The lesson of Labour’s loss in Crewe & Nantwich


1:56 pm - May 23rd 2008

by Neal Lawson    


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Though Labour’s loss of Crewe and Nantwich is a blow for Labour and an unwelcome boost for the Conservatives, it hardly represents a surprise.

The Brown government’s serial mistakes – most notably, the recent watershed abolition of the 10p tax band – and failure to develop a convincing political narrative were always going to make success difficult, but the death blow to the party’s chances was delivered by an inept, negative and poisonous campaign.

Previous by-elections have found the party ill-advisedly demonising its opponents, speaking the crass language of authoritarianism and clumsily trying to close down the issue of immigration, but Crewe represented a new low.

Labour needs to have a long-overdue look at issues of class, inequality and social mobility, but in its absence, decrying Cameron Conservatives as “toffs” simply looks desperate (indeed, what remains of the British gentry is not the central issue – if any layer of society symbolises what is increasingly wrong with the post-Thatcher settlement, it is the tiny array of super-rich financiers who dominate the City Of London).

Though the party has been right to be mindful of the issue of anti-social behaviour, encouraging its candidates to come out with such lines as “I want the Police to harass yobs and get in their faces” not only heightens people’s fears, but sits uncomfortably with a government recently heard paying tribute to the British tradition of liberty, and bemoaning Britain’s “unlocked talent”. The hysterical maligning of young people must stop. And what is a Labour government doing advocating police harassment?

Perhaps most poisonous of all was the Crewe campaign’s attempt to make political capital out of issues involving Crewe’s large Polish population, via a claim that the Conservatives are opposed to “making foreign nationals carry ID cards”. This smacks of the poison spread by the far right. In addition, it misrepresents the debate. The Tories are opposed to making anyone carry or be issued with an ID card. So, in the face of massive public unease about the project, should be the Labour Party.

What is the alternative? Labour needs to call time on scorched-earth politics, realise the failures bred by triangulating to the right, and offer a positive vision not just of its record in government, but the Good Society at which it should aim.

The Tories are now stampeding towards such issues as the rising cost of living, social exclusion and poverty. Labour needs to understand the shift that represents, but also shine light on the futility of the solutions they offer: essentially, a shrinking of the state, the cutting of taxes, and a refusal to look at the pivotal issue of equality.

Most importantly, however, the party needs a clear change of direction and message. It needs to turn its recent claim to be “on your side” into incisive political action that speaks to 21st century concerns. The government’s half-hearted moves on temporary and agency workers are a small step in the right direction, but much more is required. The issue of housing needs to be returned to centre-stage, and pursued even if an economic downturn renders private solutions impossible. Labour has to be bold enough to open up the issue of tax rates at the very top. Low pay and insecurity at work have to be at the very centre of policy. The government needs to start taking action on such issues as rising prices and snowballing household debt, which are eating into the lives of people across society.

All told, it has to seize on the fact that fixating on supposedly “affluent” marginals while ignoring the so-called core vote is yesterday’s strategy. As the recent local elections proved, Labour’s one-time electoral base is deserting the party in its droves. So too are the parts of Labour’s electoral coalition that finally came aboard in 1997 and ensured victory. But Labour need not be paralysed by this potentially toxic political cocktail: if these anxious economic times prove one thing, it is that middle and working-class Britons increasingly have a common set of concerns and aspirations, and that a more social-democratic Labour government could speak to them.

As some voices have been suggesting, the current debate is not a matter of ultra-Blairites battling with left-Labour traditionalists. To move in the direction required will mean the jettisoning of both assumptions rooted in Labour’s far-flung past, and the now-redundant formulae of the 1990s. We need a left-of-centre politics fit for the 21st century. As we have long said, the problem with New Labour is not just that it is not Labour enough, but that it’s not new enough either.

Related
Justin McKeating: It all comes out in the wash
Alix Mortimer: Labour scapegoats “inept” campaigning

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About the author
This is a guest post. Neal Lawson is the chair of the pressure group Compass.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Conservative Party ,Labour party ,Our democracy ,Realpolitik ,Westminster

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Reader comments


It’s one thing to expect a defeat, but even I was shocked by the spanking we received last night. To lose the seat was bad enough, but to see such a massive swing towards the Tories confirms my worst fears as to just how unpopular Gordon Brown and the government really are amongst a section of traditional Labour voters.

We really must now finally wake up and realise that not only have we lost those Tory voters who were happy to support Blair in the absence of a credible Tory leader, but that we are also losing traditional, long term Labour supporters from all parts of society.

This wasn’t just about voters wanting to give the government a damn good kicking; I’m worried that there are now actually Labour supporters who feel that they would be better off under a Conservative administration.

Of, course, this by-election has been a fairly easy process for the Tories – after all, we’ve done most of the hard work for them by being so bloody inept. One must also look at a poorly conceived and run campaign, which unfortunately dominated the headlines, taking away any serious message that Tamsin would have been able to put forward. The Tory campaign team couldn’t believe their luck; such is the hatred for Labour at this present time, they found it easy to fight a campaign without actually having to say much in the first place.

To be honest Gavin, I don’t see it happening. I think the analysis is spot-on, like Nosemonkey says, the problem is that Labour doesn’t have a positive message to sell.

Does Gordon Brown have anything new to say? Anything inspirational to sell? I’m still to be convinced. Last night’s Labour defeat wasn’t surprising at all.

Sunny, I think you can probably be too honest.

Do you think it’s possible that Brown is preparing for a proper relaunch of Labour by doing a complete hatchet job on New Labour that he can allow Cameron to announce it for him?

The scale of recent failures means a targeted macro U-turn is essential to the continued well-being of the more disadvantaged policies on the government agenda…

Perhaps we aren’t giving Brown credit for being more far-sighted than we can even imagine possible – has he deliberately provided enough rope for the old blairites to hang themselves and rediscover what Labour’s core tribal support is so that he can rebuild a more coherent coalition based on loyalty to those real old-style values which resonant throughout the country?

No? It’s a bit far-fetched isn’t it. Brown is shafted.

Brown has spent 6 months going on about how he’s listening while showing that if he is he’s more than happy to completely ignore what he hears in favour of his own agenda almost 100% of the time. Now when his party is looking to enter a crucial phase that will decide whether or not they can pull their nose out of the dirt he says once again he is listening. Does he not think that like a boy that cries wolf we see through his words now?

All told, it has to seize on the fact that fixating on supposedly “affluent” marginals while ignoring the so-called core vote is yesterday’s strategy.

It is what you do when trying to win an election. Concentrating on your core vote is what you do when you are trying to survive an election.

It is sensible only when you accept that the other lot are going to win in a landslide.

“The Tories are now stampeding towards such issues as the rising cost of living, social exclusion and poverty. Labour needs to understand the shift that represents, but also shine light on the futility of the solutions they offer: essentially, a shrinking of the state, the cutting of taxes, and a refusal to look at the pivotal issue of equality.”

Nobody loves me on CiF at the moment (probably because I’m in slag off allcomers mode), so I’ll offer my analysis on this para here instead, like the Critical Friend I am…

I’d argue it’s much, much simpler than th’above. You just need to highlight over and over again that the Tories *don’t have any* policies.

I’m in favour of cutting taxes and shrinking the state as well, but the Lib Dems are the only party actually promising these things (along with the commitment to tackling inequality).

Frankly, you’re on to a loser with the anti-tax cuts and anti-state shrinkage arguments. For Labour to rail against tax cuts now will only reinforce people’s perception that they just don’t care about the poor any more. As for size of the state – can you not see the connection between the importance Labour attach to it and the authoritarian twilight of the ghastly Ms Smith? That police harrassing youths announcement was, as you point out, the most horrifying thing yet.

The Tories known policies as they stand are:

1. Possibly raising the inheritance tax threshold to a £1m (abandoned)
2. Scrapping ID cards (good if you’re a Lib Dem)
3. So Nadine assures us, reducing the abortion limit.

Three policies is just pathetic. And two of them are not a program for any sort of progressive government. This is what Labour needs to hit out at.

Not that the Tories are ideologically wrong, because NuLabour’s ideology, sorry guys, is bankrupt. That they’re still windbagging twats who assume that all they have to do is *say* that they *really do* appreciate the problems of the low earner and all the low earners will bow and scrape in gratitude.

Not sure why I’m giving you people advice. I’d put up with almost any government to get rid of Jacqui Smith. I’m too nice to you, that’s my problem.

“This wasn’t just about voters wanting to give the government a damn good kicking; I’m worried that there are now actually Labour supporters who feel that they would be better off under a Conservative administration.”

I think you’re right, a lot of it may be down to the “cycle” of power where those that get disenfranchised jump ship ever decade or so to the other side, but ultimately right now Labour is making people like myself think that the Tories would actually be a minor step up. Of course ultimately that’s not saying the tories are a good choice, just the better of two evils.

Alix: The tories don’t need to offer any policies at the moment. Labour are imploding under the weight of Brown and his cohorts such as Smith and the easiest way to profit is just to talk like a concerned citizen about the issues of the day while in the limelight. Nothing makes people empathize with you more than the image of you empathizing with them on the issues they’re tackling with. Love him or Loathe him Cameron has been doing very well on that front recently given the amount of material he’s been able to use.

Lib Dems have policies, sure, but what they need is to find a way to break the current trend that it is Cameron the BBC and others go to when wanting an opinion from “the opposition”, only then might people realise they care too.

@Lee, I agree DC’s very good at it and this is pretty much all they need to do for now. I still think there’s mileage in pointing out what he has actually come up with as the next two years proceed.

As for the Lib Dems, I agree, and if you have any suggestions as to how to break said current trend, let’s hear them! The current ruling generation of the meedja machine just hates us because we don’t fit with any of their left-right paradigms. No way round that.

The swing to the Tories in C & N (17.6 per cent) wasn’t as great as Labour’s losses in places like Brent East, Dunfermiline & West Fife and Glasgow Govan in the past, but on this evidence, the Tories seem to be heading for government. It’s no use Labour try to replace Brown at this late stage, because in reality, there isn’t anyone in their ranks with the intelligence and the independence of thought who could take on the job. It’s better for them to wait till they’re defeated in two years’ time, by then the Liberal Democrats will replace Labour as the main party of opposition to the Tories. Then Labour will implode further into several ‘left’ factions, leaving the Tories to rule for thirty years or more…
Awful prospect, but that’s what’s going to happen.

11. Halloway

@Neville
I disagree with your over-pessimistic view. These things are cyclical. I remember after 11 or 12 years of the last Conservative administration the same malaise set in. Like Labour now, they struggles to come up with anything new and what they did come up with pissed everyone off, viz. Poll Tax.

I do not think the situation is irredeemable – remember John Major. The reason the Tories won the 1992 election was that Labour still had nothing to offer. In that respect they are like the Tories now.

I agree that any potential leader in the Labour Party should bide his time but given half an opportunity I think there are several who would bite (not, I think, including Boy Milliband.) I think a leadership election in the autumn could at least do no harm.

There will be a Liberal Democrat government within the range of 15-20 years.

No I haven’t put money on it 😀

I don’t diagree with anything Neal Lawson says: but, as a matter of simple honesty, it needs to be recorded that Mr Lawson supported Brown for leadership, his organisation “Compass” poured scorn upon John McDonnell’s left-wing challenge, and Mr Lawson wrote a number of grovellingly pro-Brown articles for the ‘Guardian’ and ‘Independent’ at the time of the undemocratic coronation.

And now Lawson bleats about the Government’s strategy and bad tactics in Crewe and Nantwich…

“It’s no use Labour try to replace Brown at this late stage, because in reality, there isn’t anyone in their ranks with the intelligence and the independence of thought who could take on the job.”

I disagree completely with this. The public aren’t stupid, and while they don’t necessarily trust new leaders implicitly…especially in a time of party chaos…they don’t shun those that are seen to be doing well. Clegg has had a very good amount of press and a good amount of positive feedback as a new leader despite Lib Dem’s being seen as inconsistent in their leadership. If Labour were to start proceedings to get rid of Brown tomorrow so that a new leader was in place post-henley by-election and actually managed public relations well they could easily regain enough momentum in the short time leading up to an election to edge a win.

What would such a new leader need to do? Distance themselves properly from Brown and Blair. No need to disparage them but certainly a “then and now” rhetoric needs to be employed. Next the leader needs to make it clear from the very first day that the election is coming as the people want and name the date, something Brown should have done in hindsight to secure his parties power. Then finally they need to simply stop fucking rocking the boat. Labour doesn’t need as many of these big ideas they have at the moment, certainly not when so many of them are controversial and looking to fail.

You look to the year ahead and as soon as one controversial bill is done such as extreme porn we move on to abortions, then on to pre-charge detention, then databases of every email and phone call if officials get their way. Stick to what they’ve been good at previously, and stick to the mantra that got them in power in the first place, it’s a shame so many of them have lost their way and have completely failed to deliver on manifesto points that are even a decade old now!

It’s really not hard to see why Brown is failing (I’ve been bleating on about him since January, and would really call myself an intensive political analyst!), especially when on top of all this you add his character flaws being so easily played up by decisions to reverse cannabis grading and to not go ahead with super casino’s….two things by the way which I guarantee are only going to strike against traditional and sympathetic labour support. All in all the government is a shambles because they have *clearly* changed direction from Blair, for all that so many hate him for with the war, and done so to try and occupy conservatives territory as if that was ever a sound tactic.

Alix: Hey, don’t we all wish we had that magic bullet 😉 I think Clegg and co are doing much better than any other Lib Dem team I must say…I think on the BBC website it was actually Clegg and not Cameron who had the main quote in the article after the local election results…so basically more of the same I guess?

I do not think the situation is irredeemable – remember John Major. The reason the Tories won the 1992 election was that Labour still had nothing to offer. In that respect they are like the Tories now.

I remember John Major very well – this is why you are wrong. John Major was more popular than his party. Gordon Brown is not more popular than his party. John Major’s administration got rid of the Tories’ most unpopular policy – the poll tax. No such option is available to Brown. Major won because apart from anything else, Labour had failed to convince the electorate that they had changed. David Cameron has successfully convinced the electorate that the Tories have changed. John Major won a leadership election – twice. Gordon Brown received a coronation and has, I would argue, never won a competitive election in his life. John Major won a General Election. Gordon Brown doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell…

16. dreamingspire

So on a Liberal blog it took until #6 comment for anything Lib Dem to be written…
From some industry consultations that I was part of, it was clear that from more than 2 years ago work was being done to prepare for throwing out a significant amount of NuLabour whip-cracking methodology – but nothing has happened. In fact Brown refused to split the public sector into two: competent (well, intended to be) service delivery and classic government.
This administration has now fallen foul of the backlash against not just the very fat cats but also the middle class Chelsea Tractor driving overpaid smug ones and the Quango leeches.
On ‘foreign nationals’ and ID cards: It is the non-EU nationals who, EU-wide, will be forced to have ‘eResident’ cards – we now have refer to them as ‘third country nationals’ in EU-speak, which just adds to the confusion. But also, because we cannot easily check ID cards from other countries (a failure by Brussels to define a basic interoperable technical specification), we are also stuck with proposing to issue UK ID cards to EU residents who become ‘key workers’ here (airport air-side workers are, we hear, to be the first victims).

Shuggy: “John Major’s administration got rid of the Tories’ most unpopular policy – the poll tax. No such option is available to Brown. Major won because apart from anything else, Labour had failed to convince the electorate that they had changed. David Cameron has successfully convinced the electorate that the Tories have changed”

I would have to disagree here entirely without some kind of evidence to back up what you’re saying on the second point, and emphatically with your first point.

Firstly. 10p tax and ID cards come to mind as single issues which are wholely and widely unpopular (and would be more with a co-ordinated information campaign), and lots of lesser issues together such as 42 days, alcohol pricing, lack of action on energy prices, lack of movement on fuel allowance, determination to tax for petrol in a rapidly inflating market…can all add up to one whole raft of positive reform. I don’t believe Gordon has the stones to change these things as he’s been intrinsic in their formation, but that’s not to say that some new leader coming in in 6 months time couldn’t see the light and do a *real* rescinding of policy, not just some for show stuff for the upper middle classes like Brown did, and honestly reboot labour as the party for the common person and for social justice. If they did this they could more than match the feat of John Major I feel. Why?

Because I feel on your second point that you’re wrong. No-one I’ve talked to or heard talking (small sample, annecdotal I know, but these are my feelings) have ever said the Tories are doing something new, or better, or have changed their spots. They are simply saying they are the best of a bad bunch, that they are not as crap as those already in power. As Alix has said (I believe), right now they don’t have any policies outside of inheretence tax, everything else is just wishy washy, and the electorate know (and come to realise every time) that when it comes down to the crunch Cameron announces a lot of thatcherite policies to keep the core voters happy while praying his personality retains those he’s conned in to thinking he’s some kind of liberal.

No, Labour still have everything to play for over the next two years and it is not beyond them to win the next election, even if margins will be small or a co-allition may need to be formed…but they need to actually start acting intelligently, something they seem to have been devoid of since Blair left and probably for a few years before he did too.

“If Labour were to start proceedings to get rid of Brown tomorrow so that a new leader was in place post-henley by-election and actually managed public relations well they could easily regain enough momentum in the short time leading up to an election to edge a win.”

When Blair was Leader, Labour wanted to get rid of him to regain its popularity. A year later, Brown is Leader and some in Labour want to get rid of him to regain their popularity. I can see a pattern here.

I know that many people are happy to condemn Cameron as a Thatcherite with a human face – but the same was said about Blair, and he won three landslides in a row.

So on a Liberal blog it took until #6 comment for anything Lib Dem to be written…

Um, this is not a Liberal as in a Libdem blog. That said, this is neither a Labour blog.

“I know that many people are happy to condemn Cameron as a Thatcherite with a human face – but the same was said about Blair, and he won three landslides in a row.”

Blair also promised some real changes (that perhaps weren’t all delivered) from the tory government that literally did not have any new ideas and were floundering. He also had a really lucky time with global economy and a chancellor that could deal with the day to day problems that may have been thrown up. All in all Labour have had a relatively easy decade (taking “terrorism” out of it, which tbh hasn’t really tasked them as much as made them look like authoritarian overlords) with some poor choices that have sapped their majority.

Labour, I feel, could still actually have some ideas in there if they weren’t afraid to move away from Brown…a guy that has shown he has no ambition for the year ahead other than to press on with illiberal policies. Maybe I’m wrong but really…is there a better situation available by sticking with him? Tories on the other hand don’t have anything right now. I’m assuming that will change in roughly 12 months time as there is no need to rush and the ball is in Labour’s court now.

But while you may “see a pattern” in the way Labour is (though I don’t, I see traditional unrest with a party that is the most unpopular it’s recorded as being, which you’d expect in ANY party), I just see that it is time for Labour to ask themselves some serious questions.

1) Can Brown *really* reingage with a public that don’t like him, just flat out don’t like him?
2) Do the public really care if you change leader from someone that they don’t like? I’d contest they don’t
3) Do they have some people ready to take charge with new ideas that are actually at least slightly close to what their core and occasional voters want?

Firstly. 10p tax and ID cards come to mind as single issues which are wholely and widely unpopular (and would be more with a co-ordinated information campaign), and lots of lesser issues together

I would agree with you that ID cards are unpopular, I just don’t think they could be considered to be anything like the albatross round the party’s neck in the way that the poll tax was for the Tories. You could, I suppose, argue that the abolition of the 10p tax rate comes something close but this illustrates the mess Labour are in. They do, in my opinion, the right thing; borrow money and raise the threshold for allowances. And what happens? They get no benefit from it all – absolutely none.

With regards the second point (“small sample, annecdotal I know, but these are my feelings”) the larger more objectively gathered samples suggest that you’re wrong: Cameron is outstripping Brown on practically every indicator of popularity in the opinion polls. In retrospect, if anything I’ve understated my case. There seems to be some evidence that Labour is losing it’s reputation for economic competence. I’ll indulge in a little soothsaying and argue that this is going to prove fatal for Labour in 2010.

The additional borrowing used to counteract changes to the tax rates further broke Brown’s own fiscal rules. However it was spun this was something that couldn’t be hidden once people started seeing the results in their paycheques. The population just ain’t as stupid as this government.

“With regards the second point (”small sample, annecdotal I know, but these are my feelings”) the larger more objectively gathered samples suggest that you’re wrong:”

They suggest nothing other than at *this* point in time brown is particularly unpopular. It doesn’t tap in to whether or not people still intend to vote labour if brown repsonds to this “protest vote” positively, it doesn’t tell us whether or not it is even a protest vote. I admit I could be completely wrong on this, but the “sample” you talk about in polls tells us nothing other than what people in general wish to tell us of this particular moment in time, not of the future.

And let me say I don’t disagree that Labour could easily lose the election, and I wouldn’t bet heavily against your proposition…but I just don’t fall in to this idea that is being touted now that Labour can’t win, I just patently fail to believe (as a non-labour supporter) that they are that stupid. But then maybe others like me felt the same about the Tories in the late 90’s.

.1) Can Brown *really* reingage with a public that don’t like him, just flat out don’t like him?

Its possible. But he needs a different media narrative. And fast.

No, it’s not possible. Brown has backed Labour into a corner and at every attempt to make a new turn he shrinks his options further.

It would help him if he could find one point of dispute within the party by which to challenge the elite and general membership, but he is so entwined within the fabric of the party that it is too closely constructed in his image for him to do so without injuring himself more.

His ability to dominate was his strength, now it is his weakness.

Brown’s ability to survive in power is now at odds with Labour’s – a crack will open up within the government or within the constitution.

It doesn’t tap in to whether or not people still intend to vote labour if brown repsonds to this “protest vote” positively, it doesn’t tell us whether or not it is even a protest vote.

I’d argue – and it’s something I think is significant, yet I’m not aware of anyone picking up on it – that the reason we know this wasn’t merely a protest vote is the dismal performance of the Lib Dems – the traditional repository of said protest.

In the final analysis, we’ll have to agree to disagree: my feeling at base isn’t based on evidence simply because, as you say, we can’t tell the future. But if the past is a guide to the future, Labour under Brown is doomed. I’ve written before that the Force is not with Gordon Brown. My feeling now is I greatly understated my case: the gods hate Gordon Brown.

“the dismal performance of the Lib Dems – the traditional repository of said protest.”

Sorry? Dismal? They picked up enough of a share in the local elections to make them the second most voted for party only a couple of weeks before, and it’s been widely criticised internally that they completely failed to adequately canvas for support and votes in the area.

But yes, we’ll agree to disagree, see who’s right come the polls in the future. But I don’t disagree that if they keep Brown they will lose the election, sooner they change from him the better.

Of course it was a protest vote, it’s just that it was unusual that the protest vote was almost exclusively one-sided and that it all went to the Tories.

The LibDems should, by all rights of any conventional wisdom, have lost their deposit in such a situation, but they didn’t and hardly saw any decline at all. This suggests the third party are not a party of protest and have coalesced into a respectable fighting force with a solid core of voters. It is becoming increasingly difficult to write them off and discount their influence.


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