This week I was kindly invited by the Cambridge Universities Labour Club for a talk on where Labour goes from here.
In the initial part I talk about the wrong assumptions I made in the run up to the election. I’ve written about that here too.
From 8m 15 seconds, I talk about the three big challenges the next Labour leader will have to grapple with.
From 19m 22 secs, I talk about the main leadership candidates (which included Chuka Umunna at the time).
(the sound quality improves after a minute)
A lot of people made mistakes in predicting outcomes in the 2015 General Election, mostly because the polling was so out of sync with the eventual result. I made predictions based on polling too, and it was embarrassing enough when they turned out to be very wrong.
But I made other assumptions in the last election cycle and its only right to own up to them. Partly, I feel its important for my readers, but partly I think its worth articulating them so I can learn from my mistakes.
The biggest mistake I made was this. Over the last 2 years, the Labour leadership’s ratings on leadership and economic competence started trailing that of the Tory leadership. I.e. Cameron was consistently seen as a better leader than Miliband (a gap that grew), and Cameron-Osborne were ahead of Miliband-Balls on economic competence. Because the polling stayed broadly positive, I assumed this was having very little impact on voting intentions. I also assumed that when it came to the crunch, people would vote with their hearts than on competence. BFM (Big Fucking Mistake).
Clearly, it has now been proven beyond doubt that if voters don’t see you as a credible and strong leader, then they won’t trust your promises. It doesn’t matter how much they like your policies (Miliband’s policies were quite populist) – they just won’t trust you to deliver them. They won’t place their faith in you. This should be a lesson for all of us on the left. Ed tried hard to shift those perceptions, and he improved, but he didn’t try harder and earlier. I had assumed (mostly because of the polls) that voters didn’t think this was a big enough deal. Clearly, it was.
The other big mistake was with UKIP. I assumed, again based on polling data, that UKIP hurt the Tories more than Labour. Many in the Labour leadership assumed this too. And this was true to an extent. But we didn’t anticipate that the Tories would be much better at tempting back Tory->UKIP voters than Labour->UKIP voters.
I suspect Tories did this mostly by raising doubts about Miliband and his tie-up with the SNP. They said the election was going to be close — too close — and that this metropolitan geek was going to be under Nicola Sturgeon’s thumb. “It would bring chaos.”
It played not only into their English nationalism but perceptions of Miliband’s weakness as a leader. Ex-Tory voters clearly got the message and returned back. Far too many ex-Labour voters didn’t, primarily because we didn’t connect with them, emotionally and culturally (I’ll come back to that point another time).
The point is that Labour-> UKIP switchers hit us harder than many of us (including myself) expected, especially in places like Southampton Itchen. That assumption was also a BFM, though its unlikely Miliband could have stemmed that flow easily.
So yeah, I hold up my hands and admit it: both of these were pretty big assumptions and I got them wrong.
Despite losing his seat in Westminster, Jim Murphy is trying to hang on as leader of Scottish Labour. I find this astonishing.
Late last year, when he became leader, he said they could hang on to most seats in Scotland.
He said he was “astonished” at how “easy it’s been to outwit the SNP“. Yup, the SNP look totally outwitted.
Since he became leader of Scottish Labour, the SNP increased their leader over Labour until the elections.
Plus, his own ratings took a sharp dive after being elected. At the end of January 33% of Scots said he was doing well, with 43% saying he was doing badly. By March, just 26% said he was doing well, 51% said he was doing badly.
Worse, Murphy couldn’t even convince Labour voters. Nicola Sturgeon’s approval rating amongst Labour voters was just -4. Jim Murphy’s net approval rating amongst SNP supporters was -54.
If Murphy can’t convince tempt back SNP voters, he has no chance of rejuvenating Scottish Labour. And in the last 6 months he has been leader, he made a bad situation worse.
His entire campaign utterly failed. As Adam Bienkov earlier pointed out:
The campaign run by Murphy has been complacent, uninspiring and counter-productive. Murphy’s central message – that a vote for the SNP is a vote for the Conservatives – is purely negative and gives voters zero reasons to actively back the Labour party. This strategy may have once seemed like Labour’s best chance of hanging on in Scotland, but the unavoidable fact is that it has not worked. Yet even today Murphy is still sticking to his script, telling reporters that the poll results are “good for the SNP and great for David Cameron.”
With Cameron victorious, Scottish voters are now more likely to think that only the SNP can stand up for them, especially since Labour in Westminster is talking about ‘moving to the centre ground‘.
So what is Jim Murphy’s case for staying on leader of Scottish Labour, since he has utterly failed over the last 6 months?
Tony Blair writes today: “the route to the summit lies through the centre ground”.
We expected this right? Tony Blair is becoming famous for repeating himself all the time.
There’s also one glaring problem with this cliche: Cameron didn’t win from the centre ground. In fact he moved further away from the electorate and voters rewarded him for it.
Britons saw Cameron as right-wing as Miliband was left-wing. They were both equally away from the centre.
In fact, Cameron was further away from the centre nearer to the election than he started off! And yet he increased his share of the vote and seats.
Furthermore, most of Miliband’s major policies: cracking down on tax avoidance, abolishing non-doms, raising the 50px tax, focusing on the NHS etc – were very popular with the public. His analysis of people not being served by capitalism was right – even Tories like Fraser Nelson and Charles Moore admitted it.
So if this was about moving left or right, and about offering policies that chime with the public, why didn’t Miliband win big?
Because people value authenticity, and they value competence. Labour gave them neither; Cameron at least offered latter. Miliband didn’t have clarity of message either. People frequently misunderstood his positions or didn’t believe in them. When it came to the crunch, they could not bring themselves to place their trust in the man (sadly). Miliband just wasn’t believed, whatever he promised and however popular that was.
There’s a lesson here for the left: popular policies don’t necessarily win you elections if the person offering them isn’t believable. Unless he or she is seen as authentic and competent enough to follow them through, you can offer free owls to everyone and people will still reject you.
There’s a lesson here for the Labour right too: elections aren’t always won from the ‘centre ground’. That era of triangulation is over. Obama won, twice, on quite a liberal platform, railing against inequality and the top 1%, because he was seen as competent and determined.
UPDATE: There are other inconvenient facts too. As Peter Oborne points out:
Their prescription is curious after a general election in which the three parties which rejected the centre ground — the SNP, UKIP and the Greens — made the biggest gains in the popular vote.
Meanwhile the party which made the greatest claim to the centre ground — the Liberal Democrats — was virtually annihilated.
But don’t let the facts get in your way, Mr Blair.
The Labour leadership have finally settled on a clear line on the SNP.
Assuming that Cameron cannot cobble together a majority on 8th May and has to resign, that gives Ed Miliband his turn at forming a government.
Miliband says he won’t do a formal coalition with the SNP (Nicola Sturgeon ruled that out ages ago anyway), nor will there be an informal ‘Confidence & Supply’ agreement with them. Instead, Labour either do a deal with the Lib Dems to get a working majority, or they work as a minority government.
The Labour leadership are confident they can work as a minority government because the SNP and other minor left parties won’t vote down their Queen’s Speech and trigger a second election. In effect they are calling Nicola Sturgeon’s bluff because she has already committed to voting down a Tory Queen’s Speech.
So the Labour leadership are pleased because they think Sturgeon has little leverage. But can this strategy be sustained for long?
Firstly, this is from last night:
This is going to hurt in Scotland. Don't believe Miliband would reject votes from SNP to let Tories in; bad phrasing pic.twitter.com/angXsrs55r
— Sunny Hundal (@sunny_hundal) April 30, 2015
The SNP are predictably spinning it as: Ed Miliband would rather let the Tories back in than work with the SNP. That is wrong. There is no conceivable prospect of Miliband resigning his government than having SNP on his side.
Caroline Flint later clarified it:
What [Miliband] ruled out was this idea that, somehow, to have a Labour government we’re prepared to do a coalition or some other kind of confidence and supply deal [with the SNP].
But, at the end of the day, whoever forms a government, parties will get a chance to vote for a Queen’s speech, vote for budgets, and vote for policies, that’s the same with any government.
In other words: Hey Nicola Sturgeon, you are still welcome to vote with us! Just don’t expect a quid-pro-quo arrangement of any sort.
OK. So that was a misstep but this strategy is still sound, right?
I’m not so sure.
Keep one important point in mind: a large proportion of Scots don’t view the SNP as negatively as the English do. In fact, a large proportion of them (many of whom are ex-Labour voters) think the SNP have their interests at heart more than Labour. This seems obvious but a lot of people seem to be ignoring this.
More importantly, Nicola Sturgeon isn’t going to let herself be outmaneuvered by Miliband so easily.
Since Labour still needs a majority of MPs for votes on legislation, Sturgeon will just make his life harder by getting SNP MPs to abstain or complain over small things. That would put Miliband in a difficult position: either negotiate with the SNP (and have the Right savage him for it) or appeal to Tory MPs (thus alienating the left and giving an electoral boon to Sturgeon).
In Scotland, Sturgeon will keep arguing that Miliband would rather do a deal with the Tories than the SNP. In England, the Tories will argue that Labour are breaking their promise and doing deals with the SNP. Either way Miliband will be constantly attacked on all sides.
This isn’t ideal. Miliband’s administration could soon become paralysed.
For Miliband to argue in Scotland that he’d rather have Tory MPs vote with him than negotiate with SNP MPs would further alienate SNP voters (many of whom Labour need back). In effect he will be giving up on Scottish Labour without much gain in return.
By saying Labour rejects any deal with the SNP, I think Miliband is making a mistake. I don’t think this strategy can be sustained.
Nick Clegg clearly wants another coalition with the Conservatives. And I’m fairly sure Cameron recognises the necessity of carrying on their tolerable relationship. And a lot of people in Westminster assume the two will be joined at the hip when negotiating post-election.
But I don’t think it will be that straightforward.
Firstly, it won’t be easy from the Conservative side. Theresa May and Boris Johnson want their shot at being leader of the party and neither have time to waste. Neither want to wait another five years either, when more of the recent crop of Tories will want their shot.
Tory leadership hopefuls could make the argument to colleagues that another coalition would undermine the Tory party and force them to break more promises. Besides, Cameron has shown himself incapable of winning elections outright, so why not get rid of him and get a proper leader who will win in 5 years time? – they will say.
Many Tories, who will not want the straightjacket of another coalition, will find that a seductive pitch and may reject another coalition.
Secondly, its not a done and dusted deal from the Lib Dem side either. For a start, Clegg has to get approval from his fellow MPs and party members, and that won’t be as straightforward this time.
There will be far more hostility from Lib Dems this time, for good reasons. These are some points made to me by Steffan John (@steffanjohn) over Twitter. I’m quoting him directly without embedding tweets to make it look cleaner:
1) Maths for majority isn’t there.
2) Even if a small majority was, no national interest in unstable government with 4yr leadership contest.
3) 2010 had financial crisis backdrop and 4) threat of swift re-election. Neither there this time, so less pressure on Lib Dems
5) 2010 had common ground on civil liberties, localisation, constitutional reform, environment, raising tax thresh. All gone.
6) Labour not hated as it was in 2010; Tories far more Right-wing now. LD won’t support again, esp. as Lab-LD-(SNP) is possible
Steffan John is a Lib Dem and makes some good points.
And here is Vince Cable’s former SpAd Giles Wilkes
So let the Tories, in minority, try to cut 12bn off welfare, 25bn off unprotected departments, w/o LibDems there to excuse it.
— Giles Wilkes (@Gilesyb) April 19, 2015
There is, I think, a real chance Lib Dems will reject a coalition with Cameron, especially if there are signs of hostility from Tory MPs (stirred up by May and Boris).
That clears the way for Miliband to be Prime Minister, with Lib Dems choosing to either work in a coalition or sit on the sidelines, while the Conservatives choose their next leader.
What would you rather have: 1) a party that tells you what you want to hear and does something different, or 2) one that tells you straight about what its going to do?
Most people, I suspect, would pick the latter option. Or at least, they would like to think they prefer the second option but they’re easily seduced by the first.
Many of my colleagues on the left have been raving about the SNP for months. Today, when they released their manifesto, it turned out their spending plans and commitments weren’t actually that different to that of Labour
— Jonathan Portes (@jdportes) April 20, 2015
I just feel sorry for those people who had raved about how SNP would challenge austerity, only to find their fiscal plans were largely the same as Labour’s plans.
The Guardian’s George Monbiot put the SNP in the same category as Syriza, Podemos, Sinn Féin, and the Greens. Follow your convictions, he extorted! Ignore those bloody bean-counters and accountants from the Labour party who offer nothing other than limp policies, he added.
Oh. Now it turns out the SNP nicked half their policies and ideas from Labour. As Stephen Bush points out, it feels as if it is the SNP being pulled leftward by Ed Miliband. Ouch!
My friends, this is what happens when you focus on empty rhetoric rather than actual policies and commitments. Monbiot and others had been saying for ages that Labour and Tory austerity was the same until it turned out… that wasn’t true.
THIS is why I keep saying, focus on the actual policies rather than the rhetoric, otherwise later you’ll be left asking why politicians don’t live up to expectations.
There is no other minority group in the UK like Muslims that you can make crass and bigoted generalisations about, and get away with it. Perhaps Roma people, but they are rarely written about as much. Not even Poles get the treatment like they used to.
I want to illustrate this point through a recent article by the Telegraph’s Andrew Gillian, which screamed: Islamic ‘radicals’ at the heart of Whitehall.
Here’s what happened: the government set up a group to advise them on tackling anti-Muslim prejudice, in parallel to the one tackling anti-semitism. It includes representatives from most major departments.
It is a very inclusive like few others, including Ahmadis, Ismailis, Sunnis and Shia Muslims together, plus other campaigners like Nick Lowles (Hope Not Hate). This is worth keeping in mind, especially since its conveniently ignored by Andrew Gilligan, because any “extreme” views would very likely be challenged by others.
The central allegation of the article is against Mudassar Ahmad, a case which is so flimsy you have to wonder whether a different agenda was being served.
Among its most prominent non-government members is Muddassar Ahmed, a former senior activist in the Muslim Public Affairs Committee (MPAC), an extremist and anti-Semitic militant body which is banned from many universities as a hate group
In fact Mudassar left MPAC years ago and was never involved in any of the main activities it was criticised for (and I was a frequent critics of MPAC). The article admits that later on too.
The main quotes come from Fiyaz Mughal from Tell MAMA, who is said to have left the group over “concerns”. But Fiyaz actually left earlier last year. He is referred to by Gilligan as a “senior Muslim leader” even though he earlier undermined and attacked Tell MAMA’s work (which led to a complaint to the PCC from Tell MAMA). One minute Gilligan thinks TM is dodgy and then he’s a senior leader? What does that say about Gilligan’s journalism?
When the article came out, I said maybe Fiyaz was justified if any in the group had made inflammatory statements.
But Hope Not Hate’s Nick Lowles said to me in response: “This is the first time the antisemtic charge has been levelled on the group or its members. It is a complete red herring and an insult to everyone on the group.” I trust his judgement.
And yet, by implication, people in the group are being smeared as ‘entryists’ (Fiyaz Mughal has conspicuously declined to fully justify his claims).
These kind of generalisations about Muslims are rare now, but still remain despicable. The Telegraph would never (any more) run headlines like ‘secret plan by gays to take over Whitehall‘ – so why is this kind of language acceptable regarding Muslims?
Amnesty International UK say they no longer consider it appropriate to share a platform with CAGE after their recent comments. About time.
Last week, Cage director Asim Qureshi was invited on to the BBC to justify his comments on Mohammed Emwazi and debate other stances the group have taken.
He went from bad to worse. Qureshi was asked about a claim on the Cage website that British individuals are “killed on the whim of British security agencies” – he couldn’t think of a single example. Later asked if he agreed with Haitham al-Haddad’s views on FGM, stoning of women, domestic violence and more – Qureshi said: “I’m not a scholar”.
To summarise, the leader of Cage, a self-described ‘human rights organisation’ can’t even be clear on his own stance on several human rights issues. This is a joke, right?
A decade ago, when Asim Qureshi was speaking at a Hizb ut-Tahrir rally, he had no problems acting as a theologian and telling Muslims it was “incumbent upon all of us to support the Jihad [in Iraq, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Israel]”. Has he become less informed about Islam since?
Supporters of Cage say this is about context, that he wasn’t actually encouraging anyone to commit terrorism. Of course, jihad can also be non-violent according to the official definition, but its ridiculous to pretend that the wider context, where some Muslims think jihad implies violent extremism, is irrelevant. When Tommy Robinson said Muslims would pay if there was another 7/7 style attack – we know what he meant, he wasn’t talking about financial compensation. At least he apologised; Qureshi hasn’t.
I have two questions for Cage:
1) We agree that people should have access to justice and due process, and Cage keep referring to the latter re: the Mohammed Emwazi affair. So I asked: Did they think MI5 broke the law in any way in dealing with Emwazi?
2) Why didn’t they release the full tapes of their conversations with Emwazi?
I’ve repeatedly put these two questions to Cage over Twitter. They’ve not answered, despite responding to attacks on me by others.
* * * * *
Its worth saying that Amnesty UK has never had a formal relationship with Cage. In an interview with Radio 4 they say their joint work involved hosting a few events for Moazzam Begg, and lending their name to some publications and letters. Recently they both signed a letter to Cameron calling for a judge-led inquiry into Britain’s alleged involvement in the rendition and torture of terrorist suspects.
5 years ago, when Amnesty UK’s work with Mozazzam Begg was questioned by former employee Gita Sahgal, I came to Amnesty’s defence (though I actually wrote the issue was more complicated than many pretended it was). Recent events show that Gita called it right and I called it wrong, as did Amnesty. I’m happy to admit that, and I regret some of the intemperate language I used.
At the time I was defending Amnesty (not Cage) against people (excluding Gita) who wanted to undermine the organisation for other reasons, i.e. its focus on Guantanamo Bay and Israeli war crimes. I continue to think Amnesty is a great organisation but it should have refused to work with Cage then. I made lots of calls which turned out to be right (unlike many of Amnesty’s critics) but in this case I was wrong. Gita Sahgal’s instincts have been vindicated.
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