Labour’s devastating defeat in the general election was shocking in its scale, but in retrospect, the signs were there all along. The party was widely perceived to be lacking strong leadership and economic credibility, which it assumed it could overcome with a “35% strategy” of holding onto its core vote from 2010 and grafting on some Liberal Democrat defectors. In the event, it fell far short of even that low target. The party must now decide how to get back in the game.
After its defeat in 2010, Labour spent the entire summer debating the Iraq War and marketisation in the public services during its leadership contest, at a time when the country was fixated on the economic crisis and the coalition was busily pinning the blame for that crisis on the last Labour government.
This time round, Labour must think about voters’ concerns rather than its own preoccupations. There are three key areas where it needs to focus if it is to be in a position to win in 2020: leadership, competence and party image.
Leading the way
Leaders are an increasingly important consideration for voters when deciding how to vote. They need to be seen as credible, competent, trustworthy and in touch with ordinary people’s concerns. Weak leaders can severely damage a party’s prospects because voters have little faith they will be able to deliver on their promises or to deal with crises.
Ed Miliband consistently suffered poor approval ratings and lagged far behind David Cameron in polls of who would make the better prime minister. He was seen as “odd” by voters – not least for the way he challenged his own brother for the Labour leadership in 2010. But he was also seen as weak, and that had a devastating effect on Labour’s electoral prospects.
To give one example from the election campaign, the Conservatives depicted Miliband as being in the pocket of Alex Salmond and as a puppet on a string held by Nicola Sturgeon, in posters warning of the dangers of a Labour minority government dependent on SNP support. The political was made personal, contrasting Miliband’s weakness with the strength of Salmond and Sturgeon. It played on existing concerns about Miliband and questioned whether he could stand up for England’s interests.
These posters could never have worked with, say, Tony Blair in Salmond’s pocket because Blair was widely seen by voters as a strong leader, so the message would have lacked credibility. Labour can withstand these attacks in the future only if its next leader is a strong and credible figure.
Need for credible policies
Labour’s policies must also be seen as credible, and the party as a whole, competent. Under Miliband, Labour trailed far behind the Conservatives in polls on economic management. It never offered a convincing explanation of what it got wrong in government before 2010, and never had a credible policy to reduce the deficit.
The party put all its eggs in one basket by assuming that the coalition’s austerity policy would be unsuccessful and unpopular. It turned out to be neither, and so Miliband’s Labour was left without a proper economic policy. There are no examples on record of a British party winning a general election despite being less trusted on the economy than its main rival and with a leader not seen as the strongest candidate to become prime minister. And the 2015 result is no exception. Labour must learn that lesson.
Competence goes beyond economic policy, however. On immigration, Labour toughened its policy under Miliband, but again, it lacked credibility. This is particularly dangerous for Labour because UKIP finished second in a swathe of northern Labour seats, and may launch a serious challenge in 2020.
Working-class voters are most concerned with immigration, and they are more likely than other groups to vote for UKIP. To retain their support, Labour must show that it at least understands their concerns, even if it doesn’t argue for a “fortress UK”.
Keeping up appearances
Party image is the third area where Labour suffered. The 2015 election demonstrated once again that it is very difficult to win from the left, and that capturing the centre-ground remains crucial to electoral success. Under Miliband, Labour was seen to shift quite sharply to the left, compared with the Blair years. It came to be seen as anti-business, pro-state intervention, close to the unions, and pro-tax-and-spend.
Individual policies such as capping energy prices may have been popular in isolation, but they fed into the image of a left-wing party, which ultimately proved damaging. This is not to say that New Labour should be resurrected – that brand is too tarnished. But Labour must once again be a party that understands the aspirations of working-class and middle-class voters.
Some have suggested following the leftist strategy of the SNP as a road to electoral success. But the SNP succeeded primarily because it made the independence question the key dividing line in Scottish politics. If Scotland becomes independent after any second referendum, Labour will be forced to confront its weaknesses in England, which is more right-leaning. If Scotland remains in the UK, Labour would have to show that it would defend Scotland’s interests at Westminster.
Scotland may look a lost cause for Labour after the SNP’s success, but that could change. Quebec separatists routinely dominated Canadian federal elections (held under first-past-the-post) within their province after two defeated independence referendums, usually winning two-thirds of Quebec’s 75 seats. But they eventually declined, and at the last Canadian federal election, won just four seats after the separatist tide had ebbed.
If Labour is to revitalise itself in opposition, it needs to look at why it lost. Blaming a hostile media or Tory dirty tricks will be comforting, but won’t help the party move forward. “One more heave” doesn’t usually work for parties that have suffered heavy defeats. The best thing that could happen would be for a full and frank party-wide discussion of all the options for the next parliament. That debate, at least, does appear to be starting.