Why didn't Labour win?

Bad governance has resulted in a steady diminution of voter credit, which has progressively accumulated into a loss of confidence that the party can govern.

Ed Straw
26 June 2017

Miliband in 2015. Labour Party/Flickr. Some rights reserved.Given the dire display of their government opponents, some have asked the legitimate question: why did Labour not win? Much has been written on the surprise and elation at Jeremy Corbyn’s performance. But given that the alternative has been variously characterised as the 'Maybot' and our 'supreme' leader, and has demonstrated how poor a negotiator she would be by being unable to debate in public and being uncomfortable with people, why then didn't Labour walk it into government?

The answer has little to do with Jeremy Corbyn. That is the story here: it’s not that New Labour, Blairism, Momentum, Corbynism or some other simplistic label is to blame, selected according to our personal and political likes and dislikes. Rather it’s all of the above and more: the inability to see what lies beyond party politics that transcends mere personalities.

The answer is to be found in the Labour party’s governance, dating as far back as 1922. Its weak governance has meant that internal tribalism has flourished, that ministers whose shelf life has expired have been left to continue, and, with regularity, that it has entered elections with leaders of insufficient electoral credibility. The consequence is a steady diminution of voter credit, which progressively accumulates into a loss of confidence in the party to govern.

Internal tribalism has flourished, and Labour has entered elections with leaders of insufficient electoral credibility.

The answer lies also in another jurisdiction of governance: the whole system of British government. This broken – or is it bust? –system has meant low standards of government resulting from limited electoral competition, and has meant all governments flying blind without the feedback essential to comprehend, in the New Labour government's case, the toxic consequences of neoliberalism coupled with the style of that caricatured mindset of the so-called North London liberal elite. It is the system itself that causes elected governments to fail.

Let’s start in the modern political era and with New Labour, a body that both connected with the real world and failed to grasp the big levers for change. This government, busy attempting renewal on all fronts, failed to renew itself. Stuck with those answers it first thought of – initially totems and then yokes, tired from being cabinet Ministers for so long, and struggling with the decrepit system, the old guard hung on for far too long. Fresh blood, and with it fresh thinking and fresh faces, was needed and never happened. This is a job for good governance.

New Labour also suffered from the absence of serious competition – a consequence of first past the post. Representative democracy is competition, but when one major party is out of action, as the Conservatives were for most of this period, then standards drop. New Labour had little to challenge it – until David Cameron appeared. Even then, it took some doing to lose to an Old Etonian ex-PR executive. Personally, I’d be ashamed to do that.

New Labour had little to challenge it – until David Cameron appeared.

Indeed, such was its essentially absent performance in its second half of office, and the negative memories this accumulated, it could be argued that the main reason Labour lost in 2017 is the consequence of first past the post (FPTP).

Of course, with an effective choice of only two parties – a restrictive practice – standards will never be that high. This is a rigged market that would never have allowed Apple, Google, or any ‘disruptor’ to become significant let alone to lead. Any self-regarding competition authority in the world would rule FPTP illegal.

But it is a challenge to get across to the average party politico, eyeing all that apparent power and all those trappings, that he or she would do a far better job under proportional representation (PR). But they would. Theresa May may even get round to understanding that, when she comes to write her memoirs. But few of them get it before, alas fewer still with power in their hands, and even fewer after their demise.

The absence of a credible alternative allowed the remarkably self-indulgent Blair-Brown feud to fill the void. Its continual strife sucked energy, purpose and votes. New Labour had demanded discipline from its members as the price of election, yet tolerated the most self-centred and ill-disciplined leadership I’ve ever seen in government. Both should have been read the riot act through the party’s governance.

The absence of a credible alternative allowed the remarkably self-indulgent Blair-Brown feud to fill the void.

New Labour did well in its early days, but not that well. This much was obvious to those insider/outsiders like me who lived in the real world but had straight routes into most of the senior people. I attempted to register this through feedback notes. These were designed to cut through the spin and counter-spin and to record the results experienced on the ground far from the froth of Whitehall. I sent this for example:

“But in other aspects, little or nothing has actually changed on the ground – transport being a notable example in 1999 where, after two years of new government, the traveller’s experience has not improved (except for public transport users, for three miles in an easterly direction at the London end of the M4, where a bus lane has been installed by John Prescott – hardly the stuff of heroes of the Soviet Union). Unimpeded by government, travel by train continues towards a caricature of Indian Railways – plenty of room on top.”

Another great irony here is that every government in the world would improve, and its politicians be more successful, with comprehensive, independent and balanced feedback. None has this. This is one of the several large reasons for global discontent with government performance – local, national, regional, and global. If you don’t know the score how do you know if you’re winning? Or losing? You don’t. If you don’t know where you are, how will you know how to get to your destination? You don’t.

So vast resources are spent on trying to convince themselves and the electorate that policies are working – or not, if you’re the opposition. Self-scoring, rhetorically massaging, news-spinning is the vapourware that occupies the space that real feedback should. We are all getting monumentally disgruntled with it. But until we grasp that feedback of results has to be institutionalised and put somewhere where the politicians can’t tamper with it, spin is what we’ll get. And fake news.

New Labour went into the 2010 election pretty exhausted, splintering, with little idea of what it would do next, and with the baggage of another leader who was not going to win. The legacies of the failed Iraq war and of the banking crash did not help. That the Conservatives only just scraped in via a coalition with the Lib Dems is testimony to the ‘social democratic hegemony’ that now existed in the country, to quote one cabinet minster of the time. A refreshed Labour would not have lost.

Every government in the world would improve with comprehensive, independent and balanced feedback. None has this.

Refreshments came in the form of Ed Miliband. Labour embarked on a muted why-are-we-here quest, but a stale New Labour vs Old Labour vs Only-Used-Once Labour, conducted with lashings of labellism, judgementalism, and moral superiority, was unaware of the major shifts in circumstances wrought by neoliberal economics and in values.

Underlying these five confused years in opposition, Labour knew not why it was here. After all, its historic mission to take the masses out of poverty, disadvantage, and inequality had succeeded. To compare their lot today with even when I was growing up, let alone to the conditions when Labour was founded, is to rejoice. But the old mantras continued to be chanted by a party unable to come to terms with the modern world. It needed a trip to the political psychotherapist but instead sat on its hands. What do you do when you’ve achieved what you were set up for? Retire?

It was quickly evident that no matter his various qualities, Miliband was not going to win. This repeated Labour’s most enduring failure of party governance: to enter elections with a leader without sufficient electoral credibility: Neil Kinnock in 1992, Gordon Brown in 2010, Ed Miliband in 2015. The party’s unwritten policy is to replace the CEO only once the company has gone bust.

The party’s unwritten policy is to replace the CEO only once the company has gone bust.

The Conservatives don’t self-handicap like this. Why? Their ‘1922 committee’ (so-called after its year of founding) is composed solely of backbenchers – no cabinet ministers are allowed – and thus has far more freedom to discuss difficult issues than if overseen by the management who wield much patronage power. Its role is to take soundings and suggest changes of course, and to tell leaders whose shelf life has expired to move on. Their process for challenging sitting prime ministers works too, as Labour’s did not for Blair and Brown.

The Conservatives would have replaced Kinnock with John Smith, Brown one year before the 2010 election, and Miliband after two years as leader. The party is far more important than the person.

Interesting to note that Brown’s election in 2007 became an uncontested coronation, as May’s in 2016. With a proper robust competition, both would probably have been found out. These top jobs, in the full glare of the media spotlight, find manners undiscovered in ministerial roles, only then to be so excruciatingly revealed. Not since Alec Douglas-Hume of the skeleton head in the Private Eye cartoon and the constricted and aristocratic throat warble, chosen by the Tory grandees as PM in 1962, have I seen anyone crumble as May has.

The party is far more important than the person.

Onwards to the Corbyn era – an essential disruptor for a drifting party. The Parliamentary Labour Party, of all its MPs, continued to behave as a failed state. It should have shut up, backed Corbyn for two years, given him a good run (and enough rope if you like) and then taken stock. Instead, the ruling faction threw its toys out of the pram and embarked on continuous strife.

Post the referendum, one year in, spooked by a quick election rumour, it repeated the mistake by mounting a hopeless challenge, and continued its tantrum. It showed a remarkable detachment from actual people and their genuine disadvantages, unable to comprehend their role in Brexit through preaching, ignoring and fixating on its own semi-ideology.

Apparently struck by a vision on a two-mile walk in the woods around that Victorian watering hole of the English in Dolgellau, May announced the latest election. I have wondered what would have happened if, instead, she had climbed the adjacent majestic mountain of Cader Idris.

Jeremy Corbyn played a blinder, Theresa May the opposite. In an unusual way, he was aided by Murdoch and the Mail and the rest of the fundamentalist Tory press. Such was the extreme picture painted of this threat to the security, stability, and anything else held dear that could be concocted, the comparison, once we were actually allowed to see and hear him, was far greater than if the news media had left him alone. Blimey, he’s not a monster. Crikey, he speaks straight, and without hector. Goodness gracious me, he’s even saying things I agree with. I hope Jeremy has the decency to send Murdoch and Dacre a thank-you card.

Blimey, he’s not a monster. Crikey, he speaks straight, and without hector. 

But he did have some real negatives from his first years as leader. At first, he could only find reverse gear as he came up with mostly very old Labour policies. Second, the organisation of the leader’s office and output was not competent. Third, his performance in parliament was limited.

But bear in mind that he had become leader not after years of planning alongside a slick team of advisers, but suddenly on a wave of grassroots enthusiasm for something very different. It would always take time to learn these complicated and sometimes bizarre ropes.

More than that is that none of us – including the person him or herself – before stepping into a leader role anywhere, knows whether or not they will make it. Only under the spotlight, with excited followers looking to be led, will we or they know. Corbyn has it. May does not. Party governance has to make these calls.

Whilst absolute levels of prosperity are light years from those on Labour’s founding, mass disadvantage, inequality, and disempowerment have returned. No-one is starving but the basis for a New New New Labour mission is there. Whether Corbyn recognised this or whether what he thought happened to be right for the time, I don’t know. Either way, his essential message resonated.

Either way, his essential message resonated. But did not win.

But did not win. That would have taken – not a different leader this time – but a party that had left its proud history in the history books, that grasped where many people were, that had thrown away the old recipes and thought long and hard about new and workable solutions, that really got behind their leader and their leader behind them, and shouted with one voice.

That it did not is down to years of decline in every wing, faction and tendency, itself the product of the weak governance of the Labour party and of the broken system of government and democracy.

It still has no backbench governance. I propose a committee identical in membership and role to the Conservatives, and to be named the 2022 Committee, (only a century late but let’s not carp).

I further propose that Corbyn and the MPs and the members and actually all of us, get some serious thinking caps on as to how to reform the system of government – feedback, competitive democracy, policy by design, powerful check and balance. Yes, yes, yes, all this takes time and then actually reforming the system takes time too. But Corbyn will find to his cost that the big change he and many of us want will not happen in a 60s old banger. Until the system is redesigned and fixed good and proper, government and us will muddle on, nothing much will actually change for the better nor lives made easier, political parties will keep their bad name, and every government – including your or my choice – will disappoint.

Corbyn has shown remarkable political dexterity and vision. I do hope he will grasp the biggest prize of all. It is the existing system that will stop him doing what he envisages. Its reform would lead to a fair economic system, redistribution of power and wealth, and harmony. He has shown the essential humility to know that it will take more than a new group of ministers to change the world.

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