Cover Story: the Tory triumph
Andrew Marr: How the hell did we get the election so wrong?
John Gray: Labour’s deluded leadership is to blame for its downfall.
George Eaton: Labour’s long road back to power.
Jason Cowley on Miliband v Miliband.
Helen Lewis: We’ll miss the Lib Dems now they’re gone.
The Leader: After the defeat.
Andrew Marr: Why pundits and pollsters didn’t see the election result coming – and where the main parties go from here
In a wide-ranging piece, Andrew Marr reflects on the aftermath of one of the most incorrectly predicted election results in recent history:
As we try to sift the meanings of the 2015 general election, it’s worth beginning with a fundamental but far too little-discussed problem for political journalism: how the hell do we know what we think we know? What value – if any – do commentators, set apart from the professional politicians, actually bring? It’s not surprising that most of the time we commentators don’t like to talk about this. This spring, we really must.
Examining his election sources, Marr finds fault with them all. The party HQs proved to be “either deluded, or lying”, the pollsters “massively out”, the Twitter commentariat an “echo chamber”. Marr accepts that relying on anecdote and random conversation is “plainly dangerous”, but the themes he heard on the street rang true in the end: fear of an SNP-backed Labour, and a feeling that Labour ” ‘hated’ the self-employed, people running or working in small businesses, and anyone who’d had any kind of success”.
Looking to the future for Labour, Marr concludes:
Labour has a cultural problem to resolve. It’s about how the party speaks, the way it pitches its appeal. It is vastly more important than who the next leader is. Over the next few years, we will see, I suspect, little real sign of a Labour advance in Scotland – the defeat is so profound that it will take many years to recover – while in England boundary changes further entrench the Conservatives. Unless Labour has the courage and imagination to reform itself completely, it has no chance of recovery.
The decline and fall of fantasy Labour
John Gray writes that the tragedy for Labour was that Ed Miliband wanted to govern a land that does not exist. Admitting that Miliband’s campaign was “surprisingly good”, Gray argues that the failure lay with the message that the former Labour leader had decided to deliver:
As was clear before the election campaign began [. . .] Miliband’s message was directed not to any country that exists, but to some quite different land that he and his chosen advisers had persuaded themselves was coming into being. Convinced that the attitudes and values that enabled Margaret Thatcher, and later Tony Blair, to win three successive elections had been discredited by the financial crisis, Miliband staked Labour’s future on the wager that the triumph of market individualism in Britain could be reversed.
Analysing Miliband’s preoccupation with an American style of politics, his misunderstanding of the working class, his refusal to acknowledge the eurozone crisis, and his programme’s lack of economic policy, Gray asserts: “Labour’s downfall resulted not from popular false consciousness, but from the hubristic self-delusion of its leadership.”
While insisting that a return to Blairism would be “equally wishful”, Gray concludes:
Miliband staked his party on an unreal vision of Britain. His uncanny serenity during the campaign showed a quality he has in common with Blair – a capacity for certainty, enabling him to think that what he wants to believe must be the case. Redefining Labour will take more than one new leader, but none of them would be able to bring back a country that did not exist. If Miliband’s successors are ever to be in a position to change Britain, they will first have to be willing to understand it.
George Eaton: The long road back to power
After Labour’s resounding defeat, the NS political editor, George Eaton, looks back over the campaign:
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.
Eaton considers the scale of the defeat and the contradictory motives pulling voters away from Labour in other directions:
[. . .] 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.
Eaton declares that the party’s next leader must be strong and credible on the economy in order to win over Tory voters in England:
Whoever triumphs [in the Labour leadership race] 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.
Jason Cowley on Miliband v Miliband
The NS editor, Jason Cowley, muses this week on the rise of quiet conservatism, Big Alex at Westminster, and the return of Miliband v Miliband:
The New York-resident David Miliband has moved quickly to say what his younger brother got wrong – he mentioned “aspiration and inclusion” and said that Ed had given the impression the party was going “backwards” under him. When asked by a BBC interviewer about their relationship, David said, his eyes cold and dark, that they “were in touch”, no more or less than that.
[. . .]
So far, the leadership contenders putting themselves about in the aftermath of defeat have been muttering about “aspiration”, as if the act of articulation were simultaneously an act of redefinition – and of absolution. Meanwhile, in other news, Ed Miliband has gone on holiday to Ibiza.
Helen Lewis: We’ll miss the Lib Dems now they’re gone
They may have been unloved in office, but Helen Lewis mourns the loss of the Liberal Democrats now the Conservatives have secured a majority government. Praising the Lib Dems’ ability to temper the harshest Tory inclinations, Lewis writes that the “red-blooded right-wingers” who replace them will form a far harsher government than the coalition:
With Michael Gove at the Ministry of Justice, the repeal of the Human Rights Act will be cast as a grand ideological battle, with peacenik lawyers as the new “Blob” to be vanquished. His deputy, Dominic Raab, thinks that feminists are “bigots” and has previously threatened to burn his briefs over the oppression of men, so I wish the Equality Act the best of British luck (the equality brief, always a low Tory priority, is held by Caroline Dinenage, who voted against gay marriage). The new employment minister, Priti Patel, has said capital punishment is an effective deterrent. The Department for International Development has been punished with Grant Shapps.
[. . .]
There are many other items on the agenda that the Lib Dems would have blocked: draconian anti-terror powers, hacking lumps out of the BBC, reviving the “snooper’s charter” and the £12bn of benefit cuts. Although the Tories now claim they knew that they could win a majority months ago, they acted in the last days of the campaign as if they could make rash promises and blame their demise on a coalition. Balancing the books without raising income tax, VAT or National Insurance – a strategy Cameron promised to enshrine in law – will require savage cuts. Right-wingers will want defence protected; pensions are triple-locked and therefore untouchable. After welfare is pared to the bone, Nicky Morgan faces a fight to protect the education budget, which is not ring-fenced like the NHS.
The Lib Dems are now tending to the fallen, with defeated candidates getting calls from the top brass. They plan to rebuild, as they have before, from the local level and draw hope from the way in which 10,000 masochists have joined the party since the election. But they are doubly sad, mourning both their annihilation and what that means for Britain. As one says: “There’s no satisfaction in watching the working poor being penalised to prove us right.”
The Leader: After the defeat
The Leader this week considers the future for the left in Britain after the Tory electoral triumph:
On 11 May, David Miliband criticised his brother for allowing himself “to be portrayed as moving [the party] backwards” and said that Labour “will not win” unless it “embraces aspiration and inclusion”. Other senior figures from the so-called Blairite wing of the party have been much bolder in their denunciations of what they perceive to have been Labour’s wrong turn under Ed Miliband, who, in our view at least, was correct to identify inequality as one of the great moral challenges of our time.
We are urging no return to Blairism. It was the creation of a certain time and a peculiar set of circumstances. What applied then may not work today. What is necessary is a period of sustained reflection. “Labour has a cultural problem to resolve,” Andrew Marr writes on page 32. “It’s about how the party speaks, the way it pitches its appeal. It’s vastly more important than who the next leader is.”
Meanwhile, the Tories have returned to power with a slim majority that very few – an exception being our own Peter Wilby, as he reminds us on page nine – thought they were capable of winning. Already some trenchant right-wingers, such as John Whittingdale, the new Culture Secretary (and scourge of the BBC), have been appointed to the cabinet. We face the prospect of a divisive EU referendum and £12bn of hastily and ideologically enforced cuts to the welfare budget, which will hurt the weakest and poorest. And the unity of the United Kingdom as a multinational polity remains imperilled. This is what defeat feels like. Has Labour got what it takes to absorb the pain and return stronger, ready to win? Or does it face another long period in the wilderness, speaking only to itself?
Tracey Thorn: Modern life is a miracle.
Erica Wagner on the life of Oliver Sacks.
Will Self: You loved the BBC’s “phantom ride” up a canal. So join me on
a phantom walk . . . down an alley.
Alice O’Keeffe on a mother’s mind after birth.
Sophie McBain speaks to Conchita Wurst.