This open letter to Ed Miliband originally appeared on www.fabians.org.uk.
I have seldom seen a set of local elections about which so much rubbish has been talked, even if the 2014 results were a particularly confusing mixed bag.
The media commentary that Labour had done appallingly was initially badly overdone, partly because some of the most UKIP-friendly areas such as Hull and Rotherham came through long before the genuinely stunning successes Labour enjoyed in Hammersmith & Fulham and Bradford were counted. It also reflected the media’s obsession with novelty and the most idiotic trivia. The establishment media are hypnotised by UKIP rather like a rabbit before a snake.
An almost equally stupid counter-reaction has set in among some Labour circles, arguing that because we made the most gains in these elections and UKIP didn’t win many seats, there is nothing to see here, we should all move along, and that Labour are doing marvellously. A quick look at the detailed figures of how people voted should dispel any such illusion. Let me outline a few key points.
- It is true that we are doing better than we did in 2010 (with a swing of about 4-5 per cent from the Tories), but so we bloody well should be. In most areas (other than London) 2010 was a low point and we could have hoped for better progress. Compared to Labour’s impressive gains in 2012, we have slipped back and there are a fair few wards that were Labour in 2012 but went Tory in 2014. Perhaps 2012 was always going to be Labour’s high point, as the economy languished and the Tories gifted us with an ‘omnishambles’ in the weeks before the election, but we still have to face the fact that (outside London) we did significantly worse. Target constituencies which were Labour on the basis of the results in 2012 (such as Elmet & Rothwell and Dudley South) were Tory in 2014.
- I don’t need to tell you about the inroads that UKIP have made in white working class areas where people have been voting Labour for generations. After all, you represent Doncaster North where UKIP won 34 per cent of the vote from a standing start. Labour came very close to losing a lot more seats to UKIP. There is a long term problem here – we started losing votes heavily here in around 2008 in local elections, and it is getting worse.
- We need to get tougher with poorly-performing Labour parties and councils. The collapse of Respect has given Bradford a reprieve, but the problems in Rotherham did not vanish after the successful handling of the difficult by-election there in 2012.
- But we also need to think about how successfully the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have redistributed blame for things that go wrong – both in the national narrative on the economy, and also in local politics. Voters have short attention spans, and the agonising choices that Labour councils are having to make in places like Birmingham are being associated with us as well as the government. Hypocritical and unscrupulous Lib Dems in particular campaign against ‘Labour cuts’, and even when they don’t win they play into the UKIP ‘a curse on all your houses’ rhetoric. In some cities (Manchester and Liverpool, for instance) Labour has taken this on and won.
- I don’t think UKIP’s appeal is mostly, or even mainly, about Europe or even about its strange reactionary populist style of politics. It is more about rejecting the politics of what is seen as a remote political establishment. Looking at the detail, it is apparent that some voters went down their ballot looking for how to stick two fingers up to the lot of us, and UKIP was the most effective vehicle. In its absence, the vote for the Greens or even for TUSC was swollen by protest.
- Labour is right to campaign on the basis of being ‘on your side’ and has scored some successes on this basis like the energy price freeze, but it doesn’t link together and the party as a whole seems to lack passion. Too much anger is not constructive, but we need to communicate both the frustration with the same old thing and the vibrancy of our ideas for doing it better. Get the Hammersmith & Fulham councillors in to talk about how they defeated a tough, unscrupulous and well-resourced Conservative regime there, with good organisation and campaigns that connected with people. I hadn’t thought that particular gain was possible.
- Lord Ashcroft’s poll is excellent news. But the fact that Labour’s vote in the target seats is so much higher in a poll than in real elections should give us pause. People may say they want to vote Labour, but their attachment is obviously weak and easily distracted. Labour needs to kill the worm of doubt that exists in the minds of many people who are currently saying they will support us; we need to do this before the election campaign proper begins, or else we are back with the vulnerabilities we had in 1992.
- The UKIP bubble will burst. When it does, a lot of people will be looking for a party that is not complacent and has the energy and ideas to change a status quo that they know is flawed, and has a chance of doing so. The risk is that the politics of social division, blame and extreme small-state conservatism might triumph instead.
This is no time for despair – people behave stupidly when they despair and that makes the situation worse. Under your leadership Labour is in incomparably better shape and more united than we were in past parliaments that followed on from election defeats in 1951, 1970 and 1979. But would you consider making all your colleagues, in the Shadow Cabinet and Parliament, repeat at the start of every meeting a Blairite slogan? The one I am thinking of is, of course, ‘No COMPLACENCY’.
With all best wishes