In Defence of Liberty

Driven by data; ridden with liberty.

Learning the Lessons

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This episode went unmentioned in Dame Beckett’s report. (Edited: The Independent)

The Daily Record called it “devastating” [1]. Isabel Hardman of The Spectator said it was “uncomfortable reading for all party factions” [2]. Dame Margaret Beckett’s report on why the Labour Party lost the 2015 General Election was established by acting leader Harriet Harman MP (Labour, Camberwell and Peckham).

The report concludes there were four primary reasons as to why people did not vote for Labour, “both from pollsters and from those on the doorstep” [3]:

  • Failure to shake off the myth that we were responsible for the financial crash and therefore failure to build trust in the economy
  • Inability to deal with the issues of “connection” and, in particular, failing to convince on benefits and immigration
  • Despite his surge in 2015, Ed Miliband still wasn’t judged to be as strong a leader as David Cameron
  • The fear of the SNP “propping up” a minority Labour government.

The latter effect is “most disputed”. Far from a devastating read, the report warmly exposes in kind terms Labour’s intellectual incoherence and electoral ignorance.

“Assiduously fostered the myth”

After recognising the political landscape had changed prior to Labour’s defeat in 2010, with the “rise of popularism” and the focus on fiscal consolidation, Dame Beckett MP (Labour, Derby South) states:

Before the crash, the Tory opposition had committed to matching Labour’s spending plans and to reducing financial regulation, especially in the mortgage market.

In the aftermath, this was forgotten, not least by the Tories, who assiduously fostered the myth that US, German, French and Japanese financial institutions had been brought to their knees by the overspending of a profligate Labour government. This myth took hold.

It is a common ploy in politics to ascribe to an opponent an argument they did not make, with Dame Beckett unable to cite any Conservative shadow ministers or spokespersons who so “assiduously fostered” this plainly false claim.

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UK public sector borrowing, April 1993 to December 2015. (Source: ONS)

Whilst no party can lay hold to economic primacy, external factors are seemingly permitted in the study of Labour’s government, but the coalition government was blamed fully for tepid growth following the 2010 election:

Conversely, the Tories’ mistake, post 2010, of cutting “too far too fast”, stalled the recovering economy that they inherited, but meant that the recovery, though late, and slower than in other countries, still came at an electorally convenient time.

This is a tribal screed, not a serious contemplation of the economic effects of government policy. Moreover, any party can change its position in reflection of changing circumstances, as Labour did multiple times with its spending priorities between 2010 and 2015.

Furthermore, questions from members of the public, at events such as Question Time, concerned Labour’s spending record on its own merits, and not from a belief that their spending had caused the financial crash [4].

“Brutal simplicity”

On the next matter, Dame Beckett wrote:

On issues such as immigration and benefits we rightly stuck to our Labour values, but this meant that our policies were nuanced, compared to the brutal simplicity of either the Tories or UKIP.

This chimes well with Lynton Crosby’s assessment of Labour in 2015: “They were intellectually lazy and thought themselves intellectually superior.” [5] A policy can be complex and considerate, but expressed simply. Indeed, it takes intellectual effort to state academic ideas in plain language.

The report then suggests that Labour did not know how much the Conservatives were spending on digital advertising:

We should continue to benchmark ourselves against both our political competitors and political movements elsewhere, so that, for example, we don’t fail to recognise the growing role of digital and data in future campaigns.

With the Conservatives spending £1.2m on Facebook, and Labour spending only £16,455: Labour did not just lose the game, they were not even players.

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The Conservatives dominated spending on Facebook. (Source: The Electoral Commission, Visualisation: Tableau)

Between data and insight

In a paragraph about polling, Dame Beckett writes:

It was particularly difficult to predict the scale of the Liberal Democrat collapse, since incumbency has been highly beneficial to them in the past – but was not in 2015.

The vast majority of polls showed Liberal Democrat support between 7% and 10%. There was also a ComRes poll focussed solely on 14 seats in the South West held by the Liberal Democrats, confirming the substantial swing towards the Conservatives [6].

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15-day average trend line of poll result from 6 May 2010 to 7 May 2015. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

This is the difference between data and insight, between polls and psephology. The collapse in Liberal Democrat support would make seats where the Conservatives came second in 2010, such as Bath and Chippenham, incredibly vulnerable. The Conservatives could then use this new advantage in targeting those seats. It seems astounding that, within the onyx palaces of Labour’s command, this insight went wholly unrecognised.

Varieties of capitalism

There are further absences within the report. Whilst it is accepted that Labour’s chances were diminished before the short campaign, no reference is made to the odd choices in political strategy or spending. The party spent £577 on chicken suits, £4,742 on a pink bus, and £7,830 on the infamous ‘Ed stone’ monument [7]. It was intended to unveiled in a school, until it was realised that the 8ft stone carving could not possibly be supported by its floor. Against the dreary sky, the Leader of the Opposition revealed six vague and unmeasurable ‘promises’.

(Video: larissimus)

The report recognises that, even though it was punctuated by popular policies, “the difficulty was in creating a cohesive, consistent narrative and communicating this clearly and simply”. The Labour narrative was not simple. The basic story was that, in agreement with political economists Peter A. Hall and David Soskice, there are distinct varieties of capitalism [8]. There are liberal market economies, like the U.S. and Britain, and coordinated market economies. Whilst the former is built heavily on competitive market arrangements, non-market relations are more prevalent in the latter. The Labour 2015 manifesto [9], with policies towards developing manufacturing and ‘green technology’ jobs, with further regulation of employment contracts, with new technical qualifications in education, sought to shift the British economy from one variety of capitalism to another. This is under the belief that co-ordinated market economies provide the best outcomes for the least well-off. The accuracy of this narrative is to be questioned, but it is plainly difficult for Labour campaigners to explain these matters on the doorstep.

“Treated with caution”

The reasons given by Labour’s leadership candidates were countered: “we had the wrong policies”, “we were out of tune with the public on deficit reduction”, “we were too left wing”, “we were too anti-business”, “we were seen as anti-aspiration”. In the conclusion, Dame Beckett states:

In general, we believe that these commonly held reasons for defeat should be treated with caution and require deeper analysis. Often they were contributory factors to the broader narrative rather than necessarily significant reasons in their own right.

Dame Beckett’s report was a summary of why Labour believed the party lost the election. Far from being a devastating read, it was a soothing lullaby. Ultimately, it will be up to the public to assess whether Labour have truly learned the lessons from their defeat, and whether they offer a consistent and cohesive story for British voters in 2020.

References

[1] Glaze, B., 2016. Devastating Beckett report reveals Labour lost the election on the economy, welfare and immigration. Daily Record. Available from: http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/politics/devastating-beckett-report-reveals-labour-7209016#tHCayCzm6jtIQMpH.97 [Accessed: 23rd January 2016]

[2] Hardman, I., 2016. Beckett report into Labour’s loss is uncomfortable reading for all party factions. The Spectator. Available from: http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2016/01/beckett-report-into-labours-loss-is-uncomfortable-reading-for-all-party-factions/ [Accessed: 23rd January 2016]

[3] Labour Press, 2016. Labour Party’s Learning the Lessons from Defeat Taskforce Report. Available from: http://press.labour.org.uk/post/137620361394/learningthelessons [Accessed: 23rd January 2016]

[4] Peston, R., 2015. Did Labour over-spend? BBC. Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-32549892 [Accessed: 23rd January 2016]

[5] Delaney, S., 2016. How Lynton Crosby (and a dead cat) won the election: ‘Labour were intellectually lazy’. The Guardian. Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jan/20/lynton-crosby-and-dead-cat-won-election-conservatives-labour-intellectually-lazy [Accessed: 23rd January 2016]

[6] ComRes, 2015. ITV South West Lib Dem / Tory Battlegrounds. Available from: http://www.comres.co.uk/polls/itv-news-south-west-lib-dem-tory-battlegrounds/ [Accessed: 23rd January 2016]

[7] Swinford, S., 2016. Revealed: Labour blame ‘administrative error’ for missing ‘Ed stone’ receipt. The Telegraph. Available from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/labour/12110438/Revealed-Labour-blame-administrative-error-for-missing-Ed-Stone-receipt.html [Accessed: 23rd January 2016]

[8] Hall, P. A., and Soskice, D., 2001. An Introduction to Varieties of Capitalism. Available from: http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~phall/VofCIntro.pdf [Accessed: 23rd January 2016]

[9] Labour Press, 2015. Changing Britain Together. Available from: http://action.labour.org.uk/page/-/Changing_Britain_Together.pdf [Accessed: 23rd January 2016]

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