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15 May 2015

Labour’s defeat was the inevitable consequence of the politics of delusion

The 2015 election was shocking, but it shouldn't have been surprising. 

By Robert Philpot

The results of last Thursday’s election may have been shocking, but they should not have been surprising. For the past five years, Labour’s leadership has acted as if it could break, dodge and bend every single one of the rules which the party learned in the aftermath of its 1992 defeat. This belief is at the core of the politics of delusion for which the electorate has now punished Labour so harshly.

The most hubristic of the politics of delusion was the notion that having failed to secure a parliamentary majority in 23 years, the Tories were destined not to do so again. In 2012, shadow cabinet member Jon Trickett described the Conservatives as facing “an existential threat”. But the alleged corpse Trickett picked over so gleefully two years ago looks in remarkably rude health today.

Closely allied to this delusion was the notion that the Conservatives’ difficulties in the north of England were somehow more damaging to their prospects than Labour’s problems in the south. The reality was rather different: the Conservative vote proved remarkably resilient in parts of the north last week, depriving Labour of some of its top targets and allowing the Tories to offset their handful of losses to the party with gains in Morley & Outwood and Bolton West.

If the Tories’ failure to win in the north would not stop them winning, Ukip’s attack on their right flank would peel off enough voters to scupper their chances. But this, too, proved to be a false hope with indications suggesting Ukip may have done as much damage to Labour as it did to the Tories, especially in the north of England and the Midlands.

Had Labour shown the same caution in defeat after 2010 about the potential threat the Tories posed as Tony Blair displayed as he crushed them three times, the party might have been spared some of the damage it sustained last Thursday.

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If Labour was unduly sanguine about the Tories’ inability to win, it was also remarkably blasé about whether those who voted Conservative in 2010 supported it or not, despite repeated warnings about the dangers of the ‘35 percent strategy’ and a stack of evidence that relying on Liberal Democrats defectors was an “extremely risky” strategy that could leave Labour falling far short of a majority. In the ashes of the 35 per cent strategy lay the dozens of Labour-Tory marginals which the party failed to win back.

Having deceived themselves about the Tory party and its voters, the proponents of the politics of delusion went on to peddle the comforting myth that, in the wake of the financial crisis, the political centre-ground had moved sharply to the left. It’s true that it has tracked left over the past couple of years. But while the proponents of this delusion claimed that this shift would allow Labour to break free of the alleged timidity of the New Labour years, the political centre is actually now located simply where it was in 2006. Moreover, on attitudes towards public spending, taxes and welfare, the shift to the left is minimal and hardly fertile ground for a leftwing political strategy.

It is a near-inviolable law of politics that no party can win a general election if it is behind on both economic competence and leadership. Some appeared to believe, however, that this was a law Labour could break. So, yes, it’s true that Labour was behind on the economy in 1997 and the Tories on leadership in 1979, but, as Peter Kellner repeatedly pointed out, there were no examples of a party being behind on both measures and still winning. 

The delusion that it could side-step its problems on the economy and leadership spoke to a wider Labour problem. All parties naturally attempt to play to their strengths, but Labour appeared blind to the need to address its weaknesses. Of course, there was Ed Miliband’s repeated mantra of “we got it wrong on immigration”, but, starting with the 2010 leadership election, the singling out of this issue in fact represented an attempt to avoid more difficult questions on, for instance, spending, welfare and public service reform.

By contrast, while Tory claims to be the “party of the workers” may have appeared somewhat implausible, the barrage of announcements the party made during the campaign – on increasing NHS spending, providing more childcare and building more homes – at least suggested an effort to address issues on which it lagged behind Labour.

Winning the backing of some of those who run the country’s leading companies and employ thousands of workers might have helped Labour to rebuild its shattered reputation for economic competence. But, instead Labour deluded itself that that there was something “old school” about attempting to do so. Instead, a new test was suggested: that Labour should be “in tune with and engaged with the majority of businesses in this country which aren’t big massive businesses”.

Labour’s attempt to proclaim itself the party of small business and entrepreneurs may, however, have had more credibility had it been able to counter the Tories’ inevitable barrage of letters to the newspapers from captains of industry with endorsements from those running start-ups and SMEs. Instead, it responded to the Conservatives with a letter featuring a smattering of business people, an actor, a former party staffer and a theatre director.

So Labour now finds its electoral position akin to that of the 1980s. Its sorry state then the result of a hard left mentality encapsulated in the mantra: “no compromise with the electorate.” Since 2010, the rallying cry of the adherents of the politics of delusion – “no compromise with reality” – has been no less destructive. 

A longer version of this essay can be read here.