Friday, 8 May 2015

Labour were always coming to this terrible place

Right, now that the UK General Election is out of the way, we can say what we really think, rather than just darkly hint at our true opinions.

This election was lost from the moment Labour elected Ed Miliband (above) as its leader.

And it has been an unmitigated disaster for the UK Labour Party. No explanations about differential vote share, no heralding of unlikely gains, no blaming the Liberal Democrats, can hide it. Labour has been wiped out in its Scottish heartlands, gone backwards in Wales, failed to make any progress at all in England. It now faces an existential crisis, hemmed in by the Greens to the Left, threatened by the United Kingdom Independence Party for primacy among white working class voters and fatally undermined by the Scottish Nationalists north of the Tweed.

Now it's important not to get too overwrought about this, though we're going to have a go in a minute. Bear with us and, never fear, there'll be some heated rhetoric. Anyway. Labour has lost before. It was reduced to a rump when its leader joined a National Government in 1931. It was hammered in 1959, when the Conservatives increased their majority for the second time in a row. It was routed in 1983 by a triumphant Mrs Thatcher. Each time, the party got up off the floor, dusted itself down, and eventually came back to power.

There aren't many Clement Attlees, Harold Wilsons or Tony Blairs on the scene these days, but you never know - Labour could strike it lucky, one of the key gifts of timing and personnel that's one of the strange, unacknowledged alchemies of representative politics. All the sociological and cod-structural philosophising in the world means nothing compared to just having a credible leader, a trusted economic plan and a plausible front bench team. Academics who wrote Must Labour Lose? in 1960 thought that Labour was too 'working class', too 'old fashioned', too 'stuck in its ways', and wedded to the union link, to win any more contests with the Conservatives. They were soon witnessing one of the party's modernising heydays under Wilson, winning a bare majority just four years later - and a landslide victory in 1966. It's all in the credibility.

Unfortunately, this time Labour didn't have any. If we look at any measure of 'best Prime Minister' or 'most competent on the economy', Labour's Ed Miliband-Ed Balls combo has trailed David Cameron and George Osborne throughout most of this Parliament. And has any Opposition ever won an election trailing on both those measures? No, you bet your house it hasn't.

The most painful thing is that this has just been so, so obvious from the start. The Historian happened to be at an (unglamorous) academic conference when news came through of the younger Miliband's election as leader of the Labour Party - all the way back in 2010. His reaction? To smash his head into the chair in front of him and say 'well, that's ten years in the wilderness, then'. A Labour leader elected by a potentially unconstitutional cabal of unions, breaking their own rules on what they included with the ballot papers, and organised by Brownite apparatchik Charlie Whelan, foisted Ed on Labour - and the party was then too nice and too loyal to push him out.

And lo, the years in the wilderness shall come to pass.

Why? Because Ed's message was totally, utterly and completely wrong from the start. Not in terms of those old Labour bugbears, Left and Right, but in terms of applicability, believability, empathy and language. At a time when voters feel very distanced from 'the Westminster establishment' (whatever that is), he spoke of 'predistribution', of 'the squeezed middle', of 'the cost of living crisis'. Not of actual people's actual lives, in their own words and language. No. Just some pretty phrases.

Basically, Ed Miliband is a representative of one type of governing class mentality - academic, university-based leftists who live in cosmopolitan towns and cities and read The Guardian. Which is pretty much the only type of area where they made any progress yesterday. It wasn't him and his manner, his nasal delivery, his slight gawkiness and awkwardness. Voters don't care about that sort of stuff if you've got a good message. No. It was the idea that you can win from the Kinnockite Left by calling for higher income and property taxes, while at one and the same time posing as a 'Blue Labour' outfit that wants to limit immigration, clamp down on welfare and boost defence spending. It didn't and doesn't make any sense: it's the sort of clever-clever Janus-faced debating society stuff that a professional, a Peter Mandelson or an Alistair Campbell, would just obliterate before it got off the drawing board. Talking about equality and redistribution isn't necessarily bad for your electoral health, in and of itself: but it needs to be couched in language that strikes a chord with voters.

As it was, Labour could never sell such a pudding to run-of-the-mill marginal waverers. It was left desperately trying to suck in non-voters and never-were voters in the last days of the campaign, which may have succeeded in pumping up their opinion poll figures, but was never going to be a success on the ground. We all sensed it, and Labour HQ knew it most of all.

Ed never grasped the fundamental immaturity of this attempt to be all things to all people - and the need to speak about this country's undoubted economic unfairness in everyday terms and stark language rather than deploying words straight out of an economics textbook. He was still at it today, in stark contrast to the light and shade of Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg's frank and multilayered plea for liberalism's continued relevance. Mr Miliband basically stood there and said that his strategy was the right one even as he resigned in total defeat. Well, no, actually, it wasn't. Because the voters didn't agree, and they're the boss.

Substance: fail. Language: fail.

You could have read it all here. In 2011 we said that Labour should be further ahead in the polls. We noted bitterly how badly Labour did in the 2011 Scottish, Welsh and local elections. In 2013 we ruled out the possibility of Labour winning an outright majority, in 2014 started to worry that Labour might do even worse than 2010 and that Labour was in sight of a catastrophic meltdown, concluding at last that the Conservatives were going to be the largest party and that Labour would lose the election.

We could claim credit, but you'd have had to be incapable of political sense on almost every level not to see what was coming. Not the scale, no: that is a surprise. But Labour losing? That fate was sealed all the way back in 2010, when the fundamentals of a vacillating, incoherent, indecisive and above all academic rather than visceral, emotional and vividly appealing approach were set in stone.

So, toytown Labour, with all your politics dons and theorists and pontification: take your self-indulgence, and indulge it somewhere else.