1. "voters on the doorstep" were worried about immigration;
2. "voters on the doorstep" were worried about an "unfair" tax and benefit system and in particular, lack of conditionality in the benefit system (this wasn't how voters expressed it, obviously, but this is what they meant; people who were getting benefits without doing any work).
Fair enough, but both of those were huge issues in 2005 as well - and Labour still won, albeit narrowly. Personally, I don't buy these issues as the main reason why Labour went from 2% in the lead to a 7% deficit against the Tories in a five year period.
So what's my explanation? A different kind of deficit - the fiscal deficit - is part of it. Mainly because the economic crisis badly damaged Labour's reputation for economic competence - and deservedly so, because Brown, in particular, had spent 10 years telling people that he'd abolished boom and bust. If you rely on a story that turns out to be obvious bullshit, don't be surprised if people turn on you very quickly when you get found out. The next Labour leader should deliver a bottle of champagne to George Osborne, because if it hadn't been for the fact that he was seen as a complete twerp even by most of his own supporters, the Tories would have done a lot better IMHO.
The other, easier-to-fix problem (in fact an already fixed problem) which wasn't mentioned at the Fabian conference yesterday (out of respect to Gordon Brown) is that Brown was, quite simply, fucking awful in an election campaign. With a few honourable exceptions his campaigning style was tired, awkward and offputting. Contenders for the leadership and other commentators are cautioning against blaming the whole result on Brown and I quite agree; but on the other hand, it's important to acknowledge that he was a huge problem. Any of the potential Labour leaders - even Ed Balls - would be vastly more comfortable in the election campaign.
So overall, Ed did OK, and despite efforts by his brother MicroBlair to lay down some frontrunner credentials in the Observer today, it seems to me that the Ed bandwagon is running and will be hard to stop. But he's gonna have to be a lot more specific over the next few months about how to win the next election. Some preliminary suggestions:
- admitting that Labour got the economy wrong. The Tories were very good at this in their 1974-9 period of opposition; Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher basically junked their entire "post-war-consensus" approach to the economy (which they had supported in Ted Heath's cabinet) and argued that Labour was still stuck with the old model and only the Tories could run the economy effectively. It was largely bollocks - monetarism was a much bigger failure than anything Wilson or Callaghan attempted - but it played well with the voters. The key for Labour is to pigeonhole Coalition economic policies as stuck in the neoliberal orthodoxy that Blair and Brown signed up to. And then offering a more effective alternative to cuts, retrenchment and austerity, based on long-term investment and active industrial policy. (This skips over a lot of stuff that I'll be developing over the next few months).
- do not degenerate (further than has happened already) into the party that best articulates the concerns of Daily Mail readers. Labour is not going to win the next election by being tougher on benefit "scroungers" or immigration than the Coalition. Partly because the Coalition is going to be extremely tough on both of these (and damage millions of lives in the process). There will not be a lot of space to the right of Iain Duncan Smith on welfare for example, and for Labour to try to live there would be a huge error. Better to promote a benefit system based on a "flexicurity" model; high benefits combined with job search conditions. On immigration, one thing that no-one really acknowledged at the Fabian meeting was that we can't restrict the numbers of workers coming in from central and Eastern Europe (even if we wanted to do so) without, er, leaving the EU? Pushing the coalition towards an ever-more-Eurosceptic stance (and pointing out the absurdity of the Lib Dems for supporting this shit and junking their own, progressive, policies on immigration) is the best way forward. The more Labour can push the Coalition up a UKIP-inspired cul-de-sac the better.
- Take the reform ball and run hard with it. Political reform and civil liberties are two areas where the Coalition is probably going to be doing some very progressive things, and rather than clinging on to the most unpleasant aspects of the New Labour era, Labour post-2010 needs to challenge the coalition from the left rather than the right. The coalition is offering a referendum on AV? Great, we'll offer one on AV Plus if we get in. The coalition is scrapping ID cards? Great, we'll expand FOI measures. And so on. These areas provide an ideal opportunity to emphasis the differences between past and future Labour.
Anyway that's just some ideas for now. I enjoyed the conference; most of the general public wouldn't have.