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Home Opinion Facing up to the scale of Labour’s defeat
State of the Left United Kingdom

Facing up to the scale of Labour’s defeat

Hopi Sen - 25 June 2015

Labour’s next leader must recognise the need for change in order for the party to survive

In my last contribution to the State of the left, before the general election, I thought was being pessimistic. After years of poll leads, Labour’s vote had declined to the point the election was unlikely to give Labour a stable majority. I told you to expect shifting alliances and instability.

Two months later, we have both. Except they can be found only in the defeated Labour party, as it searches for a new leader and a new strategy, while the Tories govern with an absolute majority.

Now that the Conservatives have won, there will definitely be referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. In a country which is Eurosceptic in general attitude, if not actually wanting to leave, Labour will find making the positive case for Europe a burden for the next two years.

So how did things go so wrong? First, the Tory plan I outlined in the last column worked. Their relentless focus on the economy convinced a significant proportion of the electorate that they would be better off with the Tories.

Second, savage Tory attacks on Ed Miliband personally paid off. Even though it attracted derision from leftish journalists and commentators when Miliband appeared to be doing well. The reality was that Miliband was only doing better than the very low expectations people had of him.

Next, the Tories found an effective way to increase the fear of what a Labour government might do. Labour went into the election with a costed, centrist policy platform. However, it had spent the previous five years trying to sound as radical as it could – sounding like a party opposed to austerity, angry with the government, eager to take on the vested interests of the rich and powerful on the behalf of the ordinary man and woman. This meant Labour was an SPD sheep in Syriza clothing. It did not fit well.

This gap between policy and rhetoric was skilfully exploited by the Conservatives. They took Labour’s early radical poses at face value, and when Labour denied any such intent, the Tories raised the surging Scottish Nationalist party as the puppet masters that would make Labour ministers dance to a leftwing tune.

This Scottish attack clearly resonated with voters. However, it is important to understand why. If voters had believed Labour really wanted to stand up to the SNP, the attack would have failed. It was the perception of Labour weakness – not SNP strength – that caused the problem. Ultimately, for all Ed Miliband’s stout denials of deals, voters knew we would rather get into power than stand alone. Once you believe that, you suspect Labour would do the deal.

If it had not been Scotland’s Alex Salmond playing the bogeyman role, it would have been a leftwing trade union leader. The point is that English voters believed that Labour wanted to tilt left, were not doing so in order to win an election, and would revert to type once more.

Aside from the young, educated, liberal left in Britain’s cities, many former Liberal Democrat voters, Labour persuaded almost no one new. The big Tory bloc remain intact, they won new seats in the south from their old coalition partners and so secured a parliamentary majority and the right to govern on their own for the first time in 18 years. This was a remarkable achievement.

Labour’s performance was also remarkable. In Scotland, Labour’s heartland for half a century, Labour lost all but one of their seats. Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander lost his seat to a 20-year-old university student.

In the north, Labour MPs with large majorities watched nervously as the populist right United Kingdom Independence party ate into their majorities. But it was the Conservatives who delivered the coup de grâce: Shadow chancellor Ed Balls lost the chance to write a budget, his parliamentary seat, and his political career in about 30 seconds.

Balls reacted with grace – which is more than the rest of the Labour party can say for itself after defeat. Ed Miliband resigned as leader with a speech that implied that he had been right all along and only regretted the electorate had not seen it. The speed of his concession was admirable, but his evident lack of preparation for defeat was revealing.

Labour then threw itself into a Leadership campaign, which will end in September. Four candidates for leader emerged. Each needed the 35 Labour MPs to reach the members ballot. Three won that support. Then the remaining Labour MPs nominated a hard-left politician, Jeremy Corbyn, even though they totally disagreed with him, in order to ‘broaden the debate’.

I find it hard to describe how idiotic and self-destructive this fit of sentimentality was. Imagine if Republican members of congress had decided, voluntarily, to make Donald Trump one of only four possible GOP candidates for president, not because they agreed with him, or thought he would be good at the job, but because they had had several emails about it.

Now the remaining three candidates – Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall – have to fight a battle for the future of the Labour party against the background noise of an old testament prophet demanding they return to the verities of the past.

Of the three, Burnham stresses emotional connection and his working class roots, Cooper a broadening of the Miliband-Balls agenda, Kendall a fresh start and a move to win over Conservative voters. They all face a triple problem: how to appeal to English swing voters while persuading Labour voters who defected to the SNP – a party who, with Ukip, will present all the ‘Westminster’ parties as part of the same old, out-of-touch political classes.

Can any do it? I should say I am a strong supporter of Liz Kendall, who strikes me as the closest politician the Labour party has to a Manuel Valls or Matteo Renzi, so perhaps I should not comment on the qualities of the other two, which are significant.

So I will just say this – until the Labour party comes to terms with the scale of its rejection, and realises that it was not just a judgement on one man, or one manifesto, but on the public perceptions of the entire party, it will lose, and lose again. It is that stark. Whoever is leader, they must change the party, or see it wither.

Hopi Sen is a former Labour party staffer, contributing editor to Progress and political commentator

A contribution to State of the Left - Policy Network's monthly insight bulletin that reports from across the world of social democratic politics

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26 June 2015 13:37

Hi Rod, Interesting comments. I find it rare to find a list where I disagree strongly with some points and agree wholeheartedly with others. But I hope you don't mind me responding. On 1) the number of committed left-wing young people who cheer when Jeremy Corbyn speaks is a very small group and shouldn't be considered of representative of youth. Frankly this is a group that can be taken for granted. I have plenty of friends who fit that description and they will never vote Labour in a safe seat (preferring Green or even TUSC etc.) but will always vote it in a Labour-Tory marginal. I don't think the party should be focusing on them at all. Indeed I think the upsides in terms of image of upsetting them are high. That's not the same as ignoring the youth vote, much of which is notably liberal in both social and economic senses. 2). I absolutely agree. Being seen to be helping businesses be the best they can be is something that requires a complete change of tone without necessarily actually changing many policies. 3) Agree again. 4) I'm interested in this but not sure I agree. In many ways Miliband made more of a difference than most opposition fighting against a majority government, whether over phone hacking or Syria or the endless U-turns the coalition did in the first couple years. But because people found it hard to believe he was going to be Primer Minister, he gave the Tories plenty of political space to tack right. I think the best way to be a good opposition is to look like you're going to win the next election. That removes the government's political capital and allows you to choose the terms of debate. If you can't convince people that you're going to get in power and do something better then you might as well give up the day job and just shout at the news on the radio like I do. 5) I agree but I think that horse has bolted. The party needs to embrace some fiscal conservatism but make a strong distinction between their sensible fiscal conservatism (which allows for substantial capital investment while rates are low and would never cut a service that businesses clearly want for growth e.g. FE) and the boneheaded Conservative version. And if it wanted needs people of the fact it was a banking crisis it will need to do it through policies to stop it happening in the future not complaints that it wasn't their fault in the past.

Rod Dowler
26 June 2015 10:37

I suggest there are five points that Labour needs to address: 1. Jeremy Corbyn gets the cheers when he enters the room; he appeals to committed, left-wing young people whom Labour has largely turned off. Unless Labour listens to these arguments it will not reconnect to youth. 2. Although Labour had many policies that appeal to business it failed to communicate any real enthusiasm for addressing the problems that face business. 3. Labour's social values are what is attractive about the party but generosity looks empty against low economic credibility. 4. An emphasis on winning the election appeared to lead to a neglect of the role of effective opposition throughout the whole term. 5. The fatal flaw appears to me to be to fail to run a professional communications strategy. This would have correctly framed the financial crisis as a banking crisis which led to a debt crisis, and set out a recovery strategy based on investment and growth as a route to correcting the deficit and helping productivity.

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