At the risk of the accusation of being pretentious, I’ve never won or lost an election ever, I thought I’d deviate from my usual economic commentary and have a try at explaining why Labour did so badly in the recent UK elections and what needs to happen for them to do better in future. There are are an awful lot of disappointed Labour supporters around, who might be looking for some answers as to why an expected Labour small win suddenly turned into quite a large Conservative win. There’s probably many Liberal Democrat supporters feeling somewhat depressed too, but they don’t need any similar explanation! Something went obviously very wrong for Labour on polling day. Either those potential Labour voters who had indicated to the pollsters they would be voting Labour did not show up on the day, or they changed their minds at the last moment and voted for someone else. The pollsters sampling methods cannot be fundamentally wrong, otherwise their exit poll would not have been as close to the actual result as it was.
The Labour Party had enough potential votes to win, albeit with some support from the SNP, but not enough real or actual votes on the day. So what went wrong? We need to start with the fundamentals. The Labour Party has a core set of socialist supporters. It can never win an election with just those supporters , though. There just aren’t enough of them. It needs to appeal to enough of another group, the uncommitted voters to get the numbers. There is also another group of voters who are hostile and are never likely to be won over no matter what policies are on offer. They may as well be ignored. The temptation for any political party is to take its core support for granted and try to appeal to the undecideds or even the hostiles. I would expect the Labour Party has spent quite a lot of money, over the years, with various marketing and PR companies, to set up focus groups to find out what policies might be popular with those groups and so tailor Labour policies to suit. That’s a big mistake. Anyone who needs a focus group to tell them their politics shouldn’t be in politics. In any case, votes are often not cast totally for the reasons the voter might care to explain to others.
Another mistake is to reason along the lines that because they’ve lost the election to a party offering more right leaning policies previously, that they need to do the same to win the next time, too. That’s not a sensible approach. Why would anyone want to vote for a supposedly socialist party offering conservative policies? Why wouldn’t they vote for the real thing? Parties have to be true to their principles. If they aren’t they risk losing their core supporters. In Labour’s case, to UKIP, the SNP, the Greens, one of the minor left parties or maybe even to the “Apathy party”. They also risk appearing disingenuous to the uncommitted. Uncommitted voters will vote for politicians they can trust, even if they are not in total agreement, or at least, distrust little enough for to make them actually turn out on the day. If a party or individual politician appears disingenuous they won’t get those votes even if the policies on offer are carefully tailored to match. There’s no chance of picking up much support from Tory voters even with Tory policies. They are the hostile voters.
Trust has to work both ways too. Labour has lost support to UKIP who have established themselves in second position in many of the Northern English constituencies. It was a big mistake to assume that the rise of UKIP was a good thing for Labour and that it would take more votes from the Conservatives than them. There are potential UKIP supporters in all parties. Whilst they might nearly all break ranks and vote UKIP in a bye election or the European elections,it makes much less sense for Conservative potentials to break ranks and vote UKIP in a general election. The Conservatives pledged that referendum. Labour didn’t see fit to trust the electorate on the EU question.
The full picture is not yet known but it would be a surprise if the reason for Ed Balls losing his seat in Leeds, for example, does not turn out to be that he lost more votes to UKIP than his Conservative opponent.That could have been so easily avoided if the party had said that, whilst it supported the UK’s membership of the EU, it recognised that the electorate needed to have their direct say now. They needed to offer a clear-the-air referendum, and not just before more powers were ceded. There have been more than enough already. It would have been better to have that referendum under a Labour Government than Tory Government which is the way it is going to turn out. Democratically elected governments can do pretty much what they choose except give away that democracy. There comes a time if too many powers are ceded, that a change of elected government, is not enough. The Greeks have just discovered that – the hard way!
The Labour Party also needs to remember its own name and the meaning of its own name. The party is meant to be the party of working people. But do working people now view Labour as their party? They don’t see Labour people like themselves in any positions of influence, or hear accents like their own, not in England at least. They see Labour standing up for the racially oppressed, the sexually oppressed, the gender oppressed, those oppressed, or disadvantaged, because of physical and mental handicaps, but if they themselves are not in any of those categories, or don’t see themselves as fitting into those categories, they wonder why the party has forgotten about them. What about those who are oppressed simply because they don’t have any work or they don’t have anything better than a zero hours contract or they can’t find a home? Those workers may not have heard of Keynes, or any of the post Keynesian thinkers, who can well explain why austerity economics doesn’t work, but they just know instinctively, and from their own personal experience that it doesn’t. It also applies to everyone who has an unemployed son or daughter who may be well qualified academically but is unable to find a job to match those qualifications. As the SNP has demonstrated, an anti- austerity message is not at all incompatible with electoral success.
Messages and slogans have to be simple and understandable. The slogan “One Nation” may be simple but it isn’t at all understandable. What does it mean? That we all live in one country? Well, so what? People don’t discuss politics in those terms. The Scots may have other ideas on that anyway. We don’t all have the same problems, that’s for sure! So there’s a disconnect there between the so-called metropolitan elites, who dream up these slogans, or in this case use a Tory cast-off, and ordinary voters. There have always been metropolitan elites. They are nothing new. The term has crept into use simply because of that growing disconnect.
The role of emotion in Labour politics should not be overlooked. Rational arguments will only get any politician so far. Labour victories used to be memorable for the feelings they generated as much as anything else. They generated an optimism for the future. I’m not sure Conservatives can say the same thing about their successes. Let’s get something of that back for future elections and start to win them on our terms.