Patrick Wintour is one of the best political editors around. For the Guardian he’s been for decades a cool and well-sourced voice: even-handed, informed, interesting but in the best sense dry. So when I heard he’d written the most comprehensive behind-the-scenes account yet of Labour’s failed general election campaign I hurried to read it.
I was not disappointed. ‘The undoing of Ed Miliband, and how Labour lost the election’ is an insider account of a chapter of accidents, starting with Mr Miliband’s memory lapse about the deficit during Labour’s last party conference. Apparently he shut himself in his hotel room afterwards and wouldn’t come out. The story takes us through to the final days of the campaign (the Mail on Sunday’s Simon Walters suggesting this week that Miliband didn’t even know about the ‘Ed Stone’ until the day before he unveiled it.)
Well, we now know how that campaign ended. But here is my problem with even the best of the ‘where it all went wrong’ accounts. Gripped by Wintour’s narrative and never for a second doubting the veracity of the tales which marked Labour’s stumble towards disaster — tales ‘of decisions deferred, of a senior team divided, and of a losing struggle to make the Labour leader electable’ — I was troubled by one thought. It’s the trouble with history as explanation; with the ‘it was always inevitable’ school of analysis.
What if the Conservatives had lost? Could we not then have written (and were we not indeed ready to write) an equally gripping account of all the Tory mistakes, stumbles and divisions along the way to that defeat? Their ‘negative’ campaign? Their ‘insulting’ messaging? Admit it, fellow journalists, such an analysis would have been easy to write.
So did the Tories win because they had a good campaign — or did they have a good campaign because they won? There’s such a thing as victors’ analysis as well as victors’ justice. In victors’ analysis a bad campaign is a campaign which ends with a bad result.
Yet I don’t believe Labour did have a bad campaign. All campaigns are a bit of a mess. Labour’s was no exception. But my own observations along the campaign trail, and talking to friends directing Labour’s efforts at constituency level, were that Labour were rather well-organised, worked hard, were well-supported by volunteers, good at the systematic gathering and use of doorstep information, and kept their morale up and their message focused. None of it brought success.
Was it, then, the wrong leader? But my impression was that Ed Miliband seemed to grow in stature from the start of the ‘long’ campaign, parried the Tory thrusts about the SNP as best any Labour leader could in those circumstances, did well in one of the TV debates and less well in the second, behaved with dignity when hit below the belt with that jibe about stabbing his brother in the back… and all in all could hardly be said to have been a dead weight, even if he didn’t fly. If he’d won, I rather think we of the media would have given credit to how he had surpassed the very low expectations with which he started. Indeed, at one point many commentators were saying just that.
I thought Miliband and his party got Labour’s message across well; and the nuts and bolts of the campaign were fine.
Was it, then, the wrong message? Senior Labour figures, including the acting Labour leader Harriet Harman and all three main contenders for the leadership, have joined a range of commentators in gathering ex post facto wisdom that Labour’s message was deeply unappealing to the voters. So now Labour is ‘thinking the unthinkable’, ‘going back to basics’ and ‘asking the painful questions’. This new opinion is being described (not least by its authors) as brave.
I have bad news for this analysis. It isn’t brave; it isn’t radical; it’s yet another avoidance of pain. The message wasn’t the problem. The problem was the smell of the messengers. And that’s you, Labour party: all of you.
Labour’s manifesto was fine — governments have been elected on stupider prospectuses than this. Price freezes, rent restraint, gradual renationalisation of the railways, no more NHS ‘privatisation’, lower student fees, somewhat more borrowing and gentler reductions in public spending… if the Conservative party had been proposing any or all of these, would people have been calling them mad, or Marxist, or extreme?
No, the latest Harman-Burnham-Cooper-Kendall diagnosis, all about ‘aspirational’ voters, is essentially Blairism without Blair. But the point about Blair was that he was nothing to do with the Labour party. He didn’t look like them, didn’t sound like them, didn’t smell like them. Blair was the not-Labour Labour leader. Britain hasn’t elected a proper Labour prime minister since Harold Wilson.
Whatever campaign 21st-century Labour run, whoever leads them and whatever message they try to put across, they will struggle. Why? The word-cloud we might assemble to explain includes ‘smell’, ‘body-language’, ‘instinct’, ‘personality’, ‘general noise’, ‘where they’re coming from’, and ‘the cut of their jib’. It is, I would suggest, their very soul.
You might think this a piece of Tory abuse. You shouldn’t. The analysis should worry the Conservative party too. It means we Conservatives haven’t begun to win the argument. We’ve recently been rescued, yet again, from the pretty low regard in which the voters hold us, by their even greater repulsion from Labour. It wasn’t David Cameron’s charismatic leadership, George Osborne’s wizardry with the finances, Theresa May’s tough line on crime and disorder or Michael Gove’s free schools that won it. It wasn’t the Tory campaign or the Tory manifesto. And it wasn’t Labour’s campaign manifesto or leader that lost it, either.
It was just that Britain didn’t want a Labour government — the whole blessed lot of them. So ‘what all the wise men promised has not happened’, as Lord Melbourne once commented, ‘and what all the damned fools said would happen has come to pass.’