In defence of politics & some politicians, in loyal support of Labour and in appreciation of decent political journalism.

20 May 2015

If you didn’t see defeat coming, you don’t understand how politics works.

Filed under: Labour,Labour politics — Ian McKenzie @ 3:44 am

It’s at least ten years since anyone paid attention to what I think about politics, if they cared even then. But the last five years have been very frustrating and if I don’t get what follows below out of my system soon I’ll have an aneurism which would be very bad on top of the subdural and arachnoid brain haematoma I suffered in March at the hands of the hit and run driver who knocked me off my bike.

I know that an absence of rancour, a positive attitude and looking forward not back are in order. I know that the public in both the UK and the Scottish part of it need Labour rationally and calmly to hold both majority governments to account and I am sure that those responsible for doing those things in the Labour Party will do them just fine. For now though, I’ve waited over a week but I’ve seen nothing yet to make me feel positive about anything. The August 2013 Syria vote aside, I’m as angry as I’ve been about politics for decades. I’m angry about a few other things too, so apologies in advance for the splenetic tone of what follows.

We lost the 2015 general election in September 2010 and probably also the 2020 one as well. The result was bad for Labour but catastrophic for the millions of people who rely on us to look after their interests. We let them down, and badly. If the Labour Party – a major controlling proportion of it – doesn’t rapidly accept that the only chance to make amends is to stand in the centre ground, shoulder to shoulder with, listening to, working for the British people, and fight and win elections from there, then it will cease to exist and it will deserve to die.

Without the will and the means to win elections we are irrelevant. We might as well be Compass or a whelk stall.

As a strong supporter still of the first decade of the last Labour government I am not crowing about being right about Ed Miliband; I’m angry and despairing and frightened of the consequences of his disastrous leadership. The whole grisly mess was predictable and predicted and all avoidable.

I can’t count the number of conversations I had with Labour people who agreed that we’d picked the wrong leader not just because he was clearly not up to the job, but also because his chosen strategy was so obviously bonkers.

Reshaping international capitalism in Labour’s image as if in an academic seminar, and simply hoping this newly left leaning British public followed us out to that lunatic fringe, sounded to sane people exactly like what it was, palpable nonsense.

It was also a gift to the people who are habitually used to running this country: the Tories, who are wasting no time moving to the right. By 12 September, when we have a new leader, they will have shifted the ground on us yet again.

To so-called anti-Tory luvvies in the Greens, what was left of the liberals, the hard left, the “real” socialists, the stay-at-homes, and spiteful proto-racist narrow nationalists in both Celtic fringes who thought they were going to get a supine minority Labour Government to hold to ransom, I say you are wrong. There is a massive difference between the Tories and the Labour Party and you are about to discover how different in the most painful way possible. If the effects weren’t also going to be felt by millions of decent people as well I’d say you deserve everything you get. But when you feel the effects start to bite you don’t come crying to us, we voted Labour.

The day after Gordon Brown lost us the last election I left a message on Andy Burnham’s mobile phone urging him to stand for leader. I supported his candidacy because I believed he understood why we had lost, because he was (then, not now!) the most Blairite of all the candidates and because he would be best able to unify the party and appeal to most people across the whole country. I knew he would be unlikely to win and I put what I assumed would be the eventual winner, David Miliband, at No 2 on my ballot paper and left it at that.

And then came Ed Miliband’s list of apologies for the crimes of the last Labour government, and his plan for permanent opposition. His whole ridiculous array of arrogance and hubris, taken together, made me so angry I resolved to put his name at the bottom of the ballot paper. The only way to do that was fill the No 3 and 4 slots with Ed Balls and Diane Abbott. I took a picture of my completed ballot paper because I knew this day would come and I knew no one would believe me.

Back Camera

Ed Miliband was the answer, I kept being told, because he had managed to do what no other leader had achieved after an election defeat, namely to prevent the party from turning in on itself and indulging in internecine strife. “He kept the party together.”

Give me strength.

No, no he didn’t. We kept the party together. We Labour right-wingers in our thousands who are loyal and disciplined and who know that internal division only distracts from the task of winning elections and thereby benefits external forces, like the Tories.

I had conversations with countless people, scores of ordinary activists and scores of Labour MPs, including many frontbenchers, who all said we can’t win with this leader but we have to get behind him. All of us kept our counsel. I have supported every leader of my party since I joined in 1981 and I have never publicly criticised one on anything, aside from the shaming Syria vote in 2013. We all loyally resolved to do our best for our party despite its leader, and then we hoped for the best.

And now we are told that no one saw it coming. I’ve lost count of the number of times I said the Tories would win a majority. And yet the bookies, the pundits – Dan Hodges aside – and the wider media all said that a hung parliament was inevitable and the Tories couldn’t win.

Too many people who mattered signed up to the Toynbee Tendency. If only, Polly argued, we articulated forcibly enough how truly awful the Tories were then people had to see it, victory would be ours. Last year, I watched in mounting horror, as she and her husband were the guest speakers at a Labour candidate’s fundraising dinner. As they took turns reading paragraphs from this horror story, all around me were incredulous Labour MPs, staffers and activists with dropped jaws and widened eyes. Now, at last, can we in the Labour Party please at least stop taking anything Polly Toynbee says seriously?

I had a row with a Green leafleting outside a railway station the week before polling day, the parliamentary candidate himself. I told him if we ended up with a Tory government then the Greens, Liberals and SNP would all share some of the blame. “The Tories can’t win a majority”, he said. “We’ll know soon enough”, I said.

I had several rows with a couple of SNP friends (yes, I have three). They are decent people not like the SNP leadership who pretended to want a minority Labour government while all the time hoping and working for the Tory majority government that is going to advance their cause of Scottish separation.

My SNP friends sincerely and genuinely thought that a Tory government wasn’t possible and wanted to hold a minority Labour government’s feet to the fire in the interests of Scotland. In vain I argued that taking 40 seats off the Labour Party in Scotland while urging the Welsh to vote WNP and the English to vote Green, as Sturgeon brazenly did, would only help give us a Tory government.

We saw this horrible defeat coming when Miliband was elected leader. We saw it coming with his every blundering, supposedly self-serving apology for the most successful Labour government in history, though such apologies served no one but the Tories.

When Ed Miliband dumped on the Iraq war policy (more of which in another post) and our housing policy, for example, he dumped also on the National Minimum Wage, the reduction in NHS operation waiting times, civil partnerships, 50%+1 trade union recognition and many hundreds more. Look at a list of the 1997-2007 achievements. Staggering in number and scope, they changed millions of people’s lives for the better. That’s millions of real people with millions of real votes.

Healthy acknowledgment of past mistakes and a determination to correct errors does not require wholesale defaecation on the Labour brand. It was a mistake to send people onto the doorsteps with a script like this:

“Knock, knock”

“Who’s there?”

“The Labour Party”

“What do you want?”

“To ask you to vote for a Labour Government.”

“Why should I do that?”

“Because the last one we had really screwed things up. Here’s a list.”

No, anyone with any sense saw this coming. We saw it coming when the former Secretary of State who’d authorised Heathrow’s new runway came out against it a few weeks later in the hope of attracting a few more left wing, greenish votes in the leadership election.

We saw it coming when Unite’s kill order on David Miliband was issued. Left-wingers, they know who they are, who had told me they were genuinely open-minded in early summer of 2010, had by September become members of Ed Miliband’s cult. It was quite a phenomenon, and I’m someone who normally understands how peer pressure works in politics.

I became more of a figure of fun than I usually am among left and left-leaning friends who voted for him. Their every criticism of the leader and his team and their works would provoke the reaction from me “don’t blame me, I didn’t vote for him.” Sometimes, I wouldn’t even have to say it for someone would say it for me.

And then the tide turned. A couple of years ago the weekly, sometimes daily, embarrassment from the leadership would be followed not by mockery of me but by an averting of eyes and a shrug. Then came the irritation with their own error. Then came the looks over the shoulder followed by the whispered confessions: “I’m starting to think I should have done what you did and voted for Andy Burnham.”

Of course we saw it coming. We saw it coming when, after his resignation, Alan Johnson’s sensible line on the top rate of tax was replaced with “50% in perpetuity”. Once more for those in the balcony: “THERE’S NOTHING SOCIALIST ABOUT HIGH TAXES’.

We saw this coming when Miliband mounted a stage with Tim Farron, Caroline Lucas and Nigel Farage on the wrong side of the AV debate when the vast majority of his shadow cabinet, parliamentary party, Labour councillors and wider membership, and two-thirds of voters in the referendum disagreed with him.

We saw it coming when Miliband put the Labour Party on the wrong side of the EU referendum debate. Most of his Shadow Cabinet disagreed yet he steadfastly refused to see the obvious. Ian Austin MP saw it. His Dudley North seat was a key target for UKIP. Ian came out three years ago for an EU referendum. He held off the UKIP surge and his majority went up by 3,532.

We saw this coming when we telegraphed an energy price freeze 18 months in advance (allowing the industry to game it) and did so just before the oil price halved. Statutory control of all sorts of markets was back on the agenda in some 1970s throwback.

We saw this coming with every attempt to ignore political common sense; Dan Hodges rightly calls it gravity. And it wasn’t just an inept leader with a ridiculous political strategy and lots of policy mistakes. Basic amateurish presentational errors were made. The check list for any political visit or event is a long one but after “get the boss on the right train” are “make them read the briefing”, “tell them who runs the council they are going to visit” and “never, ever let them eat on camera”.

The Edstone was such a monumental blunder (arf) I thought at first it was a Photoshop spoof. It’s been done to death now but the best analysis is Stone Daft by advertising’s Dave Trott.

The Russell Brand extravaganza was the worst. The man is a self-regarding, self-obsessed delusional clown, a political neophyte, and going anywhere near him much less paying him homage in his own home, and on camera, his camera, was bonkers. All sorts of strange ideas are bandied around in campaign meetings, “no idea too stupid”, and all that. That’s what brainstorming’s for. But someone was supposed to say: “even if it’s a good idea, and it’s not, don’t you think we should have done it before voter registration closed?”

Communing with Russell “Don’t Vote” Brand wasn’t cool; it wasn’t big or funny and didn’t reach out to anyone except the pre pubescent morons without votes who look up to him. Serious voters thought it made us look stupid. Maybe we should have called the Labour’s 2015 manifesto “Our votey wotey booky wooky”.

You either saw the tragedy coming. Or you pretended you didn’t. Or you just don’t understand how politics works. I saw it coming in 2010 and decided to put £100 on it back in January. I’m still kicking myself for not getting another £100 on at 10-1 on the Tuesday before polling day. Don’t believe me? Here’s a picture of my betting slips.


And we can see what comes next as well. The Tories are in full pomp, the wind at their backs and setting course for their minimal state. Every day brings another item from their first 100 days checklist. The Human Rights Act, the electoral boundaries, immigration, repeal of the hunting ban, the welfare state, a federal state, the BBC charter, employment rights. They will be just the start. We won’t just need 8.75% at the next election it’ll be 12% or higher once the boundary changes take place.

I despair. I went to the Progress conference at the weekend, normally an event to cheer me up no end. The leadership candidates at the hustings all did well, they are all serious politicians and all have something to commend them. But the only hearty cheers were for Dan Jarvis and Jim Murphy neither of who, sadly, is in contention for the Labour Leadership. I was told to cheer up and remember that a few weeks after 1992 we were back in the ascendant and at the next election achieved the biggest majority in history. I replied that this was before 1997-2007 when we showed how it could be done. And before we lost Scotland. We’ve had our Blair and he’s gone and he’s not coming back. And nor is anyone close to being as good as he was.

But we do have to pick a new leader. I am finding it hard. It’s the first leadership election when I haven’t been certain. My support for Andy last time has gone with McLuskey’s endorsement and his SNP talks comment.

I think it has to be Liz Kendall. I am much enthused by her policies, her attitude, her performance and those backing her. And Hopi Sen is a very wise man; like him I can see her as Prime Minister. And yet Charlie Falconer and Michael Dugher are backing Andy. But so is Len McLuskey. The best demolition of that contemptible man is from Nick Cohen who shows that Unite is now Labour’s enemy.

The next four months are going to be interesting, though why we have to drag it out again is beyond me. The country only needed five weeks to decide whom it wanted in charge. Why does Labour Party need three times as long? Why give the Tories a head start in defining the last parliament and cement their attack lines as we did in 2010?

But that’s a whole other story.

This article first appeared on Labour Uncut.

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