Winning or losing – it’s all about the marginals.

Consider this post as a precursor of sorts for the main post of the week. The topic of both aforementioned blog posts? Take a guess: Labour. I know, I know. Quelle surprise, indeed. But what can I say? The party’s daily troubles are a veritable blogging goldmine, and did you truly believe I would turn a blind eye to it?

Between the leadership campaign – full of bickering wannabes and now polls illustrating how Mr Corbyn’s campaign for leader of the party is gaining momentum – to woes in the Commons, namely rebellious MPs and an indecisive leader, it is fair to say that Labour has been struggling since the party’s General Election nightmare. (You can read my comments on the Corbyn lead and the effects of same on Labour here.) The General Election campaign, the exit poll at the close of voting and the subsequent nightmare results night for Labour is an important aspect to dwell on – because in order for Labour to regroup and start its arduous comeback, it first needs to come to terms with its loss, and comprehend just where exactly it all went wrong.

Herein lies the problem for the Labour party: it isn’t so much that it doesn’t know what all went wrong, but rather it has no desire to actually reflect upon what went wrong.

All decisions made in life generally hinge on margins. Labour’s decisions throughout the campaign (for example, let’s not mention a certain stone now, shall we) did not just hinge on marginals, no. Such decisions were essentially swinging on them, and unfortunately for the party, the consequences of these decisions resulted in a short drop and a quick stop on results night.

Whether it was the decision to flaunt the Edstone, to persist in clamouring for a one-on-one debate with David Cameron, to contest listed key marginal seats, to not take seriously the SNP challenge in Scotland, to believe the much-publicised polling claiming a hung Parliament was in sight (the Tories, conversely, opted to believe in their own private polling – which was accurate) – ultimately Labour’s flawed decisions cost it – and not to mention a certain Mr Miliband – dearly. The margin for error was too tight, and Labour’s error count too high.

You would think that on the back of the disaster that was the General Election, Labour would attempt to take greater care and pay more attention in its decision-making. Then again, when considering the recent moves of the party and its members, maybe not.

Instead of rushing into a long-drawn out leadership campaign, Labour should have taken a protracted period of time out to assess and analyse the General Election and their own results. The leadership campaign, which was supposed to unearth an inspirational new gem of a leader to reinvent the party – in a fashion not dissimilar to the soul-searching undertaken by the Conservatives in recent times- has instead been rushed into and could prove disastrous. Whilst a review seeking to examine Labour’s performance in the General Election has been established and is under way, the leadership contest is pushing this down the priority list and into the shadows.

It has actually presented a whole new proverbial can of worms for the party in terms of attempting to determine where it should settle itself on a political scale, i.e. centre left, left of centre, traditional left or the carry on comrade left. It has failed to ignite the press or the public at large regarding the reinvention of the party, and instead is capturing the headlines for the wrong reasons. From the branding and maligning of Blairite Kendall as a Tory, to a nasty spat between Cooper and Kendall over working mothers v childless professionals to Corbyn emerging as a dark horse and now topping both private and public polling: Labour is lurching from negative headline to negative headline, which is not exactly reassuring to long-time supporters, not to mention potential voters.

Due to the General Election inquest occurring behind the scenes and playing second fiddle to the leadership contest, what could have been a project to unite the party behind reinvention and a subsequent launch on a new platform is not to be. Labour is instead becoming more splintered over the leadership contest, meaning that whoever does win the election in September faces an uphill battle to simply reunite the party, let alone lead it in Official Opposition.

Speaking of Official Opposition, Labour is not having a great time of it in the Commons. Between poor old Harriet firstly stating the party would accept the welfare cuts proposed in the Chancellor’s Budget, to having to backtrack following harsh criticism and backlash from her MPs, to then having to face rebellious MPs who voted against the welfare bill, after having been ordered to abstain. This Commons meltdown clearly demonstrates the need for Labour to remember the importance of effective decision-making and efficient leadership. (The aforementioned are evidently lacking at the moment, and indeed even from before.)

It would appear – to me, at least – that it has been continuous, ineffective decision-making across the board and inefficient leadership which has brought Labour to where it is today.

Ed Balls’ poor decision to dismiss Liam Byrne’s 2010 note of, ‘I’m sorry but there isn’t any money’ to his successors at the Treasury cost him his seat; he did not realise the significance of that note and the symbolism of ‘spendthrift’ Labour viewed by the general public. The flawed decision to continue to underestimate the SNP in Scotland resulted in Labour becoming virtually extinct; even though as early as October 2014 there were danger signs, such obvious foreshadowing that was not heeded. The apparent strategy of ‘not discussing immigration and de facto refusing to acknowledge the mass immigration permitted by Labour under Blair’ – Labour appeared out-of-touch with the concerns of ordinary voters. That this was continued into the recent General Election is laughable; you would have thought Labour would have realised that immigration is considered a debatable topic by the public, especially after that incident suffered one Gordon Brown, from which he never recovered. The infamous and widely derided Edstone – that spectacular PR failure – which was supposed to illustrate Labour’s ‘popular’ pledges to the public only resulted in mockery (still ongoing) amid criticism of vague promises. I could even harken back to the days of old, to the Blair v Brown turf war: the aftermath of which has resulted in the ever-presence bitter lines of Blarities and Brownites – as Liz Kendall knows all too well.

In sum: Labour apparently suffers from endemic flawed decision-making. And it is Labour’s loss which is the Conservatives’ gain. All of the above decisions could have swung the other way; marginal calls resulted in disaster after disaster for the Labour party.

To consider the political definition ‘marginal’ to hand, even plans to win marginal seats failed to come to fruition for Labour. Seats which could have gone in favour of Labour due to the narrow percentage held by the incumbent failed to swing the party’s way. Bolton West was one such seat:

Right up until 5.30am on Friday the Labour party thought Julie Hilling had Bolton West in the bag.

“We came away thinking we’d had a fantastic campaign,” said local councillor Christopher Peacock. “Julie’s support on the ground had been amazing. Her posters outnumbered the Conservatives many times over. She has been such a hard-working constituency MP. There was nothing locally that I could point to to suggest she was going to lose. We always thought there would be hundreds rather than thousands in it, but with us as the winner.”

With such positives, how then did Labour lose Bolton West? Ms Hilling believes that it is because

she lost on national issues rather than local bugbears. “Immigration came up a lot on the doorstep, so did Labour’s economic credibility,” said Hilling, admitting that the popular perception of Ed Miliband was often far from positive.

Immigration, because Labour reached the decision not to campaign on that issue. Economic credibility, because silly, individual decisions simply reinforced the general public view of Labour as ‘spendthrift’ and a threat to the economy.

There were nine key marginal seats, must-win seats for Labour if the party was to win the General Election. The Telegraph stated:

Labour needs a uniform swing of five per cent to win the 68 extra seats required to form a majority, while the Conservatives need a two per cent swing to gain the 20 extra seats they need for a majority.

Of these nine key seats highlighted by The Telegraph, Labour won exactly two: Hampstead and Kilburn and Sheffield Central – simply retaining seats the party had won in 2010. (The Telegraph believed Labour would gain six of those nine.) The Conservatives took the other seven.

Whether it was ‘shy Tories’, ‘lazy Labourites’ or inaccurate polling, Labour lost these key seats – and the election itself.

I bring up marginal seats also because I read an article today which covered how candidates who failed to win these seats are including among those surveyed candidates who stated they would prefer Liz Kendall to win in the leadership contest. The survey of 64 parliamentary candidates who failed to win seats at the General Election places Kendall ahead on 36 percent.

This would suggest that she is perhaps the ideal ‘unity’ candidate, appearing to many across the differing factions within the party – the one who could revamp the party after the General Election. Again, it is all down to marginal decision-making – this time with those eligible to vote in September – yet Labour candidates from 2015 have seemingly made their decision. Thus it will be intriguing to see how the Labour supporters themselves vote.

On the topic of revamping, The New Statesman has an article online, which I read with interest today. Entitled, ‘Labour needs to win most where it lost the worst’, it essentially lays out three main areas where Labour needs to direct its attention and focus on in order to re-form and thrive as a party. The three areas highlighted are:

  1. Social Class: Labour’s traditional working class base seemingly turned its back on the Labour party. Why? Even TNS seems to agree with me:

    There is deep unease about immigration, not just evident in polls and focus groups but also in working class support for the Conservatives and UKIP. Added to this are blue-collar concerns over the NHS and the cost of living.

    Labour could have been open about immigration, discussed its merits re citizenship and benefits to the UK economy. It could have discussed plans for NHS reform and plans to safeguard the NHS. It could have emphasised its idea of a ‘national living wage’. It decided not to. And it lost. (With the Chancellor actually using the concept of a national living wage himself in the recent Budget.)

  2. ‘Grey vote’:  In 2015, Labour continued to lose support from older voters, gaining fewer than one in four votes. Again, to quote TNS:

    The Tories strained every sinew to protect those aged over 65 from austerity and have triple locked their state pensions. Meanwhile older people were least likely to see Labour as competent. How Labour reconnects with older people who will form a bigger cohort of voters in 2020 and who were more likely to see the economy, deficit, immigration and patriotism as important will be key if Labour is to start to make inroads into the Tory majority.

    The decision not to engage in frank, open discussion about the economy and the deficit (and even challenge the stereotypical view of Labour’s role in this) whilst again omitting to talk about immigration and the concept of ‘Britishness’ cost Labour dearly. The older electorate simply viewed the Tories as the more trustworthy, reliable and dependable party to govern the country.

  3. Political geography: I have touched upon this previously, but to reiterate –  regarding those mentioned marginals, Labour performed worst where it needed to win most. In many of these key marginals which Labour needed to win, there was a swing to the Tories. Labour not only failed to realise the threat it faced in Scotland as a whole, but by deciding to focus with perhaps too narrowly a scope on key seats, it lost sight of the bigger picture: the country as a whole. (Remember that here in Northern Ireland, the main British parties generally do not stand in elections, or even have an actual presence. Even the opt to try, it never really goes according to plan. Remember 2010, Tories? If interested, read this rather simplified article to understand why this is the case.)

Examining where Labour lost and where it has a realistic chance of winning in 2020 suggests that it is not an easy case of targeting voters in the North or South or Scotland, England or Wales. It needs to win seats in most parts of the country. What stands out from an analysis of the seats that Labour needs to gain is that many of them are in suburbia, small towns, new towns and seaside towns.

There we have it. For once, TNS and myself are singing from the same hymn sheet. In key marginals, Labour thought only of seats and did not consider national issues on a regional level. This, combined with previously mentioned decisions including the party’s failure to discuss immigration and the deficit cost the party on Results night. Consequently, it is costing the party to this very day, as it faces being torn apart over the leadership contest.

Winning or losing, it is all about the marginals, especially in politics. For the Labour Party, not understanding the margins of error lead to its terrible General Election loss. If the party does not realise how marginal, flawed decision-making rendered it to its current state, and soon, it will be an awfully long time before it reverses its 7th May Election defeat.

(Politico EU presents this: ’12 people who ruined Labour’ and it basically reiterates what I have stated throughout this post: poor decisions have cost Labour over the years. Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband and Alan Johnson are amongst those featured; there is also a cameo by Liam Byrne.)

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