This is the draft conclusion to my analysis of Labour's campaign, for a special edition of Parliamentary Affairs and the Oxford University Press book Britain Votes 2015.
Labour lost the 2015 general election because it failed to convince enough English voters it could manage the economy better than the Conservatives and was led by someone widely perceived as lacking the skills necessary to be Prime Minister. The early phase of the short campaign began to mitigate these deficiencies but could do little more given the strong impressions implanted before 2015. In any case, the ‘coalition of chaos’ narrative that dominated the two weeks prior to the poll undid that work by concentrating attention on the supposed risk the country posed by Miliband’s lack of statecraft.
Ever since the fiscal crisis Labour had trailed the Conservatives as to which party people thought best able to manage the economy. The Conservatives’ lead did however vary and during 2012-13 it almost disappeared: but from the end of 2013 it started to grow as the economy slowly recovered, such that by April 2015 Cameron’s party was 18 per cent ahead of Labour.When pollsters Greenberg Quinlan Rosner asked voters why they had not supported Labour on May 7th, at 40 per cent concerns about its economic competence was by far the single biggest reason. Middle-class voters (45 per cent) and those over 55 years of age (47%) – the very groups who turned out to vote in the greatest numbers - cited the economy more than the rest.
Greenberg Quinlan Rosner’s survey also revealed that the third and fourth most cited overall reasons for not voting Labour was the view that it would have been ‘bossed around by the SNP’ (24 per cent) and the preference for Cameron over Miliband as Prime Minister (17 per cent). As with the economy, the richest and oldest voting cohorts expressed the greatest concerns about Miliband’s statecraft. Even more importantly, amongst those who had considered voting Labour but ultimately supported the Conservatives these reasons were respectively cited 30 and 32 per cent times, so much more than any other group. At 42 per cent, the concerns of such vitally important swing voters about Labour’s economic competence were little higher than voters overall: it was their negative perception of Miliband that played a disproportionately greater role in determining why they did not support Labour.
Miliband’s party did not therefore lose because it had become a ‘traditional socialist’ party – it had not - or that it did not try to address the ‘aspirations’ of middle class voters – it had. It lost because in what was still a two-horse race, one conducted amidst an age of insecurity, the party looked like the least safe choice to govern the country. Ironically, Miliband had correctly identified the illness but failed to convince the patient he had the right medicine: too many saw him as a quack doctor. Through rhetorical devices such as the ‘squeezed middle’ and the ‘predator/producer’ distinction, he sought to tap into popular anxieties about declining incomes and resentments about an elite benefitting amidst austerity while the majority worked with little reward. Voters found elements of Labour’s programme attractive, but Miliband’s overall post-New Labour course was counter-intuitive. He failed to appreciate the extent to which his approach more than any other required explanation in popularly understandable terms: in this regard his initial disregard for ‘spin’ did him no favours. Too often, especially in his early days, Miliband’s approach to communication was careless, maladroit and obscure – and this was the time in which his public image was defined. Yet even had he been as skilled a communicator as the Tony Blair of legend, Miliband would have struggled, given popular perceptions of his party’s responsibility for the deficit, and the distortions to which his opponents in the party and media subjected his attempt to move on from New Labour. Flawed, naïve agency conspired with an implacable, unforgiving structure to defeat him.
By May 7th it was still not clear for what Labour stood. This was certainly the conclusion of those from across the party. According to the General Secretary of Unite Len McCluskey, one of those union leaders said to have ‘fixed’ Miliband’s election as leader: ‘Labour had no central theme, defining what it stood for’. Nick Bent, who failed to win back Warrington South and had voted for David Miliband in 2010 also felt it was ‘the lack of a clear and consistent Labour narrative’ that did for the party. This was also the view of a prominent Labour HQ source who conceded that the party ‘lacked a compelling narrative’. This perspective was best summed up by a party worker in the midlands who stated: ‘If you asked people what the Conservatives stood for they could easily tell you but they would have struggled to say what Labour stood for’. Conceding this lack of clarity, one of the leading members of Miliband’s team of advisors believes they should have made a more confident and earlier break with the New Labour years. Whether this would have succeeded, given the structural constraints within which Miliband operated is a moot point. Certainly, some Blairites would consider that this would only have made Labour’s defeat even more pronounced. But, in the absence of a coherent message, one that addressed the failures of the past and outlined a convincing programme for the future, it is understandable why so many voters preferred the party that promised a comforting mix of competence and stability.
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