Multiple theories have been released since Thursday, espousing to know why Labour confounded the tight polls and ended up conceding an unlikely majority to the Tories. Most give absolutely no credence to the evidence.
Some of them make valid points. Shy Tories? Yep, they exist. Though not because the left are too ‘self-righteous’ (as Lionel Shriver claimed) but more likely because they don’t want to lose an argument about their viewpoint which they can’t defend. It’s not easy to argue your right to an extra few percent tax cut, on your current or aspirational income, when it means disabled people might lose their entire houses. Thus shy Tories tend to understate their position, being less likely to state their Conservative support.
What about aspirational voters themselves? Seemingly everyone to the right of Ed Milliband in the Labour party thought that those aspirational voters were the ones who really understated their Tory support. Does this really make sense though, or is it a way for idealist Blairites to bash the turn to its roots that Labour made prior to this election?
Ed Milliband didn’t spend his time bashing high income earners: and even in the Scottish debates, where one would expect a higher degree of ‘aspirational ignorance’ due to the perceived left leaning of it’s electorate, Jim Murphy made it clear that Labour ‘congratulates’ high earners. Over and over again, in fact. It’s thus not clear how Labour could have been more accommodating to these aspirational voters; they certainly couldn’t manage to be more accommodating to the accumulation of wealth than the Conservatives – which is the entire reason the Tory party exist – so partly we should challenge the notion that it even matters. You aren’t going to persuade most of the ideologically aspirational wealthy to leave Conservatism in favour of Labour, so there’s not much else that could have been done.
More to the point, there’s two factors – which are actually based in reality, not ideology – that are backed by evidence, that show a more accurate insight into Thursday’s failure.
1. The SNP did take Scotland, and did whip up English nationalism.
This, of course, has also prompted a degree of debate about how Labour failed. To be fair, they could not have rationally done much else. The SNP were very smart in the way they ran the independence campaign last year: they both positioned themselves as the party of Scotland, at the same time as creating huge divisions in Scottish society.
Indeed the post-general election debate has focused on the ‘new’ political outlook in Scotland, but largely ignored that whilst 50% of Scotland are largely besotted with the SNP, the other 50% largely hate them. But taking 50% of the popular vote across the country is enough to win almost every constituency. Short of supporting independence, there’s nothing Labour nor the Lib Dems could have done to stop the onset of nationalism. Losing Scotland’s seats was an insurmountable certainty, engineered by the SNP, who also had the luxury of an uncosted and ‘blackhole’ laden manifesto that they could position firmly on the left whilst never having to put into action.
Similarly, the threat this caused to many English voters – who feared an SNP-Labour alliance – was very real and hugely unreported by the polls and media alike. Indeed, only those reporters actually speaking to people, such as Harris and Domokos with the Guardian, spotted this. Most wondered why Crosby and the Conservatives were spending huge swathes of funds on publicising the threat. Most of us wonder no more.
Of course it was a big factor for many English voters: the idea that 1.5 million voters – much less than the amount even predicted to vote UKIP – in just one area of the UK could decide what policies the entire government makes, is a strong argument. It even sets my sense of injustice tingling, and I know it was all propaganda.
Yet, and here’s the important part, Labour did everything they could to minimise this. Milliband was clear in denouncing it, saying there would be no deal or coalition, whilst Murphy made the same, consistent argument in Scotland. The problem was that good propaganda is impossible to counter. The continual closeness of the polls – inaccurately, in the end – made this threat, created by propaganda and publicised by almost every media source, very real for a lot of people.
The polls in Scotland were accurate to the very end, so if something swayed the English vote alone, you have to look for factors that affected only the English alone. It’s thus not difficult to draw the conclusion of how important the SNP factor was. Many are ignoring this, despite it being a very strongly evidenced argument.
2. The Decimation of the Lib Dems.
Election night saw the unravelling of the Lib Dems, in a way which was almost predicted yet still left shock after every result. Perhaps not in Scotland, where we knew the referendum had divided the electorate in two, but to see well known, longstanding Lib Dem MP’s fall throughout England still left us wondering what on earth we had just witnessed.
The Conservatives took scarce few seats from Labour, and Labour only a few more from the Conservatives. They both, however, took bountiful numbers from the Lib Dems. Labour did their job of capitalising on the Lib Dems in many of the seats where they were elected for their liberal promises – once again, Labour could have done little more. Indeed, they even gave Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg the fright of his life in Sheffield Hallam.
The capitulation, which Labour could do nothing about, was the strange tendency of many voters in traditional Lib Dem seats to vote Conservative. Were just 10 of these to have stayed Lib Dem – realising that the Lib Dems had been the brake on some pretty awful Conservative policies in the last parliament – then we wouldn’t have been looking at a Conservative majority. Had 20 stayed, you would have the potential – even with the unavoidable loss of Labour and Lib Dem MPs in Scotland – for a majority to vote down a Conservative queen’s speech. One shouldn’t underestimate this very clear and important factor in Labour’s failure.
It wasn’t some ideological failure of Labour that saw them tank at the election. We can conclusively show that the SNP factor – by virtue of only the English vote greatly differing from the polls – had a large effect. We can also show that had the Lib Dems done better against the Conservatives in seats where it was a straight race, Labour could still be looking at holding the power. There is also the UKIP effect – another factually correct argument, that UKIP halted any Labour rise in many areas. It’s unclear how many seats this swayed in the favour of the Conservatives, but it’s bound to be significant.
But, as I’ve said all along on the other subjects, short of redefining Labour ideology in a way which alienated its core support, it could have done little to change this. Even in its battle with UKIP, it angered many core supporters by conceding policies on immigration that seemed unnecessary. Going so far as the alienating ‘controls on immigration’ merchandise which made many on the left shudder. But Farage had a smart strategy – one which followed the kind of campaign that Crosby himself would run, creating controversy where facts don’t allow for it. Milliband didn’t sink Labour to this level of this propaganda, nor should he of.
As well as the clear facts, we should also focus on the positives. By 2010, many core Labour supporters had begun to see them as a begrudging vote in many constituencies, awaiting a better option. Many more of us on the left – me included – had never voted for them at all; flirting with Lib Dem or Greens, Labour didn’t appeal to a large chunk of us on the left. And that ‘chunk’ was seemingly growing into other parties, else not voting at all. I grew up in the hype about New Labour, but – and this goes for many voters like me – I never once had a chance to vote for them where I considered them worthy of it. My first Labour vote was in 2015. And regardless of the result, I’m still proud I made it.
On this subject I stand persuaded by the gradual progress Labour has made in captivating a new generation – a generation which the 2010 election showed it hadn’t previously managed to persuade – and I’m perplexed at the figures on the right of the party who wish to make out the election failure was ideological. It wasn’t. The polls were wrong, but for good reason – all of which we could have done little more about. But they were right in saying the hearts and minds of the public were turning. They may not have turned fully this time, due to the SNP factor, the UKIP influence or the decimation of the Lib Dems, but in 5 years all of that could change. Everything leaned in favour of the right at this election, but that’s unlikely to happen again. Similarly, that’s 5 more years of winning yet more hearts and minds, with which to balance those key marginals and nationalist converts towards a lasting progressive agenda.
Evidence doesn’t support the idea that Labour made ideological mistakes. Blair did not have to fight the factors I mention above, Milliband did. Don’t ignore the changing political climate, and great progress that Labour has made in gradually persuading a generation, in favour of erroneous nostalgic bias.