I wasn’t planning on doing a lot of reading up navel-gazing commentators wondering on how New Labour lost the election. Anyone following the election campaign would have scores of evidence. But The Guardian has an absolutely fascinating account based on what those higher up in the party felt went wrong. It’s mind-bending just how clueless the people who are supposed to be the Brains of the Second Party of Britain are – for they still don’t get it.
More significantly, the rush from Scotland to the conference meant that the party put very little thought into how to re-engage with defeated independence supporters. “It was an astonishing collective failure,” another of Miliband’s closest advisers said. “We never foresaw how much we would get the blame for the defeat.”
Seriously? You never foresaw how much you’d get the blame? Seriously?
You had Gordon Brown do party political broadcasts every day in the final week. You had Alistair Darling debating with Alex Salmond – twice. You had Jim Murphy going about a magical mystery tour of a hundred Scottish towns. With the Tories and Neo Lib Dems toxic in Scotland over the coalition, it was only New Labour politicians who could provide the pro-Union cause. And then in the days after it, we see that all Brown’s and Darling’s and Lamont’s promises of powers and federalism and home rule came to naught.
New Labour were the face of the No Campaign. And you say you didn’t see this rejection from Yes-voting Labour voters coming? Then again, you did hire John McTernan…
At its heart are the twin forces that would prove to be the party’s undoing: the profound doubts about Labour’s instincts on the economy and the surge of nationalism in Labour’s onetime Scottish heartlands.
Now, a lot of people are criticising New Labour blaming the SNP for losing the election for them, and on the surface, I can see why. It shows characteristic abdication of responsibility to lay all their woes at the skull-treading feet of the Nationalist Hordes. But the thing is, maybe it’s true. Maybe the SNP did lose the election for New Labour – not because the SNP actively sabotaged them, but because New Labour were so weak, so wan, so milquetoast that the Conservatives had to scaremonger about the influence of a party that wasn’t even contesting seats outside Scotland on the election rather than worry themselves overmuch about New Labour actually getting into power.
Both the Tories and New Labour made the election all about the SNP – and in the process, they just made the SNP look all the more powerful. That the Tories did it is natural, but for New Labour is spectacularly clueless. If a party which only fields 59 candidates every 5 years can have such a profound effect on one that fields over 600, then doesn’t that make the 59 candidate party look more competent, effective and powerful than the 600+ candidate party that’s so scared of it?
Labour’s focus groups were still finding that Tory attacks on Miliband’s leadership had not had the intended effect. But in mid-April, the Conservatives finally found a charge that stuck: the threat of the SNP. With the polls unanimously pointing to a hung parliament, the SNP provided a more vivid way to play on fears about Miliband’s leadership and Labour’s economic record. “If the polls had reflected reality, it would have been a totally different campaign,” one of Miliband’s close advisers said. “The agenda would have been about a second Tory term” – and what that might mean for the NHS, Europe, tax credits and Scotland. Instead, it turned into a referendum on the risks of a minority Labour government. This had long been Douglas Alexander’s worst fear.
And if New Labour’s ideas reflected reality, maybe they would have won.
But New Labour still miss the point: they still concede that the Tories are right in several regards. By rejecting a deal with the SNP, that cements the idea in the minds of voters that the SNP are a party to be feared, a party that you shouldn’t do deals with. It’s perhaps natural they would take that route – after all, they’re fighting seats in Scotland, so to suggest that a deal could be made would be all but throwing their Scottish seats away if people got the impression they could just vote SNP and get a New Labour government anyway. Yet in trying to save those Scottish seats from the dreadful SNP, New Labour just legitimised the Tories’ line that the SNP were a dangerous force in Britain – and in that case, why should marginal seats vote New Labour?
Miliband had first ruled out a coalition with the SNP on 16 March, but it was not until 26 April that he also ruled out a confidence and supply agreement between the two parties. Even then, the question refused to go away. Shadow ministers were being asked whether there would be implicit understandings between the two parties, or whether they would even speak to SNP MPs in the corridors of Westminster. The party’s focus groups also showed that voters did not believe Miliband’s denials, since they did not think he would ever spurn the chance to be prime minister.
See what I mean? The Tories set the agenda of the SNP being bad, and New Labour just went with it. Why are they letting the Tories dictate political reality?
Yet this passage, above all else, shows the depths to which New Labour had sunk:
Labour was so desperate that on 22 April, Lucy Powell, the campaign chair, wrote to the BBC’s director of news, James Harding, to complain about the broadcaster’s coverage. In an email obtained by the Guardian, she alleged:
“Your bulletins and output have become disproportionately focused on the SNP and Tory claims that Labour would enter into a deal which would damage the rest of the UK … We strongly object not only to the scale of your coverage but also the apparent abandonment of any basic news values, with so much reporting now becoming extremely repetitive.
“The BBC’s relentless focus on Scotland is potentially of huge political benefit not only to the SNP but also to the Conservative party. Indeed, it is becoming apparent that this has become the main Tory message in this election and you have regularly shown images from their posters and advertising designed to reinforce this attack. But the BBC has a responsibility not only to reflect what the Conservatives are saying but also to reflect on it.
“For instance, if the BBC has ever asked David Cameron and his colleagues why they are spending most of the energy talking up the SNP, I have missed it … The BBC includes growing amounts of commentary in its news bulletins. But you have barely ever reflected our view – and that of many commentators from across the political spectrum – that the Conservatives want the SNP to win seats from Labour in Scotland because that represents their best chance of remaining in Downing Street.”
“The BBC’s relentless focus on Scotland.” That’s the party of the people, who until 2015 relied upon Scotland to deliver 40+ seats. That’s the party started in Scotland. That’s Keir Hardie’s party. Attacking a public broadcaster’s relentless focus on Scotland.
Another aide explained why the Campbell speech was axed: “The rival view was that our vulnerability on English nationalism was really very severe and anything that sounded like we were defending the Scots would be music to the Tories’ ears, and just make the problem worse. So the two arguments cancelled each other out.”
“Anything that sounded we were defending the Scots would be music to the Tories’ ears.” Never mind the Scots being valued and equal partners in the United Kingdom. Never mind the UK Parliament representing all parts of the UK. Never mind just fighting an entire referendum on convincing the Scots to stay in the UK. The SNP are the Scottish government. They are popular: people in Scotland like them. Nicola Sturgeon is the only party leader in the campaign with a positive net approval rating. And you’re treating them as if they’re as bad as the Tories, to the point where you will not even countenance a deal with them, for fear that you’ll get Tory voters’ hackles up.
And people wonder why we want independence.
On 30 April, Miliband went even further in attempting to distance Labour from the SNP. On BBC Question Time that evening, he stated that if a deal with the SNP was what stood between him and Downing Street, “then so be it. I’m not going to give in to SNP demands – whether that is on Trident or on the deficit.” But by then it was surely too late.
See what I mean? They’re still conceding the Tories are right about the SNP, and people are not going to believe that New Labour will stand up to them. They’re treating the SNP as if they’re the Tartan Tories, yet they’re completely oblivious to the fact that the SNP are actively challenging things that New Labour and the Tories agree on: austerity, Trident, welfare, immigration, and so forth.
The next media setback came three days later, on the final weekend before the election. That Sunday, in a car park in Hastings, Miliband unveiled an 8ft 6in slab of limestone, into which had been carved Labour’s six election pledges. The mockery was so intense that the location of the “Ed Stone” became the subject of frenzied media speculation after the election. “The only reason it got through 10 planning meetings was because we were all distracted, looking for a way to punch through on the SNP,” one adviser said.
God almighty, they’re even blaming the Ed Stone on the SNP. Is there no beginning to their sense of responsibility?
New Labour were practically an afterthought to the Conservatives. The SNP were the real danger here – and the Conservatives knew it.
Miliband’s aides say that, looking back, he blames the Labour defeat on the SNP, and the failure of the campaign to inspire hope among certain key voting blocs – known, in the argot of pollsters, as Mosaic groups G and H: middle-class families with small children, and young couples trying to settle down.
There you go.
New Labour lost because they were weak. They never stood up against the Conservatives’ distortion of the financial crisis. Instead of rejecting the Tories’ welfare reforms, they engaged in a game of one-upmanship over who’d be toughest on benefits. Instead of exposing the Tories’ worst excesses and failures, they let them off the hook. Instead of debunking the Cult of Austerity, they meekly agreed that Austerity was inevitable, they’d just fiddle about with the details. Instead of fighting the Tories on immigration, they conceded that it was a problem, just in terms of degree. Instead of challenging the Tories on SNP influence, they echoed the Tories’ line on not working on a party that aimed to “break up Britain.” Everywhere they turned, they found themselves agreeing with the Tories.
And that is why the Tories could sell the idea that New Labour were weak. Because they were weak. If you cannot rely on the opposition to oppose the government, then what good are they?
In the first Prime Minister’s Questions following the election, the SNP leader Angus Robertson’s first question was not about further powers for Scotland, nor about the Barnett Formula, or Scottish funding HS2 and London sewers – but about the Mediterranean refugee crisis. In the absence of New Labour, someone has to hold the Conservatives to account. None of the frontrunners for leadership show anything like they’ve learned a thing. New Labour may as well just make it official and let the SNP do their job for them.