Why don’t we try to find out why we lost?

by Dan Hodges

We’re off. Boots on the ground, leaflets through the letterbox. The Labour movement is marching again, back on the campaign trail.

But while we throw ourselves body and soul into the battle to wrest our town halls and regional assemblies from the government’s grasp, a question. As we enter this election campaign, does anyone know why we lost the last one?

I don’t. Like every one else, I have my own pet theories. Assumptions. Random thoughts, shot through with the lack of objectivity and rationality to which we all succumb when the political party we’re close to relinquishes power.

The very first piece I wrote for Labour Uncut was my analysis of our defeat. “The Labour right must shoulder the blame”, ran the headline. Hmmmm. Fair to say I’ve been on a bit of a journey since then.

That’s not to say that there aren’t things in that article I still believe to be valid. The failure of banking regulation. Trident. Tuition fees.

“It was not the ‘usual suspects’ of the left”, I roared,  “but the undisciplined out-riders of modernisation doing the damage”. A journey indeed.

But that’s what happens in the aftermath of an election loss, especially when you haven’t felt its sting for the best part of twenty years. You react, rather than assess.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t just me who did that. It’s what the entire Labour party’s done. It’s what we’re still doing.

If the business of the Labour party is to govern, then in May last year we went bust. To use a rather cold, corporate phrase, we experienced the total failure of our business model.

That is a shattering experience for any organisation. But most, when faced by a calamity of that magnitude, and if fortunate enough to still be in existence, review and regroup. Pause. Examine what went wrong.

Crucially, they embark on a formal, detailed and comprehensive examination of every aspect of their failed business plan, identifying mistakes, and revealing cultural and corporate weaknesses. On the back of that they then construct an new business model, and re-launch.

What has Labour done? Unless I’ve missed something, not all that much. We dived straight into a leadership election, the first half of which was effectively a personality contest, the second half a desperate, undignified scramble to demonstrate who hated Peter Mandelson and New Labour the most.

That was about it. Some shadow cabinet elections, and off we went. Job done. Defeat confined to history. Nothing to see here, ladies and gentleman. Move along.

Of course, we’ve got the policy reviews. Over twenty of them. There’s one on “What do families want from good local schools”. Another entitled “Family life. What helps”? A third on “how do we meet families aspirations for good housing and a good home”? Is it me, or could there be a family theme developing here? We’ve got a “Women and development” policy review group. I wonder who argued for that? The “talent, aspiration and growth, is Britain losing out”? review group. I suspect I know its findings.

This is all very nice. But could I make a suggestion. Why don’t we establish a “Why did Labour lose”? review group.

I’m being serious. Why are we reviewing everything in sight, without examining, in a structured and formal way, the issue of single greatest significance to our party and our movement? Namely,  why did we get kicked out of power, and how did we manage to reach a situation where we’d turned three out of every four voters against us?

Surely this is the fundamental question we have to answer? But for some reason, we don’t appear to be asking it.

Of course, we might be. There may be some process of discussion or consultation taking place. But if there is, I haven’t been invited to contribute to it. Have you?

I suppose senior party officials could be engaged in a super-duper, top secret, hush-hush, strictly on the QT mega review somewhere in the bowels of Victoria Street. Perhaps it’s already been conducted and concluded. Ed Miliband may have stashed away in some hidden compartment of his Portcullis House desk an unobtrusive file which provides all the answers, and the blueprint for victory in 2015.

No, I don’t think so either.

A few months ago I spoke to one member of the shadow cabinet who told me we still hadn’t conducted a proper polling analysis of why we were defeated. That was almost six months after the fact. Cost was cited as a reason. But if we can’t afford to spend money on finding out why we lost, how can we expect to win. And if we aren’t spending money on trying to win, what are we spending it on?

Just think for a moment if we had a proper review of that one issue. Our defeat. Literally, a proper consultation in the same way we are consulting over areas of micro-policy.

We could have proper debates and discussions at constituency level. Invite formal responses from PLPs. We could broaden it out. Invite submissions from a range of experts; pollsters, journalists, think-tanks.

Let’s go a step further. I’d have hearings. Hell, make them public. Get a panel asking questions of the senior party figures. What went wrong? When? Why?

Actually I’d go the whole hog. Not just have a review, but a full blown “truth and reconciliation commission” into our defeat.

Would it be a distraction? Possibly. But from what? We’re not in a hurry. There’s not going to be an opportunity to get rid of Cameron and Clegg for another four years. And it would be more constructive than empty posturing about being the “first line of defence against the cuts” when we’re in no position to defend anyone against anything.

All we’d be doing is providing structure to a process that’s happening anyway, but in a totally random and ad hoc manner. We’re trying to construct a range of new policies and organisational frameworks, but without any meaningful point of reference. How can we judge what will succeed without any proper assessment of what failed?

There are some who would question the wisdom of washing our dirty linen in public. But it’s already out there. People know why they didn’t vote Labour. It’s just us that hasn’t been let in on the secret.

Others might think the public would see it as navel gazing. I don’t. I think the public would view an open assessment of  the reason why Labour lost power as a sensible response from a mature political party. I also think it might show some of the humility many feel has been lacking since Gordon Brown’s dignified exit.

By all means let’s get stuck in over the next four weeks. Let’s win those councils and those assemblies. But let’s not fall into the trap of thinking if this campaign is a success the lessons of the previous one have been learnt.

The reality is I still don’t know why we lost. You don’t know. And Ed Miliband doesn’t know.

I think it would be a good idea to try and find out. Before it happens again.

Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut.

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26 Responses to “Why don’t we try to find out why we lost?”

  1. Alex Sobel says:

    Good Piece – this should be done. Who is best to lead on it? Not necessarily those who were involved at the heart of Government. Deborah Mattinson seems to have made a good start in terms of focus groups and polling, a group could use that and other data to put together a coherent document.

  2. Dan Hodges says:


    I agree.

    Someone with a degree of independence.


  3. oldpolitics says:

    Is “naval gazing” – staring at boats? Presumably for fear that they have asylum seekers on them.

  4. iain ker says:

    Take a tip from me, neither Ed Balls or EdsorryEdward Miliband will ever be Prime Minister of this country.

    Take a style tip from me. Short. Sentences. To. Make. Stuff. More. ‘Readable’. Is. A. Bit. Old. Hat.

  5. Dan Hodges says:


    New. Hats. Don’t. Suit. Me.

  6. Bandages For Konjic says:

    “[T]he battle to wrest our town halls and regional assemblies from the government’s grasp . . . ”

    Out of curiousity – by, “regional assemblies”, do you mean the Scottish Parliament? If so, what do you think your useage says about the Labour Party’s attitude to the people of Scotland?

  7. David Talbot says:

    Good article, Dan.

    One of the remarkable things I discovered at the Labour party conference last year was the extent to which a significant portion of delegates had convinced themselves that Labour was over the worst and destined for better in 2015. I didn’t – and don’t – buy it. Whilst working at PoliticsHome during the election the daily polling we conducted frightened me. I knew we were in for a thumping, but the raw figures made it awfully real.

    Perhaps it needs to be spelt out to those who don’t quite appreciate the scale of the defeat; Labour’s worst performance in a general election since 1918, we lost more seats than at any general election since 1931, the Conservatives achieved their second biggest swing from Labour since Thatcher in 1979, only 2% more than Michael Foot in 1983, 3% less than John Major in his landslide defeat of 1997, over 4000 councillors lost since Tony Blair’s election as Labour leader, no government has lost so many votes – and so many percentage points – as the Labour government between 1997 and 2010. And, of course, some five million votes lost since 1st May 1997.

    Who, in this circumstances, wouldn’t advocate a root and branch review of how on earth it went so very, very wrong? Having a pop at the Lib Dems and those beastly Conservatives might make us feel better, but the electorate sent an unequivocal message last May that they had utterly rejected Labour. Not being the Coalition won’t delivery us victory in 2015, it’s time we thought about it that much harder.

  8. Toby Chopra says:

    I don’t think it’s such a secret. Yougov’s pollling shortly after the election laid things out pretty clearly. Most voters thought Labour was the party representing benefit claimants, immigrants and asylum seekers, and employees of the government. And we were no more or less trusted to run the economy than the Tories. (Not surprising given the recession, whatever you think the cause of it was).

    Some of these issues did get an airing in the leadership contest. But only in a sporadic way.

    However, I think the leadership is fully aware that they need to change the perceptions of the low and middle income taxpayers that have deserted us in the last 10 years, if they are to neutralise the criticisms listed above, hence all the family stuff.

    Will the party come up with the right policies and a convincing narrative? Only time will tell but winning any intervening election can’t do any harm.

  9. Dan Hodges says:


    It doesn’t say anything about Labour’s attitude.

    It says something about my attitude, which is to use “assemblies” as a generic term for the elections to the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly.

  10. I did some polling. Here it is….compares Labour ‘lost’ with Labour ‘kept’ voters. Look particularly at attitudes to state spending, choice, and interference. That’s where the big differences were…

    Open Verdict

    I am happy to post a presentation which analyses the results also if people would find that useful?

  11. Emma Burnell says:

    Don’t die of shock or anything Dan, but I agree with the thrust of this.

    The problem with such things always lies in the execution. You and Alex are both quite right about the need for a degree of indepencence, but it is very difficult to find someonw who both has enough expertise to run such an affair, who hasn’t already made their mind up about what the outcomes should be.

    The other question – and probably even thornier – is what do we do with the answers we don’t like? Inevitably some of the responses will be about issues that are anathema to Labour’s values.

    For example, how do we deal with racist sentiment stirred up by the very real problems caused by immigration? If we aren’t to pander to the sentiment, we need to be creative about addressing the root causes of the dissatisfaction. But by addressing wage deflation and lack of housing, we then upset business and nimbyist constituencies.

    So yes, a review should be run. But how it should be run and how do deal with its conclusions are far thornier problems than Review Yes/No.

  12. Dan Hodges says:


    Having picked myself off up the floor…

    I think there are enough people out there who are politically experienced or astute, but not tainted or slanted, to make it a practical exercise. I’d have a panel actually.

    On the later point, well that’s for the party to take a political position on. There will be a number of issues we may find challenging, but we need to identify and acknowledge they exist, and then move on accordingly.

    We wont be able to remove all the obstacles to our election last time. But the crucial thing is to be clear what they are.

  13. Bandages For Konjic says:


    Out of those two specific words I’d be inclined to pass “Assemblies” for brevity’s sake. However, you must accept a mild chiding over “regional” as this is both inaccurate and condescending. How many regions have their own legal system? Their own Church?

    On topic, however, my question would be around the scope of your review – how far back would you go? More people marched in protest against the Iraq war than marched against Cameron’s cuts – there is clearly still poison to be drawn so would you include policy decisions like that? Or would you just look at the conduct of the campaign itself? Because I suspect that won’t teach you much more than, as Leonard Cohen puts it in ‘Hallelujah’, “How to shoot at someone who outdrew you”.

  14. Dan Hodges says:

    …and Anthony, I think that would be very useful.

  15. paul barker says:

    Excellent article but I will be surprised if such a review actually happens, it would be very painful & most of us try to avoid pain, even at the cost of repeating our mistakes.
    Sorry to drone on but you, collectively, need to face the problem of Labours debts.

  16. Shamik Das says:

    From Daniel Hodges in that first article to Dan Hodges now… The opposite journey of going from Ed Miliband to Edward Miliband! V int article btw

  17. Darren Murphy says:

    Dan is right and brave to acknowledge his journey. The party has not entered into any sort of discussion or debate about the defeat. Partly, I suspect, because it is so painful (the ‘fixed’ transition from Blair to Brown without a leadership contest which then produced a government without a leader) and partly because the party has to stop blaming New Labour (which won elections not lost them) and accept that we lost support when we ceased to be New Labour in 2007. There are other factors of course, but, despite what some say, Iraq isnt really one of them. For all the criticism the Blairities perhaps deserve, and I am proud to be one, New Labour won the 2005 election after Iraq and after the failure to find WMD. Labour lost in 2010 because we lacked leadership, vision, courage, direction and connection with the public on issues from crime and education through to immigration and economics. Let the inquest begin because unless we have one we wont face up to the real cause of death.

  18. Edward Carlsson Browne says:

    I think this is a good idea, but I’m not sure that you’re right to say we don’t know why we lost. We (in the sense of the membership) can name half a hundred reasons why we lost. Immigration, Iraq, personality politics, the economic crash, housing, reform (too much, too little and the wrong kinds), a directionless campaign and much besides.

    The problem is that we don’t know which of these were most important. We need the polling to help to establish this, and the way they related together. We need to learn if it’s merely policies that need to change, or if it has to be governmental style too.

  19. Merseymike says:

    The problem with this article is that it supposes that there has to be a rational and cogent reason

    Whereas it could just as easily be because the electorate were simply fed up with Labour and wanted a change. There was no huge sense of enthusiasm for anyone else either.

    Rather than look back, I’d rather look forward. Because I do get the feeling that what you would really like is a study which says that all we need to do is pretend that its 1996 all over again. Its not. The next election will be fought on the issues of the time of that election and working out why we lost last time will be largely unimportant

  20. Robert says:

    I did not vote labour because I’m disabled, and no I’m not a scrounger I worked for 31 years before an accident. Yet I’ve just been advised Paraplegia is not really that serious, they said not being able to walk means nothing, pissing your self well thats OK.

    we have a waiting list of ten years for a council house labour built sod all.

    The housing bubble labour did little or nothing.

    Expenses four labour MP’s in jail.

    Now the expenses are back on the agenda as they ant More money.

    New labour old Tories

  21. Henrik says:

    As a fully paid-up member of both the squeezed middle and the “a pox on all politicians” fraction, unaffiliated to any party but hopping mad with the mess you lot made which my son will still be paying for when he’s my age, I’d be delighted to sit on your panel, Dan.

    While I don’t have much of a problem with the Coalition, generally, I do think it’s important that Labour starts to articulate a vision of the sort of Britain they want to build. This time. This will get the Party to work out whether they want to persuade folk of their vision, or just get elected on the basis of focus groups and the votes of the, what, 100,000 or so key voters in key marginals and then just wing it once in office.

  22. Romi Gupta says:

    Interesting article. I agree strongly with much of Darren Murphy says of the reasons we won in 97 and lost in 2010 and his other comments. Also the lack of mandate for GB in the eyes of the public and the fact that the country wanted a change; they just weren’t really sure exactly what they wanted the new government to look like.

    I don’t think that it’s really navel gazing. It’s important to know why we lost and where to position the party for the future, if getting back into government with a majority and regaining the confidence of the country is our goal.

    Broadly we know why we lost, and we are aware that issues that are important today may not be as important in a couple of years. The party needs to assess and look forward, and the only way to gain a full rounded picture is to acknowledge where and why we lost voters, and to address those issues. We need a bit of honesty regarding the economics, and I don’t think that the line about not needing a full range of policies whilst in opposition is going to gain much favour with the public or the media for too long. We’d make cuts but we’d protect vulnerable; we’d promote investment, try to reboot manufacturing and encourage enterprise and aspiration. One thing that Blair did for the country was make you feel like achievement and aspiration, as a nation and as an individual, were not only attainable but reasonable, and that you could achieve these goals whilst looking after those less able to do so. For a while we were a buzzing nation and everybody felt it and wanted to be a part of it. The party needs to head back in that direction, and get some enthusiasm back into the Labour movement.

    The information gathered by this research, along with the new information gathered on reforming and redirecting policy launched this week, should surely give an excellent starting point. If the two could be collated in some way, then we could take it forward to guide us. I read the Open Verdict document today (all 55+ pages) that Anthony Painter mentioned and it was fascinating. I think it would be a useful tool to help in creating a panel or whatever method you choose to properly research this issue.

  23. Roger says:

    Ermm – because the only possible answers are:

    a) Gordon Brown – for not holding an election in 2007 which he would have won handily and generally for being Gordon Brown

    b) David Miliband – for not doing his duty to party and country and knifing Gordon in the back in November 2009 – in which case he would now be PM and Clegg would be another David’s Mini-Me

    c) Ed Miliband – for persuading David to not wield that knife

    d) The Parliamentary Labour Party for being as cowardly as they were greedy

    e) Various corporate fat cats for taking away all the money and the media support they lavished on Blair

    Or in other words: no one in Labour’s current leadership can possibly benefit from asking this question.

    We need to be out of power 5 years and lose another election before we can really start rethinking – and if that happens the whole country will be so utterly fucked that emigration to Scotland will be the only course open to any of us who are Left and left.

  24. Rob says:

    Toby Chopra says:
    April 5, 2011 at 12:13 pm
    I don’t think it’s such a secret. Yougov’s pollling shortly after the election laid things out pretty clearly. Most voters thought Labour was the party representing benefit claimants, immigrants and asylum seekers, and employees of the government. And we were no more or less trusted to run the economy than the Tories. (Not surprising given the recession, whatever you think the cause of it was).

    Some of these issues did get an airing in the leadership contest. But only in a sporadic way.

    However, I think the leadership is fully aware that they need to change the perceptions of the low and middle income taxpayers that have deserted us in the last 10 years, if they are to neutralise the criticisms listed above, hence all the family stuff.

    Will the party come up with the right policies and a convincing narrative? Only time will tell but winning any intervening election can’t do any harm.

    Phew I thought Labour were the party of welfare reforms, the new WCA medical, lower benefits, lower everything and higher cost.

    Thank god I got that wrong.

  25. Natan says:

    My initial reaction to this is:

    1) Policy review – pretty much everything is up for debate, blank page and all that
    2) Refounding Labour project, again, pretty much everything open to changes

    Whilst neither of these are branded ‘why did we lose’ I feel that has been a lot of that in the Think Tank world (Policy Network Southern discomfort again, Fabian review exploring the election defeat etc) and the exploration of why we lost still underpinned a lot of what we did last year.

    I think it’s felt now that despite the big loss, we’re actually fairly united under our new leader (most parties after being in power for so long collapse into factions, e.gTories in 1997) and despite the best efforts of a few on Labourlist to suggest we’re in turmoil, when I go out campaigning with my CLP it feels very much that we’re a committed and together party.

    Don’t get me wrong, being in opposition is rubbish and we need to be reflective about why we lost, but the welfare state and the very fabric of this society is under serious attack whilst we lick our wounds and if the Labour party won’t defend the NHS, education etc then no one will.

    We need to fight on whilst the reflection and soul-searching goes on. We need to build to get back in power whilst also making the most of our time in opposition to understand whilst we’re here. Not an easy task but who said politics was easy?

    All in all though, great article Dan – it’s produced good discussion.

  26. Anon E Mouse says:

    An excellent article but I bet no one’s listening. As long as Ed Balls is involved in the PLP, the likes of Kevin Meagher, Shamik Das etc in the activists there is no hope.

    This item should be required reading for anyone wanting the re-election of a Labour government….

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