Election results #3: why did Labour lose?

We previously looked at why the Conservatives won the election and why the SNP did so astonishingly well. This time, I want to look at perhaps the most important aspect of the election just passed: why Labour, who were expected to slug it out with the Conservatives, did so very much worse than expected.

I may as well admit up front that I gave the game away in the first post of this series, when I wrote:

It’s true that the Conservatives didn’t present a compelling vision, but neither did Labour or the LibDems.

And that for me is the saddest truth. It’s not that the party with the worst policies won the election; it’s that the other parties had so nearly the same policies. So there was no real choice to make.

It astounds me that, as Labour conduct their post-mortem, what I’m mostly reading is that the electorate rejected Labour because they went too far to the left. I think the result in Scotland tells us the exact opposite: that when people are given a classically progressive slate of policies, they like it. They vote for it.

Labour lost because their policies were so close to those of the Conservatives. They went into this election accepting as an axiom that the deficit has to be cut as a matter or urgency;to achieve this, they promised to cut spending — something no Labour campaign has ever done before; they bought into the UKIP-inspired oh-noes-immigration paranoia, with their awful “controls on immigration” mug; for heaven’s sake, they claimed they would be “tougher than Tories on welfare”.

Now what happens when the Tories go into an election with Tory policies, and Labour go into the same election with Tory policies? The actual Tories beat the pretend ones because they know how to do this stuff. This should not be a surprise.

There’s no percentage in trying to out-Tory the Tories. They’re good at it. They’ve been doing it all their lives. They can do it with conviction, because they believe in it. How could Labour think they could out-play them at their own game?

So even on purely pragmatic tactical grounds, Labour picked entirely the wrong approach to this election. Instead of making it about which political philosophy people preferred, they made it about which man-in-a-suit would get to oversee the next round of cuts. Of course they picked the man who has experience of doing it. Cameron came across like a Prime Minister. Because he was the Prime Minister. This isn’t a complicated observation. It astonishes me that Labour didn’t figure it out for themselves.

David Cameron is better at being David Cameron than Ed Miliband is. The Conservatives are better at being conservative than Labour are. Given a choice between two parties offering the same thing, people will pick the party that does it better.


But I think there is a much more fundamental problem here than the question of which party won the most seats in the election. The problem of what the Labour party is for. It came into existence to champion the working classes — as a political representation of trade unions. We all understand that political parties, like every other organisation, will change. But a party that was formed precisely in order to be an alternative to the Conservative approach of government by the privileged for the privileged has lost its way when its policies are so very close to those of the party it supposedly stands in opposition to.

My feeling is that the British electorate deserves to be given a choice. And Labour’s greatest failure in this election is its failure to offer one. For voters in England who wanted a socially progressive government — one that would, broadly speaking, stand for redistributing wealth from rich to poor, and for halting the privatisation of national institutions — there simply was not a mainstream party to vote for. And that’s a tragedy. Even for people who wanted to vote for a right-wing party, the lack of a credible alternative to those policies dulls the mandate of the winning Conservatives. They will of course speak as though the country has wholeheartedly jumped on board with their agenda; but since no-one had a realistic option not to, they can never never know whether what they’re saying is true or not.

Labour’s shift to the right means that we, the electorate, also can’t know whether we would have elected a more left-wing government had we been offered a choice. All we know for sure is that the Scots, who were given that choice, overwhelmingly voted in favour.


Andrew Rilstone laid this out very cleanly many years ago, in a post that he rather ambitiously titled British Politics Explained:

The Red Party and The Blue Party had different points of view from each other. (That was why they were different parties.)

The Red Party said, ‘We believe in Equality, in particular Economic Equality. We think that the Poor should be a bit Richer, and the Rich should be a bit Poorer. We are prepared to sacrifice a bit of Freedom in order to bring that about.’

The Blue Party said, ‘We believe in Freedom. We think that people should be as far as possible be left alone and allowed to do whatever they like, and we are prepared to sacrifice a great deal of Equality in order to bring that about.’

They often had quite sensible discussions around this point.

And that really is the point, isn’t it? When you have two parties that believe in two different things — and who can express the genuinely good core at the heart of those things — you can have a meaningful debate about actual issues, and make a real choice. But when both parties believe pretty much the same thing, it’s inevitable that whatever debate you have is going to degenerate into arguments about how incompetently one leader eats a bacon sandwich, and how inappropriate it is that the other leader eats such an expensive hamburger.

The trivial level of political discourse follows directly from the lack of anything substantive to discuss.

So I am deeply, deeply unhappy with our present Labour party — not just because they lost the election, but because they gave us an election where it hardly mattered who won anyway. I honestly feel it would be better for everyone if the right-leaning members of the Labour party would just go ahead and defect to the Conservatives, where they are a better ideological fit; and leave whatever remains of the Labour party free to conceive and articulate a genuinely different vision of what Britain could and should be.

There’s no point in beating an enemy if, to do so, you become them.

[Read on to #4: why were the Liberal Democrats wiped out?]


11 responses to “Election results #3: why did Labour lose?

  1. sgpennebaker

    Every Democratic politician in the U.S. should read this and have it printed on a t-shirt which, for good measure, says “Duh” on the back.

  2. This perhaps works slightly better as an analysis of the election before last. However absurd the whole ‘Red Ed’ scare stories were, he did take Labour a little further to the left than in any recent elections. And that’s important partly because, just like the deficit was baselessly blamed on public spending, their defeat is being blamed on their vague stabs back to the left are being blamed on that.

    Never mind the fact that the Green and Plaid Cymru votes held up, the SNP…well you’ve covered that, and that the Labour vote itself actually increased. I think their weakness was that their stance was a hopeless mishmash, trying to appeal to everybody and appealing to nobody. Before people can agree or disagree with what you’re saying, you have to be saying something. While the Tories had a clear narrative – must get out of debt, must balance the books no matter how tough it gets, it’ll be better once we’re out the other side. A ludicrous narrative, granted, but a clear one.

    It’s also interesting the way that, if people are asked what policies they’d support rather than which party, the electoral map goes very different indeed.

    Regarding the SNP, while I think overall you’re right (and that was the line Sturgeon was pushing in the leadership debate) it doesn’t come down to any one factor. And the Tories almost saying out loud a vote for the SNP was illegitimate must have driven many to do that very thing, just to defy them. For the SNP as far as the Tories go, with enemies like that, who needs friends?

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