Patrick Wintour has written a long analysis of Labour’s General Election campaign. It outlines strategic misjudgements, disagreements and errors by Ed Miliband and makes a very interesting read. Before anyone says it for me, a similar account for the Liberal Democrats would also be enlightening. Most of us could write it ourselves and I suspect that there would be remarkable unanimity about the ineffectiveness of our national messaging, our positioning as a “none of the above” party and the very odd “stability, unity and decency” message of the last few days.
Two things particularly strike me about Wintour’s article. The first is that women are pretty much invisible. Lucy Powell, Labour’s campaign chair, is mentioned only because of a letter she wrote to the BBC complaining about coverage during the election. Harriet Harman, the Deputy Leader, only seems to come in to the picture when she’s waiting for some shred of good news in studios on election night. All the key players seem to have been men. This is exactly the same as it was during the Brown era when Harriet Harman was treated pretty much as an irrelevance. I’m not saying that they would have won the election had they listened to the women, because there is no indication that the women were getting it either. Of course, the ease with which Yvette Cooper seems to be distancing herself from everything Labour said during the election campaign is interesting. Did she put her views forward during it and have them rejected by the cabal at the centre of the campaign?
Similarly in our campaign, men seem to have dominated the decision making. Olly Grender was certainly there doing great practical ground war stuff, but it did seem sometimes as if Clegg, Alexander and Laws were just making stuff up on the bus as the campaign went along and the rest of the operation was playing catch-up.
I wondered throughout the election and beyond if things might have been different if Miliband and Clegg had both stood up to David Cameron and called out the nonsense the Tories were spouting about a potential coalition between Labour and the SNP. That poster of a hapless looking Miliband in a predatory Salmond’s pocket could have been turned to Clegg’s advantage. Way back when they first came up with that, I observed that there was a certain logical conclusion:
You have a coalition between a party with the largest number of seats and another party with about a quarter of the MPs. Does that mean that the smaller party is calling the shots? Cameron clearly thinks that he’s spent the last five years in Nick Clegg’s pocket.
I think we missed an opportunity to make hay with that one. My worry for some time, as I wrote then, was that we were going to end up with a Tory majority. Most people dismissed that but look where we are now.
I can understand a certain reticence on our part to call out the Tory line. After all, Nick had made a great play of standing up to Farage during the European elections and that hadn’t gone so well – although that was more in the execution rather than the idea.
A joint effort where both stood up to Cameron could have benefitted them all. It could have shown that “Hell, yeah” Ed was tough enough to make the right call well. By failing to do so, we and Labour legitimised what the Tories were saying. People did believe that the sky would fall in and that the universe would implode if the SNP had any say in anything.
In truth, that was the only argument Labour had in Scotland – voting SNP gets you Tories. That had worked for them in 2010 and they totally failed to grasp that it had no chance of working in 2015. There is evidence that Douglas Alexander got it, though. He wanted to take something like the line I’ve suggested:
Douglas Alexander wanted Miliband to use the speech to confront Cameron over the SNP. Others saw the occasion as an opportunity to condemn the war in Iraq and reiterate the break with New Labour. By one account, Alexander was furious, declaring that “the party had to stop fighting the 2010 election and start fighting the 2015 election”.
Alastair Campbell – who was increasingly involved in the final weeks of the campaign, even attending meetings with Miliband’s inner circle – wrote a punchy “one nation” speech for Chatham House. “Taking Britain to the edge of Europe and firing the flames of Scottish Nationalism, as Cameron did the morning after the referendum, are desperate acts of survival,” the speech was to have said. “He is a man that cares more about a few more years in power than a few hundred years of a union that has served our country and served the world so well.”
Alexander thought it would work. Others feared it would simply provide another day of media headlines about the SNP. But Baldwin thought it was essential to tackle the issue. “The strategic justification was obvious,” he said. “We had to lance the boil. Walking down Whitehall naked assaulting random passersby would have been better than having another day on whether we would do a deal with the SNP. It was murdering us. We knew it was murdering us because we could get another story up. But we blinked and chose not to do it.”
We and Labour certainly have a long time to repent for what I feel was one of the major strategic mistakes of the election. There are plenty other examples where our campaigns were like “The Thick of It”, but this was a pretty fundamental error that we could have done something about.