The polls were the source of false hope. Not just national polls but constituency polls, which appeared to give a more fine-grained and accurate picture of what was happening on the ground.
In fact, what the national polls showed in England was practically a dead heat on voting intentions, but with a significant deficit for Labour on both leadership and economic trust. So the lesson for next time is not to take false hope from the polls unless – as in the Blair years – they show a decisive lead on all three measures: voting intentions, leadership and economic trust. And constituency polls are too volatile to mean much.
The good news is in London. A combination of demography, strong campaigning, a positive pan-London and pro-growth programme for the capital, and an excellent record in London borough and city-wide government over the past 15 years, has given Labour a power base which yielded net gains in 2015 and a springboard for next May’s mayoral election.
The bad news is practically everywhere else.
The essays in this collection by defeated candidates tell a fairly similar story of an energetic ground campaign but an inadequate national campaign. The verdicts are of a defeat in the broad realm of ideas and positioning, not individual policies or leadership and campaign failures.
“We lost the argument over linking the contribution people make to society and what they take out in cash or kind,” says Sally Keeble. One of the effects of this was to enable UKIP to take root in Labour areas because of (in Luke Pollard’s words) “a disconnection with communities, distrust in politicians and a debate that was leaving people behind.”
Will Straw highlights welfare as a key issue. “Wherever I turned there was a palpable sense that the system was devoid of any sense of contribution” and Labour “was seen by too many people as the defender of the status quo.” Jessica Asato highlights waste in partially reformed public services as a key theme, and Polly Billington stresses the importance of public services that are responsive to local needs in areas as basic as cleaning the streets properly and cleaning up after dogs.
So what’s to be done? New leadership gives new opportunities. Will Straw suggests three principles of reform: devolution, “encouraging a climate of contribution and reciprocity” and “moving scarce taxpayer resources from income support to shared institutions,” such as new homes instead of housing benefit and better paid jobs instead of jobseeker’s allowance.
This means accepting some of the lines of George Osborne’s summer budget and promoting an agenda of productivity, devolution and stronger families and communities. For example, Labour should be championing the new levy for apprenticeships and campaigning to promote and extend the opportunities they provide for young people. We should be supporting city regional mayors and devolved institutions, and seeking to make a success of them, as with the GLA in London under Ken Livingstone. We should, as James Frith argues, put a pro-growth and pro-business approach at the heart of our politics, and not, in Rowenna Davis’s graphic phrase, assume that people are simply “needy, greedy or irrelevant.” On the contrary, everyone has a positive contribution to make, and we should be championing it.
Moreover, as Sally and Will argue in their conclusion, the next election will be won or lost in England. There are too few marginal seats in Scotland to make the difference even if we regain the initiative north of the border.
We must be leading the campaign to protect our jobs, industries and future in the forthcoming EU referendum. Polly Billington argues that we need to champion “fair movement” rather than “free movement” of citizens within the EU. Defining what is meant by “fair movement” is a key issue and needs to be resolved over the next year. David Cameron will define it in terms of migrants’ benefits; if we are seeking a broader definition, it is as yet unclear what this would amount to in practice.
As these essays show, Labour did not have a problem with the quality of its candidates in key seats in 2015. Nor with the commitment and pragmatism of our members at large. Our challenge is to secure strong and effective leadership, positioning and policy.
This piece is the introduction to the Fabian pamphlet Never Again: Lessons from Labour’s key seats – read the full report here.