The Blog

What Next for Labour?

As the dust settles on Labour's desperately poor election showing, it's worth exploring in more detail what went wrong and what happens next for a beleaguered Labour Party. It's clear that there was no one single factor that led to the party's night of humiliation, rather a catalogue of mistakes and misjudgements that made defeat inevitable.

As the dust settles on Labour's desperately poor election showing, it's worth exploring in more detail what went wrong and what happens next for a beleaguered Labour Party.

It's clear that there was no one single factor that led to the party's night of humiliation, rather a catalogue of mistakes and misjudgements that made defeat inevitable.

At the top of the list was the Labour leaderships abject failure to deal with the Tories sustained attacks on their ability to run the economy. While Blair and Brown undoubtedly could and should have done more to lessen the impact on the UK of the global financial crisis, many of the outlandish claims and hyperbole slung in Labour's direction should have been dealt with and defused far more effectively. It's not as if Thatcherism didn't lead to boom and bust economies and for those of us with long memories we're still able to recall the pigs ear that Norman Lamont made of his spell as chancellor.

The fact is that the Tories convinced the electorate that they were trustworthy with the economy and Labour didn't.

On a similar theme there was also the perception that Labour is anti business and anti aspiration. Whereas the message should have been that aspiration and entrepreneurialism are to be encouraged providing people aren't trampled over in pursuit of all consuming material wealth. The 'Mansion Tax' and 'Inheritance Tax' may have played out well with the party faithful but came across as simply hammering middle class people who had grown steadily more affluent over the years through rapidly rising property values, particularly in the south east and through saving and investing wisely throughout their working lives. Instead of targeting those individuals, the focus should have been firmly on high end tax evaders and avoiders - the '1%.' A common enemy that costs the treasury tens of billions of pounds every year.

One of the major election topics was immigration and there didn't seem to be enough acknowledgement from Labour's campaign team that it's a genuine issue in some areas. Whilst correctly stressing the benefits of sensibly managed immigration, Labour failed to convince the electorate that they were paying anything other than lip service to voters concerns on this subject, particularly in traditional Labour voting areas. A quick glance at the number of UKIP votes in these constituencies is testament to that.

With hindsight, much more should have been made of the SNP 'sting.' Miliband did the right thing in stating firmly that Labour wouldn't strike any kind of deal with the nationalists but it was becoming increasingly obvious that Sturgeon knew the cause and effect of her public advances to the Labour leader. It was clear that an ideology driven Tory government in Westminster would further the SNP's independence cause in the long run and it was also obvious that the English right wing press would seize upon the possibility of a Scottish tail wagging a Labour government dog and unleash a tidal wave of fear amongst English floating voters. Labour should have made it much clearer just what was really driving the SNP agenda. An opportunity was lost.

Living as I do in South Wales, its difficult to escape the feeling that Labour has grown stale, complacent and more than a little arrogant. The party has had such a monopoly for so many years and in so many post industrial areas that perhaps that was an inevitable consequence but one of the reasons for the rise of the SNP has been the collapse of Labour support in a region where their votes were once so voluminous that it would have made more sense to weigh them than to count them. That bond between the party and its core supporters has been strained for years and now in some areas it's been spectacularly broken.

Another factor in the failure of this campaign is the continued hangover from the last Labour government. The toxic Blair and Brown years with the Iraq war, the cosying up to Murdoch, the financial crisis and a New Labour movement that lost the trust of the general public are still far too vivid in the minds of many voters to even countenance giving the party another chance.

Onto Ed Miliband. In his defence, he had a reasonable campaign personally but for the reasons already listed he was always going to have a very difficult job. He bravely took on Murdoch and big business and in doing so he became a soft target for the reactionary press. Whether it was his inability to negotiate his way around a bacon sandwich or his slightly unusual appearance and awkward mannerisms, the right wing scandal sheets had this honourable man firmly in their sights. These downmarket tabloids launched a deeply personal and unpleasant campaign against him. He didn't stand a chance. Having said all of that, in an era of vacuous image driven politics where style prevails over substance, sadly he was not the right choice as leader.

So, we ended up with a Labour Party that was too left wing for English voters in the south, too right wing for voters north of the border, tired and complacent in its other heartlands and with no clear identity for vision.

What on earth can it do to reinvent itself and make it an attractive proposition for voters again?

In looking at the failings of this Labour election campaign, some of the clues to which direction to take are already evident. The past few days have seen Blairites emerge from their bunkers calling for a return to New Labour 'values.' Such a call should be resisted, as should a fiscal lurch to the left.

That said, some of the adjustments to Labour policy should be centrist. As already mentioned, Labour need to rethink their pitch to voters around personal aspiration, as well ditching policies that hit the middle classes. They also need to listen to the legitimate concerns of voters in some areas around immigration but continue to dismiss the rabid tabloid hyperbole that often punctuates such a debate.

Additionally, Labour should position themselves firmly as the party that is relentless in its pursuit of the very wealthiest tax avoiders and evaders and work harder to communicate to the electorate the knock on effects in depriving funds for health and education. I'm still not sure that the wider public has grasped the scale of the problem, nor it's impact on public services.

Much thought should be given to future foreign policy and international affairs. Does the Labour Party wish to perpetuate the increasing normalisation of militarism and continued intervention in the Middle East and other troubled parts of the world? All the evidence suggests western involvement always exacerbates problems and actually increases the risk to British citizens at home and abroad. I'm not sure how much appetite there is amongst the public for the continuance of the UK's role as junior partner to America in acting as the worlds police force. Perhaps we should aspire to model ourselves on some of the more successful Scandinavian nations, rather than continuing to drive down a road sign posted 'the fifty first state.'

At home, Frank Field's plans for a 1p increase in NI contributions to raise £30bn over the life of a parliament to be ring fenced for the NHS and social care should be adopted as policy to help fill the funding black hole. The general public care passionately about our health service, such a policy would be a vote winner providing the rationale is clearly and honestly communicated.

At the start of the last parliament there was talk from all the main party leaders of creating the conditions for a 'John Lewis' style economy. This is another area that needs to be revisited and adopting policies offering tax breaks to incentivise and legislation to make it easier for companies to become Employee Ownership Trusts (EOT's) should be considered. EOT's have been shown to reduce wage disparity, increase productivity, improve staff retention and reduce absenteeism. They also, of course, lead to profit sharing throughout the organisation for all employees.

The inadequacies of our voting system is a hot topic right now, with the disparity between votes cast and seats won clear for all to see. Labour should finally bite the bullet and join with other parties in campaigning for a form of proportional representation.

As for the next leader, Andy Burnham seems the pick of the early names being bandied around. Whoever the person chosen to take Labour forward is, it's clear that the rebuilding job will be a major one and the party will need to act a lot faster than they did when replacing Gordon Brown five years ago.

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