Friday, 8 May 2015

Thoughts on Labour's election loss

1. Watch out for that big fish about to hit you in the face. 
The negative perception of Labour's economic record, stewardship of the economy and public finances was a problem from day one, quite obviously. Labour was punished for that and the issue wasn't addressed effectively and early enough, despite opinions polls consistently warning that this was going to be the case. What’s worse is that we reinforced it by our own hand. By this I don’t just mean Ed forgetting the economy in his most important speech, or the extremely late appearance of the balanced budget pledge in our manifesto. The inner circle dismissed evidence clearly saying that Labour was weak on the money issue as the opinions of resistors who 'thought that way anyway' or 'probably wouldn’t vote for us'. For most people ‘economic competence’ isn’t just about your stance on capitalism, it’s a judgement on effectiveness, on how well you do stuff.  Sure... voters might have liked someone to take action on energy companies, train franchises and banks, but they were also saying that they didn’t want Labour to do it, because we'd just mess it upSo every time we proposed something radical we undermined our own case even further by people not believing we'd be able to do what we said. 

Why wasn't this addressed earlier?  Internal discussion within the party on sensible finances was difficult - anyone who wanted to balance the books was 'right wing' or 'pro austerity.' The whole Blairite fifth column thing put about by UNITE leadership and friends was seriously unhealthy and a sign of the ideological purism which gripped the Party from 2010 onwards from that quarter.   It's fair to move on from Blair, but - unforgiveably - they repeatedly dissed our own record of changing Britain for the better when doing so.

2. Too centralist. 

Ed’s inner circle never really got local government and decentralisation, the stuff at the end was window-dressing. Instead of giving power to people and challenging the Big State trope thrown at us, we talked about devolving skills budgets - hardly setting the world on fire. Jon Cruddas’s championing of decentralisation was effectively seen off and Hilary Benn seemed to lose every single important argument around the Shadow Cabinet table to Ed Balls et al. To the inner circle, an Ed-led government would be transformative by finding that mythical Whitehall box of levers and yanking them. As previous administrations have found out – government from the centre is ineffective and only builds even stronger Whitehall departments. Labour lost even bigger because of the wipeout in Scotland. Our support for the No campaign didn’t have a distinctive flavour because it lacked its own critique of the Union as too Whitehall-based: which is what we should’ve done. We didn’t have that critique because the inner circle wanted a strong Whitehall to tell people what to do.  Labour tends to see centralism as the state expression of collectivism, and a badge of pride.  Most everyone else sees it as control-freakery. 
Too much wonkery doesn't get results

3. Too many wonks in their bubble. 

At times it seemed that Labour was on a personal intellectual odyssey rather than applying for a job to run the country. It was all West Wing box set when the real lessons come from Our Friends in the North. The campaign was too focused on Ed and his speeches, as if an essay on something by him would made people sit up and listen. There is a time and a place for that, but not in the months running up to an election and not – as it seemed – all the time and to the exclusion of the wider team. Ed's inner circle was universally known as cliquey and never at the end of a phone.  Simply put, the esteem they felt for his undoubted intellectual ability was not embraced by the world at large. 

4. Return of envy-based politics? In its search for tactical dividing lines there seemed little nuance to much of our offer. The disastrous Mansion Tax was a panicked headline-grabbing response written on the back of an envelope three years ago: an envelope which was then lost and then found in time for a pre-election Conference speech but with no groundwork or detail worked up in the interim. While the tax was popular in opinion polls, it did so at the cost of Labour looking like we’d arbitrarily cap aspiration. It clumsily invaded people's lives with subjective political judgements about success.  No thought was had about homes just below the threshold. Braver moves like reforming the outdated property tax system were dismissed. Obvious contradictions like how Labour was arguing for localism, but at the same time magically levying a tax on people it considered to be rich in one area of the country and redistributing the money elsewhere, were not thought through and left candidates exposed. The policy should now be consigned to the dustbin, with a lid on it, as should language about ‘bad’ businesses and ‘predators.’ In the end Labour policies sounded too much like a collection of things we were against, rather than what we were for.  What the fuck happened to One Nation as a winning proposition?  It was packaged as an approach but ended up being just a soundbite.   


5. Reality check. It was never going to be great.  I was predicting the Conservatives as the largest party from the start based on leadership and the economy.  The Conservatives also had something to say about the future, as this Nesta chart explains. Admittedly they made life difficult for themselves with a bit of a rubbish campaign - but as Salim, the concierge at work, said to me today: "At the end of the day, you lot were a bit bollocks." Quite.  

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