Will Labour learn their lesson?

An internal Labour party report, commissioned by former interim leader Harriet Harman, has revealed the key causes for the party’s worst performance since 1987 in last May’s election. In a manner reminiscent of The Thick Of It, the paper was leaked to the BBC before being officially released to the party. Entitled ‘Learning the Lessons’, the most surprising revelation it delivered was that Labour were not actually “too left-wing” for the electorate on polling day, contradicting what many party grandees, such as Lord Mandelson, had branded as a fundamental reason behind their defeat.

As it turns out, left-wing policies proposed by Ed Miliband, such as an energy price freeze and placing the railways into public ownership, were actually among the party’s most popular. The problem lay with the lack of a consistent or coherent political narrative. For five years, Labour had been attacking Tory austerity, yet the front cover of their election manifesto was as austere as Tesco Value vodka. Were Labour austerity-lite, or completely against the concept? Can anyone clarify what their position was?

The author of the report, Dame Margaret Beckett, has attributed Labour’s lacklustre performance to four key factors. Miliband’s perceived leadership weaknesses proved to be the Achilles heel of the party’s campaign; he wasn’t judged to be as strong a leader as David Cameron, and consequently less desirable in times of national crisis (in spite of his claims of being “tough enough”). This image of weakness is primarily attributed by the report to the news media, going so far as to claim there was a personal vendetta which “seemed to destroy him”. For many people, attacks in the media on Miliband’s character were epitomised by Jeremy Paxman’s characterisation of him as a “north London geek”; other examples which spring to mind are his difficulties in eating a bacon sandwich, forgetting to mention the deficit in a keynote speech, and, of course, the EdStone. Fears of a Labour-SNP alliance, a possibility which was relentlessly (and successfully) articulated to the electorate throughout the campaign, proved to be equally pivotal in the Tory’s victory.

Although Miliband’s left-wing breakaway from New Labour was not painted as a political hindrance, the report is, indirectly, less than lukewarm about the future election prospects of Jeremy Corbyn. Since the 2008 financial crash, Labour has been handicapped by not being trusted on the top issues – most notably the economy, immigration and the welfare state – by voters. These are the final issues highlighted in Beckett’s report. The key demographic who Labour needs to woo in order to secure electoral victory in 2020 hold generally more right-wing views regarding these issues; they are unlikely to be seduced by quantitative easing, anti-austerity or a perceived open-door policy. Tony Blair was only able to succeed in the south in 1997 by forcibly steering the party from its hard-left, unelectable persona of the 80s, a persona for which Corbyn appears to be forming some sort of tribute act. Blair may currently be the equivalent of electoral toxic waste, but these remain top priorities for voters.

Scotland may once have been the Labour heartland, but that is a bygone era now. The Conservatives were once viewed as a party too divided to form a competent government; that, too, is of a bygone era. The tables have turned; an ICM poll has analysed Corbyn to be in the worst position for a post-war Labour leader eight months after a general election, and eight points behind the Tories. He may have achieved an unprecedented mandate from Labour members in September, but there is no guarantee this will translate into wider electoral success. Only by working on the issues highlighted in ‘Learning the Lessons’, and by ideologically savaging the Tories rather than members of their own party, will Labour be electable in 2020. Even then, it seems unlikely to happen; we’d better get settled in for a one-party state for at least the next decade.


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August 2022
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