It was obvious that Miliband was never going to be PM, although many thought he would be, but I didn't see the scale of his wipeout coming and nor the rise of the SNP or the collapse of the Libdems. I actually thought the Libdems would do better and UKIP worse than they did. It's easy to be wise in hindsight and say I should have seen that all coming but I didn't. I'll learn from it next time.
There was a point where even I wavered in my conviction on the outcome. That day when the Conservatives unveiled their monumentally stupid Right to Buy Other People's Property pledge, I sincerely thought that was so bananas it might be an election-losing policy. However the next day Ed Miliband did something even more Ed Miliband-ish than usual, like trying to eat a blancmange on the Revolution at Blackpool Pleasure Beach or something, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
The clincher was when I noticed a couple of days before the election that on all the tightly run polls, 25% of the electorate were saying "Don't know". As a word to the wise, 48 hours before an election "Don't knows" aren't going to translate into a thumping win for the challenger. They go to the Better The Devil You Know.
Anyway, my friends list has been full of people reacting with horror at the result and generally calling everyone who didn't vote the same way as them selfish and evil and so forth, and it's that which has rather inspired me back to the ol' lengthy LJ posts of yesteryear.
I've always said that - all else being equal - what wins votes is Leadership and the Economy. The SNP did well in their referendum because they had the leadership, but lost it because they lost the economic argument. In the election, Labour had neither and so couldn't win.
Yes, I'm sure that Ed Miliband is a lovely man who cares deeply and thinks really deep thoughts and all that, but he's also a complete spanner. You know he is. Don't deny it. When Labour were bigging up his caring credentials, the entire nation were imagining him tipping soup over Barack Obama whilst trying to glad hand him, or falling off his chair whilst trying to threaten Vladimir Putin. And they were thinking "No".
Economically, Labour are completely compromised and in absolute denial about it. I talk about that below, but first I'm going to raise the reaction of how people are greedy, evil, stupid and generally dupes to have voted they way they did.
It's attractive and comforting to assume people don't agree with you because they're stupid. I know, because I've done it. Pop back and read my political posts from ten years ago and I was doing it all the time, but I stopped because it's incorrect. If you're someone who thinks that others are stupid, or evil, or duped, or whatever, not to have voted the same way as you, I'm going to ask you to take a leap of faith:
Other people are just as nice, honest, clever, well-informed, and selfless as you. They just disagree with you. And until you accept that, you will never understand why you lost.
If that's not something you can or will consider, here's a link to Russell Brand and Owen Jones. You'll be happier there, being told just how gosh-darned better and nicer and cleverer you are than other people.
Anyway. I'm not going to go on at length about why you lost. Instead, I'm going to look at what you can do to improve your chances in future. In many ways that's the same thing, I suppose, but still. You see, I rather like the executive to be held to account by a strong opposition. I thought the Blair majority was a bad thing for that reason, and I'd rather like a meaningful opposition against this government too. So here's my thoughts for you, the Labour party, and the left in general. Take them as you will.
1) Who are you for?
In 1926, Leon Trotsky observed that the Labour movement had emerged from the desire of the working man to better his lot through work and education. I’ve a serious question for you. Why would anyone who fits that description vote for you now?
I fit that description. I run a small business, and want nothing more than to be left alone to get on with it and stand or fall on my own merits. What are you offering me, or people like me? Nothing that I can see. If you did what the Labour party was created to do, I’d be first in the queue to vote for you, and I’m not. For that matter why would a one-man band plumber or someone who works in a call centre and is a bit worried about their job because they lost their last one in 2009 vote for you?
So if you’re not for me, who are you for? If you ask me who the Conservatives are for, they’re pretty clear – people with jobs. You might say that they’re lying, but they’re pretty clear about it. Or the SNP? They’re for Scottish people. I can sum up who they’re for in one quick, easy sentence. You? The best I can do is that you’re for the most vulnerable in society and against the rich. And I’ve got two pieces of bad news for you on that.
Firstly, not many people actually like to be told they’re the most vulnerable in society. People have dreams and aspirations even when they’re in the gutter and they like to have them recognised, which leads me on to the second bit of bad news. Most people would quite like to be rich. Most people have pub chats about what they’d do if they won the Euromillions.
They aren’t stupid. They know it’s a dream that’ll never happen, but people have to have dreams because without them life is meaningless. So when you say you’re for the most vulnerable in society and you’ll hammer the rich to help them, what they’re hearing is this: “You, Yes, you. That fellow in the shell suit. Yes, you. You need us because you’re a loser who will never achieve your dreams, and even if you do we’ll come round and take them off you again.”
And then you act surprised they don’t vote for you. Where are their dreams? Their aspirations? Their hopes in your message?
I had a conversation with a Labour activist before the last election where he ruefully acknowledged that they were perceived as “the party of immigrants and benefits cheats”. An exaggeration for effect, yeah, but by aggressively banging on about ‘the most vulnerable’, you’re not only missing out on the rest of us, you’re also alienating a lot of the people who don’t like to be reminded that their lives haven’t worked out as they’d like.
You need to know who you are for so you can...
2) Get your message straight.
You need a single, core vision that you can sum up in one sentence. The Conservatives had “We won’t bollock up the economy like the last guys did”. The SNP had “Scotland!!”, the Libdems had “We’re not any of the other parties” (With the benefit of hindsight that may have been contributory to their poor performance, but I didn’t twig at the time).
So, another question for you: Summarise for me, in a single, snappy sentence, the core message of the Labour campaign - because once again I can’t. The best I can do is “Vulnerable people…fairness…nationalise railways…Tories…Eton...greedy rich…mansion tax…NHS (more on that below)”, which isn’t a slogan you can really put on a banner that people will march behind whilst like it or not "You won't lose your job" is.
I've seen a lot of people saying the Conservatives ran a negative campaign, but so did you. It was all reasons why the world is bad and how you need Labour to protect you. That's not an aspirational message. Where is the "desire of the working man to better his lot through work and education" in that? Owen Jones says that a politics of hope might rise from the ashes of defeat, but for that to happen you need a message of hope. Not "You have no hope so you need us to protect you", which is what you spent the election saying.
Once you’ve got your core message you can hang corroloraries onto it but without one, you’re stuffed. So once again, what is your core belief or selling point? Make it something people can understand instantly what it is, as well. If you come back with something like “Social Justice”* or “Fairness”, you’ve already lost because they don’t mean anything. They’re badges of membership to a club of approved opinions. They’re catch all phrases for a self-selecting internet echo chamber that the people you need to vote for you don’t belong to and never will.
Those are the two major issues you had, but I’ll run through some secondary ones.
1) Take responsibility for your mistakes.
There’s a line which is quite popular amongst people who get their Memes from Another Angry Voice. It’s “The Tories have borrowed more than every Labour government ever put together! Where’s their claim of economic credibility now?”
The problem is it leaves out the largest economic crash in recorded human history which happened just before borrowing took off, and I know that if you mention it you get a long explanation of why that wasn’t the fault of the Labour government - it was instead Americans and bankers and absolutely everyone else who hadn't been in government making the regulatory framework for ten years.
Now, if I were to tell you that the de-industrialisation of Britain during the 1980s was as a result of an international shift towards a globalised economy, you wouldn’t buy it. Why not? Because Thatcher and Tories, that’s why not. So get used to it. Every time you say the crash was due to unrestrained banking and not you, nobody is listening. Why not? Because Brown and Lefties, that’s why not.
From a voter’s perspective, when you mention the crash and get told that it was the fault of everyone but the actual government, it just looks like a naughty child standing next to a broken Ming vase claiming a big boy did it and ran away. You broke it, you bought it.
You might even be right – I’m not looking to have that argument here – but the important thing is it doesn’t matter. You’re stuck with it, and you really need to accept that and get on with overcoming it. Trust me. I've been on the other side of this argument for twenty years and I know.
It took Labour 15-20 years to be given another chance on economic credibility after the three day week and the winter of discontent. It’s taken the Conservatives 30 years to get the debate beyond Thatcher, and you really need to recognise you’ve got another uphill battle in terms of economic credibility to go. With luck you’ll have regained a reputation for economic competence by 2035 – which, incidentally, will be just in time for the next crash, ironically enough.
The same goes for the Iraq war. If you bring that up the standard defense is “Oh, do you think the Tories would have done anything different?”
Well, if you stop and think about it, what you’re saying is “For all the difference it made you might as well have voted Conservative”. Which is what people just did, in their absolute millions. You need to think of a better defense. Or even better, swallow it and get on with getting over it.
2) The Tories will destroy the NHS/ Welfare state.
Look, you’ve said the Tories have been going to destroy the NHS or the Welfare state at very election since 1953 and it’s still there. There’s this bloody great building with “Hospital” written on it which I can see from my back garden. We spend roughly 60% of all government expenditure on the NHS and the Welfare state and that's not shifted much as a proportion since the last election even as the deficit has fallen.
So you’ll forgive us if we don’t believe you. If the evil Tories were going to destroy the NHS they’ve had plenty of chances and it’s still there.
You see, we’re not stupid. We know there’s a rather important debate needs to be had about the NHS and how it’s funded and where the money is going to come from, especially around areas like the demographics of an aging population and social care. But if you open it up with a tirade about the Tories destroying it, you can safely assume we’ve tuned out. Really. We aren’t listening, because it’s patently untrue. You’re the boy who cried wolf. Give it up. We don’t believe you. There have been seven days to save the NHS for sixty years. If you are fighting an election on the NHS, you can safely assume you're going to lose.
3) Stop listening to the shouty ones.
Yes, Owen Jones and Laurie Penny are very articulate, vocal and passionate young supporters of the cause. And you should never let them go on Question Time again. When you read their work, you should nod, take notes if you need to and then completely ignore them. If anything, do the exact opposite of what they suggest. Whilst you’re thinking “They’re articulately elucidating the cause!” everyone else is thinking “Stop lecturing me you annoying little tit.”
Think about it like this. You'll never see David Cameron observe that he thinks Katie Hopkins has made a good point for a very good reason, and assume that many see Jones and Penny in the same light when they're on form.
That goes triple for Russell Brand. He is not your friend.
The same goes for the people who graffittied Whitehall the other day. Stop equivocating about them. No more of the “Well you have to understand their anger…” stuff. When people scrawl “Fuck Tory Scum” on a war memorial and you aren’t outraged by it, what everyone else is thinking is “Yeah, I don’t much like the Conservatives, but you lot are complete wankers”. David Cameron kept that letter saying "Sorry, there's no money left" in his shirt pocket during the election so he could pull it out and show it to people in the street and at rallies and on the stump. Likewise, that photo of the Women of WW2 memorial is worth 100,000 Conservative votes at the next election, and, like a fairy dying every time you say you don’t believe in them, every time you say “It’s awful but…” you add another Tory voter to that tally.
Labour cut Militant loose back in the 80s with very good reason. You probably should do they same again.
4) Make your peace with market economics.
State ownership of the means of production is dead. It doesn’t work and the vast majority of people know it just because they’ve got eyes and they can see what countries where stuff is owned by the government are like compared to the ones where it’s not.
Don’t find yourself drifting into thinking “But the railways…”. Stop it. It’s over. Yeah, opinion polls say the public support the renationalisation of rail, but if you haven’t learned your lesson about opinion polls by now then I can’t help.
If you do want to nationalise anything, don’t mention it and then just do it once you’ve got elected and see if the voters approve the next go round. They won’t, but if you’re lucky they might have forgotten.
Look at the Scandinavian Social Democracies you would like us to emulate. They're more enthusiastic free-marketeers than we are. It's been said that Denmark has the most open and liberal economy in the world. They recognise that the social stuff they like costs a lot of money and they set about making it in the most efficient manner possible before spending it again. That's a perfectly legitimate position and it clearly works for them. What isn't a good starting point is saying that you'll do economic stuff that will make less money and you'll still spend more. People aren't buying that, so you may as well change it.
5) Don’t put Chukka Umunna in charge of your party.
Well, you can, because you’re going to lose in 2020 anyway, but if you want to win in 2025 put someone else in. A plant in a pot, David Blunkett’s dog. ANYONE.
6) Stop blaming other people for your defeats.
Murdoch, greedy people, stupid people. Whoever. This point is basic Sun Tzu. The cause of your defeat lies within yourself, and until you understand that, victory shall ever elude you, grasshopper.
*Like, half of my friends list describe themselves as social justice warriors, and I still don’t have a clue what one of those is. And I’m in an unusual demographic in that I hang out with you lot. The people you need to reach don’t hang about with people like you, and if I don’t know what the heck you’re banging on about half the time I stone-cold guarantee neither will they. All that social justice stuff might make you feel good, but nobody is going to vote for it because it’s just a couple of random words stuck together which mean whatever the person talking wants them to mean, and as far as I can make out that's usually "other people should do as I tell them".
So talk like a human being, would you?