This week’s publication of Margaret Beckett’s report into Labour’s 2015 election defeat is long overdue. It is vital that the party debates, understands, and learns the lessons of why we lost.
Some have said the report did not reveal anything new, but that is unfair. There is nothing new to reveal. It has been clear for some time what Labour got wrong: we lost because we did not build trust on the economy or connect with the centre-ground; our leader was perceived to be weaker than our opponent; and voters feared the prospect of a minority Labour government propped up by the SNP.
All of us involved in the campaign must bear responsibility for these failings. But now, as we look ahead to Jeremy Corbyn’s prospects in 2020, the question that needs to be addressed urgently is not only what went wrong, but why.
I believe the answer lies in the assumptions upon which any political project is founded. How as a party you read the mood of the country drives every subsequent decision, and therefore determines your success. If you make the wrong assumptions about the country, you will choose the wrong strategy, and you will lose.
I have huge respect for Ed Miliband, both as a friend and as a politician who showed great courage in the last election. But his leadership was built on three assumptions which time and election defeat have shown to be flawed. Firstly, that the global financial crisis had created a leftwards shift in public opinion. Second, that a collapse in support for the Liberal Democrats would result in their voters “coming home” to Labour, reducing the need to attract former Conservative voters. And third, that the tarnishing of the new Labour brand created a necessity for the party to define itself as much against the last government as against the current one.
It might be claimed with hindsight that these assumptions were clearly always flawed. But they were views honestly held by some, who felt they had evidence to sustain them. But the election campaign and the result that followed made clear that, far from shifting public opinion to the left, the financial crisis had made economic competence – specifically on the deficit – the central political issue. At the same time, many former Liberal Democrats turned out to be perfectly happy voting Conservative or even UKIP. And we should also acknowledge that failing to defend our record cemented as concrete fact a lie that the last Labour government had created a mess and achieved little.
As a member of the team tasked with constructing the last election campaign, I know more than most how difficult and dangerous building on such shaky foundations can be. But I know too that the countdown has already begun to the next election. If we are to avoid repeating or exacerbating the mistakes of 2015 again in 2020, then we urgently need to understand, interrogate, and – if necessary – challenge the assumptions upon which the Corbyn project is built.
There is a world of difference between the sincerely-held but ultimately flawed interpretation of Britain in the last parliament, made with a genuine desire to change the country, and the knowingly fantasy assumptions of Corbyn’s team, designed purely to justify their own ends.
The Corbyn project appears to be built on four main assumptions, each of them egregiously wrong.
First, they claim Labour lost the last election because we were insufficiently left wing, or “austerity lite”. But where is the logic in a position that says voters, frustrated that Labour was insufficiently left wing, chose instead to back an increasingly right wing Conservative party?
Second, Corbyn’s team believe that by mobilising non-voters behind Labour they will reduce the need to attract support from those who previously voted Conservative. But again, this ignores clear evidence that those who didn’t vote in 2015 were even more concerned that Labour might overspend than those who supported the Conservatives. These non-voters are unlikely to be attracted back to the polling station by a hardline anti-austerity position.
Third, many Corbyn supporters seem to think that changing the party is more important than changing the country – that the pursuit of power obstructs the real business of ideological cleansing. But anyone who really cares about principles in politics surely knows they count for nothing if we are out of power and unable to help those we came into politics to represent.
Fourth, they appear to believe that traditional political discourse can be bypassed with a new activist army. But this risks creating a parallel universe where success is judged by recruiting perhaps one per cent of the electorate as party members, even as voters themselves turn their backs on Labour in record numbers.
These assumptions are not just flawed, they do not withstand the slightest scrutiny. Time is running out to re-set the tramlines for this parliament. Those who care about winning a future election need to be asking now not just what Corbyn is getting wrong, but also why.
Anyone seeking to lead our country must first demonstrate they understand it. Until the Labour party regains some insight into the direction of the British people, we will be unable to build a project that connects with the country, and we will not win.