While Labour gears itself up to elect a new leader following one of the most depressing nights in UK election history – two narratives sprang up about why Labour lost the general election and what it needs to do going forward:
1. Miliband lost because he wasn’t anti austerity enough.
This is the position of the Corbynites of the party. Labour didn’t produce a clear economic alternative to Tory Austerity and people didn’t vote for them because of it. After all, look at the SNP. Look at their anti austerity platform. Look how well they did. Look at the votes Labour lost to the Greens. They’re all clear examples of people saying enough is enough with austerity.
The popular armchair blogger Another Angry Voice has made the same assertions in his blog posts. These aren’t cherry picked quotes, either:
“…in fact anything but admit that it was their own desperate failure to spell out a clear and coherent alternative to Tory ideological austerity that cemented their defeat.”
And this gem in the Jeremy Corbyn piece
The Labour Party lost the last election because they abjectly failed to present a coherent anti-austerity counter narrative, not because they weren’t quite similar enough to the Tories.
And then there’s narrative 2.
2. Miliband lost because he ran on a platform that was too far left and spooked the middle class.
Miliband was snooker loopy left wing. Business hated him. People didn’t think his politics could work because he ran his platform too far left. People want a centrist, centre left Labour party. One that won’t scare away the middle class. One that speaks to people who want to get on in life. Only a centre candidate can win in 2020 to win back the middle class masses who left us.
The issue with these is that both the Blairites and the Another Angry Voicers of the world wanted to distill why Labour lost into an easy “this fits my worldview” window. And it’s bollocks.
So let’s delve into the data to find out why Labour lost. And because I can’t be held down by your rules, man, we’ll deal with the Blairites first.
Miliband lost because he ran on a platform that was too far left and spooked the middle class.
Post election, Labour’s Blairite division didn’t miss a beat in forming an orderly queue to piss through Ed Miliband’s letter box and tell him that he was too left wing to win. This isn’t actually true.
Ed Miliband didn’t lose because of his policies. In fact in terms of policy, he was slightly ahead of Dave.
Ed Miliband lost for a multitude of reasons. However, the big underlying one was because old people didn’t like him. Labour was 8 points lower than the Tories in terms of support from the 65+ bracket, and it’s younger voter lead over the Tories stayed where it had been last election.
The difference is: old people vote.
This is more than just losing the elderly vote, Labour’s focus on cost of living was distinctly better received by younger people, who have been hit harder by austerity, than the elderly.
People didn’t trust Ed on the economy, even if they liked his policies. They thought Labour would be incompetent stewards, and Labour didn’t defend their record in government.
Now Labour, right up until 2008, had higher economic competence rankings than the Conservatives.
The lie spread by the Tories – that Labour overspent and crashed the economy due to high deficits – caught on. New Labour isn’t blameless here, it was financial deregulation which allowed for this to happen (although it can be argued that globalisation and free capital movements make this sort of thing inevitable).
Ed Miliband’s 2015 Manifesto did address some of the structural imbalances in the UK economy. Their deficit reduction plan was smarter, for a start. Even if it wasn’t as radical as some would have liked, the regulations proposed were were more in line with the intellectual beliefs of economists.
But Ed didn’t convey these ideas well. He consistently was behind David Cameron’s approval rating, even though his party was more popular. In fact, Cameron was liked more by the public than his party was.
The elderly voted for competence (40% of the over 65s, compared to 26% of 18-24), and young people voted for policy (70% of 18-24s compared to 57% for over 65s).
People saying Ed lost touch with the middle class voters (Kendall, looking at you) isn’t right either. Labour did boost it’s support among the upper working class voters (by about 1%), but it also boosted it’s support among lower middle class voters too. The top social bracket saw no change.
Labour didn’t lose because it lost touch with the middle class. Because it didn’t lose touch with the middle class. Their share of the vote was the same, or it increased, since the last election.
Funnily enough, the lowest classes, who had deserted Labour long before Miliband was in charge (back in 2005) didn’t go back to Ed. They didn’t go to the Greens in England, either. They went to UKIP.
A more charismatic leader with a better understanding of where New Labour went wrong with the public would be a good start. People liked Ed’s policies. They were popular enough. The support just wasn’t galvanised come voting day. Mobilising these groups – the disillusioned and the young – is where Labour can make electoral in roads, as well as challenging the narrative that Labour caused the financial crash.
(Data taken from IPPR)
When people who support Corbyn say “He’ll take Labour back to it’s roots and people will vote for them because they’ll be anti austerity and not Red Tories” – they’re wrong too.
I could just point you to this handy infographic done by Electoral Calculus which shows that double the people went from Labour to Tory between 2010 and 2015 than Labour to Green, or that UKIP stole the same number of votes from Labour that the Greens did and call it a day, but I’d like to think I’m more professional than that.
As said before, elderly people didn’t trust Ed with the economy. Among the over 65s, 39% said cutting the deficit was the top priority. In contrast, just 11% said the cost of living crisis – the economic issue Labour emphasised – said that top priority.
Now, a big chunk of people (37%) said they didn’t feel the benefits of the economic recovery, and weren’t expecting to in the future, compared to 26% who felt they were feeling the recovery. So just because the economy was growing didn’t mean that people would vote for Dave.
Labour weren’t able to galvanise the support of people who felt like the recovery wasn’t benefiting them, and they lost peoples trust on the economy.
Labour didn’t produce an attractive narrative to the conservatives, but it wasn’t them being anti austerity which meant they didn’t produce that narrative. Labour lost the working class support in 2010, before austerity, and didn’t regain it in 2015.
An independent inquiry (analysed by the Guardian because I can’t find the report) found that, minus Labour supporters who were lukewarm to austerity at best, voters who went to UKIP and the Tories agreed the deficit needed to be tackled as top priority.
Working class voters (DE social status) by and large said the deficit was the top priority.
This isn’t to say that Labour needs to adopt a more conservative line with the economy, a big chunk of those surveyed (43%) said they would favour a government which redistributed wealth from rich to poor. But people wanted the deficit cut, even if the system was unfair.
Jeremy Corbyn’s policies aren’t bad ones, necessarily. Investment in infrastructure and education, needed to sort out the UKs productivity problem to secure long term growth, need public investment – and the returns often match or exceed private ones. Opposing welfare cuts, which are the wrong way to balance the economy (spending should be focused on the poor and young) is a good position that’s sound, socially and economically. Arguably one of the best ways George Osborne got growth to restart was relaxing deficit reduction in 2012, something the IMF acknowledged.
Jeremy Corbyn could win if he is smart about how he plays his anti-austerity. If he says we’ll cut the deficit by investing, that can be a vote winner. Him running on an anti-austerity program isn’t.
In 2015 the Tories were clear that they’d cut to sort the deficit, and it resonated with the voters (by which I mean, the old). Labour’s message of cost of living didn’t.
But Corbyn is interesting in his own way in just how well he’s doing. Especially this poll about how Corbyn is likely to win the leadership race. He has the endorsement of 6 unions (including Unite and Unison – the two largest), and 162 Labour constituency parties.
Barely any Corbyn voters cite electibility (most likely to win in 2020 – at just 5%). Ditto uniting the party (again, at 5%). Same with understanding the economy or proving effective opposition. People want Corbyn to radically change the party, even if it means electoral defeat.
If you look at the data, those backing Corbyn are choosing him because they feel he will move the party to the left. He is a total break from New Labour.
Both Burnham and Cooper seem to be the preferred candidates to lead the party to 2020, especially in regards to keeping the party together.
Burnham has the widest appeal, according to the poll. But Corbyn is leading. A part of this is from the surge in membership which has worked to Corbyn’s advantage, and the change to One Member One Vote.
The 2015 budget on its surface borrowed a lot from Ed Miliband and “pre-distribution”, which is to say, it’s tough on the causes of welfare.
The 2015 budget is an unmitigated piece of crap, and a lot of it is smoke and mirrors (which I’ll discuss in a future article). But it’s also very politically cunning.
Over the course of the last parliament, Osborne managed to turn austerity into a vote winner. Now his intention is to neutralise Labour while the party is picking itself up. The introduction of a “Living” wage (a distinctly Labour position – and one that went above and beyond their 2015 manifesto) is the clearest example of this. Aboloshing non-dom status was another one. Taking low income earners out of tax, and cutting pension tax relief for higher earners, as well as moves to introduce universal child care.
All of them designed to put Labour into an uncomfortable position. It can no longer rely on tribal support.
Corbyn can shore up votes in traditional Labour strongholds. But elections aren’t won in strongholds. They are won in marginals.
Unity and electibility are crucial for Labour in a time the conservatives hold the small majority. All Labour would have to do is win back 30 of the 87 seats in 2020 to deny the Conservatives a majority and make a minority government harder to form.
If the YouGov poll is to be believed, then Labour would be better selecting its leader pragmatically. One which could hold the party together and would have a wider electoral appeal. Let’s not forget Dennis Skinner put his weight behind David Miliband in 2010, putting electability ahead of ideology.
If Labour can do all of this, then they stand a chance in 2020.