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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. 

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. 

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. 






Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

The University Challenge final. Photo: BBC iPlayer
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Why University Challenge is deliberately asking more questions about women

Question setters and contestants on how the show finally began to gender-balance its questions – and whether it’s now harder as a result.

University Challenge has long had a gender problem. When the show first started airing in 1962, some Oxbridge colleges were still refusing to admit women as undergraduates; in the decades since, women have been consistently outnumbered by men, with all-male teams still a regular occurrence. Those women that did appear were all too regularly criticised and objectified in equal measure by audiences: notable contestants like Hannah Rose Woods, Emma Johnson, Samantha Buzzard and Sophie Rudd have experienced intense media scrutiny and criticised the sexism of the show and audiences. In recent years, sexism rows have dogged the show.

How satisfying, then, to see two women carrying their teams in last night’s final: Rosie McKeown for winners St John’s, Cambridge, and Leonie Woodland for runners-up Merton, Oxford. Both secured the majority of points for their teams – McKeown with visible delight, Woodland looking unsure even as she delivered correct answer after correct answer.

But there is another site of sexism on University Challenge, one that earns less column inches: the questions. Drawing on all areas of history, science, language, economics and culture, the questions often concern notable thinkers, artists, scientists, and sportspeople. Of course, our society’s patriarchal hierarchies of achievement have meant that the subjects of these questions are mostly men. General knowledge is, after all, a boys’ club.

Over the course of this 2017-8 series, though, I noticed a shift. More women than ever seemed to be making their way into the questions, at times with deliberate reference to the inherent sexism of their lack of cultural prominence. On 5 February, there was a picture round devoted to female composers, with contestents asked to identify Clara Schumann, Ethel Smyth, Rachel Portman and Bjork from photographs, who, Paxman explained, are all “women that are now listed in the EdExcel A Level music syllabus after the student Jessy McCabe petitioned the exam board in 2015.” Episodes have included bonus rounds on “prominent women” (the writer Lydia Davis, the pilot Lydia Litvyak, and the golfer Lydia Ko), “women born in the 1870s and 80s” (Rosa Luxemburg, Elizabeth Arden and Vanessa Bell), and the female philosophers Mary Midgely, Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch.

Elsewhere, questions raise a knowing eyebrow at the patriarchal assumptions behind so much of intellectual endeavour. A music round on famous rock bands quoted the music critic Kelefa Sanneh’s definition “rockism”: “the belief that white macho guitar music is superior to all other forms of popular music”. Another, on opera, quoted Catherine Clement’s Opera, Or The Undoing of Women, which explores how traditional opera plots frequently feature “the infinitely repetitive spectacle of a woman who dies”. “Your music bonuses are three such operas,” Paxman said dryly, to audience laughter.

University Challenge’s questions editor Thomas Benson confirms that there has been a deliberate attempt to redress a gender imbalance in the quiz. “About three years ago, a viewer wrote in to point out that a recent edition of the programme had contained very few questions on women,” he explains. “We agreed and decided to do something about it.”

Last night’s final included a picture round on artists with works concerning motherhood (Mary Casatt, Lousie Bourgeois, Leanora Carrington and Frida Kahlo) and a music round on Marin Alsop, the first woman to ever conduct the Last Night of the Proms, as well as sets of bonuses on the American writer Willa Kather and Byzantine historian and princess Anna Komnene.

Former winner Hannah Rose Woods is delighted by the increase in such questions. “I think it’s fantastic!” she tells me. “These things are really important in changing people’s perceptions about women in the past, and the way women’s contributions to science and the arts have often been written out of history. We need to keep challenging the idea of the White Male Canon.”

Last night’s winner Rosie McKeown says that while she didn’t necessarily notice a deliberate attempt to gender balance the questions, she was “very pleased with the quality of those questions that did come up”.

“Although it wasn’t in one of our matches,” she tells me, “I thought the picture round on female composers was especially good for highlighting women’s achievements.”

For all the enthusiasm for these questions, in the studio they’re often met with blank stares. While University Challenge questions are broad and imaginatively posed, there are some reliable revision topics and techniques: from Nobel laureates and the years of their wins to identifying famous paintings and classical music excerpts. McKeown says she has been a religious viewer of the show since she was 11 years old, and admits to watching reruns of the show to prepare. Shift the kinds of answers you might be looking for, and teams may struggle.

“Do we know any female British composers?” Leonie Woodland said weakly, looking at a picture of Ethel Smyth. Trying to come up with a female Muslim Nobel laureate, one contestant desperately suggested Aung San Suu Kyi. Asked to provide a first name linking an American concert pianist with the sister of Lazarus one male contestant still buzzed in with “Daniel”.

“Even if we didn’t always get them right,” McKeown tells me, citing that round on female philosophers, which saw them pass on every question, as an example, “it was great to see so many important female figures represented.”

“I don't think the questions about women necessarily affected our performance, but it’s certainly a very good thing that they were there and I hope that they’ll arouse people’s interest in the women featured and in their achievements.”

Benson believes that it hasn’t had a significant effect on performance. “The great majority of the questions that feature women are no different to any others, in that they sit firmly within the realm of standard academic general knowledge.”

He notes that they often refer to historical and background details, citing sets of bonuses on Canadian novelist Ruth Ozeki and British physicist Hertha Ayrton, which both teams answered correctly in full. “Though Ozeki and Ayrton may not be household names, the questions are definitely answerable and deal with central themes in their work and achievements.”

It’s easy to brush off the significance of a fairly geeky Monday night BBC quiz show, but University Challenge still regularly pulls in three million viewers. In any case, a show like University Challenge has a cultural significance that outweighs its viewing figures. It helps to shape our understanding of which subjects are intellectual or important, which are history’s most notable achievements, and who is worth learning about. To ignore questions of identity is to risk intellectual laziness, relying on tired ideas of canonical figures – or worse, supremacist propaganda, privileging the achievements of white men over all others.

Quite aside from making for less predictable and more enjoyable television, by including questions on the likes of Stevie Smith, Nella Larsen, Gertrude Stein, Myra Hess, Margaret Mead, and Beryl Bainbridge, University Challenge can diversify the mental encyclopaedias of its viewers, be it a tweed-wearing 60-year-old in Leamington Spa or an 11-year-old like Rosie McKeown with her own dreams of one day competing. It has a responsibility to do so.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.