Outside of the bubble of the short campaign, Labour MPs knew earlier this year that the kind of defeat that has now transpired was heading our way. The campaign was a galvanizing movement: Ed Miliband performed exceptionally well, drove a disciplined campaign, established a clear policy platform and on the ground at least, the disciplined team of doorknockers seemed focused, committed and optimistic. Labour fought a good short campaign, the Tories a wretched one and the lesson is straightforward and indisputable– this election was not lost for Labour over the last four weeks, but over the last four years. The short campaign made many of us believe that a victory of sorts was within reach. Deep down, when we close our eyes tonight and reflect upon the millions of people in need of a Labour government and whom we have failed, we will remember the realpolitik of the past Parliament.
Tessa Jowell is right: we can’t dump all of this on Ed. That wouldn’t be fair or accurate and the roots of today’s catastrophic failure took hold years ago. Faced with an appalling defeat in 2010, the Parliamentary Labour Party became immersed in ennui.
The modernising techniques of New Labour made the PLP a professional, clinical political force. Loyalty and discipline were – for the most part – hard wired into an election-winning machine. Despite the recriminations seen between 2005-2010, these ‘professional’ behaviors remained within the PLP – adhered to and prized by whips and the whipped alike. But the price for this loyalty was the suspension of a collective critical faculty. In 2010, faced with a changed and still changing country, faced with an international financial crisis the likes of which none of us had ever prepared for and which required an entirely new approach from parties of the left, few in the PLP were prepared to engage with the new realities staring us in the face. For those that did understand – across the party’s entire spectrum – there was little encouragement from the leadership to contribute towards shaping the thinking of the PLP. At precisely the time when the PLP should have ben firing on every intellectual cylinder it had, it had instead become inert.
This inertia was compounded by the fact that the leadership of the PLP was not chosen by a majority of Labour MPs. Ed Miliband undoubtedly won the Labour leadership contest fair and square, but faced with leading a group of people who did not choose him as their Leader, the difficulties inherent within such a scenario ran their inevitable course. Party unity was not a hard won achievement; it was the symptom of a parliamentary party incapable of rebooting itself to meet the changed environment in which we found ourselves.
For me, nowhere was this more visible than in the emerging relationship between the party and traditionally Labour non-metropolitan areas. In our rugby league towns and lower league football cities, in the places most people have heard of, but never been to. These areas need Labour (ever more so as the state retreats) but a cultural divide has been allowed to open up between the party and for too many of those people for whom it exists to serve. The same happened with the Democrats in the US. Once the party of the working class in the southern states, millions of working class Americans in these states now vote overwhelmingly against their own economic best interests by voting Republican in every US election. Why? Because they connect ‘culturally’ with the Republicans in a way in which they no longer do with the Democrats. It’s a toxic development but an avoidable one. The tide ebbs and flows, but the danger for Labour is real. Between 2010 and yesterday, the Labour leadership has known this is happening, but so far failed to address it in a vocal, energetic way. The real tragedy? We have the policies designed to heal the divide in the shape of comprehensive proposals for English devolution, yet seem unwilling to tell the people that we will give them what they want, despite intending to do so – not as a sop but as a matter of belief. Why?
Faced with the reality of the SNP surge – the result of a similar disconnection between the party and its base in Scotland – this failure is even more bewildering to understand.
More important than the fortunes of any political party – even ours – is the future of our country. This election may very well have heralded the end of the United Kingdom: the once unthinkable is now upon us. Whether or not this is the case – and Labour should always work to sustain our remarkable Union – a new settlement for England is already overdue and Labour should make this our central mission as we regroup, rebuild, and fight on.
We saw this failure coming, and I cannot explain why the Party inflicted this defeat upon itself. For my part, to every single person that needed us to win; I’m sorry.