The Labour right must shoulder the blame, says Daniel Hodges

It was Labour’s right-wing which lost us the election. Yes, let’s undergo the analysis and the reanalysis. Call in the psephologists, the strategists, the tacticians, the organisers, the principles, the back room staff, the spin doctors, the foot soldiers.  Let’s hold the inquest, have the debate, search our souls.

But at the end of the day, any assessment of Labour’s election defeat must return to the same place. Labour lost because it moved too far to the right.

Overly simplistic? Possibly. It is fashionable to say that the notion of ‘left’ and ‘right’ is out of date. Or at least it became an outmoded concept amongst ultra-modernising Labour ministers justifying their bold forays into uncharted Thatcherite territory. When it came to terrorising the party and the public with nightmarish visions of the  dark days of the eighties, the same simplistic left/right definition did just fine.

The fact is that the left/right labels are important when assessing Labour’s fall from power. Because whether we like it or not, they are labels the electorate still recognise. They were certainly recognised by the millions of voters who have abandoned Labour since 1997. The Progress poll of ‘lost Labour voters’ conducted just prior to the election found that over a third of those who had deserted the party still chose to identify themselves as “left-wing”. 78% said Labour “used to care about people like me”. 60% said they saw “no difference between Labour and the Conservatives”.

Both Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair, in differing ways, understood the importance of the traditional left/right distinction. The policy and  cultural shifts under Kinnock were always badged as being consistent with the party’s left-wing ideals, while the same process under Blair was  consistently defined against that tradition. And in the same way that that definition was important in the era of modernisation, it cannot simply be jettisoned now that that process has led us back full circle into opposition, rather than to glorious victory.

There is a memorable anecdote in the BBC ‘Wilderness Years’ documentary in which Roy Hattersley recounts his preparations to fight to get Labour’s 1983 manifesto into something resembling a credible programme for power, only for him to be told to leave it intact. It was the left’s manifesto, and it would be the left’s defeat.

Whether anyone stayed the hand of those attempting to turn the 2010 manifesto into a serious prospectus for power is doubtful. But the impact of that document on Labour’s standing was not dissimilar.

The ‘longest suicide note in history’ (as Gerald Kaufman called the 1983 manifesto) resulted in a loss of 51 seats, and a fall in the share of the popular from 36.9% to 27.6%.

The ‘shortest memory stick in history’, saw the loss of 91 seats, and a drop from 35.2% to 29%. No one (sane)  disputes where blame for Labour’s defeat in 1983 sits on the political spectrum. Similar responsibility cannot be ducked in 2010.

The failings of the right obviously cannot be exclusively attributed to the 78 pages of ‘A Future Fair For All’. The reasons for the party’s defeat were more fundamental – strategic, tactical, organisational.

The greatest strategic blunder by far was the failure to break away from the prevailing Thatcherite economic orthodoxy. It is fair to say that few predicted the scale of the financial meltdown that  swept the banking system. But it is disingenuous to claim that warnings over Government moves towards greater market liberalisation, and away from a more robust and  sensible regulatory regime, were not voiced , heard and ignored.

As Gordon Brown himself told the Mansion House in 2006, following the WorldCom scandal, “I will be honest with you, many who advised me, including not a few newspapers, favoured a regulatory crackdown. I believe that we were right not to go down that road…we were right to build upon our light touch system…fair, proportionate, predictable and increasingly risk based”.

Setting aside the economic impact, when the banking crisis struck, this failure to break away from monetary groupthink left Labour marooned in no-man’s-land.

How many canvassing conversations began, “…but if you can find the money for those bankers…”? The banking crisis should have been for the right what the winter of discontent was for the left. Instead, the issue became a disastrously triangulated symbol of Labour’s ideological insecurity.

At a tactical level, the impact was similar, with the right’s ‘one club’ approach of definition against the past morphing from narrative thread into dogma.

In a perverse inversion of 1983, Labour activists were told to campaign for an independent nuclear deterrent, just when the generals were lobbying against it.

They were encouraged to mobilise in favour of a third runway at Heathrow, when Conservative activists were opposing it. They were told to argue  for cuts in public sector pay, a £5 billion reduction in  public spending, a £20 billion sale of public assets by 2020.

All before weaving in the toxic legacy of Iraq, detention without trial, and tuition fees. The moderniser’s  mantra – that Labour’s principles needed to be allied with the pragmatism to build a popular consensus in support of them – was sound. The problem with the 2010 election was Labour activists were sent into battle with too many  policies that were neither principled nor practical nor popular.

True, mobilisation and organisation at individual constituency level staved off an even heavier defeat. But, again, that was despite, rather than because of, the actions of the centre. The confusion,  inability to seize the day-to-day agenda and absence of a coherent narrative which characterised Labour’s national campaign was symptomatic of a broader structural and organisational decline.

The lack of accountability at the top of party, which lead indirectly to the ‘rocking the boat’ resignations during the European elections, reached a nadir during the immediate post election period,  when a small clique of unelected advisors and unaccountable ministers attempted to bounce the party and the country into coalition with the Liberal Democrats.

In both instances , it was not the ‘usual suspects’ of the left, but the undisciplined out-riders of modernisation doing the damage.

Let’s be clear: the party cannot afford to begin the post New Labour era by leaping into trenches and fashioning barricades. Defeat at the election does not erase the significant achievements of the past 13 years. Nor can either wing of the party lay exclusive claim to those successes. Without the ‘traditionalists’, the policy programme implemented in 1997 would not have been as progressive. Without the ‘modernisers’, the Party would not have been in power with the political space and time to bring that programme to fruition.

But a vital stage in Labour’s journey from the wasteland of opposition to that new dawn at Festival Hall was an honest assessment of the failures of the past, and an understanding of where responsibility for those failures rested.

In the eighties it was clear. Those failures rested on the left. And it was politicians of the left who ultimately acknowledged that reality and embarked on the process of renewal.

Now the political pendulum has swung. This was the right’s defeat. It was their prospectus that drove beyond the limits of  what both the Party and country would tolerate.

The question is whether politicians from the right have the courage to confront that reality, learn from it and commence a new march out of the wilderness.

Daniel Hodges has worked in senior communications roles across the Labour movement and beyond.

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13 Responses to “The Labour right must shoulder the blame, says Daniel Hodges”

  1. Quietzapple says:

    “Overly simplistic”?

    No just stupid.

    Labour lost and the Tories didn’t quite win because of perceptions re and the reality of the Economy stupid.

    Thankfully Osborne was as unconvincing a Shadow Chancellor as Hattersley was in the ’80s, while Darling and Brown before him played blinders for the previous 15 years.

    But it is difficult to overcome the public perception that the largest world wide recession for 60 years was not the feel good factor a government running out of time requires. People didn’t evne notice the 2001/2 recession we avoided, they suffered the one we are now just out of.

    And pitiful debates about how left or right anything is, while they move bloggers and their ilk, will not move 1% of the population to turn a page . . .

  2. Amanda Ramsay says:

    Well said. Like the shortest memory stick in history one liner, which Daniel Hodges has always been good at. One of the most frustrating things about post-1997 Labour leadership was an obsession with appeasing or worrying about the Daily Mail. I am no genius, but my guess is that Mail readers (though many of them directly benefit historically and recently from Labour governments/policies) won’t on the whole vote Labour anyway, so it is best to never pander to that editorial agenda; they will never be Labour’s friends. By not sticking to our core beliefs and tribal background, we alienate our true supporters and party workers. This leadership debate is the time to show our own grassroots supporters respect and recognition and refocus. After a long time in government, where huge achievements were made, now is the time to review and rebuild from the bottom up, up down, sideways, lateral thinking is needed. Less naff and shallow soundbites, more conviction and genuine care for the membership and good of the nation as a whole.

  3. Phil Ruse says:

    Wow. The electorate didn’t vote for Labour because they weren’t left-wing enough – so they voted… Conservative? I don’t think most people voted according to how left or right wing a party is. Most people I suspect vote according to perceptions of job security and the like.

    I think you had a long 13 years, the public thought you were taking it for granted, there was too much arrogance, spin and most importantly an economic disaster that Labour, in abrogating *any* responsibility for the financial markets, was at least partly responsible for.

    But if you want to disappear into a left-wing vacuum as you did in the early eighties, don’t let me stop you 🙂

  4. @epictrader (twitter) says:

    What does left wing in the Labour party mean anymore though? Has it been redefined by the party and those following it post-Kinnock, Smith & Blair?

    I’m old enough to remember what being ‘left wing’ in the Labour Party meant and no one can tell me that the Labour left of today mirrors the views of that of the late 70’s and early 80’s.

    The left are radically different today or, at least, radically less vocal and confrontational than they were. If the right of the party is being blamed for the election defeat, the left is to blame for remaining too meek for too long in the face of them and allowing the right to dominate the party for almost 20 years.

    Personally, I think we just need to get the balance between right and left correct, but any Labour Party that is to be considered to be in good health must hold both tendencies in its ranks in fairly equal measure in order to justify and sustain a balance in its principles as a progressive party concerned with social justice for all.

  5. Henrik says:

    You take it away, comrades, aux barricades and clear the air!

    Seriously, the Labour Party does need to have a good old internal blood letting if it is to achieve an end state where it is capable of articulating a narrative which attracts people to vote for it.

    This spectator from the other side of the divide will be delighted if Labour now moves into a battle, internally, of big ideas and actually holds an honest and sincere internal debate on what it is and what it stands for. Once that vision’s clear, try it out on the electorate.

  6. Hal says:

    Yes indeed. Blair and Brown swallowed whole the dominant right-wing ideology of the time, of privatisation, free markets and minimal regulation. Understandable maybe (I’m being exceedingly charitable) when the public wouldn’t have anything had anything else. But when that collapsed in 2008 the right response shold have been we’re very sorry, we won’t be doing that again. But Brown couldn’t say sorry… it has to be done post-Brown now.

  7. disgruntled voter says:

    Labour doesn’t have a Left any more, only a few MPs, apparently <50, who truly understand the word socialist (exemplified by the NHS, not by the former Soviet Union).

    Since Kinnock, Labour has seen its role as running capitalism better than the Tories. Not much success there, though – just a huge boom and a huge bust. It's also given us the greatest wealth inequality since about the First World War, which is steadily destroying social cohesion. It's also got muddled and sidetracked into a repellent degree of authoritarianism, which the Coalition is now undoing.

    Labour has slowly morphed into the nasty party. It has certainly betrayed many of its former supporters.

    The only future for people with principles is PR and separate parties, one presumably advocating socialism like Michael Foot did and another advocating social democracy, like Shirley Williams would (or Vince Cable).

  8. Dan Hodges says:


    With respect, I think you’re missing the point.

    There were a significant number of former Labour voters who directly abandoned the Party because they regarded themselves as ‘Left Wing’, and saw Labour’s shift to the right as a betrayal of those values. But there were an even greater number of voters who simply couldn’t distinguish between ourselves and the Tories, and switched their votes for other reasons, (time for a change, perceived weakness of Brown’s leadership, etc).

    It was this loss of definition created by our rightward shift that was so costly. For example, we tried to wedge on the issue of Tory cuts. But at the same time we were pledging to introduce similar cuts ourslves in 12 months time.

    By effectively de-politicising the election, we turned it into a referendum on the perceived personalities and characters of the leaders. Now that strategy may have worked fine with Blair, but with Gordon, we were always on a hiding to nothing.

  9. Rachel says:

    Issues never once mentioned to me on the doorsteps of Copeland:

    * Iraq
    * Afghanistan
    * Electoral reform
    * ID cards

    Issues most-often mentioned, in order:

    * MP’s expenses (actually, the MP was clean)
    * jobs
    * immigration (proxy for housing/jobs)
    * local regeneration
    * local community issues

  10. Alan Smith says:

    A refreshing article.
    Now we need a chance to vote for the leadership candidates not favoured by the majority of the PLP who voted through the right wing policies which lost us the support.
    If we don’t, we’ll have more of the same for a long, long time.

  11. Mike Killingworth says:

    By far the best article on this iste so far.

    The issue for Labour is clear: does it want to be one of a number of centre-right parties pitching for white, private-sector votes in suburban England, or does it want to return to its roots?

  12. Speedy says:

    I agree…mostly. As someone of the far-left of the party, I of course believe that we should be on a more left-wing platform. I also agree that the problem with New Labour to mockingly quote James Purnell is that it became ‘a party without ideology’. I don’t think a party that took up all of the policies I would advocate would be electable – however, I do believe a more left-wing platform is more electable because it would say clearly that we have certain values. In short, I want it more left-wing and I genuinely think that more left-wing would be more electable but I am willing to admit that too left-wing is unelectable as well. What I can’t see what is wrong with however is being as one comrade put it ‘as left wing as we can get away with’ or as is electorally viable. We are meant to have an agenda afterall.

    A second problem not discussed above however, is also the New Labour centralism that occured. In its bid to be ultra-moderate, the party tried to silence its own members. It relied on the media to deliver its message – and of course when the media abandoned us, we lost support. As well as returning to our roots on a policy level, what we also need to realise is that we also need to return to our roots on an organisational level. Organising in the community, knocking on doors, leafleting, etc. If we still had that kind of campaign model maybe we could have defended more seats than we did. What you need to take into consideration is also that the people who did implement such a strategy actually defied the national swing and the MPs in question actually vary from socialist campaign group lefties like Jeremy Corbyn in Islington to more moderate MPs like Andrew Smith in Oxford East.

  13. Thanks for a great post, I never thought of it like that before.

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