The result of Jon Cruddas’ independent inquiry into Labour’s general election defeat was published today, with a piece by the author on LabourList. Here are seven key lessons to take away from the report:
1 – Have we heard it all before?
Lacking economic credibility, untrusted on welfare and immigration, unable to connect on issues like communities, and lacking a clear purpose. This is not an inquiry bursting with completely undreamt of reasons for Labour’s demise last May – and that is the gist of some of the criticism from Ian Warren, the election guru who worked for the part in the run-up to last May.
But the fact that yet more research has been carried out, finding the same things and arriving at the same conclusions does not amount to a case for dismissing it. It is a positive that this has been carried out independently of the party’s own structures (while involving groups like Compass, Progress, the Fabians, the Co-op, the Labour LGA Group and TULO) and it is to be celebrated that this was designed specifically for public consumption.
Internal research means consecutive Labour leaderships have known this stuff for years, and have been selective in taking on board the lessons. The more evidence that is publicly available for the grassroots, the better it is for our understanding of the party’s position, for our expectations – and for holding to account our leaders.
2 – No media – or Miliband
One criticism of the Beckett Report was the role it attributed to the media in Labour’s defeat. By contrast, there is no mention of the impact the fourth estate had on the 2015 election in the Cruddas Report. For many, this will be an unforgivable oversight, but in the end it makes sense: the media landscape will not be fundamentally different in 2020, so blaming it for defeat brings us no closer to winning.
Intriguingly, there is also no mention of Ed Miliband, whom the Beckett Report said bore the brunt of “exceptionally vitriolic and personal attack” from the media. Miliband is an increasingly divisive figure in the party, and while omitting him avoids the report being overshadowed by its analysis of his legacy, it risks criticism for ducking a big question.
3 – Labour’s lack of a clear message
One of the most striking findings in the report is the gulf between what voters thought the Tory message was and what the Labour message was. Or rather: the consensus among voters on what the Tory message was, and the lack thereof about whether Labour even had one.
Almost two thirds of voters, 61 per cent, agreed that the main Conservative election message was about economic management and deficit reduction. By contrast, a fifth of voters though Labour’s main message was about slowing or stopping spending cuts, a further fifth thought the focus was the NHS, 14 per cent thought it was about fairness and equality, while one in 10 said the message was “unclear”.
This is stark proof of a real problem. Under Miliband, Labour skipped from idea to idea, slogan to slogan – Blue Labour, The Promise of Britain, One Nation Labour all came and went – without ever really settling on one. David Axelrod’s droll post-election summary, “vote Labour and win a microwave”, was probably the most convincing précis of Labour in the last parliament.
4 – We are struggling in key marginals
The First Past the Post electoral system is currently hitting Labour hard. While the number of safe Labour seats is keeping the party alive (if only on “life support”, as Cruddas puts it), it makes the task of winning all the harder.
Where Labour is seeing a resurgence is with a type of voters called “Pioneers” – typified as progressive social liberals – while struggling with the types of voters who are more likely to be swing voters in marginal seats. This was a problem that also came up in the Beckett Report, which found that Labour had effectively been “growing” our safe seats. Banking up our voters and winning swings against the Tories in our own seats, while performing worse in the places we need to do better.
This causes longer term problems for renewal. As Ian Warren wrote today: “MPs in safe seats with higher proportions of ethnic minority voters didn’t want the party to take a strong line on immigration.” We could be in a position where we know how to talk to people who already vote for us, and simply cannot communicate to those who don’t.
5 – In Scotland, Labour is trapped between the SNP and the Tories
The report concludes that “Labour is lost in Scotland”, trapped between a polarised debate between what voters see as “progressive Scottishness” and “socially conservative unionism”. In that constructed political spectrum, Scottish Labour has nothing to add, and is squeezed out of the debate. Either it needs the debate to shift dramatically, or to completely refashion itself – or both.
6 – But Labour less toxic north of the border
An unexpected finding is that Labour is technically “less toxic” in Scotland than in England or Wales. Fewer Scottish voters, 31 per cent, said they would never support Labour than any other party, including the SNP. Across England and Wales, 36 per cent said they would never vote Labour.
This means that there is, theoretically, scope for recovery, if only the party can work out a way to seem relevant again.
7 – Economically radical, fiscally prudent: the McDonnell Doctrine?
One of the three lessons the report imparts for Labour is the need to be economically radical and fiscally prudent – although stresses that the latter must take priority. Few would argue that shadow Chancellor John McDonnell doesn’t want a radical reshaping of the economy; but does his announcement of a Fiscal Credibility Rule mean his advice will be heard?