I have hardly slept since yesterday evening and have been glued to the TV and laptop screens to watch the events of the most unpredictable UK general election in generations unfold. There has been hectic soul-searching after the resignation of Labour leader Ed Miliband earlier today about what went wrong. Before going into the weekend I would like to add four initial observations of my own following from the more in-depth analysis of our Editor David Gow.
1. Labour was too late in revealing the economic myths of the crisis and the ‘economic recovery’. One moment during the election campaign was revealing – there was a gasp in the audience during the final leaders TV programme when Ed Miliband said he did not believe that the last Labour government spent too much. Of course Labour did not spent too much as several economists such as Simon Wren-Lewis explained. But Labour was simply far too late in challenging this argument! The wrong perception that ‘Labour wrecked the economy’ and that the ‘Tories had to clean up the mess’ had been established for five years and it was just too late to set the record straight. Labour did better in exposing the wrong ‘economic recovery’ argument but against the backdrop of the ‘Labour mess’ perception this was too little too late.
2. Labour’s political message was too left-wing. The idea, already uttered on TV screens, that the general policy propositions of Labour were too left-wing is also wrong. Labour’s wipeout in Scotland at the hand of the ‘end austerity’ SNP simply cannot be explained by the ‘too left-wing’ argument. And in several places in England (some places in the north and London in particular) Labour strengthened its support. Labour did poorly in many of the key marginal seats in England and was always unlikely to compensate for the massive losses in Scotland once the sheer scale of the swing became apparent. One can criticise Labour’s politics as not aspirational and future-oriented enough, that is a fair point. But simply saying Labour’s manifesto was too left-wing is too easy in my view. So what went wrong?
3. Negative campaigning works (to an extent). Labour was crushed between two forms of nationalism that will dominate the shape of British politics for years to come. You might not win overall majorities with negative campaigning but if the decisive impact comes from Middle England marginal constituencies you can target these specific voters under the conditions of Scottish nationalism with a scare campaign rather than an aspirational message. I think this is exactly what the Tories did by publishing an English manifesto and creating the scarecrow of a puppet Labour government directed by the left-wing nationalists from Scotland. This would explain the late surge towards the Tories that went undetected in the polls before the election. There was enough fear of uncertainty in specific quarters to avoid a vote for change.
4. The job ahead will be very hard for Labour. Labour will have to finally set the crisis record straight and challenge the story that Labour caused it. It will have to come up with a more aspirational policy agenda that addresses the problems that Ed Miliband rightly highlighted and has at least potentially the scope to heal the widening rift between Scotland and England in particular. This nationalist divide will be further increased by the discussion about Brexit that will invariably start now that a referendum is on the cards (probably earlier than 2017 in my view).
What was reveled today has not happened over night. The Labour erosion in Scotland has been going on for years and just trying to win over Middle England – as Tony Blair did – has first of all helped to bring the erosion north of the border about and second of all will not be enough in the new political context. Even if Labour had won all seats in Scotland it would still be far away from a majority. Likewise English marginal seats without Scotland almost certainly can’t deliver a Labour majority.
The challenge for Labour is to reinvent itself as the last remaining UK-wide party. It needs a reinvigorated progressive vision with a much clearer aspirational narrative that unites nations that are clearly drifting apart. It is a formidable challenge!
In the comments there was a question about why I buy into aspirational politics – a term that is often loosely thrown around. Here is what I wrote in reply:
I don’t see ‘aspirational’ as mainly individualistic as it is often used – you point this out correctly.
For me the Good Society approach I and others have been working on is the archetypical aspirational approach. It is a politics that creates confidence in the future (in very uncertain times) and has the ‘aspiration’ to create a better and fairer society in which individual aspiration can flourish. This idea of a better society is a precondition for individuals to do better. On the basis of this some of the core individual aspirational ideas – such as that our children should have it better than us – can be realised. That is why you cannot have a Good Society in which inequality for instance is blocking any real chance of progress for most people.
Aspiration is only meaningful and achievable in a different sort of society – that is the key connection. Other than that there is a lot of nonsense around, for instance “working class vs. the aspirational class”. Is the working class not aspirational? Don’t they want their children to have a better future too?
The idea of creating a ‘big tent’ by electioneering has failed as a significant part of that tent has collapsed because it was taken for granted. A sustainable ‘big tent’ strategy can only be build around a politics that broad groups of society feel drawn to and buy into. Dissecting society into smaller and smaller groups practising transactional politics has failed in the past and will fail in the future.
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