Labour on the ropes?

In the recent UK elections Labour done terribly, at least according to expectations. Many within Labour are now frantically trying to blame others for this failure. Maybe the SNP? Maybe the electorate moving to the right? Maybe Murdoch's smear campaign?

To be fair, there were oddities about this election1. For example, the expected collapse of the minor party in the government coalition (the Libdems)greatly helped the major coalition party (the Tory party). However, that these swinging LibDem voters did not flock to Labour is itself a symptom of Labour's problem.3 The harsh truth is that Labour's failure was entirely their own fault.
 
Labour had as an opponent an elitist and comically incompetent government. Even by the government's preferred metric, namely the economy, they performed terribly. Despite their stated main aim of cutting spending, in their first three years they spent more than the last ("addicted to spending") Labour government did in 13! The government's coordinated economic recovery was actually the slowest recovery from a recession since the South Sea bubble of 1720. Even relative to the performance of the other G7 governments, which were fairly poor themselves, the UK government has been awful and still we are far from safe today.4 If you voted for the Tory party in the belief you would get a safe pair of hands on the economy you have made a mistake.

In a nutshell, the ideological Tory desire for austerity stalled the UK's inevitable economic recovery as long as possible and transferred the brunt of the recovery pain on to those in society least able to cope.

However, as bad as the government's performance was, Labour's performance in opposition was undoubtedly worse. The above-mentioned economic facts should have been shouted to the public everyday from the highest profile platforms. People who were trying not to listen should have been bored stiff of hearing them. Instead, Labour let the government of the hook. In fact, they let the government choose the political narrative for the last five years.

Working together, a few high-profile figures can convince the public of most reasonable things in a couple of weeks. Make it a major political party in five years and pretty much anything can be sold. It is basic political strategy that regardless of the facts or the evidence,  say something often enough and people believe it. The government knew this and they never let up voraciously repeating what they wanted the public to believe (that Labour, not the global finance collapse, ruined the economy in 2008).

Countless examples exist. So many I say good luck to anyone looking for a politics show from the last 5 years with government MPs where they do not say variants on:
"Labour recklessly spent all the money... "; 
"This result was due to us having to sort out the mess we inherited from Labour... "
[for negative stats]; or
"Our spending cuts led to this improvement.... " [for positive stats].
Often, the public would audibly groan when a government MP rolled out such statements. Yet, even when handed these perfectly set up opportunities to attack, Labour MPs ignored them. Instead,  they tried promoting their own narrative.

Labour's narrative focused on an "out of touch" government, rising inequality, and decreasing quality of life for pretty much everyone in the UK. Unsurprisingly, given these were all true,5 they hit home but never approached inflicting the level of political damage Labour accepted by ignoring the smearing of their own past6

Miliband's selected cabinet did not help Labour's cause. Their posh appearance, wealth,  and privileged backgrounds meant they were unable to effectively attack the government's most obvious weakness namely their plutocratic ways. You just can't damn someone for being what you are7

What is immensely worse, on every substantial political policy of note ( austerity, spying on the public, immigration, maintaining corporation tax levels, ... ) Miliband's Labour agreed with the government and the spirit of their solutions if not the finer details. Such apparent similarity with such an unpopular government played awfully with the electorate. Labour didn't look like people who would change the system, they were the system. 

Miliband own personal crusades did not help. Its harsh to damn a man for standing by his convictions. However, politicians need to be pragmatic and choose their fights, even if provoked. To make political statements, Miliband fought with his initial backers (the unions), entrenched big businesses (the energy companies), and the purveyors of news (Murdoch's empire). All of these flights were justified. All of them were comprehensively lost when the election results were announced. 

Looking forward, the current discussion amongst Labour folk is questioning the political positioning of the party. I would argue that this does not matter, at least not yet. If Labour cannot improve on the main job of political opposition, that is to challenge what a government is doing, then their proposed alternatives, ideologically-sound or not, will be irrelevant as no one will ever vote for them. 

No matter how much you dislike what the Tories are doing, it's hard to deny they are good at justifying it. How else could they have retained power given the policies they have pushed through. Succinctly, over the last five years the Tory MPs have been better at politics than Labour's. 

As an example, in the commons a vote is a vote is a vote. The Tory MPs agreed with, and voted for, all of Labour's (and earlier Thatcher's) daft deregulatory policies that let the finance collapse hammer the UK. Yet, no mainstream Tory has ever apologised and none ever will, they are too savvy as to the toxic effect.

If Labour want to return to power they need to start by performing in opposition. Frankly, they haven't done that in five years and the clock is already ticking to the next election.8 


Footnotes

  1. As there is about each and every election. 
  2. The collapse itself was predictable as centralist liberal parties attract educated middle-class voters who are unlikely to ignore a party taking a step away from their manifesto.
  3. After all, the swingers presumably left the Libdems due to their deeds in power with the Tories.
  4. Even the right-wing press is worried that our long awaited  recovery may be built on egg shells
  5. Though certainly not limited to the last government. 
  6. I am certainly not alone in this observation and past Labour folk, like Prescott are in agreement.
  7. Labour's "out of touch" attack was a weasely attempt to attack without looking hypocritical.
  8. Mid writing I found others who have noticed the same thing