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14 March 2016

Revealed: the secret report into Labour’s 2015 defeat

The report - published in full for the first time - encouraged Harriet Harman to lead Labour in abstaining on the Welfare Bill. 

By Stephen Bush

Labour are seen as a party for the “down and outs” and people on benefits by voters, while in Scotland, the party is seen as “just the same as the Tories but less good at it”, according to a damning inquest into the party’s 2015 defeat. 

The report – obtained by the New Statesman and published for the first time in full – was presented to Harriet Harman, then the party’s interim leader, on 1 July 2015, and contributed to Harman’s decision to lead the party to abstain on the Welfare Bill twelve days later. It was that decision that some credit with handing the party leadership to Jeremy Corbyn.

Earlier drafts of the report were acquired and published by ITV and the BBC, but this version contains futher detail, including revised and specific recommendations for Harman. The former minister and veteran MP tasked BritainThinks, a consultancy with a long-time relationship with the Labour party, to explore the underlying causes of the party’s 2015 defeat.

“It’s important to start NOW,” the report urges, adding “HH is well-regarded – there is a moment to seize”. The focus groups had already praised Harman for abandoning Labour’s opposition to a referendum, and the then-leadership believed that the fact she was standing down allowed her to be seen as an “honest broker”.

Labour failed to give voters a clear idea of what they were for, with respondents recalling a “shopping list” of policies but unable to remember any of the points on it. Ed Miliband fares particularly badly in the report – one participant describes him as having “the appeal of a potato” while many voters said they backed the Conservatives to keep Miliband out of Downing Street. English participants feared a coalition between Labour and the SNP, with one participant saying “she [Nicola Sturgeon] was so strong, she would have wiped the floor of him, run rings around [Miliband]”. Disillusionment with Labour is said to have began over a decade ago, in 2003, with the Iraq war a key factor. 

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Among swing voters, the Conservatives’ negatives are “recessive”, and have largely vanished outside Scotland – with voters mostly seeing them as the preferred choice of families like them, in stark contrast to the 2010 election, when voters still described the Tories as the party of “a wealthy family – with a large house”. Most voters felt the party had made a good job of the coalition and “deserved” another five years, while voters now largely feel that the NHS is safe in Tory hands. The Conservative victory was a surprise – but a welcome one.

But Tory negatives have not vanished entirely. Some voters who backed the Conservatives describe them as “the lesser of two evils” or “the devil you know”, and primarily voted to prevent Ed Miliband becoming prime minister.

In Scotland, the SNP are popular among all classes and voter types – despite being at odds with the Scottish public over immigration, although the report says that the “cognitive dissonance” between Scottish voters’ hostility to immigration and the SNP’s support for higher immigration may represent one of the “chinks in the armour” of the SNP. The Conservative triumph is the subject of concern, not celebration, although the fear that the SNP will be powerless at Westminster thanks to the Conservative majority is a worry for some Scottish voters.

Recommendations from voters who have left Labour range from apologising for the party’s overspending, with one swing voter suggesting the party hold an independent review into its spending in government – headed by a Conservative. Others urge the party to say it would retain certain aspects of the Conservative administration. In Scotland, too, the party is seen as good only for people “on Benefits Street”, but is also criticised for being an incompetent version of the Conservatives. 

The report – as well as making grim reading for Labour – also indicates the growing divide between Scotland and the rest of the UK. With the exception of immigration, which large majorities in Scotland, England and Wales all oppose at current levels, reactions to the Conservatives and their victory are wildly different. 




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