How Labour lost the centre ground and how to win it back

by Samuel Dale

A debate is about to begin in the Labour party about how we recover from Thursday’s crushing election defeat.

The Miliband experiment has failed. Do we move to the left to retake Scotland? Or do we move back to the centre to win back Tory voters in England and Wales? Or maybe a bit of both?

Let me state my case that Labour needs to move decisively back to the centre if it has any chance of winning a majority again.

On Thursday, centrist voters drastically turned away from Ed Miliband for three reasons.

Firstly, he was perceived as owning a radically anti-business agenda accompanied with blunt price fixing tools.

“Give me Brexit, give me Scoxit, just don’t give me fucking Ed Balls,” said one concerned senior hedge fund executive to me in the run-up to polling day. Another senior figure said Labour treats the City like “terrorists”. These are typical views from business but they shouldn’t be and it’s damaging. Miliband was at war with business.

Just look at the post-election surge in Sterling and rocketing company shares at property firms, energy companies and others to see the real business fears of a Labour government.

Secondly, this coupled with public fears about economic competence. Miliband was viewed as a profligate custodian of public cash that he could never quite tackle head on.

Thirdly, leadership. This is nebulous but Miliband trailed Cameron by double digits in polls long before the SNP came along. He was seen as weak.

The Tories used the threat of an SNP deal to amplify all these fears but they did not create the weaknesses. If the public believed Miliband had the requisite leadership skills and economic competence then the fear of an SNP deal would not have had the same impact. The Tories’ SNP attacks were the symptom not the cause of problems.

So there were business fears; tax and spend concerns and leadership problems.Here’s what happened next.

Most Labour gains came at the hands of a crumpled Lib Dem vote such as Bermondsey, Redcar or Burnley. These was the painfully obvious limits of the 35% strategy.

Miliband’s Labour showed no interest in broadening its appeal and putting the Tories under pressure in their southern seats. Former battleground Basildon and Billericay was won by a 10,000 majority, for example. Never in play.

The party attracted almost no centrist swing voters. It is why Gavin Barwell clung on to Croydon Central by less than 200 votes and the Tories romped home in Nuneaton.

Labour could not even take any of its top two targets of Warwickshire South and Thurrock. It actually lost seats to the Tories that it won under Gordon Brown such as Southampton Itchen and Vale of Clwyd.

Centrists were moving away from Miliband – it was horrific to watch. And it is a warning that moving leftwards now could see even more seats flock to the Tories.

Labour now languishes 100 seats behind the Conservatives with boundary reform almost certain to add 10 to 15 seats at least to that total. It is a mountain for the next leader to climb.

So how do we begin to win them back?

For starters, there are 40 lost seats north of the border but Labour needs to step back and look anew at a uniquely-placed Scotland. This is no knee-jerk electoral shift to the left but a cultural and anti-establishment reaction. A response will need careful consideration.

Either way it means a majority could need at least 100 gains from the Tories in England. That is mainly Tory voters switching to Labour.

They out-polled us by 2 million at the final count. Two million. That is a chasm that must be closed.

All energy must be focused on winning back centrists and attracting more. And that means actually moving to the centre in policy terms. Winning 100 Tory seats needs a radical programme to attract new voters.

It means not hating business or bashing the rich gratuitously; it means apologising for over-spending and rebuilding economic credibility as soon as possible. From economic credibility flows respected leadership.

The Tories cannot run a fear campaign on leadership, tax and spend, and business if there is nothing substantively to fear. They could not gain traction trying to scare voters about Tony Blair.

And we must ensure Labour in 2020 does not campaign as a single-issue NHS spending party but has a bolder, more reformist vision for public services.

The next leader should be helped by five years of a weak David Cameron propped up in Downing Street by right-wing fruitcakes such as Bill Cash and Christopher Chope.

Miliband couldn’t win from the left no Labour leader will have won from the left since October 1974. At the next election, that will be 46 years in the past. The theory has been tested to destruction.

The electoral maths is clear: the centre ground offers a tough but clear path to victory. And it should also be where a big tent, modern and liberal Labour party should aspire to be. It’s a long road back.

Sam Dale is a financial and political journalist

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26 Responses to “How Labour lost the centre ground and how to win it back”

  1. Robert says:

    I read thia article wondering if there was anything specific apart from waffle about the centre ground and business. All I could see was apologising and public service reform. We have had thirty years of public service reform and apparently more is needed. People like Sam really need to say what policies should be dropped and his alternative policies.

  2. Philip Young says:

    This is an interesting article but it is wrong. If Labour is ever going to stand a chance of getting into government again, it needs to move decisively to the left. This way it can recover in Scotland and it can weld together the anti-Tory majority in England.

  3. Tafia says:

    Labour has a massive problem – probably far bigger than most people realise.

    They will not win Scotland back with a Blairist New Labour style party and the slow but steady decline of Labour in Wales and northern England would increase in pace. However if it moved leftwards to stop it’s on-going decline in Wales.northern England and try and recover in Scotland, it will lose the crucial east Midlands and southern England seats because they are more ‘Mondeo Man’ in outlook. In short, they have a major problem.

    Then their is funding. They have a very very busy 5 years elections-wise and the unions are going to have to dig deep to pay for it. And they will want concessions in return.

    2016 Holyrood, Cardiff and GLA
    2017 EU referendum
    2017/2018 possible second scottish referendum
    2018 European Parliamentary elections (if we’re still in it)
    2020 General Election

    Then there’s full council elections during the next 5 years in every council in the UK at least once. Devolved assemblies of some sort planned for Greater Manchester, Birmingham and possibly Merseyside along with Mayoral elections.

    And you can forget public funding of political parties – the public will not support it so Labour will have to beg the unions.

    Then theres maaking the constituency boundaries more balanced and fair thus removing the in-built Labour bias in the English urban areas and reducing the number of MPs Scotland, Wales and NI send to Westminster. Granting some form of devolution to England (which is usually tory and thus they will usually rule it). Try to derail the SNP by giving Scotland virtual autonomy so that they are less likely to vote SNP so they in turn don’t get a majority in Holyrood next year because if they do, they will demand a second referendum and probably win it. Crash Labour Wales by forcing more power and responsibility on them in the confident knowledge that – just like NHS Wales, they will totally fuck it up. Torch UKIP by granting – and winning – an EU referendum.

    Personally I reckon that by the time Labour see the inside of Number 10 again, the UK will be radically altered political-wise and Westminster will no longer have much say in day to day stuff with most of it having been devolved.

  4. AMIGAUSER says:

    Total nonsence,
    labour now needs to develop a credible policy on immigration, one that limits the number of poles and gypsies entering the country, driving down the wages of the people who actually might vote labour, and this time voted for ukip.
    The author needs to spend less time with hedge fund managers and bbc limo liberals and more time amougst factory workers who pay has gone down because of the poles .

  5. Mike says:

    Robert – some of the policies Sam mentioned included blunt price controls. I think the idea of fixing energy costs or rent can go. Some of it is mood music, Mandelson and Blair gave the impression they were happy for people to aspire and succeed. They also brought in higher taxes to spend on public services and brought in the minimum wage. Business didn`t mind because they were not viewed as “terrorists” to use the quote.

  6. Somehow Progress needs to blame the left for this loss, just as it tried to do in 2010. Back then it was Brown was not really New Labour. Yet how could that be? Wasn’t Brown the architect of new Labour, it’s intellectual base rather the lightweight Blair? Ed Miliband has grown up with New Labour. Were policies that he put forward so far to the left that Progress couldn’t support them? Wasn’t election strategy being made by Douglas Alexander a full blown Blairite and Progress member?

    A return to New Labour is a recipe for the end of Labour as major British political party. Scotland has already shown that as did PASOK in Greece before. Some of the best post-election comments are coming from Alan Johnson who not long ago the Blairites wanted to replace Miliband with. But of course at least he had a life outside of Westmister.

  7. Madasafish says:

    Philip Young…

    “If Labour is ever going to stand a chance of getting into government again, it needs to move decisively to the left. This way it can recover in Scotland and it can weld together the anti-Tory majority in England”

    What anti Tory majority?

    The results for England show Tories on over 40%.. UKIP got over 10%..

    It’s a Anti Labour majority…an anti socialist majority

  8. Mike Stallard says:

    The deal used to be this: Rich people pay a lot of tax. We take it and share it out equally among everyone so that the poor get their fair share.
    It does not work.

    First of all, the rich end up by being us, not them, as the bureaucracy bursts into poisonous flower.
    Second the real poor are not considered – the real poor are the people on the boat to Lampedusa, the people sleeping two to a bed in Peterborough, the people in Kenya who are cut off by the EU. These people are just used, or ignored.
    Third this moving appeal quickly turns into – Give us the goodies and we will vote for you!

    Look at the article: it is all about US getting back into power. Fatal. And the election showed conclusively that Mrs Sturgeon – Red Ed is not what people want.

  9. swatantra says:

    Takes me back to the last time we faced this crisis of identity. That was when the Gang of $ split the Party asunder. But they may have had a case. And this article proves it. We have to capture the Centre Ground. Unfortunately the Social Democrats got absorbed into the Liberal Party. I am suggesting a realignment of politics in that we build a new Social Democratic Party of the Centre Left to accommodate people like me, and excluding the looney Left that sometimes paralysis the Labour. No its not new Labour, or anything like that but a new Social Democratic Party that recognise that the World has moved on from Marx and Benn. It would be a Pragmatic Progressive Party, not in the pockets of the Unions or Big Business..
    The Dems will split from the Lib Dems and return back into our fold.

  10. Steve Hilditch says:

    Everything I read on Labour Uncut tells me you are a group of people who would rather see Labour lose than question your sectarian views. It is rubbish to equate hedge funds with ‘business’. Business and finance leaders also need to be challenged, many spoke selfishly from the point of view of their own personal finances and their unwillingness to pay fair tax rather than any real analysis of the economy or growth. To argue that Ed Miliband was ‘too left wing’ is simplistic Tory spin. It is not anti-business to challenge the big corporates and the banks. If more of that had happened under Blair/Brown, perhaps the crash could have been averted.
    The ‘centrist’ argument is busted and it is time you moved your analysis on.

  11. Delta Omega says:

    indeed to say the very least.
    more importantly Labour no longer has any MPs who are a valid threat. The media circus may love the lives but the public will not. Labour decline will and must continue to ensure the UK does not disintegrate or descend into Nationalism. The Party abandoned and made a mockery of its supporters leaving them no where else to go. This was the lesson of Barking and Dagenham which was completely and utterly ignored by the Labour Leadership who were unable to cope with the job of leading a mainstream political party. instead their error became magnified and while the Conservatives have successfully contained UKIp defeating its leader, Labour has the SNP and UKIp to address in the North. Where there is weakness opponents will capitalise and throw in a challenge. Labour become so lazy especially within its Party HQ and elected reps they showed their true colours which in the end were pretty bland and empty. there is no willingness to change within the centralised control because as the party continues its decline they continue to be able to cash in. Turkeys do not vote for Christmas, So the corpse continues its decompsotion. It lost its heart, now with Scotland gone never to return for a generation if ever, it has lost its head.

  12. Terry B says:

    Who let that Red Tory in? This is the sort of nonsense that killed Labour. Jesus!

  13. Ian says:

    “Save the NHS”, which was the centrepiece of many constituency campaigns to a massive degree, reminds me of Hague’s doomed “Save the Pound”. In both cases, the threat from which the ‘saving’ was being done was only barely credible. Further, a single-issue campaign might work for a council by-election but surely doesn’t project a credible team or platform for government?

  14. wj says:

    If I was naughty as a child I was barred from any family activity until I apologised for my misbehaviour – even then several wary eyes were cast in my direction and I felt that I had to over-compensate by being extra ‘good’.

    Labour shit on its own supporters, Labour went off on a social engineering exercise which it enforced with political correctness, Labour threw 4 million immigrants in on top of already high unemployment, Labour so screwed up our NHS that it was left under a pile of PFI debt and hundreds of people died unnecessarily; Labour ignored the systematic abuse of children in its care – and, of course, there was Iraq.

    Instead of the people being responsible for the horrors of the last Labour government apologetically withdrawing they are offering themselves up for leadership.

    They should be not allowed to go anywhere near government until they have apologised to the people they let down.

  15. Dave Roberts. says:

    I had a long discussion with a former Labour councillor in an inner London ward yesterday about the election. He started off his political career like so many of his age and type in a loony left organisation in his case the WRP. He was firmly of the opinion that had Labour gone to the country on a left wing programme of nationalisation, repealing in the bedroom tax, tax rises for those on large salaries, pulling out of Afganistan and Iraq and a plethora of other measures Labour would have won.

    I couldn’t convince him that that would have meant a wipe out. He simply wouldn’t listen and there are too many like him still in the party. If policies almost the same as the Tories couldn’t win it a lurch to the extreme left certainly wouldn’t have either.

    What the party is now faced with is a series of problems. There is nobody of any stature withing the party to be an effective long term leader, if there is I would like to know who that is. The far left in relation to the party is now in the same position as 1979. After a heavy defeat of Labour and the splintering of the far left they began to join Labour in large numbers making the party unelectable and the Kinnock purge of the mid eighties.

    We certainly don’t have a Tony Ben for them to congeal around or a Kinnock to stop them but they will now be looking for a home after the collapse of Respect and the implosion of the SWP. Give it a couple of years for them to infiltrate and we will be looking at another long suicide note.

  16. Madasafish says:


    “Save the NHS ” was tried in 2010. It failed.

    It’s a hallmark of stupidity to repeat a failed strategy.. And Burnham was its architect.

    And the Labour Party seem to think Burnham is a serious contender for Leadership?

    H’e clearly out of his depth – like he was with the Mid Staffs disaster… And it’s obvious to anyone who thinks about it.

    > Steve Hilditch

    I am afraid your rant can legitimately regarded as anti business..

    The country relies on businesses to make profits and employ people and export so we can afford simple things like food and oil and cars that we afford.

    I used to work in business. Yes: some big businesses abuse power. Some banks got it wrong.

    I would remind you that energy companies and the banks are state regulated. Which tells you more about the competence of regulators..

    You co,plain about business leaders talking “selfishly” about their own personal finances. I assume you think they have no rights then? You really want to have a centralised stalinist economy from the tone of your post . They are proven not to work.. Obviously basing your thinking on Andy Burnham.. if at first you don’t succeed, make the same mistakes again…

  17. Andy says:

    It’s not as simplistic as whether Labour moves to the left or centre. It’s about finding a way of communicating with voters. The Tories have no problem with this as the mass media does it for them – in this way the popular press has basically motivated a generation of people to hate the party that should be representing them. Labour doesn’t have this route and the way it used to operate, through worker and community organisation has largely gone. Labour needs to use social media better – look at Daily Kos, then look at sites like this; the gulf between the two in reaching a mass readership. It needs to interest people in its objectives and stop sloganising. Talk to people in language that they understand. And more importantly listen. People’s concerns need to be addressed and having a proper discussion on immigration should be near the top of the list. We live on a small island, with an environment that is increasingly under pressure.

  18. Mel says:

    Just heard the BBC’s Christian Fraser describe Andy Burnham as a strong contender because “he’s popular with the unions”. The heart sinks. Popular with the unions….the Tories couldn’t wish for more from the new Labour leader. Why do we consistently get these things backwards? How about being popular with the voters?

  19. madasafish says:

    You should all read this article..

    and realise Labour are a bunch of amateurs run by people who have no idea of how to run campaigns in the digital age..

    And it’s in that well known Tory supporting newspaper.. the Guardian..

  20. Ex Labour says:

    @Philip Young @ Steve Hilditch

    Your views are one of the main reasons for yesterdays defeat. Even after such a turn round in the polls, you still bleat on about about moving left like this is the answer. There really is no hope for Labour.

    All those businesses that Siliband kept attacking provide tax for your precious NHS, they provide jobs for Labour supporters, they provide tax for your spending plans on schools, infrastructure, health etc….FFS !!!

  21. madasafish says:

    I live in Staffordshire Moorlands.

    It has gone from being a safe Labour seat in pre 2000 to a Tory majority of 10,000 in 2015..(There have been boundary changes as well which partially complicate the situation).

    It was a mining area pre 1980: now light industry and commuting. Local services are being cut so if austerity was an issue, Labour should have done well.

    Instead ther was a swing from Labour to Tory and teh Tory majority nearly doubled in 2015.

    Why? Because the Labour message was about 30 years out of date and frankly the Labour Leader was rubbish.

    As I have said before, Labour’s process to select a leader is frankly designed to choose not somone best suited to win anything but someone who uits internal Labour politics.

    And I read that Andy Burnham is a strong candidate for the next leadership. Frankly, anyone who thinks this is totally unaware of the image he projects to non Labour supporters.

    And the debates I see on Labour supporting blogs sugggest supporters have learned nothing from the past 30 years, let alone this Election defeat.(If you want to see how difficult it is, see the Tories after the Major defeat in 1997 .. it took three attempts and two lost elections before they selected David Cameron).

    As afr as I can see, most of teh Party and its supporters are in denial. They seem to think they can persuade voters that what teh Party wants to do is what people want. People vote for parties which give them what voters want.

    Labour are the party of public sector workers, immigrants and the poor. They are definitely not the party for people who want to better themsleves or create wealth. They are not the party for people who pay taxes.

    If you don’t recognise this, then you are doomed.

    And since England has a majority of voters who follow non Left leaning policies, anyone who suggest turning Left will win more votes should be treated with the derision deserved.Basic statistics prove it’s rubbish.

    And meanwhile Wales run by Labour serves as a horrible example of how not to run a devolved Government..

  22. Marinaki says:

    If Labour move to the centre what will distinguish them from Cameron? Frankly not a lot. Then what would the point be?
    Look at what happened to Pasok in Greece moving to the centre, then New Democracy got in, and look where both establishment parties are now – trounced by a movement (not a party), Syriza! Look and learn!

  23. John P Reid says:

    Philip young, I know many ex Labour voters who Voted SNP, but they voted to keep the union 8 months ago, Why, they’d like a left government,in Scotland, but we’re Happy for England to pay for it,knowing if they left the UK, they’d run out of money and it would never happen,
    It’s something Diane boot said on this week earlier this year and for once she was right.

    One of the reason labour lost in Scotland apart from sharing a Stage with the Tories over the referendum, was we’d become complacent,there is no massive appeal for far left labour policies, views on welfare ,defense,immigration are just as string there as in working class right wing areas in Emgland.
    Danny Spwight-
    Although Blair thought we were spending too much in 2010 as too why we lost, did progress think we lost the as we were too left wing, where was Lord sainsbury withdrawing money from us under Gordon a own, when did progress supporters Ellie reeves ,Peter wheeler attack Gordon brown, yes the Capitalist, free market liberal, right of the party, as opposed to the blue labour, right wing old Labour view, didn’t have much time for Ed miliband, but why shouldn’t that wing of the Labour Party blame, Miliband, for being too left wing, it was why we lost.

    Terry b, this article killed Labour, the last election we thought on the centre ground was 2005′ when we got 35.3% and win a majority of 67′ what are you on about,

    Mel, MadasaFish, Dave Roberts, Swatantra, right again

    Although Burnham is competent, what does being popular with the unions mean, having Len Mkluaky say get rid of Liam anyone, progress and Frank Field, well that went down well at the election, didn’t it.

  24. Carol says:

    Labour was successful in London where it won 45 out of 73 seats. It made a clean sweep in Birmingham. These successes are due to the high ethnic vote. Meanwhile in traditional Labour areas the WWC is scared of mass uncontrolled immigration because of the impact on wages. The Labour Party is sending mixed messages. People can’t vote for you because they are confused as to what you stand for.

  25. Michael Foster says:

    Why did Labour loose this election? Let’s not beat about the bush – Ed Miliband, simple!

    I know nobody who found him an inspirational leader whether labour or otherwise. It was a bad choice, the union choice that gave us Ed. I voted for his brother David who was clearly the outstanding candidate at the last leadership election. The party voted for David, but the unions got Ed in, let that never happen again!

    During the past 5 years not once did I ever here Ed Miliband, nor his sidekick Ed Balls challenge the Tories over the debt left by the last Labour Government. They were quite happy to apologise and acquiesce with the Tories about the debt that Labour left rather than challenging them to what they would have done over the banking crises. Let’s not kid ourselves, if Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling had allowed RBS and Lloyds
    Bank to fall the country would have been left in a far worse state than when Labour lost power. If these banks had fallen, they would have had to foreclose on business loans, personal loans, mortgages which would have led to thousands of business’s closing, tens of thousands losing their jobs, and thousands more losing their homes, but this argument was never put forward by the two Ed’s; I only ever heard one voice use this argument, Rachel Reeves in a BBC interview, it was never repeated by anybody.

    Nicola Sturgeon quite rightly stated that the defeat of Labour at this election could not be blamed on the SNP as we could not even command a majority in England. The problem in England was that the Labour leadership did not recognise the threat from UKIP to Labour. The leadership clearly expected UKIP to take votes from the Tories, when in fact they took most votes from what should be typical Labour supports, old age pensioners, the unemployed, the low waged, all who feared the influx of European migrants either taking their jobs or taking over their living areas. Fundamentally it was this voting group that led to Labours downfall, not the SNP and a future Labour leader will need to act on this.

    So what of the future?

    Whether you like him or loathe him, fact – Tony Blair is the most successful Labour Prime Minister ever. It was his move to the left of centre, to a more social democratic party that got him elected, and succeeded in him winning three elections, something that no other Labour politician has done. The British people liked his politics, like what he stood for, liked what he achieved, liked the prosperity that was brought to more people than ever before. Labour needs to move back to the centre ground, to the left of centre, to a social democratic centre if they ever wish to form a Government again. The politics of envy, the politics of them and us, punishing the middle classes and the rich will not win Labour an election. Working for working people should not be the mantra, working for people should be the mantra! At the forthcoming leadership election I sincerely hope that someone is elected who will bring Labour back to the centre ground, someone who has personality, someone who will be progressive. As Tony Blair said, Labour is at its best when it’s boldest, the next leader needs to take this on board.

  26. John PReid says:

    The living wage,new deal, 4 year fixed term Parliament’s,voting reform
    The Tories also managed to take the agenda from the view the cuts were needed financially,to when the economy is in the mean 10 years in,will they reverse them, will we ever see the reopening of all those sure start centers

    Look at things labour promised in the 2005 election, corporate manslaughter to apply to army Generals in peace time if Squaddies were sent in dangerous situations, without the protective equipment needed to save them, changing the abortion laws, that women don’t need to see 2 psychiatrists,and a doctor in Northern Ireland, when wanting a abortion, women being allowed to set up their own brothels, there were great ideas in the 2005 election we never got to implement,

    carol, I half agree but the a fur ethnic group in Battersea, or Finchley, and White flight,means Essex and Kent will likely never yo Labour again, but one day we’ll Ned those seats to win.

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