Since the election, the post-mortems for Miliband’s Labour have been a dime a dozen. Blair, McCluskey, Mandelson, and of course, the suitors of Labour leadership have all come out theorising as to why Labour received such a thrashing. There has been a bit of consensus. Labour’s flagship policies appealed only to a tiny group of people. Banning zero-hour contracts is a good thing, but when only 2.3% of people in employment are on zero-hour contracts, and only a third of the people on the contracts are actually looking for more hours, the idea of banning them will only appeal to a few people. Another problem, as much as it pains me to admit it, was image. People couldn’t imagine Miliband as PM. Someone I know who has often voted Labour in the past summed this up eloquently by saying, ‘every time I hear Miliband speak, I want to punch him in the throat’. Extreme, yes, but perhaps not uncommon. A third problem commonly identified has been the failure to show that Labour was there for those with aspiration. The mansion tax, whilst receiving quite high levels of support as a policy in itself, exacerbated the perception that Labour still doesn’t want you to be a millionaire. Tony Blair’s admittance that he didn't care what the likes of David Beckham earned is not something I agree with, but it definitely struck a chord with aspirational voters.
That being said, the individual policies that Labour proposed were well liked by the electorate: the mansion tax was popular and easy to understand, the majority of the public supported the ban on zero-hour contracts, the cap on energy prices was smart given that energy bills are the biggest household spending worry, and the cap on the market share of high street banks was supported by 57% of people – the cap on bonuses by even more. So, what gives? The people liked Labour Party policies more than the Conservative ones, so why didn’t they vote for us? It was because the party lacked an overarching vision.
Labour went about defining itself in quite the wrong way. It chose the policies it thought sounded good, or were popular, or were important to their union links, and then constructed the image of the party around those policies. They put the cart before the horse. Labour should have offered a vision of what the party stands for and outlined the values of the party, and then created a raft of policies in alignment with that vision and those values. Let’s take the example of zero hour contracts. As I’ve already pointed out, the banning of zero hour contracts is popular with the public, and likely because of this, Labour made it one of their flagship policies. What they should’ve done, I think, is talk about the values that Labour held that led to their policy of banning zero hour contracts. If the party line had been, ‘We believe in fair work and fair hours. We believe in prioritising people over the profits of big businesses. We believe in the rights of employees, and, following this, we are banning exploitative zero hour contracts and we are increasing the minimum wage’, the message would have appealed to more people. There are far more people who would be inspired by that message than there are actually on zero-hour contracts, or working a minimum wage job. Instead of a hotchpotch of focus group approved, union approved, Miliband approved policies all thrown together into a manifesto, Labour needed to show what a Labour-led Britain would look like, and what policies would be implemented to get there.
Another good example is the mansion tax. Andy Burnham, frontrunner to be the next Labour leader, has said he would abandon the policy. He told the Observer, “I think we have got to get away from things that look like symbolism. I am going to put the mansion tax in that category. I am not saying it was necessarily completely the wrong thing to do, but in its name I think it spoke to something that the public don’t particularly like, which is the politics of envy”. The Mansion Tax itself is popular. Two thirds of the British public support an annual tax of 1% on homes worth over £2 million. The reason it did not flourish under Ed Miliband’s Labour is not that it was a bad policy, but that it wasn’t explained in the context of Labour’s vision. It was used as ammunition by Lynton Crosby’s PR machine to attack Labour. Labour did not present the mansion tax as part of their vision, so the Tories filled in the gaps to explain the supposed reasons it was implemented. Whether it was an attack on ambition or a tax on London, the failure of Miliband to give the Mansion tax context made it a dud in Labour’s campaign.
I’m not all that optimistic about there being vision for Labour under its new leader (whoever it may be). When discussing with friends who they’d like to be the new leader, the same question often arises: ‘what is it, exactly, that each of these people stands for?’. If I vote for Andy Burnham instead of Tristram Hunt in the leadership election, how is his leadership going to be different? If I vote for Yvette Cooper instead of Mary Creagh, how will her leadership be different? The majority of discussion surrounding the next Labour leader has not been about the respective values of the candidates, but their credentials and image. Many people dismiss Tristram Hunt for being a privately educated academic, or, perhaps more absurdly, Yvette Cooper for being married to the (supposed) failure that is Ed Balls. What we need is a genuine debate about the values of the potential Labour leaders, and the vision they will offer for Labour.