It is normal that for politicians to engage in angry finger-pointing after a humiliating electoral defeat. Playing the blame game has a therapeutic effect and helps a party make sense of its defeat.
It is going to take the forensic eye of a Sherlock Holmes to understand what happened to the Labour Party on May 7 and the story-telling talents of a Scheherazade to come up with an agenda to woo a highly fragmented British electorate.
But in the rush to find a quick fix for its electoral problems, Labour is in danger of learning the wrong lessons from the electoral defeat. The temptation to condemn the whole of Miliband’s agenda to the dustbin of history is big. But that would be a mistake. Parts of Milibandism were right and will endure in the coming years.
It is true that Labour’s devastating defeat was mostly the result of political mistakes made by Ed Miliband. He failed to develop an enticing and credible programme of government and wrongly believed that image and personality do not matter much in British politics. Above all, he failed to challenge the public perception that the global financial crisis had been caused by overspending by the previous Labour government.
But this latter failure is mostly a demonstration of the strength of the austerity narrative that centre-right parties across Europe (that are mostly in government) have weaved so successfully. Since 2008, all European social democratic leaders (including Miliband) have tried and failed to counter the argument that rising public deficits were caused by profligate governments. To believe that a more centrist leader would be able to succeed in this task is a dangerous fantasy that Labour should avoid pursuing.
What Miliband got right
Despite his flaws as a leader, Miliband got a few things right. As Tony Blair recognised, he was “absolutely right to raise the issue of inequality”. The problem was that Miliband’s approach was simultaneously too minimalist (raising the minimum wage to £8 an hour over the period of five years was hardly going to redress inequalities) and was presented in an angry and divisive language that was bound to be badly received by the right-wing press.
Moreover, it’s an agenda that actually resonates with voters. So much so that the Conservatives are quickly moving to occupy this territory and even use some of Miliband’s language. David Cameron’s focus on blue-collar Tories with commitments on free childcare, apprenticeships, tax cuts for minimum wage earners suggests that the Tories will try to neutralise Labour in this particular area.
Miliband was equally right about the economy. Contrary to what is quickly becoming the official version of Milibandism (and promoted by some of the contenders to Labour’s leadership) he developed a strategy for economic growth that timidly started to address Britain’s long-term problems of low productivity.
Together with Andrew Adonis, Ed Balls, and Chuka Umunna, Miliband developed plans to rebalance the economy and increase productivity. This included an active industrial policy, investing in apprenticeships, devolving economic powers to English cities and towns, and public investment in infrastructure.
But all this was obfuscated by Labour’s convoluted stances on the deficit. It is also true that a deficit-obsessed media was not the least bit interested in hearing Labour’s plans to rebalance the economy, especially because stressing Miliband’s supposed anti-business rhetoric resulted in much better headlines.
Miliband’s response to these key issues was timid. But his timidity was not only a product of his legendary indecision. The Labour Party, including many members of the shadow cabinet, were divided on these (and more) issues and the result was an electoral manifesto that lacked bite.
Judging by the programme of the Conservative government, these issues will dominate the political agenda in the next five years and Labour should have something to say about them. Rather than starting from scratch, it should pick up and develop where Miliband left off.