Canvassing in Battersea, which Labour failed to win. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Why did Labour lose so badly?

The fundamentals - the Tories' advantage on leadership and the economy - reasserted themselves.

Plenty in Labour were braced for a mediocre election result. With the party expected to lose almost all of its 40 Scottish seats (a forecast which proved terrifyingly accurate) it would struggle to advance far from the 258 it won in 2010. But few anticipated the calamity that befell them last night.

The Tories are now projected to win a majority (with 329 seats), a remarkable result after a term of austerity. David Cameron is on course to become the first incumbent prime minister since 1955 to increase his party's vote share. Labour, meanwhile, is expected to have just 233, 25 fewer than it won in the assumed nadir of 2010. Among the casualties, remarkably, is Ed Balls, a huge loss to his party and the Commons. As in 1992, when the "shy Tories" fooled the pollsters, the Conservatives have benefited from those only prepared to profess their loyalty in the privacy of the voting booth.

The great surprise of the night was not Labour's performance in Scotland (which was merely as terrible as forecast) but its performance in England and Wales. It not only failed to make sufficient gains from the Tories, it lost seats it won under Gordon Brown.  Southampton Itchen, held by the party since 1992, went blue, as did Balls's Morley and Outwood, Bolton West, Telford, Derby North and the Vale of Clwyd. What explains failure on this scale? The Tories' SNP scare campaign, the hostility of the press to Labour and the Conservatives' funding advantage will all be widely cited. But the most plausible explanation is that, as the Tories long expected, "the fundamentals" simply reasserted themselves. For years, the Conservatives had enjoyed a commanding advantage on leadership and economic management. No opposition party has ever won while trailing on these. Labour's painfully large deficit on both made defeat inevitable.

This interpretation points to the need for Labour to restore its economic reputation and to elect a leader with far wider appeal than Ed Miliband (whose personal ratings evolved from terrible to merely bad during the campaign). But a fierce debate will now take place within the party over whether it lost because it drifted too far from New Labour or rather did not drift far enough. Those from the party's right will point to Miliband's refusal to state that the last government spent too much (failing to "concede and move on" in Philip Gould's phrase) and to act earlier to reassert Labour's fiscal probity (spending years opposing every cut in sight). But those on the left will criticise his decision to promise to moderate austerity, rather than to end it. In the absence of a clearer dividing line between the Tories and Labour, voters hungry for an alternative to the coalition were drawn to the SNP, Ukip and the Greens.

It is this argument that will now define the Labour leadership contest to come, with Chuka Umunna expected to represent the former position and Andy Burnham the latter. But with the party near-extinct in Scotland (holding one of the country's 59 seats), even more marginalised in the south and threatened by the Conservative boundary changes to come, the existential question will simply be "how can we win from here?" Labour is losing votes in all regions and to all parties for different reasons - to Scottish nationalists, to anti-immigration Ukippers, to southern conservatives, to anti-austerity Greens. There is no obvious strategy to address them all.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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There is nothing compassionate about Britain’s Dickensian tolerance of begging

I was called “heartless” for urging police to refer beggars to support services. But funding drug habits to salve a liberal conscience is the truly cruel approach.

In Rochdale, like many other towns across the country, we’re working hard to support small businesses and make our high streets inviting places for people to visit. So it doesn’t help when growing numbers of aggressive street beggars are becoming a regular fixture on the streets, accosting shoppers.

I’ve raised this with the police on several occasions now and when I tweeted that they needed to enforce laws preventing begging and refer them to appropriate services, all hell broke loose on social media. I was condemned as heartless, evil and, of course, the favourite insult of all left-wing trolls, “a Tory”.

An article in the Guardian supported this knee-jerk consensus that I was a typically out-of-touch politician who didn’t understand the underlying reasons for begging and accused me of being “misguided” and showing “open disdain” for the poor. 

The problem is, this isn’t true, as I know plenty about begging.

Before I became an MP, I worked as a researcher for The Big Issue and went on to set up a social research company that carried out significant research on street begging, including a major report that was published by the homeless charity, Crisis.

When I worked at The Big Issue, the strapline on the magazine used to say: “Working not Begging”. This encapsulated its philosophy of dignity in work and empowering people to help themselves. I’ve seen many people’s lives transformed through the work of The Big Issue, but I’ve never seen one person’s life transformed by thrusting small change at them as they beg in the street.

The Big Issue’s founder, John Bird, has argued this position very eloquently over the years. Giving to beggars helps no one, he says. “On the contrary, it locks the beggar in a downward spiral of abject dependency and victimhood, where all self-respect, honesty and hope are lost.”

Even though he’s now doing great work in the House of Lords, much of Bird’s transformative zeal is lost on politicians. Too many on the right have no interest in helping the poor, while too many on the left are more interested in easing their conscience than grappling with the hard solutions required to turn chaotic lives around.

But a good starting point is always to examine the facts.

The Labour leader of Manchester City Council, Richard Leese, has cited evidence that suggests that 80 per cent of street beggars in Manchester are not homeless. And national police figures have shown that fewer than one in five people arrested for begging are homeless.

Further research overwhelmingly shows the most powerful motivating force behind begging is to fund drug addiction. The homeless charity, Thames Reach, estimates that 80 per cent of beggars in London do so to support a drug habit, particularly crack cocaine and heroin, while drug-testing figures by the Metropolitan Police on beggars indicated that between 70 and 80 per cent tested positive for Class A drugs.

It’s important to distinguish that homelessness and begging can be very different sets of circumstances. As Thames Reach puts it, “most rough sleepers don’t beg and most beggars aren’t rough sleepers”.

And this is why they often require different solutions.

In the case of begging, breaking a chaotic drug dependency is hard and the important first step is arrest referral – ie. the police referring beggars on to specialised support services.  The police approach to begging is inconsistent – with action often only coming after local pressure. For example, when West Midlands Police received over 1,000 complaints about street begging, a crackdown was launched. This is not the case everywhere, but only the police have the power to pick beggars up and start a process that can turn their lives around.

With drug-related deaths hitting record levels in England and Wales in recent years, combined with cuts to drug addiction services and a nine per cent cut to local authority health budgets over the next three years, all the conditions are in place for things to get a lot worse.

This week there will be an important homelessness debate in Parliament, as Bob Blackman MP's Homelessness Reduction Bill is due to come back before the House of Commons for report stage. This is welcome legislation, but until we start to properly distinguish the unique set of problems and needs that beggars have, I fear begging on the streets will increase.

Eighteen years ago, I was involved in a report called Drugs at the Sharp End, which called on the government to urgently review its drug strategy. Its findings were presented to the government’s drugs czar Keith Hellawell on Newsnight and there was a sense that the penny was finally dropping.

I feel we’ve gone backwards since then. Not just in the progress that has been undone through services being cut, but also in terms of general attitudes towards begging.

A Dickensian tolerance of begging demonstrates an appalling Victorian attitude that has no place in 21st century Britain. Do we really think it’s acceptable for our fellow citizens to live as beggars with no real way out? And well-meaning displays of “compassion” are losing touch with pragmatic policy. This well-intentioned approach is starting to become symptomatic of the shallow, placard-waving gesture politics of the left, which helps no one and has no connection to meaningful action.

If we’re going make sure begging has no place in modern Britain, then we can’t let misguided sentiment get in the way of a genuine drive to transform lives through evidenced-based effective policy.

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.