“Labour’s era may now be over and perhaps it is time for something new”, wrote one commentator in last Sunday’s Observer. Keen to gain a hearing for their views, academics and journalists have joined some of my Labour colleagues in talking up the implications of our defeat on 7 May, just as they did in 1992. Then, as now, we were told that Labour could never form a majority government again. Just five years later we secured our biggest victory since 1945, followed by the longest period of government in our history.
On 7 May we increased Labour’s share of the vote by 1.5%, roughly twice the Tories’ gain, and secured more votes in England than Tony Blair won in 2005. Of course we face deep and serious challenges, not least from the rise of the SNP and UKIP, but it doesn’t help if we overdramatise the facts or oversimplify the answers. We need to understand why, campaigning unambiguously on the radical pledges in the 2015 manifesto, we were able to increase the Labour vote by 42% in Sheffield Central while 30 miles away my friend and colleague Chris Williamson lost his seat in Derby North. And there may be difficult lessons for all of us.
Those who were quick to get to the TV studios following the election in order to write off the last five years, should recognise that we don’t face a simple binary choice. It’s not a matter of winning from the centre or from the left, or of speaking for the aspirational as though they are distinct from the poor or disadvantaged. There were many in my constituency, some deciding to go to the polling station for the first time, who voted Labour because of the difference our pledges on the bedroom tax, zero hours contracts or benefit sanctions would have on their lives. But the underlying message of tackling growing inequality won the support from those in wealthier areas too.
The message delivered by the electorate on 7 May is complex and often contradictory. But it doesn’t help to distance ourselves from past policies without proper reflection. Ed Miliband’s critique of our economic model was essentially right – the shift in the share of GDP from wages to profits, the collapse of private sector investment in research and development, and short-termism within our equity markets, among other things, have contributed to an economy dominated by low paid and insecure work for too many, while others struggle in a dysfunctional housing market and look to a future without the security of adequate pensions.
Our policies addressed some, if not all, of these issues – recognising the need for an active state to intervene in order to make the economy work for all and to protect people from the consequences of an inadequately regulated market – but we failed to connect them in a popular message.
Now, rightly or wrongly, we have rushed headlong into a leadership race. But we mustn’t let that rush our analysis of the defeat or slip into the comfort zone of simply distancing ourselves from the immediate past. In politics, quick answers are invariably the wrong answers. Our challenge now is to take time to thoroughly understand what we got right and wrong, over both the last five years and the thirteen before that.
Paul Blomfield was re-elected as Labour MP for Sheffield Central