By Michael Burke
The Beckett report into why Labour lost the election has finally been published. It offers little comfort to the Labour right, who have made wild and unsubstantiated claims that Labour would have won, or performed much more strongly had it enthusiastically embraced austerity, or by attacked ‘welfare scroungers’, or by increased racism and offering promises on curbing immigration.
Even so, there is little in the report which provides any clarity on the causes of the defeat and the lessons that can be learnt from it. As this was an unnecessary defeat, learning the lessons from it is important for the current leadership and wider supporters.
There have already been many factual analyses of the 2015 election and to her credit Beckett draws on some of them. The two most authoritative on the basis of timeliness and sample size are the 30,000 British Election Study (BES) and the 12,000-strong Ashcroft poll.
A series of pieces have analysed the BES results. Labour lost the election on the economy, but not because it was ‘too leftwing’. In fact there was a very slightly greater propensity to vote for Labour when voters believed it to be more to the left. Instead, what was described as ‘economic competence’ or credibility became the dominant issue. The harsh truth is that Labour in 2015 was literally not credible on the economy. It repeatedly suggested that people might be better off under Labour but hardly any policies were advanced to substantiate this. At the same time, the strong commitment was to ‘zero-based policy reviews’ and sticking to Tory spending plans. So the suggestion that people would be better off was simply not credible.
This had nothing to do with disappointing the ‘aspirational voters’ the labour right uses to justify embracing Tory policies. This nonsense was nailed by Professor John Curtice, ‘There is, in truth, no strong evidence here of Labour particularly losing touch with its more middle class supporters. Rather, what is notable about the party’s performance is that what had been an especially marked drop in its support among C2 and DE supporters between 2005 and 2010 was not reversed this time around.’
All this is factually supported by the 12,000-strong Ashcroft poll conducted on polling day after respondents had voted. ‘Trust’ was the biggest determinant of which party attracted votes. Among the biggest issues ‘for you and your family’ (usually regarded as the strongest pointer to actual voting patterns) the most important was the NHS (cited by 58%), tackling the cost of living (44%), getting the economy and creating jobs (42%) and immigration way below at 29%. Reforming welfare to cut benefit dependency was cited by just 12%.
Labour had campaigned primarily on the first of these two issues and arguably should have led on the third. This returns to the issue of trust, or competence/credibility. Crucially, insufficient voters believed that Labour would deliver on these most important issues.
Separately, there is a strong body of opinion in British society, including a section of the working class that is racist. Ashcroft’s poll shows 28% of voters placed immigration as one of their top three issues. But this is far below the top economic issues. Labour’s campaign on this issue, was both reactionary and self-defeating. In the circumstance it could only have benefited UKIP. The Tory election strategists understood this- they had no pledge on immigration and no stupid immigration mugs either.
This goes to the heart of political campaigning and the lessons to be learnt. Voters do not read manifestos. They are won over on one or two key issues that affect them. They distrust a political party without a plan to deliver its promises, such as Labour’s message on the economy. Neither can they be ‘cheated’ into voting for a party – Labour campaigns on immigration reinforced UKIP’s central message so benefited them. As the recent Oldham by-election shows, UKIP was convincingly defeated despite strong media backing precisely because Labour had a positive alternative and did no echo UKIP’s racism.
Although Beckett does not draw them, the real lessons of May 2015 should be clear. Labour can win in 2020 if it puts forward a convincing message that it will make people better off. It should advance policies which endlessly reinforce that central proposition. At the same time the current leadership understands Labour can make no ground by conceding to the Tories or UKIP on a reactionary agenda on austerity, immigration, war or other key issues.