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15 May 2015

Labour has to be honest about the hole that it’s in

Labour suffered a "hidden landslip" at the polls last week. Getting out of the hole requires some frank conversations.

By Richard Angell

Let us be in no doubt how bad last week’s result was. We lost – I repeat – lost eight seats to the Tories, and of the 88 seats we were targeting to win from the Tories we gained just 10 and reduced their majority in only a further 10. 

Our prospects at the next election now look more distant than ever. Had we this time around gained 3,000 net votes per seat from our closest rival we would have gained 49 seats. Next time, if we rose 3,000 net votes against seats’ new majorities we would gain just 24. Just as Joan Ryan identified the ‘hidden landslide’ – 2005 seats won from Labour by the Conservatives which massively increased their majorities against us in 2010 – this time we witnessed the ‘hidden landslip’  of our party sliding further away in the seats we need to win just to get near a majority. The Staggers’ own Stephen Bush has calculated the large swings Labour would now need to secure in target seats if it is to return in 2020.

Meanwhile, it was not just members of parliament we lost: well over 150 councillors lost their seats, and Labour has lost control of the Local Government Association. 

All this is sadly not surprising when wewere not even genuinely aiming to win. Our ’35 per cent strategy’, had it even come off, was dwarfed by the Tory’s 38 per cent of the vote. The party slashed its target list of 106 seats to just 61 – but Labour needed 67 gains to win a majority of one, and so we were always destined to fall short. 

Labour stands 99 seats short of the Conservatives – a decisive outcome by anyone’s estimation – and it must now show the public it has heard their message. A quick process would have given no time to reflect. A sense that we are going to carry on regardless and give it ‘one more heave’ would have been a slap in the face to voters and sent the signal that we know best and we care little about their thoughts. That said, I remain concerned that much of the attention on the contest will be in August – precisely the time when the voters we need to win back are on holiday or preoccupied with back-to-school preparations. 

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Every time we lose we do worse the time after. 1955, 1983 – even 1974 – and in Scotland in 2011. It is not a given that we will win back the time after. 1959 and 1987 were also poor general years for our party and in the latter case it would take two more elections to win back to confidence of the country. 

The debate has to start with some simple truths.

First, the centre-ground has not moved; if anything, with four million votes for the United Kingdom Independence party, it is has shifted against us since the financial crash. Jon Trickett’s theory of the long-term decline of the Tories has 331 holes in it. It was the Tories’ lack of modernisation – and the thousands of Labour party activists – that denied them an outright majority last time. This time, despite the Tories having been in office and broken various centrist promises on the NHS, with cuts to frontline services, the ‘big society’, rising youth unemployment and an explosion of foodbank dependence, the public were nevertheless more fearful of us and opted for the unreconstructed Tories instead.

Second, Labour must reconnect and re-engage with those who work for a living in a white van, use their skills and hands to make a salary and grow the economy. No net gains from the Tories in Yorkshire and the Humber or in the West Midlands, and two net losses in the East Midlands, are a wake-up call. We had the policy demands of our partners in the unions plastered front and centre of the campaign – increases in the minimum wage, an end to zero-hours contracts and a pledge to ‘save our NHS – but it did not work. We should do all of those things when we are next in office, and I would want to see if we can force this government to change its mind. But our problems go deeper – they are cultural, and they are about the powerlessness people feel. 

Finally, Dan Jarvis put it best when he pointed out that outside London ‘more people have walked on the moon than the number of Labour MPs elected across the south-west, south-east and east of England.’ New Labour won in the new towns; One Nation Labour barely held one. The hidden landslip leaves us an even greater mountain to climb in Milton Keynes, Swindon and Harlow, and still stuck out in the electoral deserts of the south of England and the west of Wales.

As a party never again must we let ourselves drift so far from our founding purpose: to win power in parliament to improve the lives of those we represent.


Richard Angell is director of Progress

Join us to debate Labour’s future this Saturday at Progress annual conference 2015: Deciding the decade to come, here

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