Matthew Parris

Labour’s campaign was fine. It’s the party that Britain rejected

Blair succeeded not just because of his policies but because he didn’t look like a Labour leader. We’ve not elected a proper one since Wilson

13 June 2015

9:00 AM

13 June 2015

9:00 AM

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.’


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  • Gilbert White

    Not to worry eventually hordes of new labour voters will emerge like the larva of a fruit wasp from lorries in the Cotswolds and hive off a new swarming of labour voters. If politicians do not like their electorate why not replace them the electorate that is?

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    • Sharon Fruitcake

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  • Fatcol

    It’s a good point about the Labour Party’s campaign, which wasn’t especially poor. If those various little gaffes had repelled the voters we would have seen that reflected in the subsequent opinion polls. Those were probably accurate when they were taken.

    Ed Milliband was, however, always a problem. I think, as in 1992, a lot of people just backed away from Labour when faced with the ballot paper. Kinnock and Milliband’s faces flashed before their eyes.

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      Miliband, Miliband …
      There’s only one “L” in Miliband.
      Works best as a rap number.

  • Man on the Clapham Omnibus

    Why did Labour lose?

    1. The Scottish heart-land has become a waste-land – God knows why the Scots do anything

    2. The LibDems having lost their pseudo-socialist voters to Labour after the Coalition, lost their pseudo-conservative voters to the Tories because they did not want Clegg propping up Millipede. This removes all purpose from the LibDems

    3. When it began to look like the SNP might get the whip hand in a Labour government, Cameron put the fear of God into the English: enough to do serious damage to Labour in England

    4. Last and by no means least, England is a profoundly conservative country: it really has no stomach for a Socialist government, and like it or not, that was what Milliband was selling (like Kinnock and Foot before him and with the same result – see T Blair).

    Finally you mention Harold Wilson – I am old enough to remember the ’60s and ’70s – that was a whole world ago and before the Thatcher revolution.

    • Gergiev

      Yes, the 60s and 70s were another country to whose bourne no traveller may return… But I think Harriet Harman’s remark to the effect that even some Labour voters were, despite their dissappointment at defeat, relieved that the Tories won, tells you the real faultline at the heart of modern Labour: rather like elements of the CofE, it doesn’t even really believe in its own nostrums.

      • Man on the Clapham Omnibus

        I agree, that was what point four was saying – particularly when the Labour government was likely to driven by the crypto-communist SNP.

        • maxime1793

          If you think the SNP is communist, then you’re insane.

          80% of the English want to renationalise the railways (stable across parties) and it seems most, according to polls, want other utilities and banks nationalised.

          But that’s not communism, nationalisation of monopolistic and parasitic sectors of the economy can be a very conservative platform. Even then, Labour did not propose renationalisation of the railways! Neither did Charles Kennedy ever do this.

          The English may have conservative tendencies, but these did not contradict Labour’s platform, which was arguably more conservative than the Tories’. Less liberal-capitalist, sure (slightly), but that is not conservatism.

          • Terry Field

            The reason we have representative democracy is to avoid your bone-headed ‘80%’ from being able to do any damage at all.

          • maxime1793

            No, a representative democracy would vote in representative laws. You largely have rule by the City of London with a mock parliament that can hold all the committee hearings it wants but cannot seem to change anything. Your major party leaders are all bought off, except maybe Farage (if UKIP counts as a major party)

          • Jackie Chan

            That’s right Maxine it’s called National Socialism. And, no… 80% of English don’t want the telephone and banking system nationalised. Made up nonsense.

          • red2black

            Perhaps the Scots will stage a border incident and use it as an excuse to invade England. The way they’ve been building up their armed forces and sending their political opponents to concentration camps recently really does worry a lot of people.

          • Jackie Chan

            A few ingredients will do:

            Feverish Nationalism…
            A paranoid “stab in the back” mythology…
            Cult of the leader…
            Organised mobs shouting down and intimidating dissenting views…
            Socialism meets crony capitalism…
            Rigging of the electoral system…
            Exploitation of grievance (Versailles / Rhineland / N. Sea Oil)
            Grandiose architecture…
            Funny accents…
            Highly politically organized, but economically illiterate…
            Hideous holidays…

          • red2black

            Tee hee.

          • maxime1793

            Your criteria sound like they apply to Merkel and the modern German Federal Republic more than whatever you were attaching them to (The SNP? Old Labour? The current will of the majority?). Extremely odd to mark the very liberal SNP with Nazism.

            I have also found it funny how so many people seem to blame Nazism on Nazi policies not on the state of the world economy and the “economically literate” people who ran it into the ground, precipitating the rise of totalitarianism. It was after WWII that a middle ground was found in Europe based on widespread state ownership, capital controls, regulation of banks and subsidies for production, corporatist arrangements between labour and capital, full employment as a goal, free education for well-paying jobs, clearly defined borders, and international balance of power.

            It took a cross of Thatcherism and the New Left to give us instead – near-total total private ownership even of monopolistic sectors, international free trade and unregulated movement of capital, regulation of production and subsidies for private banks, destruction of trade unions and the rise of short-term and part-time contracts for most, the subsidisation of a chav underclass of consumers to keep wages low, usurous loans for upper education that qualifies you now for less-paying jobs, mass illegal migration, and NATO and the EU running wild.

          • Newton Unthank

            Nonsense. If it really was National Socialism you and your ilk would be all in favour of it 😀

          • Otirgeon

            Oh come on, just because he’s a hate-filled racist who’s obsessed with the Third Reich doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a N-a-zi supporter….. hang on a moment!

          • maxime1793

            I said: “80% of the English want to renationalise the railways (stable across
            parties) and it seems most, according to polls, want other utilities and
            banks nationalised”

            80% applies to railways, a lower majority to utilities.

            Do you need evidence?

            It is not Nazism to have publicly-owned utilities, banks, and transportation, it was the international norm of the 20th century.

            You remember that time? You know, back when economies and incomes grew. Back before the world was a giant financial toy in the pockets of international speculators. It was so horrible, so Nazi!

          • Newton Unthank

            Yes, I’m afraid that the commenter you’re replying to is indeed insane.

    • fundamentallyflawed

      5. 90% of the policies applied to 10% of the population – they had nothing but narrow view soundbites

  • A real liberal

    A great analysis.

  • John Carins

    “Britain hasn’t elected a proper Labour prime minister since Harold Wilson”. Pray tell me when have we had a Conservative one?

    • Faulkner Orkney


      • John Carins

        Cameron is one of the least Conservative PMs.

    • red2black

      Mrs Thatcher and Mr Blair.

      • John Carins

        Thatcher almost made the grade but failed over the EU. Blair was never a Conservative. Blair wanted to take the UK further into the EU and adopt the Euro.

        • red2black

          They were ‘Conservative enough’ for most people.
          I don’t think New Labour repealed any of Mrs Thatcher’s legislation in favour of socialist policies.

          • John Carins

            You may be right but in terms of being guardians of independence and sovereignty these politicians failed as Conservatives.

  • davidofkent

    From his election as leader, Ed Miliband always looked like a Fourth Former in a suit. He never, ever, looked like a Prime Minister -in-waiting. In addition, he and his dopey colleagues thought that all they had to do was shout slogans such as “the NHS isn’t safe with the Tories” and voters would flock to them. At no point did they appear to realise that a large part of the electorate still recognised that the economy is never safe with Labour. The final cause was the clear signal that a weak Miliband would be badgered into class and national warfare by the SNP.

  • BillRees

    There is a lot in what Matthew says.

    I was keener on Labour not winning than I was on any other particular party actually getting my vote. So I voted for the party most likely to beat Labour in my constituency.

    I did that because I detest socialism.

    I don’t believe any of the claims about fairness and equality that are usually made for it. In my view socialism is an oppressive ideology, and I wouldn’t vote for any party that espoused it, whoever they were led by.

    And that included Tony Blair in 1997, who in my view did enormous harm to the United Kingdom constitutionally. He was the ultimate wolf in sheep’s clothing.

    • wycombewanderer

      They also made the mistake of thinking they were terribly clever at tactical voting and everyone else was stupid and tribal and didnt understand tactical voting.

    • red2black

      Plenty of Socialism about with £85bn worth of ‘corporate welfare’ being doled out every year. How ever would they manage without it?

  • JSC

    Ed did quite well in the last 5 weeks before the election, it was the 5 years prior that was his downfall. Watching him get trounced on PMQ’s again and again, sometimes even trouncing himself. It got to the point where all I felt for the man was pity and annoyance. If he’d have self immolated himself in the dispatch box it would have been less painful to watch.

  • RavenRandom

    “It was just that Britain didn’t want a Labour government — the whole blessed lot of them.” So we didn’t want them because we didn’t want them? A nice read but I feel short of analysis (or perhaps I just didn’t understand). The Conservatives didn’t play well, Labour didn’t play badly… the public didn’t select Labour because they “smell” or because of “their very soul”?
    You’re need to be more specific, what do you mean? I feel the public rejected the old school politics of envy; hate your fellow Brit because they’re successful (and take their stuff too)… “oh you want to be successful too, well that’s wrong and possibly evil”. Is this what you mean by smell?
    I think we have crossed the envy Rubicon now, hopefully now we can try and make the best for all, rather than stirring up hate and blame.

  • Fraser Bailey

    I agree, there has been a lot of desperate revisionism. The Labour campaign was not especially bad, and the Tory campaign was not especially good, with the exception of the posters showing Salmond picking your pocket. I believe that to a large extent ‘It was Nicola wot won it’.

  • Bobby Mac

    Parris is right about the campaigns – Labour’s was marginally better than the Tories. I think he’s wrong about everything else, however. I think the electorate had real doubts about Ed and the message was – well, what was it? And then along came the SNP surge and the prospect of a Labour-SNP coalition was more than most people could take. There isn’t much in the short term that Labour can do about the SNP, so they will have to choose a leader and policies that appeal to the non-tribal centre of the electorate.

    • Caractacus

      The Tory Campaign has admitted that they deliberately held off some areas of heavy campaigning in order to let Labour hang itself.

  • wycombewanderer

    Labour were obsessed with the top 1 percent and the bottom 10 percent they forgot about the other 89 percent.

    They also wrongly assumed that because their juvenile antics such as ca;eron;ustgo zas trending on twatter they had the keys to Downng street.

    They forgot it what happens with that stubby pencil in the polling booth that matters not how many of their sock puppets are talking to the;selves.

    Good riddance to them, there are a lot of angry bods at CIF which is great fun these days.

  • MC

    As for Matthew’s last point about the electorate not liking the Tories particularly, they have a golden opportunity now to firmly park their tanks on Labour’s heartlands and finally, 35 years later, make good on their promise to revitalise the inner cities and neighbouring wards, too many of which are still an absolute disgrace.
    They should act now – decisively. Metro-mayors, reconvene an English Parliament in the middle of England (Notts, Derbyshire, Staffs, Sheffield) and move lock, stock and barrel up there. Their presence alone would help transform these areas which have been ignored by the Westminster elite for years. Nothing like living and working in an inhospitable place to transform it to your wishes. They should start now.

  • The Scots obviously worked out who was campaigning for NO in the referendum and wondered why Brown and Darling aren`t in the Tory cabinet today.

  • Dan O’Connor

    Well, one theory could be that the reason why the Labour wing of the NeoCons lost and the Tory wing of the NeoCons won with a slim majority , is because the Labour party made the mistake of not being NeoCon enough for the NeoCons. They were anti-nativist enough, anti-nationalist enough , and pro-third world voter import gerrymandering, population transformation enough for the NeoCons , but not pro NeoCon enough .
    They lost the NeoCon competition . They came in second .
    Maybe the NeoCons started to get jumpy because they have been taken by suprise by the way the Social Justice Warrior leanings of the Labour party’s middle / upper class student’s union politics have been evolving
    In order to find out who rules over you, just ask who you are not allowed to criticise

  • Dan O’Connor

    The Labour / Democrat parties are the anti-nationalist Socialist branch of Internationalism / Globalism

    The Conservative / Republican parties are the anti-nationalist Capitalist branch of Internationalism / Globalism

    Both result in Internationalism / Globalism , which means loss of control of our own economies , national borders, social policies , territories , cultures , identities , demographics , self determination, human rights and the ability to control our own destiny as a peoples .

    For the Internationalist / Globalists , dermocracy and the will of the native peoples in the West is an obstacle to be circumvented and overcome , not a reason to change direction
    Western man can say ” No ” to nothing and has control over nothing .
    He is a passified, spritually emasculated, occupied and enslaved people of mass consumerism and his own willing demographic disposssessor and willing jaiiler .

  • Terry Field

    Yes, the front bench of the Labour jokefest are a pretty repulsive bunch, but the valuelessness of their offering makes them more disgusting, since they are obliged to lie and invent issues, because, at bottom, the offering of a mass proletarian, syndicalist, union-boss influenced ‘party’ is a 19th C anachronism. It survived longer than it should have, because of the psychological abuse that the 14-18 and 39-45 total war condition inflicted upon the gentle population.
    Britain is returning to the 18th C.
    And there is no place in that scenario for Labour anything.

    • red2black

      In more moderate terms, I think Mr Attlee and Mr Wilson actually did what Labour was supposed to do: secure decent working and living conditions for working class people, including a decent education and healthcare.
      Even so, there had always been a split in the working class, with a majority of women voting Conservative, and a majority of men voting Labour. I did read somewhere that without these women’s support, there would never have been a Conservative government in the 20th Century. As for ‘mass proletarian’ and ‘syndicalist’, I think such terms would have drawn a blank expression among most working class Labour voters then, much as they would today.

    • Jackie Chan

      You nailed it. And, beyond this, Labour being described as “progressive” is a joke. Orwellian ain’t in it! Labour is a backward-looking, stasis-enabling, grievance cult, whose every policy is designed to lock people into servitude and yet dares to claim the moral high ground.

      • Terry Field

        Labour is essentially timid and conservative. I has not remodelled the health system; it has not remodelled a European style universal public education system and left the Indian style segregated ‘public’ school system untouched. Timid, economically illiterate, collectivist, socialist, mass vote-buying-by-subsidy fraudsters; it has nationalised and systematically destroyed most major industry sectors, through doctrinaire, soviet-style, union-perverted non-management.

  • To the contrary: it’s not some mysterious ineffable ‘smell’, it’s that Britain has at long last moved past Labour (yes I know: the SNP is just radical Labour in blue and white — but it’s still not The Labour Party).

    Why does there have to be a Labour party at all? Stick a fork in them: they’re done. They shouldn’t be having a leadership contest. They should be conducting a funeral for the whole mistaken rotten enterprise they represent. They could not better serve the country in any other way.

  • It’s true that the worst thing about the Labour party is its members. But I think the key factor you miss out is the SNP. The English took one look at Nicola Sturgeon drawing up a list of demands for propping up a minority Milliband government and thought “nope!”

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      Still can’t spell Miliband?

      • How about you getting a social life for once?!

      • Huh. I’ve managed to go 5 years not realising there was only one L.

        Also, grammar fascism, really? 😉

  • mikewaller

    There is some truth in the above, but it misses out the key point that the 2011 AV referendum killed any chance of a “progressive” government taking office. The key elements in that were a massively dishonest pro-FPTP leaflet supported by the massed ranks of the right wing press and Labour’s purblind stupidity in not realising that FPTP was no longer in its best interest. In terms of votes cast, progressive parties (Labour, the Lib-Dems and the Greens) won the election but because of their predilection for balkanisation and our appalling voting system this was in no way reflected in the outcome. The same disgraceful system gave the Scots-Nats almost a clean sweep on 50% of the vote. As it will be a very long time before the electorate gets another opportunity to change the voting system, the only sensible thing for progressives to do is to agree some pre-election pact as to policies and then actively encourage tactical voting. But don’t hold your breath!

  • davidofkent

    Oops. – about to repeat myself!

  • Will Jones

    Finally someone has made this point, which seemed to me the one everyone has been missing. It can even be made even more pointedly in that the last convincing non-Blair Labour victory was Wilson’s of 1966, and that he and Attlee are the only pre-Blair Labour leaders to have won election majorities at all (MacDonald led only minority and coalition governments). Moreover, if we discount Blair as not true Labour and limit ourselves to majorities more than five then the roll of true Labour true victors shows itself remarkably thin: only Attlee in 1945 and Wilson in 1966, and not for nearly 50 years. That is the stark truth about the UK electoral landscape that the Labour party needs to come to terms with.

    • Sten vs Bren

      If it as you say it is, you want to re-imagine the scale of the crisis for the country. Because if it’s as you say it is, there has been no actual opposition for almost half a century.

      That is the stark truth about the UK electoral landscape that the people need to come to terms with.

  • huw

    labour has lost the next election already…….

  • Sean L

    Isn’t the point of political commentary to elucidate, to give reasons rather than resort to meaningless cliches like “their very soul”? In this case the prospect of an SNP Labour alliance seems to have been a key factor, which also did for Ukip in stemming Conservative defection.

  • Sean Lamb

    In Australia we say oppositions don’t win elections, Governments lose them.

    With a strong jobs performance and a mild program in the previous 5 years in coalition to blunt any scare campaigns, Miliband was always going to struggle. Not being onside with Murdoch didn’t help

  • John M

    The Conservatives won because most people considered that they were the least bad of a bunch of pretty poor, inconsistent offerings made to them. In many cases these offerings were changed in the late stages of the campaign as a kind of desperate policy bidding war broke out, fanned by the media.

    Britain has a Conservative Government, but the people still detest the political classes. As we all expected the Tories are now already starting the kinds of political chicanery with regards to the EU and Snooper’s Charter in particular, which marks them out as liars who say one thing to get elected and then do another within days of gaining office, but frankly we knew that was going to happen because it does regardless of which party gets power.

    Britain is still broken politically and democratically. Perhaps the media can analyse that.

  • Hegelman

    So, banking gangsters, charge on like a plane taking off. Way to go.

    It’s a nice and infallible formula.

    Savagely cut welfare. Send the vulnerable and the disabled to Hell.
    Give your cronies massive tax breaks. Fix your grinning wife, like Cameron, in a cushy non-job in a company that doesn’t pay UK taxes. Give tons more money to
    the welfare cheats in Buckingham Palace and have them paraded smirking
    every now and then.

    As for the proles, keep interest rates at bottom levels so they can
    revel in cheap loans. Let the housing sector go into a mad boom while
    the homeless sit on the kerb.

    Kill off the poor damned Labour Party by landing them with a brutal
    cult of debt reduction fetishizing in a country whose public debt is

    One day it will all crash. But by then we will be retired in Hawaii.

    • Johnny Foreigner

      Wonderful bat chite crazy distorted rant. You got me convinced until right at the end and you mentioned going to Hawaii, who do think runs the Govt over there. Bonkers, two lumps please.

  • mdj

    An interesting map appeared just after the election, showing that Labour’s heartlands, with the one exception of London, exactly corresponded with the old coalfields. London might be said to vote Labour on the basis of a comfortable public sector middle class that exists thanks to high public spending, and the immigrant vote.

    The bloc nature of the latter cannot last. In my borough 20 councillors worship at the same mosque. Their supporters are not well-off, and obviously care about benefits and public housing; but their overriding cultural concerns are family, religion and small business. They cannot last long as a Labour core vote with the party’s present character.

  • cromwell

    The Labour policies were good Labour policies its just that Miliband was not the man to sell them, whatever his personnel attributes he was a crap leader. The real question for Labour is why was such a useless leader chosen and why are they going to pick a crap replacement.