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The SNP offered hope, the Tories spread fear and loathing

Sturgeon & CameronWe now know what happened, but why did it happen? How was it that an election campaign characterised by two different approaches, one upbeat, one defeated-looking; one that had momentum and enthusiasm and the other little more than desperate personal attacks, climaxed as it did?

The result, which was unexpectedly very bad for Labour, is going to be scrutinised and analysed for years to come. But over the coming months dominant narratives about what happened will emerge in labour movement circles, and the story we tell about the shock catastrophe of 2015 will heavily condition the stories the leadership contenders in waiting tell and the subsequent trajectory of the party.

A lot turns on getting this right – not merely the outcome of the next election, which will be difficult after the coming boundary review anyway, but also the viability of the party itself. Here are some thoughts that are not exhaustive by any means. If I don’t mention some issues, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re being ruled out.

First things first, we have to look to ourselves why things went wrong: the political technologies of modern campaigning, and the huge strategic blunders. There’s no use blaming the Greens or the SNP – that way lies the road to avoid asking tough questions. Neither will blaming the media do, though of course there is a huge democratic and accountability deficit when so much is concentrated in the hands of wealthy right wing tax dodgers. Nor do I think changing the programme Labour stood on, whether to the left or to the right, would have got different result. There is something about our tactics and our strategy that was off.

The size and efficiency of Labour’s ground game was impressive, even to the extent of contacting more voters in Scotland than the mammoth-sized SNP. Labour’s 200,000 members, five million contacts, a campaign that, if you were close up, fizzed with energy. And there is the problem. I think Labour had a very good campaign. More or less everyone who actively participated probably feels the same.

From the outside though, not so much. Turnout was at 66.1%, a measly one per cent greater than last time. If it wasn’t for the “special circumstances” in Scotland it might have proven less than 2010. Yet again, a third of eligible adults completely tuned out from what mainstream politics had to say. The messaging, more of which shortly, didn’t cut through. The greater range of more viable electoral choices failed to engage. Even hitting areas notorious for low turnouts produced little in the way of joy.

Yet none of this registered in the campaign at the time. On the day, my impression of the campaign in Stafford (where I’d mostly been volunteering this year) was excellent. Turnout in Labour areas looked good. Speaking to comrades elsewhere gave me a sense that the same was true everywhere else. Social media provided similar anecdotes. And yet, we were wrong. As insiders speaking to other insiders, listening to other insiders, and following Twitter feeds plastered with encouraging words from, yes, more insiders, we got caught up in a campaign bubble of our own.

This leads to the second technical problem. The best antidote to self-referentialism is to talking to people outside that little enclosed world. And activists did that in their tens of thousands. So never mind the polls failing to pick up the Tory/UKIP swing, why is it that the largest sustained canvassing operation for many years didn’t catch the vibes that must have existed out there. It it simply shy Tory syndrome? I’m not buying it. Sure, some people might say Labour to just get rid of an annoying doorstepper, but in such numbers?

There has to be something about the questions we ask when activists go and bother voters. Our database, Contact Creator, records information (with regional variation) about voting intention, previous votes, and – sometimes – whether the punter prefers a Labour or Tory government. Experienced activists are able to to glean this information using whatever talking and listening strategies they think appropriate at the time, but others – including some who should know better – jump in with both feet. “Hello there madam, it’s general election time, are you going to vote Labour?

The party used to record the strength of the pledge which, for reasons unknown, was done away with. Maybe the powers that be believed this was too subjective and so dispensed with it whereas it seemed like a potentially useful tool for identifying soft supporters and the level of hostility – time for a comeback? Nevertheless, we need to look at the quality of our “conversations” and work out why accurate information was not getting relayed, and why it didn’t pick up a turn away from Labour.

Also, we must be weary of fetishising activism. Turning out thousands of members and supporters every weekend is important and necessary, but it is not sufficient. No amount of door knocking is going to turn Bill Cash’s Stone constituency red. Political strategy is key, and this is where we made a catastrophic mistake.

Going all utilitarian and starting from the premise of the greatest good for the greatest number, one strong argument against Scottish independence was ‘what about England?‘ The fear – and I certainly feared it – was that a yes vote in Scotland would have galvanised a poisonous English reaction that could have blighted politics in the rest-of-UK for years to come. What were the needs of five million vis a vis a population 11 times larger? Independence didn’t happen, but the SNP took off for reasons).

The Tories, eager to seize anything to shift polling in their favour, started hammering the spectre of Scottish nationalism for all it was worth. “The gravest constitutional crisis since the abdication!” wailed Theresa May. The SNP are going to rinse the English taxpayer. They threaten our security and promise full communism. You’ve seen and heard the nonsense pouring from Tory mouthpieces. They would stop it. The Tories would save the union from the bag-piping Bolsheviks and tartan Trots, and keep Britain.

As one woman put it to me on the campaign trail, “I think Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon are dangerous people … he has some really silly idea on getting rid of our nuclear subs in Scotland.” This woman was a low paid residential carer for disabled children. She didn’t follow politics, but it was a message that cut through, a message that played up the fears one falls pray to when living a precarious existence fraught with insecurities.

Here was the problem. The SNP not only stole Labour’s social democratic wardrobe, they added to it swish items like hope. They allowed its supporters leeway to project their own desires onto their canvass. Labour’s response in Scotland was basically “don’t let the Tories in“.

The Conservatives whipped up English nationalism, suggesting the SNP were purveyors of existential terror. If you wanted to save the union and get a fair deal for England, vote Tory. Labour? “Save the NHS!” We had nothing to say, nothing to counter it. And the evidence? Look at those UKIP vote shares. Long held to hurt the Tories more than us, in seats Labour should have easily picked up Tory majorities increased, and this was because blue leaning voters supporting UKIP returned home in number while red-tinged kippers stayed put. To use the old vernacular, Labour lapsed into economism. The Tories took hold of the question of how we’re ruled while Labour neglected it completely. And we need to.

It’s not as if Labour has nothing to say on this topic. Not only was the party responsible for a more inclusive ‘official’ Britishness during its time in government, it saved the union. Ed Miliband (remember him?) once made a great deal of fuss about One Nationism. He did it in a wonkish way, but at least it indicated an understanding of the emotive power national identity has. Yet, where was this? Where were we as champions of the union, as the people responsible for securing a popular mandate for a voluntary union between Scotland and the rest of the UK? Nowhere. Labour, the party that saved the UK, was easily painted by the Tories as the party that wanted to destroy it. And the fear mongering worked.

We need to start thinking seriously about England and Englishness. It is seen as something backward, thoroughly imperial, small-minded, a little bit racist by the left. I know, I’m of this view myself. However, Englishness doesn’t have to be like this. It needs to change and we have to be the people who shape it for the better, because if we don’t the Tories and UKIP will continue monopolising it.

In British politics, where Scotland goes England tends to follow. The struggle against the poll tax and the breaking of the political mold into multi-party politics. In both, the latter followed the former. My worst nightmare is this. We elect a new leader and carry on carrying on framing policies, whatever they may be, as technocratic. If values come into it, fairness is about as far as it goes. England and Englishness gets ignored because, after all, it’s the economy, stupid. And come 2020 Labour gets steamrollered because, again, the Tories and UKIP exploit the fear and insecurity of the many by appealing to English nationalism.

Our biggest misstep since the Scottish referendum was this. Let’s not do it again.

This first appeared at All that is Solid

Image credit: ITV

7 Comments

  1. Billericaydickie says:

    I would have voted SNP but unfortunately they didn’t stand in my English constituency! Any other suggestions?

  2. much here to value, but not the comment about not blaming the SNP. On the contrary, the most effective tactic used by the tories was to argue a vote for the Labour Party was a vote for the SNP.

    This worked. The most effective campaign poster was the tory Alex Salmond picking a pocket. Its one I only saw in seats that the Tories were feeling desperate about (I did not see it in Stafford, where I live, but I saw it in Cannock and Dudley where the threat of a UKIP vote was considerable.

    Lets not beat up the Labour campaign. It was a far worse result for the Greens – how many lost deposits – and the Lib Dems. Truly desperate for the Lib Dems after 5 years in office. Or because of it. The LABOUR campaign seemed to me over optimistic, thinking UKIP and the Lib Dems would boost the campaign, yet the UKIP vote did not seriously help the Labour campaign while the Lib Dems did not come over to Labour in big numbers.

    Yes there were problems with some aspects of the Labour campaign and if there is serious voter interviewing we might find out what. At this stage the evidence is lacking, but if there is a simple explanation it may be that people did not want a hung parliament. Voters tend to want to get a government, period

    Trevor Fisher

  3. David Ellis says:

    Surely the first requirement of any new Labour leader is that they are prepared to work with the SNP in Parliament? None of the Blairite drones being proposed are prepared to do that and will therefore ensure this Tory government’s majority is greatly amplified.

  4. Chris says:

    The SNP offered false hope and misrepresentations. They are liars and charlatans and enemies of the working class.

    1. Robert says:

      Bit like labour then.

  5. James Martin says:

    Englishness gets ignored Phil because most of us who are English haven’t got a clue what it means – and I include myself here despite long supporting the national football team and having an appreciation of a fine radical English political tradition stretching back to the 17th century and beyond.

    Meanwhile the SNP reactionaries cultivated a fake leftisim (very similar to what the Lib-Dems used to do before 2010 – e.g., when opposing the Iraq war etc.), and sort to increase divisions between the working class (as all nationalists do).

    To my mind one of the biggest problems under Miliband was how long it was left after his election as leader to start to put together clear policies, and so for years rather than months even us as members didn’t have a clue what the Party officially stood for on some pretty key areas, and this in turn allowed the Tories to be ideologically unopposed for long periods.

    Take just one example. When Gove was starting the mass privatisation of English state schools and the removal of local democratic oversight we had an invisible man opposing him in the shape of the utterly useless Stephen Twigg who never laid a glove on Gove in education debates. He was followed by Hunt who while at least having a public profile was (and is) as equally useless at understanding the real issues and opposing privatisation of our education system. The irony of course is that between state school staff and parents there is a huge voting block that could – and should – have been naturally lined up to Labour very early on, but it never was and there was no loud mass support for Labour from teachers last week despite them being a natural base for us – and that is as a result of having Progress tendency idiots in charge of the brief, which in turn makes a mockery of their horrible and disgusting comments at the weekend.

  6. Craighaggis says:

    Highly predictable that Blair and Mendelson should be dragged out of their coffins to espouse their deluded, out of touch thoughts.
    I am from Angus an area that has always been SNP, both at the council level and for sending MPs and MSPs to London and Edinburgh. Andrew Welsh, who was both an MP and MSP, was business leader at the local college. They were never radical in any way in the county, and earned the title Tartan Tories. They remain the same.
    They have tried to be centrist in the north-east and leftist in the Central Belt, and finally it has worked.

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