-Semitism, as some commentators have – for Miliband’s failure. Ultimately, an eternal truth of British elections has come back to haunt us: the Tories are normally better at communicating, and campaigning, than we are, and Labour has to outperform to draw level. Of course a sympathetic press does the Tories no harm but Labour missed too many open goals. Labour’s biggest problem is one that will make many commentators and intellectuals wince: Ed Miliband simply struck far too few people as a credible Prime Minister. Like Kinnock in the 80s and early 1990s, he did a fantastic job at healing divisions in the party, and making it feel better about itself, but failed to convince the wider electorate – just as British elections are becoming more and more presidential.

The blame does not rest solely on Miliband’s shoulders either. For starters there was the over-long Leadership contest in 2010, which relied on masochistic hustings at which all the contenders competed to be the biggest critic of New Labour and what it had done wrong. The party lost valuable time that would have been better spent countering George Osborne’s porkies about the “economic mess” he had supposedly inherited.

While such catharsis was necessary at the time – and may be necessary now – Ed Miliband and Ed Balls (another leadership contender who soon became shadow chancellor) were unconvincing critics of the Tories’ false economic narrative: both had been Gordon Brown’s right-hand-men for 15 years. In 2010 Ed Miliband convinced party members that he was an outsider candidate. In reality he was an honourable man, but even more of an insider than his brother. When pondering his successor Labour needs to choose someone who can get new people to vote for the party, not just wallow in nostalgia.

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4 Responses to Complacent, patronising and stuck in the past: Labour’s 2015 campaign was doomed from the start

  1. Mary says:

    Thanks Alex – and I saw Dennis Skinner last year at the Kent Miners Festival where I guess all the audience were too young to remember the mine being open – but they all loved Skinner, who I thought was a bit, well, show bizzy.
    I was only going to say – being brought up in Gravesend – that in the 1950s Dartford had a full time agent for the Labour Party (a rather eccentric lady with an interest in Co-op chocolate). And in Gravesend we ran bingo – 100s of women queueing up to come to a Labour Party event in the Co-op Hall. And of course there was the tote. I think what I am saying is that you have to get out there 100 per cent of the time and you have to be involved in people’s ordinary lives – not just politics – and be seen to do that. Its the soft sell. Sorry – its hard work, but it wins elections.

  2. Pingback: Election aftermath: What next for Greenwich’s politicians? | 853

  3. Matt Stiles says:

    Agree that Labour membership should be a two-way street.
    i’m also sympathetic to Michael Sheen’s argument ““In today’s political climate, where politicians are careful, tentative, scared of saying what they feel for fear … all political parties drift into a morass of bland neutrality and the real values we suspect are kept behind closed doors. Is it any wonder that people feel there is little to choose between?””
    He said this a couple of months ago but now we are hearing from certain people that Labour lost because it was too left-wing/radical.
    To contnue the Twitter convo on targeting of seats, the Tories had a 40/40 strategy ie defend their 40 most marginal seats and try to gain 40 most marginal seats eg http://www.conservativehome.com/parliament/2015/05/non-target-candidates-are-instructed-to-leave-their-seats-and-campaign-in-the-4040-even-on-polling-day.html
    Surely, any Labour strategy has to adapt to what the opponent is doing.

  4. Harry Perkins says:

    Very interesting post there. I love Dennis Skinner. I don’t think he’s necessarily symbolic of the party as a whole, people like him are a dying breed and probably represent a lot of our ‘core vote’. And remember, a lot of politicians AREN’T ‘statesmanlike’.

    I agree that 35% is stupid. Matt points out the Tories’ 40/40 strategy, which was realistic when you were starting from 306. Perhaps we should have aimed for something similar on a grander scale, given that we failed to ‘defend’ a smattering of seats we held in 2010. We were under-resources in defending the marginal Westminster North, but clung on by 1977 votes. But that’s in metropolitan west London. I dread to think what the situation was like in places like Bolton West. I get the feeling many marginals really lacked an activist base. But of course, the Tories have far more money than us, which is why I can slightly understand the demands for more donations from us (which do annoy me).

    Yes, membership and organisation needs to be more bottom-up than top down, giving us a say in policy making. And electoral reform needs to be a key part of that policy. That’s one area where the grandees of Labour really are like dinosaurs.

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