Why Labour's 2015 campaign is a warning to a Jeremy Corbyn leadership

4 Sep 2015
Photo of Jeremy Corbyn stood next to a fire engine with 'Rescue' on the front. Image Courtesy: Bob Peters, Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0
Image Courtesy: Bob Peters, Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0

Professor Steven Fielding analyses the Corbynite diagnosis of Labour’s failure in May and explains why the prospective leader could suffer a similar fate.

Professor Steven Fielding, Professor of Political History, University of Nottingham
Professor Steven Fielding,
Professor of Political History, University of Nottingham

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In the immediate aftermath of Labour’s failure to win the 2015 general election, it looked like it would be the Blairite explanation that would prevail. Veteran New Labour hands launched a media offensive that ensured they set the tone for early interpretations of the defeat. Former minister Alan Milburn was omnipresent describing Ed Miliband’s electoral strategy as a ‘hideous and ghastly experiment’. According to Milburn and John Rentoul, the Independent commentator and Blair biographer, under Miliband Labour had abandoned what the latter called ‘the eternal verities of the Blairite truth’ by vacating the centre ground and adopting a ‘core vote strategy’.

This was also the view of those believed to be serious contenders to replace Miliband as leader. According to Liz Kendall, Labour focused too much on issues of concern only to the poorest voters, failing to indicate it understood middle-class ‘aspirations and ambitions’. Yvette Cooper claimed Miliband promoted an ‘anti-business, anti-growth and ultimately anti-worker’ agenda. Echoing such views, Andy Burnham claimed Labour should have admitted it had spent too much in government.

When I began writing my analysis of Labour’s undoubtedly flawed campaign for Britain Votes 2015, it was this consensus I sought to challenge. By the time I had finished however the one candidate who rejected that consensus was starting to take a lead in Constituency Labour Party nominations. But my analysis would not bring much comfort to Jeremy Corbyn either. For if the Blairite interpretation of Labour’s 2015 campaign is misconceived, the Corbynite view is even harder to reconcile with the facts.

For Ed Miliband, like Corbyn, also sought to move the party on from New Labour. Like Corbyn he also believed the Blairite strategy needed recalibration: he thought the 2008 banking crisis and ensuing austerity had changed politics. But despite the Blairite characterization, Miliband did not adopt an anti-business strategy nor did he disavow the centre ground.

If Blair spoke for ‘Middle England’, Miliband aimed to represent the ‘Squeezed Middle’, which signified that large part of the population whose living standards were predicted to remain below what they had been before the fiscal crisis for years to come. Right from the start Miliband believed, as an adviser put it, that ‘taking on vested interests would be his calling card’. He cast himself as a tribune of the people, standing up to the powerful to ensure fair treatment for the ‘hard-working majority’. It was this ambition that informed his support for: the curbing of energy prices; an investigation into invasions of privacy committed by News International journalists; and challenging tax avoiders.

Miliband outlined his new course at Labour’s 2011 annual conference. Surprisingly, given his reputation, Miliband told those assembled that Margaret Thatcher had introduced necessary reforms, such as selling council houses to tenants, cutting punitive income tax rates and reforming trade union laws. More conventionally, he praised New Labour for building schools and hospitals, introducing a minimum wage and reducing child poverty. But both, he argued, had left unchanged ‘the values of our economy’. This meant that even before the banking collapse, ‘the grafters, the hard-working majority who do the right thing’, stopped being adequately rewarded for their efforts. Their ambitions were frustrated as those at the top took what they wanted and it was this pursuit of the ‘fast buck’, Milband, argued, that had caused the financial crisis. He wanted therefore to promote a fairer and therefore more efficient economy, believing that if workers were treated better they would become more productive and contribute more effectively to an expanding economy. If Miliband claimed that ‘all parties must be pro-business today’, he distinguished between business leaders such as Fred Goodwin, who ran the Royal Bank of Scotland into the ground while making millions for himself, with the likes of John Rose, of Rolls Royce, a man who created wealth and jobs. Miliband said he would support those emulating Rose, entrepreneurs, he termed the ‘producers’ who ‘train, invest, invent, sell’ rather than ‘predators’ like Goodwin just interested in ‘taking what they can’.

And yet it was this speech Yvette Cooper described in running for leader as ‘anti-business’. This was partly due to poor communication on Miliband’s part. But it was also due to the deliberate mangling of his message by the right-wing media, one that only became worse once Miliband attacked News International for its phone hacking activities. The Sun and Daily Mail in particular went on an unprecedented spree, assassinating the Labour leader’s character on a regular basis. Miliband of course gave his enemies much ammunition: and he arrogantly did not take presentation seriously enough. But that does not explain why a picture of him eating a bacon sandwich in 2014 would in some bizarre way come to define him. That particular shot was reproduced many times, on television quiz and comedy programmes as well as across the front page of The Sun just before polling day, replete with the headline: ‘Save Our Bacon’. He had become a figure of fun no sane person would trust.

As the election neared Miliband was persuaded to take presentation seriously but whatever improvements there were came too late: his person and his message were already defined, and not by him. These weaknesses were highlighted in the last two weeks of the short campaign. With opinion polls incorrectly putting Labour neck-and-neck with the Conservatives, the prospect of a minority Miliband government seemed real. And the idea of the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon as the tail that would wag the weakly led Labour dog was one most disturbed the very voters whose support Miliband needed most.

In essence, Labour lost the general election because it was led by someone unable to convince a sufficient number of English voters he possessed the skills necessary to be Prime Minister and that his party could manage the economy. Miliband was responsible for some of this: the decision to ignore Labour’s reputation for causing the banking crisis was his, although one wonders what good tackling that matter would have done the party. For the major problem Miliband suffered was the gratuitous distortion of his message in the press, and that which the press distorts the impartial BBC obligingly reports - as news.

Miliband failed to appreciate the extent to which his modest challenge to neo-liberal orthodoxy had to be justified in clear and popularly understandable terms. For, the argument that austerity was the only solution to the deficit was something deeply ingrained in the minds of those middle-income voters whose support Labour required. Too often, Miliband’s attitude to communication was inconsistent. Yet even had he been as skilled a communicator as the Blair of legend, Miliband would have struggled, given distorted perceptions of his party’s responsibility for the deficit, and the misrepresentations to which he was personally subject.

According to Corbyn supporters, Miliband’s pledge to eliminate the deficit under a Labour government meant he did not give voters a clear alternative to the Conservatives. As a result, Corbyn plans to take the party much further down the anti-austerity route than did Miliband and to challenge vested interests much more than his predecessor. Corbyn is also more ‘unspun’ than Miliband and even less likely to take communications advice from experienced Labour officials. As a result, at least according to my understanding of the 2015 campaign, it seems unlikely that a Corbyn-led Labour party will much improve on Miliband’s 2015 achievement.

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