Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham at Labour's manifesto launch. Photograph: Getty Images.
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To win, the next Labour leader needs to master the fundamentals

Miliband's successor should focus on overturning the Tories' advantage on leadership and the economy. 

It was meant to be different this time. From its defeat in 2010 until the moment the polls closed on election day, Labour believed that it could “short-circuit” history by returning to government after a single term in opposition. But, as in 1955 and 1983, a bad election result has been followed by a worse one. It is David Cameron, not Ed Miliband, who has defied historic precedent. The Prime Minister is the first incumbent since Lord Salisbury in 1900 to increase his party’s vote share after serving a full term in office. Throughout its campaign Labour repeated the assertion that the Conservatives could not win a majority. They did.

Labour had relinquished hope of becoming the single largest party before election day – its private polls consistently showed it performing worse than those publicly available (just as the Tories’ showed them exceeding expectations). But it clung to the hope that it could enter power by virtue of Miliband being the only leader capable of commanding the confidence of the ­Commons. Three days before the election, Labour aides briefed me and other journalists on the finer details of the Cabinet Manual. One source spoke of how some in Labour had became “experts” in Ramsay MacDonald’s 1924 administration: the last time a second-placed party took office.

When the BBC’s exit poll was published at 10pm on 7 May, Miliband was at his constituency home in Doncaster with Bob Roberts, his director of communications, and Stewart Wood, his intellectual consigliere. He reacted with incredulity to its projection of 316 seats for the Tories and 239 for Labour, crying aloud that it must be wrong. Back at the party’s London HQ in Brewer’s Green, Charlie Falconer, who was overseeing preparations for government, sought to assuage distraught staffers with a rousing speech, assuring them that exit polls had been mistaken before. Labour’s spin operation was instructed to rubbish the numbers to journalists. “We are sceptical of the BBC poll. It looks wrong to us,” a text message read.

But none of the early results contradicted the forecast and the mood turned to despair when Nuneaton, a key Labour-Tory marginal, declared at 1.51am. Far from showing a swing towards the opposition, it showed a swing towards the Conservatives. At this point, concluding that the game was up, ­Labour staffers took solace in drink. “Every­one got hammered,” a source said. The talk at HQ turned to Miliband’s now inevitable resignation. By 2.34am, after a silence of more than two hours, the party’s spin team all but conceded defeat, warning that “the next government will have a huge task uniting the country”. Miliband’s speechwriter and university friend Marc Stears drafted a resignation address, which no one had prepared before that point. After travelling from Yorkshire to London, Miliband announced his departure to tearful staff at 9.45am on Friday, drawing on Ted Kennedy’s oration at the 1980 Democratic National Convention (“The dream shall never die”). At 12.12pm, he delivered a near-identical speech to journalists at One Great George Street in Westminster, and closed the curtain on his five-year leadership of the party.

Labour now finds itself in the foreign land of a Conservative majority – an outcome that few ever contemplated. But there were some prescient MPs. During the last and greatest crisis of Miliband’s leadership, last November, several predicted a Tory majority to me. When I reminded one of this, he replied: “I did put some money on it, so I can give my party a slap-up dinner.”

Many believed that Labour would always struggle to win if it trailed the Conservatives by a double-digit margin on both leadership and economic management (a position from which no opposition has ever won). From this perspective, the election was lost long ago. The Tories’ warnings of a Labour-SNP alliance helped to lure previously resistant Ukip and Liberal Democrat supporters into their camp. But it only proved so lethal because it preyed on existing doubts about the party. The framing of Miliband as the puppet of Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon reinforced the impression of him as weak. The cry that a Labour-SNP partnership would lead to higher taxes and higher borrowing confirmed the view of the opposition as fiscally reckless. To win again now, the party needs to master what Tory strategists referred to as “the fundamentals”: strong leadership and economic credibility. This is less a matter of being more left-wing or more right-wing than one of simply being better.

But the heterogeneous character of the party’s defeat precludes easy definition. It lost votes to different groups in different regions for different reasons. Anti-­austerity Scots, anti-immigration northerners and fiscally conservative southerners all turned against Labour. It is hard to appease one group without simultaneously alienating another. MPs are able to cite whichever results suit their ideological predilection. The anti-austerity and anti-Trident left points to the calamity in Scotland. The anti-immigration and Eurosceptic right warns of a similar fate in the north (where Ukip finished second in 19 seats). The Blair-type reformists cite the south (where the party lost seats to the Tories) and appeal for fiscal restraint and an embrace of enterprise.

There is no cost-free approach. The task for Labour is to resolve which is the least costly. It is the modernising leadership contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall and Tristram Hunt – who have moved fastest to define the defeat (one rival campaign told me they were behaving like “family members taking jewellery off a corpse”). They recognise that the decisive nature of the loss aids their cause. No one can argue that with “one more heave” Labour could have got over the line. Even without the loss of 39 of its 40 Scottish seats, it would have finished 60 behind the Conservatives.

Few believe that the party can transform its performance north of the border, where the shift towards the SNP is structural rather than merely cyclical, in a single parliament. Many agree, as a shadow cabinet minister puts it, that “the route to power lies through Middle England”. It is here, as in 1992, that the election was lost. To win, Labour will need to make large gains from the Tories. Umunna’s decision to launch his campaign in Swindon, a Conservative-held seat, was symbolic of his focus on this task. His supporters regard Miliband’s limited effort to win over Tories as one of his biggest strategic failures. As an aide is said to have remarked on election night: “Who are these people who vote Tory? I’ve never met any of them.”

Unlike in 1994, when there was only one possible victor in the leadership contest (Tony Blair), and unlike in 2010, when there were two (the Miliband brothers), there are several serious contenders. Andy Burnham, who has polled consistently as members’ favourite shadow cabinet minister, and who delivered the best-received speech at last year’s conference, should not be underestimated. Under Labour’s preferential voting system, the winner – as in 2010 – will be the candidate best able to appeal across factions.

Whoever triumphs faces a task even more daunting than that of Miliband in 2010. Labour needs 94 gains to achieve a majority, a feat that only the Liberals in 1906 and Labour in 1945 have achieved from a starting position so weak. To add to this arithmetical Everest, the Tories will use their new-found majority to pass the constituency boundary changes previously vetoed by the Lib Dems, increasing their standing by at least 20 seats. At the next election, whether in 2020 or earlier, Labour will also have to contend with a new Conservative leader who may revive the party’s support just at the moment it is flagging (as John Major did in 1990).

But MPs are consoling themselves with the thought that if a week is a long time in politics, five years is an eternity. Just months after their victory in 1992, the Tories’ economic reputation was eviscerated by Black Wednesday. The scale of spending cuts, the risk of a housing or banking crash and possible EU withdrawal all make it impossible to rule out a similarly epochal event. If, as in 1994, Labour elects a leader with wide-ranging appeal, it may be able to achieve a majority. The lesson of this election, which almost all called wrong, is never to dismiss what is thought impossible.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory triumph

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood