Making sense of it all – lessons of a crushing defeat

by Hilary Benn MP

[first published by LabourList, 16th May 2015, available here.]


It has been a tough time for the Labour family. Hopes dashed. Great candidates defeated who sacrificed so much and fought so hard. And for our constituents, the prospect of another five years of David Cameron only this time with a Tory majority. None of us can hope to know all the reasons why we lost – and this article does not pretend to – but here’s my attempt to make sense of it.

The first thing I want to do, however, is to pay tribute to Ed Miliband. He campaigned from the front for a fairer society. He kept the party together. He was thoroughly decent in his dealings with everyone. He showed courage and conviction throughout. And it is the mark of Ed the man that he placed the burden of our defeat upon his shoulders. Hindsight is a convenient thing, and while some may have made themselves feel better by criticising Ed, they forget our collective responsibility for what happened.

At one level, the explanation for our defeat is very simple indeed. My Mum always used to say that there are two kinds of general elections: ‘steady as she goes’ and ‘time for a change’. As soon as it became clear that the exit poll was broadly right we knew that we had failed to convince the public of the need for that change.

In England, Labour’s share of the vote went up by 3.6% compared with 2010, but the Tory share went up too against a backdrop of a Liberal Democrat collapse. The Tories got 41% of the vote while we managed just 31.6%, but that national vote share hid the distribution. While we picked up votes and increased majorities in the inner-cities, we lost out in marginal seats around the country. UKIP’s vote increased by 10.7% and that hurt us. In Wales, the Tories had their best result since 1983. And the result in Scotland was – quite simply – a disaster.

We will need to understand the detailed numbers – the psephologists are busy with their analysis – and there is much talk of why some Labour voters did not come out and why some people intending to vote Tory neglected to tell the pollsters. We should listen to our candidates, who were out knocking doors day in day out, to learn lessons from them. During the election much was made of how we were winning the ‘ground war’ across the country, but if we did, we still lost and we must also reflect on what that tells us too.

But some things are pretty clear.

First, the public’s view of our reputation on the economy hurt us, and despite a fully costed manifesto and a clear commitment to deal with the deficit, it was not enough to counter the continuing aftershocks of the global financial crisis and the Tories’ success in blaming us – wrongly – for causing it.

Secondly, some voters who stuck with us last time – for fear of the then alternative – voted Conservative this time for exactly the same reason.

Thirdly, UKIP took votes off us in many areas. I vividly recall my doorstep conversation with a former trade union shop steward who said he was planning to vote for UKIP because of Europe and immigration. He’d always voted Labour before.
Fourthly, the fear of SNP influence over a Labour government – and the Tories’ ruthless exploitation of it – did put some voters off.

Finally, we did have a lot of good policies – a reflection of Ed’s leadership. But they weren’t enough to counter the reasons why people did not support us.

Overlaying this, we faced two types of nationalism. In Scotland, the abandonment of the Labour Party and the revolt against Westminster – despite a strong devolved Scottish Parliament which is about to get significant new powers – found strong echoes in UKIP railing against our supposedly being run by Brussels. Last September, a majority of voters in Scotland defeated independence and separation because they saw the benefits of both strong devolution and being part of a wider UK in which risk and reward are shared. Exactly the same argument will determine the outcome of the EU referendum.

Leaving aside narrow nationalism, one message from the electorate that has been evident for some time is that there is a desire for more of a say, and the question for the UK and for the EU is how this can best be achieved in a world which is globalising at a phenomenal pace. This process is creating winners and losers and it brings change. That change may be uncomfortable but it isn’t going to go away. We are now 7 billion human beings sharing a small and fragile planet and we are more interdependent than we have ever been in human history. The financial crash showed that in very stark terms, as does our changing climate.

The truth is that the future success and prosperity of humankind will rely on cooperation and not separation. The idea that Britain will prosper by closing itself off from the rest of the world – for example, by leaving the European Union – makes no sense. Yes we want a reformed EU, but now there will be a referendum Labour should move on to lead the campaign to stay in. We must argue for an outward-looking and influential Britain because it is in all our interests.

Fears about globalisation are rooted in some people’s sense of powerlessness over their own lives and the changes they see taking place around them. On devolution, we had a much more ambitious offer than the Tories but – at times – it wasn’t clear whether the whole party felt comfortable with it because it challenged the traditional view that what really matters is a Labour government doing good by changing things from the top.

I think that we must become the party of devolution precisely because it offers communities the chance to take more of the decisions they can control while recognising the need for international cooperation to deal with other issues. It is also an important part of the answer to the crisis of confidence in our politics because it gives communities both the power and the responsibility to do more for themselves.

But for me the most important thing we have to stand for as a party is the principle of a contributory and not a consumerist politics.

It is not enough just to turn up on Election Day or for us as a party just to ask people to do so. We all need to be better engaged and feel that politics is a natural part of how we deal with problems and make progress. While shouting at politicians can at times be satisfying for some, getting things done is much more so. We need to build a political system and a party that enables people to be part of the change they want to see and to understand the contribution that they can make.

In return people need to know that we are fighting their corner and will help them to do better in life. Aspiration is not about one section of the electorate; it’s about all of us. We want everyone to do well and Britain only succeeds when they do. We are on the side of responsible business and enterprise, and economic prosperity is not at odds with social justice; they go hand-in-hand.

As I decide where to cast my vote for the new leader and deputy leader, like most party members, I am looking forward to hearing from the candidates about where they think we need to go in future and not about old battles. The idea that this must somehow be a contest between “we weren’t left-wing enough” and “let’s go back to 1995 New Labour” is irrelevant and won’t win us support.

The world has moved on and so must we. That means reflecting on where we have come from, debating where we need to go and deciding who best can lead us there. I am confident that in this election we will look outwards and not turn in on ourselves because we have learned that lesson.  And while we do so, we must take the fight to this Tory government with an energy and enthusiasm that shows our determination to win the people’s trust and confidence once again.

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