If victors get to define the reasons for their victory, then losers just get told why they’ve lost. Within hours – minutes even – of the announcement of the shock BBC exit poll at 10pm on May 7, Ed Miliband was being informed in no uncertain terms why he had done so badly by an army of observers, critics and supposed party comrades.
It is ridiculous to imagine that in such a short space of time anyone can properly explain why Labour’s performance was so disappointing. We still don’t know why all the opinion polls were so out of alignment with the final result. Did they consistently over-estimate Labour support in the campaign or was there a late defection to the Conservatives? These things matter.
But political debate rarely stops for the lack of adequate data. As a consequence, in the wake of this and every other Labour disaster at the polls, prejudice often masquerades as analysis. Most infamously, Labour’s third defeat in a row in 1959 saw party leader Hugh Gaitskell and his revisionist cohorts in academia and the media blame its association with nationalisation. But they had long been critical of nationalisation and blatantly sought to use defeat to ditch Labour’s constitutional commitment to public ownership. It was arguable, however, that Gaitskell’s own campaign blunders had harmed his party more. But he still plunged Labour into years of bitter and harmful division.
Blairites seize their chance
In the same way, Miliband’s many Blairite critics have formed an orderly queue to tell us why he lost. The columnist John Rentoul has already written that 2015 “was an election that Labour could have won, and David Miliband could have won it”.
After beating his brother for the leadership in 2010, Rentoul and the Blairite blogger Dan Hodges, insist Miliband should have admitted that Labour had spent too much money in office and signed up to much of the Cameron government’s austerity programme rather than opposing it.
Theirs is the prevailing view among many leading Labour parliamentarians, most of whom wanted David Miliband for leader. According to Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, and a figure close to Blair, defeat flowed from Ed Miliband “turning the page on New Labour” and his failure to appeal to “the aspirational family that wants to do well”. “We need”, McFadden continued, “to speak about wealth creation and not just wealth distribution.”
Labour’s appalling performance in Scotland and its inability to win more than a few marginal constituencies in England certainly needs explanation. But is the answer, in effect, going back to 1997 and what Rentoul semi-ironically calls “the eternal verities of the Blairite truth”?
Not yet over New Labour
Ed Miliband won the Labour leadership because New Labour had failed. Uncritically accepting the economics of neo-liberalism, Blair said Labour could still make Britain a fairer society. Between 1997 and 2010 there were many, if modest, gains as a result. The minimum wage, tax credits, investment in public services among other measures certainly improved the lives of some: relative poverty fell.
But New Labour’s faith in the market meant it contributed to the deregulation that led to the 2008 banking crisis, one which even the former governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, admits was the real reason for the huge deficit inherited by the Conservative-led coalition. The party was also in trouble electorally, even before the fiscal crisis. It crawled to a majority in 2005 with 35.2% of the vote – and only then after Blair promised he wouldn’t seek another term as prime minister. The seeds of the SNP surge were laid before 2010, while the alienation of many former Labour voters had long been obvious. Even David Miliband conceded that more of the same was not an option, that the party needed to renew itself.
It is clear that the course taken by Ed Miliband did not work. But we do not yet know for sure why. Was his attempt to move on in a leftward direction from New Labour flawed from the outset? Or did the fault lie in the uncertain means by which his strategy was communicated? Was any Labour leader fated to fail in 2015, given the flawed record of New Labour in power, one that remains fresh in the minds of many voters?
By the time we know the answers to these questions, a new Labour leader will have been elected and will already be taking the party in a direction likely to have been influenced by those nostalgic for Blairism. But going back to the future is not necessarily the best way to move forward.